The Portuguese Connection, Part One

It was the Portuguese who spanned the Atlantic, once again. This time there were no deliberate and concerted voyages of discovery, no government sponsored expeditions, no search for a sea route to the spices and wealth of the East, avoiding the land routes blocked by Islam. There was no search for vague and legendary Christian allies such as Prester John, supposedly of great power and fighting on the far side of Moslem territory. There was no thirst for the knowledge and glory to be found in exploring the unknown. There was no expectation of discovering vast wealth or of obtaining honour and prestige from exploring unknown regions. The shape of the world and the peoples likely to be found on each continent was known, at least approximately, and at least by the few intellectuals whose business it was, and who would have been consulted by any ruler or merchant-prince contemplating such a voyage, even though it was centuries since there had been any contact with them. Governments, not just in Europe but around the world wherever civilised societies survived, felt no loss at this absence of contact with distant peoples who had no relevance to their immediate concerns of power, profit and prestige, and no need to renew contact with them. People who owned ships wanted to use them as they were intended, for the practical business of making a living from trade and fishing. They would not waste money on long, possibly dangerous, and almost certainly futile voyages when there was no reasonable hope of making a large profit, even though the possible destinations were at least roughly known. Their men felt the same. Sailors and fishermen lived a hard life, and always had. They could be motivated , just as others had been, by greed for God Gold and Glory – not necessarily in that order, but otherwise would not have been willing to risk their lives and livelihoods on pointless voyages.

Thus when contact was renewed it was as wispy and uncertain as tendrils of sea mist, there, gone, renewed unpredictably elsewhere, silent and un-noticed by the great ones of the world. There were no celebrations, no public praise fame or reward for the achievement, which was solely the business of those involved, ancillary to their main business, and only mentioned in passing to their friends. It was decades before rumours reached the ears of the rich and powerful, to whom it was of little interest. A few academics, youthful wandering scholars and antiquarian romantics were more interested and would like to have gone there, but there were no regular voyages, no trading routes and no one to apply to for passage any more than there were to Atlantis, Hy-Breasil, Tir-n’an-Og, Fairyland, the Garden of Eden or other legendary regions with which such tales and destinations were likely to be confused.

What happened was that crossings of the South Atlantic were at first accidents of weather, and then occasional supplements to the small-scale business of trading along the west coast of Africa. There were a few small ships which gradually extended their range along the coast , seeking to eke out a living by trading cheap and colourful cloth, domestic utensils of wood clay and iron, small mirrors and trumpery decorations, pins, needles, thread and ribbons, beads and jewellery and other such trifles as appealed to local tastes and pockets, in exchange for local produce, chiefly bananas, coconuts, and fish dried and salted to the traditional Portuguese taste and as rations capable of keeping for some time. There was no great profit or interest in this humble trading by a few sea-peddlers, who also engaged in a little local trading between towns or villages along the coast. This was a life exposed to more than the usual dangers. In addition to the perils of the sea there was exposure to an enervating climate, where tropical diseases were once again rife. Europe was somewhat protected from epidemics brought back by these traders by the fact that the slow voyages exceeded the incubation time of the diseases, so ships that were infected were unlikely to return as the crew died before reaching home, and quarantine procedures at ports kept any that reached home from spreading their diseases before they died. Theft and murder by the volatile natives also contributed to the death toll, so this remained a small and unattractive trading route.

In the course of time these traders reached what long before had been Angola, and encountered natives who spoke a version of Portuguese. This enabled some of the traders to move inland and make further contacts. Gradually some of them inter-married with the natives and became local traders in and between settlements, with the advantage of access to somewhat exotic foreign products, so they became a successful local merchant class. This was a somewhat precarious position, suspected of exploitation, targets of jealousy and fear that they might be dangerous witches, dependent on the protection of local rulers who had to be kept well bribed. It did however give them access to diamonds. Ages earlier Angola and the adjacent region of Kasai in what had been Zaire or the Belgian Congo had produced a lot of diamonds, and there were still some to be found. There was no longer an organised diamond mining industry, no exports of stones via a regulated monopoly, no cottage industry of digging them out by hand and smuggling them abroad, no knowledge of diamond cutting and polishing, only a cursory and less sophisticated appreciation of them as shiny baubles than was still possible elsewhere. A trickle of these curiosities was slowly obtained from people who found or traded them for local value, until they reached those who suspected that if they were really diamonds they would be of much more value in Europe, and who had the connections to test the notion. Still further south, along the dangerous desert coast of what had been Namibia or South West Africa, diamonds were still washed up by the sea. Some of these also came into the hands of partly Portuguese traders, by direct forays along the coast as well as by trade.

Gradually these stones went to Europe where it was still possible to have them assessed, cut and polished, the better ones thereby increasing enormously in value. There was no great boom in diamond mining, no sudden hysteria or diamond mania, only a slow but steady rise in the wealth and social status of those families connected to the previously humble itinerant Portuguese traders. Europe was increasingly prosperous, freed of the Islamic yoke and protected by the German empire, or just ‘the Empire’, as the Second Holy Roman Empire of the German People was more colloquially known. There was scope for expenditure on luxuries and for investment in highly portable assets. If there was curiosity felt by outsiders about the source of these diamonds and the basis of the prosperity of Portugal’s sea-peddlers, it went unsatisfied and the connection unnoticed.

This increased availability of diamonds was important to the tale because there was no other small and portable store of wealth, acceptable in other distant but reasonably civilised countries as a means of exchange. Gold and silver were no longer mined in significant quantities in Europe, previous stores having drained to the East, or in less polite terms, been looted by the Moslems. Fiat paper currencies, especially the mighty German Reichmark, were adequate for local use, but would not prove acceptable to distant people who had no prospect of spending them in Europe or on European produce, and no desire to exchange their goods for pretty pieces of foreign paper. Diamonds were still mined, cut and valued in Brazil, so the availability of raw or cut diamonds gave the possibility of commercial exchange for the coffee, sugar and other tropical produce of Brazil’s plantations when the possibility arose.

The traders heard stories that other Portuguese speaking seamen had in previous centuries visited and raided the African coast. It was not even clear whether these were relatively recent visitors or stories of the very much older slave trade to America. In any case, a few of the traders decided to try their luck in crossing the Atlantic to Brazil in hopes of extending their trading route and in curiosity as to whether they would still find fellow Portuguese speakers with whom to talk and trade. Little came of these early contacts because diamonds were not yet available, and would have been beyond the means of these poor men even if they had been available. They found their wares for the African trade were not much in demand because equivalent locally produced items were already available. They brought back a little coffee and sugar and an understanding that the Brazilians were stronger, richer, more numerous and ruled a vastly greater area than the Portuguese.It would not be prudent to attempt to rob them, and for lack of anything of value to exchange, trade would be difficult or impossible. A little coasting trade might be possible, serving the more remote and thinly settled portions of the immense South American coastline, and it would be a bit safer and more comfortable, but even less profitable than the African coastal trade.

Some Brazilian slave traders had in earlier centuries raided and traded with the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Africa when there was still a demand for slaves on the growing plantations. This was no longer profitable because of the contraction of the population and of economic demand, and the fact that the existing black population of Brazil was more than adequate to supply any demand for labour.When the intermittent visits of the first Portuguese traders came to the notice of the rich and powerful in Brazil, they were not very interested. They quickly saw that the Portuguese were poor and weak. They had little with which to trade. There would be no point in trying to raid or even establish diplomatic relations with Portugal, particularly if behind them stood a protector as powerful as the Germans were said to be. They were mildly interested to hear of the spectacular German military successes in driving Islam out of Europe and conquering the Middle East and North Africa and were willing to applaud them from a distance. There were of course a few who would have liked to visit Europe, but that was not yet practical.

Slowly, as diamonds enriched the more fortunate of the Portuguese traders, they began to visit Brazil from curiosity and in hope of establishing profitable contacts.A trickle of cargoes of coffee, sugar, rum and other tropical produce began to reach Europe and further enrich the traders. In due course, as contacts and trust developed, voyages between Portugal and Brazil became fairly regular and it became possible for passengers to travel with reasonable expectations of a safe voyage and return, instead of having to fear that they would be robbed and murdered as soon as the ship was out of sight of land. A few affluent travellers were inquisitive enough to want to journey and then to write about their travels amongst people on the other side of the ocean. It was quickly realised that Brazil was the centre of the Portuguese speaking world, being far richer and stronger and more culturally developed and artistically active than Portugal itself, let alone the savages of Africa.

Governments and their spies began to take an interest. Brazilian ships began to visit Portugal and other European countries, somewhat to the chagrin of the Portuguese traders who felt a monopoly slipping away from them. Brazilian agents were eager to obtain German machinery and engineering products. The German government refused to sell them munitions more advanced than muskets, and made it clear to the other European governments that they were expected to follow the same policy. German and Brazilian businessmen began to consider projects such as investing in Brazilian plantations and mines, reviving railways and building steam ships. Trade across the Atlantic grew and became of interest to those on both sides of the ocean. The English, French, Spanish and Dutch remembered their historical connections with the Caribbean and began to consider seizing some of those islands again to put the blacks there back to work in growing sugar and other tropical produce. It was recalled that France had once been willing to let the English keep Canada in exchange for the return of the small sugar producing island of Guadeloupe, and people quipped that considering the current state of Canada, (which had long since been crushed out of existence by the weight of snow and the tyranny of distance in this post-oil world,) they had got the better end of the bargain. They also began to visit Brazil and attempt coastal trade in their manufactures which were somewhat better than those of Portugal and Brazil.

Cynic ©