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Benin

By 1471 Portuguese ships had reconnoitered the West African coast south as far as the Niger Delta, although they did not know that it was the delta, and in 1481 emissaries from the king of Portugal visited the court of the oba of Benin. For a time, Portugal and Benin maintained close relations. Portuguese soldiers aided Benin in its wars; Portuguese even came to be spoken at the oba's court. Gwatto, the port of Benin, became the depot to handle the peppers, ivory, and increasing numbers of slaves offered by the oba in exchange for coral beads; textile imports from India; European-manufactured articles, including tools and weapons; and manillas (brass and bronze bracelets that were used as currency and also were melted down for objets d'art). Portugal also may have been the first European power to import cowrie shells, which were the currency of the far interior.

Benin profited from its close ties with the Portuguese and exploited the firearms bought from them to tighten its hold on the lower Niger area. Two factors checked the spread of Portuguese influence and the continued expansion of Benin, however. First, Portugal stopped buying pepper because of the availability of other spices in the Indian Ocean region. Second, Benin placed an embargo on the export of slaves, thereby isolating itself from the growth of what was to become the major export from the Nigerian coast for 300 years. Benin continued to capture slaves and to employ them in its domestic economy, but the Edo state remained unique among Nigerian polities in refusing to participate in the transatlantic trade. In the long run, Benin remained relatively isolated from the major changes along the Nigerian coast.

The Portuguese initially bought slaves for resale on the Gold Coast, where slaves were traded for gold. For this reason, the southwestern coast of Nigeria and neighboring parts of the present-day Republic of Benin (not to be confused with the kingdom of Benin) became known as the "slave coast." When the African coast began to supply slaves to the Americas in the last third of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese continued to look to the Bight of Benin as one of its sources of supply. By then they were concentrating activities on the Angolan coast, which supplied roughly 40 percent of all slaves shipped to the Americas throughout the duration of the transatlantic trade, but they always maintained a presence on the Nigerian coast.

The Portuguese monopoly on West African trade was broken at the end of the sixteenth century, when Portugal's influence was challenged by the rising naval power of the Netherlands. The Dutch took over Portuguese trading stations on the coast that were the source of slaves for the Americas. French and English competition later undermined the Dutch position. Although slave ports from Lagos to Calabar would see the flags of many other European maritime countries (including Denmark, Sweden, and Brandenburg) and the North American colonies, Britain became the dominant slaving power in the eighteenth century. Its ships handled two-fifths of the transatlantic traffic during the century. The Portuguese and French were responsible for another two-fifths.

Nigeria kept its important position in the slave trade throughout the great expansion of the transatlantic trade after the middle of the seventeenth century. Slightly more slaves came from the Nigerian coast than from Angola in the eighteenth century, while in the nineteenth century perhaps 30 percent of all slaves sent across the Atlantic came from Nigeria. Over the period of the whole trade, more than 3.5 million slaves were shipped from Nigeria to the Americas. Most of these slaves were Igbo and Yoruba, with significant concentrations of Hausa, Ibibio, and other ethnic groups. In the eighteenth century, two polities--Oyo and the Aro confederacy--were responsible for most of the slaves exported from Nigeria. The Aro confederacy continued to export slaves through the 1830s, but most slaves in the nineteenth century were a product of the Yoruba civil wars that followed the collapse of Oyo in the 1820s.

 

Out of Africa

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/apiv/hd_apiv.htm

IDST 2310 The Fine and Applied Arts in Civilization

 
 
 

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