FROM EAST TO WEST
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Kongo
in the west and Great Zimbabwe in the south east of the continent offered
two different trading models.
Before the late 15th century, in the west, there was no Transatlantic
trade, although there was commerce up and down the coast. Great Zimbabwe
by contrast, through its management of gold production stood at the heart
of a massive trade network which extended east across the Indian Ocean,
though the Persian Gulf, to India and even as far as China.
CHAIN OF TRADE
It was not until the 18th century that
east-west trade routes on the continent were followed through by single
caravans. Before that, there is evidence that goods and products could
make their way across great distances, but only through a chain of transactions,
involving many different traders. An interesting example of this is the
discovery in the Great
Zimbabwe site of five double-ironed
gongs. These were manufactured in Katanga province, southern part of modern
SLAVE TRADE ORIGINS
The BaKongo, located as they were in the
lower basin of the River Kongo, traded copper and iron for salt, food
and raffia textiles. Within a few years of the Portuguese arriving in
the estuary of the River Congo, the BaKongo were trading with them. Slaves
were an important aspect of that trade
from the beginning, but the Portuguese also imported copper, silver, ivory
The BaKongo took a broader view of what
they wanted from the Portuguese. They were interested in textiles, horses
and crafted goods, in particular those made of metal. They also wanted
to acquire skills - the skills of masons and carpenters to build European
style buildings, and education and literacy, in order to communicate directly
The rulers of the Kongo, starting with Manikongo (or king) Nzinga a Nkuwu,
demonstrated a strong fascination with the Christianity which the Portuguese
brought with them.
GROWTH OF SLAVE TRADE
Trade between the two kingdoms became rapidly
dominated by slaves, and the relationship between the two kings, which
had started out as one of equals, rapidly became unequal. Portugal was
importing slaves to satisfy a seemingly bottomless demand for manpower
in Latin America.
By the end of the 16th century an annual average of 5,000 to 10,000 slaves
were leaving Luanda for Brazil. Kongo's alliance with Portugal increasingly
benefited only one side: that of the Portuguese.
By the second half of the 17th century,
the Portuguese stopped launching any further military conquest. And while
they continued to benefit from the slave trade, they began to lose control
of the trade network which bought and sold the slaves.
Aside from the Dutch, British and French appearing on the scene in the
17th century, a host of other communities and groups tapped into the trade
network, both on the east and west of the continent. Increasingly, these
traders acted independently of both the Portuguese crown and traders based
Among the many independent groups were
the Portuguese pombeiros who went deep into western central Africa in
the 16th century, initially acting on behalf of the Portuguese traders
on the coast. There were also the Yaka and Imbangala, who although of
different origins, were equally adept at making a living off other communities,
ruthlessly pillaging crops and cattle, as well as slaves.
With the defeat of the Kongo in 1665, the
Vili, (located north of the Kongo estuary), took on a greater commercial
role, travelling regularly the 800 km to Kasanje, a new powerful broker
state bordering on the Lunda kingdom.
The same destination attracted the Ambaquista, a community of traders
of African-European descent, who lived in the Cuanza valley, south of
The slave trade, under the auspices of Portugal, ruined the economic and
political stability of the Kongo. Ultimately it ruined Portugal too, as
this small European kingdom let itself float in the destructive slip-stream
of profit, without pausing to invest.
The brutality of the slave trade was later echoed in Central Africa, in
the 19th century, by the regime of forced labour imposed by the Belgians
in the rubber plantations it set up.
ACROSS THE CONTINENT
By the late 18th century, long distance
trade routes began to be established, and by 1850, Ovimbundu traders (in
the middle of modern Angola) had reached the Lamba of Northern Rhodesia.
In 1856 the Nyamwezi trader king, Msiri, established his base in Katanga
(in the southern part of what is today DR Congo), and sent out caravans
both to the western and eastern coasts.
On the Indian Ocean seaboard, the commercial
scene was very different from the Atlantic sea board in the late 15th
century. The Arabs had been trading with the Swahili coastal people for
centuries before the Portuguese appeared. Trade went east through the
Persian Gulf and India, and on to the Far East. The
Portuguese arrived in the late
15th century with the principle aim of capturing the gold routes which
drove this trade. In this they failed.
DEFEAT IN ZIMBABWE
The Shona kingdom of Mutapa, ruled by the
Monumutapa (or Mwene Mutapa, as it is sometimes spelt) proved impossible
to defeat. It was eventually displaced as the dominant power in the region
by the Changamire of Burwa. In the process, Portuguese backwoodsmen, the
sertanejos, found themselves pushed off the Zimbabwe Plateau in 1694.
Having bullied the sultans of the east
African coast for the last two centuries, the Portuguese found themselves
by the end of the 17th century overwhelmed by the Arabs of Omani. However,
a Portuguese commercial presence remained on the coast.
At the same time, the mixed race prazeiros established themselves as traders
in ivory and slaves in the Zambezi valley.
Then in the first half of the 19th century
a number of Portuguese and Brazilian traders experienced a final flush
of prosperity. With the abolition of the slave trade by the British in
West Africa, the demand in the Americas for slaves from southern Africa
surged. This continued in concert with the Arab trade in slaves, until
the British closed the slave market in Zanzibar in 1873.