European Slavery: Portugal

Figure 1.--

Portugal like other European countries had a history of slvery datgong back to Roman times. Elsewhere in Europe, slavery was gradually reduced, but no eliminated. This was different in Portugal and Spsin because of the Moorish conquest. Islam institutionslized slavery to a greater extent than Christisnity. Also Moorish war captives during the Reconquisra were often enslaved as the Moors enslaved Christian war captives. The Portuguese effort to find a sea route to the East meant that they were the frst European country to come into contact with sub-Saharan Africa. While the principal goal was to find a sea route, the Portuguese navigators also traded and olne of the items was slaves. This was the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. The African slave trade itself had been begun centuries earlier by the Arabs. Portugal trading and empire building would be sutpased by larger countries, Portuguese possession of Brazil would mean that it controlled hald of South America. This would prove to be an emensly vluable colonywith the the largest slave population. Brazil exerted its independence in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1822). Unlike Spanisdh America, there was no revolutionary war and no liberal emancipation. Slavery would this continue in Brazil for decades (1880s).

Ancient Era

Slavery was a major economic and social institution in Europe during the classical era. A great deal is known about the Greeks and Romans. ^heRomans added Portugal to their empire (2nd century BC). It was the province of Lisutania. The name of the future kingdom was derived from Portucale, a Roman and Post-Roman settlement at the month of the Douro River. We know little specifically about slavery in Roman Portugal.

Visigothic Kingdom (5th-8th Centuries)

The Visagoths (Germanic tribe) in the 5th century AD seized control of the region as the Roman Empire fell. Portugal at the time did not exist as a separate kingdom but was just part of the Visigothic Iberian kingdom. The Visitogthic ruling class lived apart and heavily taxed the Hispano Roman population. We do not know at this time about slavery in the Visigthic Kingdom. A in the rest of Europe that was a gradual transition the fedualism and serdom. I don't think, however, that slavery entirely disappeaed.

Arab Slave Trade (8th-19th Centuries)

The Arabs did not begin the African slave trade. African slaves were known in the Roman Empire and a major sevtion of the Roman Empire was North Africa. It was the Arabs, however who founded the African slave trade during the modern era. Thi occurred early in the Islamic era. The Arabs during the Islamic expansion began setting up trading posts along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa. Other Arab traders penetrated through Caravan routes. Much more is known about the European segment of the African slave trade, in part because records are much more readily available. And there is much more human evidence of the Atlantic slave trade--namely the large Afro-American populations in Brazil, the United States, and other Western Hemisphere countries. Much less is known about the Arab segment of the African slave trade. The slave trade in East Africa was carried out by agents of the Sultanate of Zanzibar in cooperation with some African tribes. The Arab slavers had various ways of obtaining Africans. Armed gangs of Arabs and Muslim Africans would conduct raids and simply seize Africans. The Arabs had three major routes for transporting their captive Africans to slave markets in Norh Africa and the Middle East. The Eastern slave trade differed from the Atlantic slave trade in that there were many more women involved. The reason for this was that the sex trade was an important part of the Muslim market for slaves. The use of slaves, however, depended upon the chronological era and the country wherethey were enslaved. They were also used for labor, largely agricultural labor.

Islamic Portugal (8th-11th Centuries)

The pattern of slavery and serfdom in Portugal and Spain differs than the rest of Western Europe because of the Islamic conquest. Moors from North Africa crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and defeated the Visigothic rulers of Iberia (8th century). They established moorish kingdoms in Iberia including the area of modern Portugal. Classical-style slavery continued longer in southern Europe than in the north. And trade between Christian Europe across the Mediterranean with Islamic North Africa meant that black African slaves appeared in Italy, Spain, Southern France, and Portugal. The Islanic conquest in Portugal and Spain changed this patttern. Trade ties between the Moorish kingdoms and the North Africam Moorish state meanthat there was a freerer flow of trade than with Italy and southern France. In additin, the Moors reduced some Spanards and Portuguese Christians to slvery. We do not yet, however, understand the extent and nature of slavery in the Moorish kingdoms. Another factor was that many Moors were to varying degrees of African extraction. Thus there was not a clear racial compoment to slavery in Iberia. While there were some Africn slaves, the Moors had many many European slaves.


Bermudo II, King of the Leon reconquered the territory between the Douro and Minho rivers (now northern Portugal ) from the Moors early in the Reconquista (997). As a result, Portugal became a fiefdom of Leon. Ferdinand I, King of Castile and Leon, in 1064 completed the reconquest as far south as present-day Coimbra. The reconquered districts were then organized into a feudal country, composed of Spanish fiefs. Portugal later derived its name from the northern most fief, the Comitatus Portaculenis, which extended around the old Roman seaport of Portus cale (present-day Oporto). One of the most powerful French nobels, Henry of Burgundy in 1093 came to the assistance of Castile when it was attacked by a Moorish army. In gratitude Alfonso I of Castile made Henry Count of Portugal.

Independent Portugal (12th Century)

The foundation of the modern kingdom of Portugal is generally dated from 1139 when Portugal became an independent kingdom, free from the sovereignty of the neigboring Iberian kingdom of Leon. The European map in the medieval era was very complicated. Many royal and nobel families controlled far-flug provinces often not connecting. Some of the nobels such as the Burgundians aspired to royal status. The modern Portuguese state can trace its foundations to just such a dynastic struggle. Burgundy was a fiefdom of the French king but rivaled the French court in wealth. Burgandy was enriched by the wool trade and moted for wonderful tapestries and textiles. Henry of Burgandy desired to rule independently in his Portuguese lands. On the death of his father-in-law and patron, Alfonso I of Castille in 1109, Count Henry, and later his widow, Therasa, refused to continue feudal allgiance to Leon. He invaded Leon and began a series of peninsular wars, but with little success. Henry's son, Alfonso Henriques, in 1128 rebelled from his mother's regency. The Portuguese Knights accepted him as King Alfonso I (1143). The independent Portuguese kindom was confirmed when the Pope recognized its independemce in the Treaty of Tordesilhas(1179). We are not sure about the nature or extent of slavery during the Reconquista. We know that slaves were held in both Moorish an Christian kingdoms, but our information is very limited.

The Ottomans and Trade with the East

The Ottoman seizure of Constaniople (1453) and other advances helped cut Europe off from trade with the East, both China and India. As trade with the East had to pass through Otooman controlled areas, this greatly increased the cost of such products. The demand for opium, porcelin, silk, spice, and other products caused Europeans to seek alternative routes. Europeans had no idea at the time how far Africa extended south. The Portuguese set out with voyages south to determine how far it did extend in an effort to round it. This brought the Portuguese in contact with black Africa. The Sahara and an Arab dominated Magreb (North Africa) loosely tied to the Ottomans had for centuries stood between Christian Europe and black Africa.

Voyages of Discovery (15th-16th Centuries)

The accumulating knowledge of geopgraphy and improvements in shipbuilding and navigation led Prince Henry and King John II of Portugal to seek a route to the Indies through the still largely unknown Atlantic. Portuguese mariners began sailing south along the coast of Africa. Information provided by travelers was refined by explorers who began to sail south along the African coast. Each voyage added to the accumulating data and gradually improving maps and charts. The Portuguese eventually reached the equator (1471). Bartholomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa (1486), showing that Ptolemy was wrong about the possibility of a sea route to Asia. Vasco da Gama reached India (1498). Portugal was thus the first European nation to reach India, the Indies, and China. Soon after Columbus first reached America, Pedro Alvares Cabral (1467-1520) discovered Brazil (1500). Gaspar Corte Real sailed to North America and although he founded no colony, helped to found a flourishing fishery. Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) served in the forces of the Portugese crown involved in military campaigns in India and the Spice Islands (1508-12). Magellan conceived of reaching the Spice Islands (Indonesia) via the Atlantic, but King Emanuel was uninterested, causing Magellan to renounce his Portuguese citizenship.

Initial Steps in the Slave Trade (15th Century)

Portugal took the first steps towardAfrican slavery decaded before it had colonies in the New World. This was essentially reintroducing slavery to Europe which had during the medieval period moved away from the insttion, although the pattern in southern Europe was somewhat more complex than that in northern Europe. As Portuguese captains began moving south along the coast of west Africa they came into contact with black Africans. As Portuguese explorers moved south long the coast, they were followed by traders. Portuguese captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão capture 12 blacks at Cabo Branco (modern day yMauritania). They bring them back to Portugal as slaves (1441). These were the first known Africans captured for slaves by the Portuguese (1441). Of course this was not the beginning of the African slave trade. The North African Arabs had been been conducting raids in sub-Saharan Africa for centuries. Lançarote de Freitas from Lagos, a tax-collector, organized a company to trade with Africa (1444). Slaves were one of the economic enticements. In the same tear he brings back 235 captured Africans to Lagos which he sells as slaves. This was first large group of Africans brought to Europe by Europeans. Sugar was a vry expesive commodity in Europe. Europeans were firt exposed to cane sugar during the crusades. The European cultivation of cane sugar was begun by the Portuguese. The Portuguese planted sugar on Madeira, an Atlantic island west of Morocco (1452). The Portuguese put use enslaved Africans as a labor force on the sugar plantations. Pope Nicholas V issues the bull (papal decree) Dum Diversas scantioning the developing Portuguese pratice of reducing non-Christians to the condition of slavery (1452). As the Portuguese began to profit from trade with African. Spanish traders began to engafe in simlar expeditons. Conflict between the two countries and traders ensued. Pope Nicholas V to defuse the developin rivalry issued the bull Romanus Pontifex which granted the the Portuguese a perpetual monopoly in trade with Africa. (1454), Spanish traders, however, continued voyages along the African coast and among other goods brought back captured Africans as slaves. The Portuguese to regularize and protect the trade with African began building permanent coastal forts or castles. The Portuguese built the first such castle at Arguin (modern Mauritania) (1462). The Portuguese colonize the Cape Verde Islands (1462). This becomes an important outpost for the Portuguese expeditions south along the African coast. The islands wre much more secure than coastal outposts which were vulnerable to attack from the local people. They became an important way-station in the slave trade. Portuguese slavers begin to operate openly in Seville (1462). This not only supplies African slaves to the Spanish, but stimulates commercial interest in the slave trade among the Spanish. And the Spanish defying the papal ban began trading in slaves on a substantial level (1470s). The Portuguese attempt to gain diplomatic recognition for the monopoly on African trade issued by the pope. A Portuguese diplomatic mission to England gains King Edward IV's assurace that his country would not participate in the African slve trade (1481). English traders are not happy with the King's decesion. As Portuguese explorers move further south alon the coast of Africa, they are followed by traders who seek to build secure bases. Diogo da Azambuja builds a massive castle at Elmina (modern Ghana) (1481-86). This was to become the most important of the Portuguese slave-trading forts in West Africa. The histpry of Elmina became notorious. Finally the Portuguese reach the Congo. Diogo Cão discovered the great Congo river (1483). The Congo is the greatest African river and a commercial higway into the interior of the continent. As a result, the Congo was to be a major source of slaves from central Africa. There were native African kingdoms, although by the 15th century they had been significantly weakened by Arab slave raiders. Relations with the African kingdoms facilitated commerce, especially slave tradeing. Diogo Cão established contact with the Kongo Kingdom and traveled to Mbanza Kongo. He established diplomatic and commercial relations between Portugal and Kongo (1485). Portugal did not attempt to conquer the African kingdoms and colonize the interior in the same way that the Spanish Conquistadores would do in the Americas. João Afonso Aveiro establishes contact with the Benin KIngdom (1486). Portugal colonized the uninhabited island of São Tomé (off modern Gabon) (1486). While Portugal only set up trading failities on the mainland, it did colonize offshore islands. This could be done with much smaller military forces and was thus much less costly. The Portuguese establish sugar plantations on the island and run them with enslaved Africans. The island provides another secure Portuguese outpost along the African coasts. For some time Portuguese explorers had been slowly inching down the African coast. It was Bartolomeo Dias who took a huge leap and final step. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and explored the Indian Ocean and the East African coast (1487-88). This opened European access to the east. Only a few years after Diaz's great achievement, Columbus' great voyage oened up further oportunities to the West (1492). Both the Portuguese and Spanish attempt to nslave the Native Americans. The Spanish enslave Native americans in the new colonies they establish, first on Hispaniola as well as bring Native Americans back to Europe as slaves. The Poriguese do the same. Portuguese explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Hojeda capture 200 Native Americans along the coast of South America and sell them as slaves in Cádiz (1499).


Portuguese explorers after news of Columbus' discoveries spread also began sailing west. They traded with some of the ne colonies the Spanish were estanlishing. These Portuguese expeditions west led to the European dicovery of Brazil. Pedro Cabral of Portugal discovered Brazil, landing at Porto Seguro near Bahia where Brazil bulges out into the Atlantic (1500). The Spanish and Portuguese expeditions led to conflits between the two nations. Martim Afonso de Souza founded the first settlement in Brazil at São Vicente (1532). Sugar production there is launched.


Paulo Dias de Novães founded the colony of São Paulo de Luanda in suthern Africa (modern Angola) (1575). The colony became a major source of slaves. Vast numbers of captive Africans were shipped through Luanda to Portugal's Brzilian colony.

Atlantic Slave Trade

Portugal as one of the major colonial powers partipated in the African slave trade. Portugal was involved in both the Indian Ocean and Atlantic slave trade, but the Atlantic slave trade was of far greater importance. Portugal mainly used African slaves in Brazil, many from the colony estalished in southern Africa (Luanda) (1575. African slaves were used in the enormously profitable sugar industry. King Henry of Portugal died (1580). The Duke of Alva conducted a short campaign. Spain and Portugal are united under King Philip II of Spain. Spain as a result thus becomes the sole European colonial power and largely in control of the slave trade. Only tiny England challengd Spain's control. This led to the Great Armada whose defeat allowed other countries to enter the save trade (1588).

Philosophical Outlook

Portuguese sailor Fernão de Oliveira publishes an attack the slave trade (1555). It is one of the first attacks on the slave trade using moral arguments. [de Oliveira] It is a very modern assessment using arguments that abolitionists would use in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Indian Ocean

French Revolution (1789)

Napoleonic Wars

Portugal for a time was Britain's only ally on the continent. This made the country a target for the French. The British landed a small army comanded by Wellington, but it was not large enough to resist a French invasion forcehand had to be withdrawn. The French moved on Lisbon. The Prince Regent departed seeking refuge in VBrazil (1807). Dom Joao established Rio de Jneinro as the temporary capital of the Portuguese Empire. Napoleon's defeat in Russia (1812) fatally weakeb=ned France and the French had to withdraw from Iberia (1814). Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo (1815). Dom Joao did not return to POrtugal, however, until several years later (1821).

Brazilian Empire (1822)

Dom Joao left his son Dom Pedro in charge of Brazil when he returned to Portugal (1821). Dom Joao attempted to resume the traditional system of colonial rule. Dom Pedro decided to declare Brazuil's independence from Portugal and his independence from his father (1822). Brazil's economy changed significantly in the 19th century as coffee became an increasingly important crop. There was considerable Europeam immigratiin in the 19th century, especially from Italy.

Campaign to End the Slave Trade

The British launched a campaign to end the slave trade. It began during the Napoleonic War with both a religiously motivated moral commitment and a strategic desire to undermine France. After ththe defeat of Napoleon the campaign took on increasingly moral dimensions. The British persued a dual campaign. First a Royal Navy effort to stop slavers and a diplomatic campaign to get the various European powers and America to cooperate. The Royal Navy campsaign would prove to be the longest campaign in the its long history. The diplomatic campaign would prove to be an enormously difficult undertaking. Other countries were involved in the campaign to end the slave trade, but it was an effort pushed by the British Abolitionist movement and conducted by the Royal Navy.

Portugal and the 19th Century Slave Trade

Brazilian independence meant that Portugal no longer had a large slace colony (1822). Portugal for the most part, however, refused to cooperate with the British effort to end the slave trade.

Brazilian Abolition

Brazil continued as a monarchy for several decades before a republic was finally proclaimed (1889). Brazil was a major desination of the Atlantic slave trade. Brazil justs out into the Atlantic and was thus a much shorter run for the slavers. Brazil had the largest slave population in the world, substantially larger than the United States. Pedro II was a ruler of conservative mindset. He came to see slavery, despite its economic importance to Brazil as inherently evil. Pedro began a series of measures liberating Brazilian slaves. He was posed to entirely abolish slavery. His measures against slavery met oposition from major landowners and the military, the leadership of which was drawn from the landed elite. The Emperor was on a trip to Europe when his daughter, Princess Isabel serving as regent, issued a decree abolishing slavery (May 13, 1888). This essentially did away for the last bastion of slavery, although forced labor cotinued for some time, in the Western Hemishere and ended what remained of the the African slave trade. Princess Isabella's decree is known as the Golden Law. It was widely praised in Europe. Abolishing slavery was the last major action taken by the Brazilian royal family. Brazil proved to be the last Western Hemisphere country to abolish slavery.


De Oliveira, Fernão. Arte de Guerra no mar (The Art of War at Sea) (1555).,


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main European slavery page]
[Return to the Main slavery page]
[Return to the Main working page]
[Return to the Main Portuguese history page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [Essays] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: 6:42 AM 2/27/2008
Last updated: 7:09 AM 10/1/2011