Dom Domingos, a prince of Warri in southern Nigeria, traveled to Portugal to spend 8 years studying in Lisbon—and a total of 10 years in Portugal—before marrying a Portuguese noblewoman and returning to his home in West Africa. His father the Olu—meaning King—Sebastian of Warri, had sent him to Portugal to study the mysterious ways of the white man. This happened not in the 1950s, when many Nigerians were traveling to Europe to get an education that would prepare them for independence from the British. Domingos left home in the year 1600—three centuries before the country Nigeria came into existence—in the era of the slave trade. (Soon after she arrived in Warri, Domingos’ Portuguese wife died from the dread tropical diseases that were the scourge of white people before the age of modern medicine)
Dom Domingos was neither the first African nor the only one to travel to Europe as a free man and live there. This will surprise many because the popular belief about the era of the slave trade is that the only Africans who sailed the seas in European ships did so manacled in the dank, cramped, filthy, and stinking holds of slave ships. We seem to want to think that the relationship between Africans and Europeans was always one of inferior oppressed by superior, and if any Africans were in Europe, they were there as slaves.
But this was far from the case. As always, the reality is far more complex. Numerous elite Africans, from ambassadors to merchants to skilled tradesmen traveled to Europe aboard slave ships as guests of the captain and as free men—and women—to meet with trading partners and rulers, and to see what Europe was like. Other elite Africans sent their children to school in Europe. This and subsequent posts will show that Africans from different classes of society were regular visitors to Europe for those centuries from first contact to the time of the Scramble for Africa and colonization.
Africans have been in Europe for a very long time. We learn from African-American classical scholar Frank Snowden that there were black Africans in Greece and Italy in antiquity, and not just as slaves or menial workers: some were ambassadors and people on “commercial missions.”
“The noblest of these received offices of such dignity from the Emperor,” writes Snowden, “that many preferred to continue residence in Italy, with no desire to revisit the countries of their origin. Still others…were attracted to Athens or Rome in the same way as other foreigners. Some, for example, sent their children to Alexandria and other cultural centers to be educated.” So African visits to Europe during the slave trade era were not a new phenomenon at all.
It may come as a surprise to many English people that there were Africans in Britain before the Germanic tribes that became the English nation arrived on the Isles. These “Aethiopians”—a generic name for black Africans in ancient times—were part of the legions Roman emperor Septimius Severus brought to Britain in 208 AD.
But the earliest Africans to visit Europe outside of antiquity were Ethiopians sent by King Wedem Ar’ ad in 1306. Thirty emissaries were sent to Spain, France and Italy to seek a Christian alliance against the Muslims who threatening his region. Nothing came of it.
The majority of visits from West and Central Africa began in the 15th century. In 1486, Oba or King Ozolua n’Ibaromi (Ozolua the Conqueror), of the Benin kingdom that is now part of modern day Nigeria, sent an ambassador to Lisbon to find out more about these white people who were visiting his domain from Europe. The ambassador was received with great fanfare, and given many gifts for the Oba. In 1514 Oba Ozolua again sent another emissary to Lisbon to look into buying firearms, and to negotiate other forms of trade.
Another African royal, Prince Kasuta of the Congo, made a visit to Lisbon in 1488 leading an official delegation that requested “craftsmen, agricultural specialists, and women for instruction in home economics, as well as missionaries.” It was Prince Kasuta’s second visit to Portugal; he learned to speak Portuguese during the first trip. Kasuta’s visit led the Portuguese to establish a training school for Africans, the monastery of St. Eloy in Lisbon. Unfortunately, the school mostly taught the Africans Catholicism, instead of the practical things they wanted to learn.
In 1487, King Bumi Jeleen of the Jolof in the Senegal region, was forcibly removed from the throne by his enemies, and he and some of his followers escaped to a Portuguese ship that was heading back to Portugal. In Lisbon, the Portuguese King Joao II received his Jolof counterpart in style, providing him and his followers with clothing, silver and attendants. At the Portuguese court, Jeleen is said to have cut a splendid figure, and he impressed with his dignified comportment and the speech he made about how he was deposed. He was also admired for his superb horsemanship. He made a request for arms and support, and pledged to convert to Christianity. Consequently Jeleen was baptized and knighted in 1488, and given the name Dom Joao Bumi in honor of his benefactor. A formal alliance was made between the Portuguese kingdom and Dom Joao Bumi. The Portuguese King Joao II also gave King Bumi twenty well-armed caravels that were supposed to help him regain his kingdom. The caravels were loaded with materials to build a fort on the coast, and carried enough priests on board to convert the entire kingdom of Jolof to Christianity.
But, as the story goes, when they got to Senegal, the commander of the fleet killed Bumi Jeleen and sailed back to Portugal without building the fort or doing any of the things that were agreed upon. A strange ending, and there are differing explanations as to why it happened: one says that the commander of the Portuguese fleet, Pero Vaz Bisagudo, was alarmed at the numbers of his men felled by tropical diseases and, perhaps blaming Jeleen for it, killed him and went home; another more plausible explanation says that Jeleen was killed because he did not have enough support amongst his people, and the Portuguese suspected him of “treason.”
Continued in next post.
Presence and Prestige: A history of Africans in Europe before 1918 by Hans W. Debrunner.
Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, by David Northrup.
Blacks in Antiquity by Frank Snowden
An Essay on Colonization (1794) by C.B. Wadstrom
Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade by Philip D. Curtin
Staying Power: the history of Black people in Britain by Peter Fryer