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Discovery Of The Canary Islands And The African Coast
By Arthur Helps
Jun 7, 2008 - 11:13:10 AM

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In 1444 a company was formed at Lagos, who received permission from the Prince to undertake discovery along the coast of Africa, paying him a certain portion of any gains which they might make. This has been considered as a company founded for carrying on the slave trade; but the evidence is by no means sufficient to show that its founders meant such to be its purpose. It might rather be compared to an expedition sent out, as we should say in modern times, with letters of marque, in which, however, the prizes chiefly hoped for were not ships nor merchandise, but men. The only thing of any moment, however, which the expedition accomplished was to attack, successfully the inhabitants of the islands Nar and Tider, and to bring back about two hundred slaves. I grieve to say that there is no evidence of Prince Henry's putting a check to any of these proceedings; but, on the contrary, it appears that he rewarded with large honors Lancarote, one of the principal men of this expedition, and received his own fifth of the slaves. Yet I have scarcely a doubt that the words of the historian are substantially true - that discovery, not gain, was still the Prince's leading idea. We have an account from an eye-witness of the partition of the slaves brought back by Lancarote, which, as it is the first transaction of the kind on record, is worthy of notice, more especially as it may enable the reader to understand the motives of the Prince and of other men of those times. It is to be found in the Chronicle, before referred to, of Azurara. The merciful chronicler is smitten to the heart at the sorrow he witnesses, but still believes it to be for good, and that he must not let his mere earthly commiseration get the better of his piety.

"O thou heavenly Father," he exclaims, "who, with thy powerful hand, without movement of thy divine essence, governest all the infinite company of thy holy city, and who drawest together all the axles of the upper worlds, divided into nine spheres, moving the times of their long and short periods as it pleases thee! I implore thee that my tears may not condemn my conscience, for not its law; but our common humanity, constrains my humanity to lament piteously the sufferings of these people (slaves). And if the brute animals, with their mere bestial sentiments, by a natural instinct, recognize the misfortunes of their like, what must this by human nature do, seeing thus before my eyes this wretched company, remembering that I myself am of the generation of the sons of Adam! The other day, which was the eight of August, very early in the morning, by reason of the heat, the mariners began to bring to their vessels, and, as they had been commanded, to draw forth those captives to take them out of the vessel: whom, placed together on that plain, it was a marvellous sight to behold; for among them there were some of a reasonable degree of whiteness, handsome and well made; others less white, resembling leopards in their color; others as black as Ethiopians, and so ill-formed, as well in their faces as their bodies, that it seemed to the beholders as if they saw the forms of a lower hemisphere.

"But what heart was that, how hard soever, which was not pierced with sorrow, seeing that company: for some had sunken cheeks, and their faces bathed in tears, looking at each other; others were groaning very dolorously, looking at the heights of the heavens, fixing their eyes upon them, crying out loudly, as if they were asking succor from the Father of nature; others struck their faces with their hands, throwing themselves on the earth; others made their lamentations in songs, according to the customs of their country, which, although we could not understand their language, we saw corresponded well to the height of their sorrow. But now, for the increase of their grief, came those who had the charge of the distribution, and they began to put them apart one from the other, in order to equalize the portions, wherefore it was necessary to part children and parents, husbands and wives, and brethren from each other. Neither in the partition of friends and relations was any law kept, only each fell where the lot took him. O powerful Fortune! who goest hither and thither with thy wheels, compassing the things of the world as it pleaseth thee, if thou canst, place before the eyes of this miserable nation some knowledge of the things that are to come after them, that they may receive some consolation in the midst of their great sadness! and you others who have the business of this partition, look with pity on such great misery, and consider how can those be parted whom you cannot disunite Who will be able to make this partition without great difficulty? for while they were placing in one part the children that saw their parents in another, the children sprang up perseveringly and fled to them; the mothers enclosed their children in their arms and threw themselves with them on the ground, receiving wounds with little pity for their own flesh, so that their offspring might not be torn from them!

"And so, with labor and difficulty, they concluded the partition, for, besides the trouble they had with the captives, the plain was full of people, as well of the place as of the villages and neighborhood around, who in that day gave rest to their hands, the mainstay of their livelihood, only to see this novelty. And as they looked upon these things, some deploring, some reasoning upon them, they made such a riotous noise as greatly to disturb those who had the management of this distribution. The Infante was there upon a powerful horse, accompanied by his people, looking out his share, but as a man who for his part did not care for gain, for, of the forty-six souls which fell to his fifth, he speedily made his choice, as all his principal riches were in his contentment, considering with great delight the salvation of those souls which before were lost. And certainly his thought was not vain, for as soon as they had knowledge of our language they readily became Christians; and I, who have made this history in this volume, have seen in the town of Lagos young men and young women, the sons and grandsons of those very captives, born in this land, as good and as true Christians as if they had lineally descended, since the commencement of the law of Christ, from those who were first baptized."

The good Azurara wished that these captives might have some foresight of the things to happen after their death. I do not think, however, that it would have proved much consolation to them to have foreseen that they were almost the first of many millions to be dealt with as they had been; for, in this year 1444, Europe may be said to have made a distinct beginning in the slave trade, henceforth to spread on all sides, like the waves upon stirred water, and not, like them, to become fainter and fainter as the circles widen.


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