By the 15th century, Europeans knew Africa as a place of complex cultures and rich trading networks. However, after Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas, European traders shifted the focus of their business in Africa from goods to labor sources. The practice of capturing and enslaving Africans for use as colonial labor was encouraged by European colonial powers and the Roman Catholic Church.
European traders rely on trade with Africa for spices, silk, gold, ivory, and salt. Scholars from around the globe make pilgrimages to Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, which was a center for scholarship and learning.
Encouraged by Prince Henry of Portugal, sailors reach the west coast of Africa. They kidnap 12 Africans to present to Prince Henry, carrying out the first recorded enslavement of African people via an ocean-going ship.
The Portuguese establish a sea trade along the West African coast, focusing on African captives, gold, and ivory.
Pope Nicholas V grants King Alfonso V of Portugal the rights to the sub-Saharan slave trade (1451), and issues an edict condemning all non-Christian Africans to enslavement (1455).
Portugal constructs the infamous castle at El Mina in present-day Ghana. El Mina’s dungeons were used for centuries to imprison African captives before they were transported to the Americas.
Christopher Columbus and crew, including two captains of African descent, Juan and Pedro Alonso Niño, explore several islands in the Caribbean on behalf of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain.
Columbus orders the capture and enslavement of over 500 indigenous peoples of Hispaniola (the island that includes present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
The first African captives are forcibly transported to Hispaniola by Spanish colonists.
Spain constructs the first sugar mill in the Americas on Hispaniola. Sugar mills were dependent on enslaved labor to grow and process sugarcane.
After only 25 years of European contact, more than 200,000 Native Americans have died. These casualties are due to disease and warfare in the West Indies and other Spanish and Portuguese colonies.
Spanish priest Bartolome de Las Casas issues an edict against the use of indigenous labor in Hispaniola. De Las Casas petitions Spain to allow for the importation of 12 African captives for each household.
Spain establishes a small settlement at San Miguel Gualdape in present-day South Carolina with enslaved African laborers. After six months, the laborers rebel and leave to live with local Native Americans.
BaKongo (Angola and Congo region) King Afonso I sends the first of several formal protests from Africa to Portugal against the trade in African captives.
King Charles I of Spain makes it illegal for colonists to enslave Native Americans. The importation of African captives increases as a result.
English voyages to Africa for the purposes of trading in enslaved people begin, first under the command of John Lok and later under John Hawkins.
By the end of the 1500s, kidnapped Africans made up a significant portion of the transatlantic trade. These captives were intended as forced labor for Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America and the Caribbean.
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