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Discovery Of The Canary Islands And The African Coast

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Beginning Of Negro Slave Trade, A.D. 1402

The Canary Islands - the "Elysian Fields" and "Fortunate Islands" of antiquity - have perhaps figured in fabulous lore more extensively than any others, and have been discovered, invaded, and conquered more frequently than any country in the world. There has scarcely been a nation of any maritime enterprise that has not had to do with them, and in one manner or another made its appearance in them.

During the period following the death of ancient empires, the Canary Islands lay hidden in the general darkness which fell upon the world. With the modern revival came new and greater mariners, and the islands were once more discovered. It is well to note the connection between these modern rediscoveries and the origin of negro slavery.

In Europe the old pagan slavery existed in many nations, and in the early Christian centuries underwent many modifications through the advance of the new religion and civilization. The modern form of slavery began with the first importation of negroes into Europe, as shown in the following account, from which it appears that the history of modern slavery begins with the history of African discovery.

Petrarch is referred to by Viera to prove that the Genoese sent out an expedition to the Canary Islands. Las Casas mentions that an English or French vessel bound from France or England to Spain was driven by contrary winds to these Islands, and on its return spread abroad in France an account of the voyage. The information thus obtained - or perhaps in other ways of which there is no record - stimulated Don Luis de la Cerda, Count of Clermont, great-grandson of Don Alonzo the Wise of Castile, to seek for the investiture of the crown of the Canaries, which was given to him with much pomp by Clement VI, at Avignon, in 1344, Petrarch being present. This sceptre proved a barren one. The affairs of France, with which state the new King of the Canaries was connected, drew off his attention; and he died without having visited his dominions. The next authentic information that we have of the Canary Islands is that, in the times of Don Juan I of Castile, and of Don Enrique, his son, these islands were much visited by the Spaniards. In 1399, we are told, certain Andalusians, Biscayans, Guipuzcoans, with the consent of Don Enrique, fitted out an expedition of five vessels, and making a descent on the island of Lanzarote, one of the Canaries, took captive the King and Queen, and one hundred and seventy of the islanders.

Hitherto there had been nothing but discoveries, rediscoveries, and invasions of these islands; but at last a colonist appears upon the scene. This was Juan de Bethencourt, a great Norman baron, lord of St. Martin le Gaillard in the County of Eu, of Bethencourt, of Granville, of Sancerre, and other places in Normandy, and chamberlain to Charles VI of France. Those who are at all familiar with the history of that period, and with the mean and cowardly barbarity which characterized the long-continued contests between the rival factions of Orleans and Burgundy, may well imagine that any Frenchman would then be very glad to find a career in some other country. Whatever was the motive of Juan de Bethencourt, he carried out his purpose in the most resolute manner. Leaving his young wife, and selling part of his estate, he embarked at Rochelle in 1402, with men and means for the purpose of conquering, and establishing himself in, the Canary Islands. It is not requisite to give a minute description of this expedition. Suffice it to say that Bethencourt met with fully the usual difficulties, distresses, treacheries, and disasters that attach themselves to this race of enterprising men. After his arrival at the Canaries, finding his means insufficient, he repaired to the court of Castile, did acts of homage to the King, Enrique III, and afterward renewed them to his son Juan II, thereby much strengthening the claim which the Spanish monarchs already made to the dominion of these islands. Bethencourt, returning to the islands with renewed resources, made himself master of the greater part of them, reduced several of the natives to slavery, introduced the Christian faith, built churches, and established vassalage.

On the occasion of quitting his colony in A.D. 1405, he called all his vassals together, and represented to them that he had named for his lieutenant and governor Maciot de Bethencourt, his relation; that he himself was going to Spain and to Rome to seek for a bishop for them; and he concluded his oration with these words: "My loved vassals, great or small, plebeians or nobles, if you have anything to ask me or to inform me of, if you find in my conduct anything to complain of, do not fear to speak; I desire to do favor and justice to all the world." The assembly he was addressing contained none of the slaves he had made. We are told, however, and that by eye-witnesses, that the poor natives themselves bitterly regretted his departure, and, wading through the water, followed his vessel as far as they could. After his visit to Spain and to Rome, he returned to his paternal domains in Normandy, where, while meditating another voyage to his colony, he died in 1425.

Maciot de Bethencourt ruled for some time successfully; but afterward, falling into disputes with the Bishop, and his affairs generally not prospering, he sold his rights to Prince Henry of Portugal - also, as it strangely appears, to another person - and afterward settled in Madeira. The claims to the government of the Canaries were, for many years, in a most entangled state; and the right to the sovereignty over these islands was a constant ground of dispute between the crowns of Spain and Portugal.

Thus ended the enterprise of Juan de Bethencourt, which, though it cannot be said to have led to any very large or lasting results, yet, as it was the first modern attempt of the kind, deserves to be chronicled before commencing with Prince Henry of Portugal's long-continued and connected efforts in the same direction. The events also which preceded and accompanied Bethencourt's enterprise need to be recorded, in order to show the part which many nations, especially the Spaniards, had in the first discoveries on the coast of Africa.










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