4/8/08 - portugal

In today's excerpt - Portugal, Genoa and slaves:

"In the year 1483, Portugal was the most progressive, visionary, affluent country in all of Europe, and Lisbon was the continent's most vibrant port. In its lovely circumstance, built upon low hills above the broad estuary of the Tagus River, sparkling with white villas and perfumed with jasmine and orange blossoms, the city was a breathtaking mixture of Hispanic, African, Moorish, Mediterranean and Northern European cultures. ...

"For two centuries, Lisbon had had a special relationship with Italian merchants. With the emergence of the Ottoman Empire, traders from Florence and Genoa had lost their trading posts in the Eastern Mediterranean and had flocked to the western Mediterranean. ... Wealthy Genovese became the financiers of the Portuguese crown. In their less flattering avocation, they were also the principal slave traders in the Mediterranean during the fifteenth century, a trade that included a sizable number of white slaves from Russia and the Balkans. (African slaves were preferred, 'black Moors' as they were called, for they worked harder, were easier to convert to Christianity, and were less likely to accomplish a successful escape.) ...

"Several generations after the slave trade had begun in the 1440s, blacks comprised about one tenth of Lisbon's population. The business of acquiring and selling slaves was conducted in the Casa dos Escravos de Lisboa—the Slave House of Lisbon. 'Slaves swarm everywhere', a Belgian traveler of the time would write. 'Rich households have slaves of both sexes, and there are individuals who derive substantial profits from their sale of the offspring of their house slaves. In my view they raise them much in the same way as one would raise pigeons for sale in the market place.' ...

"Evangelizing infidels was the highest of Christian callings, and could cover up a multitude of sins. The search for the gold of Black Africa and the muscle of black slaves was always subsumed in the higher and more noble-sounding goal of Christianizing the infidel and attacking heretical Islam. The theology of crusade expressly encompassed slavery. Its pre-Christian roots lay in Aristotle's concept of natural law about the master and the slave. St. Augustine sanctioned the concept when he argued that slavery was a form of divine punishment for man's original sin. St. Thomas Aquinas had expanded this theology still further with the argument that slavery provided a valuable service for both master and slave, for the weak supposedly benefited from being dominated by the strong. ... In 1452, Pope Nicholas V had issued a bull which specifically authorized the King of Portugal to make war on the infidels, to conquer their lands, and to enslave their natives. Conventional medieval thinking saw blacks as descendents of the accursed biblical figure of Ham and therefore subject to eternal slavery, and this was melded with the lore of Cain. Medieval observers could recoil at the suffering of blacks at the same time they rejoiced at the prospect that black souls were being saved from eternal damnation. [But] not everyone was fooled by this hypocrisy."


James Reston Jr.


The Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, And the Defeat of the Moors


First Anchor Books Edition


Copyright 2005 by James Reston Jr.


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