European Exploration of the West African Coast (till the Niger Estuary)

In medieval Europe there seemed to be little interest in the Atlantic Ocean. The Canary Islands were visited by Aragonese in 1330, by Genoans in 1341. In 1385 a Castilian fleet raided the islands, in 1404 they were conquered and annexed by Castile. An Italian map of 1351 features the Acores islands and Madeira, uninhabited at that time.

Prince Henry the Navigator is to be credited with the beginning of systematic exploration. Captains graduating from his Navigators' School at Sagres (founded in 1424) were to undertake the task, and, most importantly, to document their discoveries by maintaining ship's logs and by mapping their discoveries. Even before the school was founded, in the context of the Moroccan Wars, Madeira was claimed by the Portuguese 1418; in 1427 the Portuguese claimed the Acores Islands.
The real discoveries began beyond Cape Bojador. The waters and winds near the Cape were tough; the winds beyond blow almost constantly in southern direction. In combination with sea monsters feared to exist there, it was widely believed that tjose who would pass the Cape would never return. However, Prince Henry the Navigator had a number of reasons to push forward the enterprise of exploring the African coast : the idea was to cut into the lucrative gold trade with Morocco's African trading partners across the Sahara, to establish contact with African christian princes living beyond the lands of Islam (Legend of Prester John), to spread Catholicism among the discovered peoples; Prince Henry regarded his enterprise part of the crusade movement. When his brother Duarte became King of Portugal in 1433, Henry received the necessary financial support.
In 1433 did Gil Eanes (also spelled Eannes) pass Cape Bojador. From now on, Africa's coast was explored step by step; in 1441, Nuno Tristao reached Cape Branco, by 1444, Cape Verde had been reached (by Dinis Dias; they were claimed for Portugal in 1456 by Luigi de Cadamosto, Venetian in Portuguese service).
On the Guinea coast, in their effort to proceed into the interior, the Portuguese met determined resistance; the discoveries, for the moment, were discontinued in 1448.
Prince Henry was the driving force behind the Portuguese explorations; the captains were reluctant to sail befond the 200 leagues of unknown coastland they were obliged to survey by contract; this, and the fact that the African coast seemed to offer limited economic prospects, caused the relatively slow progress of the exploration of the African coast. exploration of the world's oceans.

In their quest to cut into the African gold trade, the Portuguese built a fort on Arguin Island (off the coast of Mauritania) and sailed up the Senegal and Gambia Rivers; while they acquired only a limited amount of gold, a lucrative general trade evolved
In 1469, Fernao Gomes obtained a contract which gave him the monopoly in the Africa trade beyond Sierra Leone in return for him taking on the obligation of further discovery. The Gold Coast was reached in 1470. Finally the trade route had been found, by which the desired gold could be obtained. After his monopoly expired (1475), the Portuguese built their first fortified trading station on the Gold Coast at Sao Jorge da Mina (Elmina) in 1482, to safeguard a regular trade in the valued substance.

The concept of claiming the sovereignty over the discovered lands seems to have developed during the process; in a number of cases, discovery and claim of sovereignty differ by a number of years. The Portuguese established their sovereignty over the islands off the African coast (notably Madeira, Cape Verde, Fernando Poo, Sao Tome, Arguin) and maintained a few trading forts on the coast. Here a symbiosis with the coastal African peoples emerged; the coastal Africans profited from selling the goods they acquired from the Portuguese to the Africans of the interior, in return supplying the Portuguese with the prodocts of Africa the latter demanded.

Files from Discoverer's web : Henry the Navigator, The Coast of Africa, Gil Eannes
History of Africa : Europeans get a Foothold, from Robinson Research World of Knowledge
Gil Eanes, biography from Historia de Portugal; anonymous, in Portuguese
Luigi de Cadamosto, from Columbia Encyclopedia
Portuguese African Discoveries, from The Catholic Church in Tropical Africa 1445-1650 by Joseph Kennedy O.S.P.
REFERENCE A.F.C. Ryder, Portuguese and Dutch in West Africa before 1800, pp.212-231 in : J.F. Ade. Ajayi and Ian Espie (ed.), A Thousand Years of West African History, Ibadan UP 1965
Arrival of European Traders, pp.68-69 in : Samuel Kasule, The History Atlas of Africa, NY : MacMillan 1998 [G]
Chapter Two : An African Prelude, pp.22-35, in : Angus Konstam, Historical Atlas of Exploration, 1492-1600, NY : Checkmark Books 2000 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 23rd 2003, last revised on May 11th 2006

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics

Impressum · Datenschutz