In the Thirteenth century, which, from an old idea of the
Catholic Church, was greatest of centuries -
the century of Dante Alighieri and St. Thomas Aquinas,
of the Gothic cathedrals, of the transfer of the principle of
representative government from religious orders to
political orders in England, Spain and Sicily,
of the founding of great universities, and a
unified Catholic Church from Ireland to Poland
(but with crazy Crusades to Palestine and
frightful massacres of heretics in Southern France) -
Portuguese ships were already fishing the Newfoundland Banks
for the prolific cod. They called Newfoundland the
Terra do bacalao (Codfishland).
In 1270 they were probing the West Coast of
Africa for fishing grounds and plunder. They would sometimes
seize Moors driven from Spain, enslave them, and
deal with their families to exchange them for Black Africans.
In 1291, two Genoese commissioned to sail
West in a search for a sea route to India.
They were never heard from again. By 1340,
the Canaries were invaded by Portuguese Captain Malocello,
but assigned by the Pope to Seville, which was ultimately to be united
with the rest of Spain. In the early 1400's
the humanist Gianozzo Manetti was remarking at the high
intellectual powers that were involved in the Portuguese
explorations of the central Atlantic Ocean.
When Prince Henry "the Navigator" (1394-1460)
became King, the Portuguese ranged
even farther in all directions.
He worked with Italian merchant-traders, who had settled in
Portugal and were already providing expertise and connections.
His interests were also missionary; he even forbade the slave trade
in the latter part of his regime, four centuries ahead of his time.
(There was always Catholic opinion that frowned upon slavery.
As the splendid power of the Church itself was a
historical contradiction of its primitive poverty,
so was Christian slavery, for the roots of popular support
for early Christianity lay with serfs and slaves.)
The Madeiras were taken up beginning in 1418.
The Azores were occupied over a period of four years,
1427 to 1431, by
Diogo de Tieve (Seville) and Pedro Vasquez;
in one storm they were blown North from the mid-Atlantic and
may have skirted Newfoundland.
(The population of the Azores grew afterwards, but
did not much emigrate to America for over
400 years, then supplied a
quarter of a million people to the USA.)
Alvise da Cadamosto, a Venetian captain of Henry,
explored the Senegal and Gambia Rivers far down the Coast.
He landed upon the Cape Verde Islands in1455-7.
(These, too, would much later send their contingents
to New England.)
Sometime in the years 1472-6, a
joint Danish-Portuguese expedition is
believed by many to have sailed Westward.
Joao Vaz Córte-Real was the Portuguese partner
working with Dederik Pining, Hans Pothurst, and the
Polish Pilot Johannes Scolvus.
Probably they explored the coast of Labrador, and
Newfoundland, but failed to locate a Northwest Passage to China.
In 1488, Bartolomeo Dias
rounded the Cape of Good Hope (his name for it).
Open seas to the East beckoned the navigators;
surely the Indies lay beyond, with their spices.
Vasco da Gama, sailing with four ships in 1497
reached Calicut (Malibar), India, on May 22, 1498.
The price of spices in Western Europe dropped:
by 1503 you paid in Lisbon only one-fifth as much for
pepper as in Venice. In 1509, the narrow
Southern end of the Red Sea, at the Straits of Tears,
was blocked by a Portuguese fort and boats.
Thus Venice could thank other Christians
for helping the Turks to deny it access to the Orient.
The Portuguese were firmly grounded in India, Indonesia and
China. Profits from trade were immense. Profits from the
slave trade were large, too, but, for this,
the source was Africa, the market, America.
The Portuguese sent known expeditions to the
New World in 1499 (Jóao Fernandes),
1500 (Gaspar Córte-Real),
1501 (Amerigo Vespucci) and 1502 (Miguel Córte-Real):
The procession of boats headed West begins to read like
the old trans-Atlantic ship schedules.
Credit for the "discovery" of Brazil is accorded
Pedro Alvares Cabral. He was a substitute for
Vasco da Gama, who was too exhausted to go again forth,
once returned from his epoch-making trip to India.
Cabral went to sea with thirteen ships, and sailed first to the
Canaries, then Cape Verde Islands, whereupon he fell into
the Doldrums. Drawn across the South Atlantic, he
finally sighted land, and ordered boats ashore at Porto Seguro
on April 22, 1500.
After some days he hoisted sail.
On May 1, 1500, Pero Vaz de Caminha,
in an address to the King, described landfall in Brazil
for the first time.
By 1520, sugar in large quantities was being shipped
out of the Port of Pernambuco. The sugar-producing
potential of Brazil was realized quickly, but exploitation
took a generation. Portugal already had, in Madeira especially,
a major source of sugar for Europe, the others being
Sicily, Spain, and the Near East. Puerto Rico joined
in the production of sugar in the 1500's, and in
the next century sugar was introduced to the New Orleans area.
In 1689 came the first sugar cane refinery,
this in New York. (Not until 1789
was sucrose extracted from beets, this in Germany)
Without knowing the extent or characteristics of Brazil, the
Portuguese had a problem in organizing its economy. It had developed
two methods of exploiting newly possessed land.
One was the Italian pattern, the other the Plantation pattern.
The first had come out of the common Mediterranean
practice of the Middle Ages: given a richly organized land
whose people could not be readily subjected,
a post was set up at an appropriate point, where trading,
processing, and shipping were possible. A troop was
stationed to defend the installation, and ships at sea used to protect
approaches to the area. Such was employed by the Portuguese
in India, which was more likely to envelop the Portuguese
than the obverse.
A plantation system would work best where large areas were
to be taken over, its people absent or dispossessed, and there
tracts of land cut out and turned over to favored concessionaires,
who would bring in gangs of compatriot workers or slaves.
Some of the plantations of ancient Rome were acquired and worked in
this way. So were plantations granted to seignorial lords
by the king, as and when the Portuguese were pushing the Moors
out of the country. On the islands, particularly Madeira,
plantations could be founded.
The system was tried in West Africa, but the African kingdoms
could not be conquered and depopulated so readily, so the
African Coast was organized by the Portuguese according
to the Italian model. Forts were positioned and built at
strategic locations for trading and guarding.
Other nations followed suit.
It was these forts that, in addition to their other functions,
carried on a trade in slaves.
Indian-Brazilians could be dispossessed and pushed aside and
killed off. Great stretches of vacant land could be
allotted, and workers, at first some of the Indians,
later Black slaves, could be organized into continuous work teams.
Practically the first to understand and develop the resource were
a few Jews of Portugal, under intense pressure
to leave that country, as they had already left Spain.
A party of Jews was licensed to sail to Brazil,
and within several years had cleared and set up plantations and
created an export market in sugar of large proportions. The
striking contrast between this instant wealth and flourishing in
Brazil and the slow, pinched development of the Puritans of
Massachusetts a century later needs be marked.
Soon slaves were brought in from Africa and sold to the settlers. A
plantation system began, but, unlike the slave culture that
would come later to the U.S. South, here the same people were
owning and trading; up North the plantation class and trading class
were distinct. For some years the Portuguese attempted
both models of exploiting foreign lands, but
finally settled upon the plantation system.
The Portuguese authorities took an early opportunity again
to expel its Jews, and they scattered - some to Peru,
some to the West Indies (whence in the next century
a number journeyed to New York and other towns
of the continent, but especially to Rhode Island, which had
acquired fame for its large religious and racial tolerance),
and others moved to Holland. With the stupidity usually
characterizing political leadership, the Portuguese government
used Brazil instead as a place to send convicts and unwanted
persons. And even then wondered whether it was not letting
too many people out of the homeland, a concern that was voiced
as well in Spain and much later in England.
Development of this rich and immense country was slow,
despite its winning independence in 1822, and
was almost entirely due to the labor of slaves.
In the second half of the 1600's, slaves broke free
and set up a federation of new African villages, the
Kingdom of Palmares. Its expansion was halted
and it was finally destroyed by a Portuguese and
Indian army. Slavery was finally abolished
late in the nineteenth century, at which time large numbers of
immigrants began to arrive from Spain and Italy.
The population in 1600, Indians excepted (because uncountable),
was about 100,000, of whom 30,000 were genetically and
culturally European and 70,000 were Black and in many cases
combinations of Red, White and Black. A century later the
population of non-Indians had risen to a mere 300,000, in the same
proportions. In later times, the population rose hugely.
Portuguese and Dutch, two small peoples
devoted to the sea and trade, bear comparison.
By 1530, Portugal, with its one-and-a-half million inhabitants,
had accomplished a great deal.
The Dutch came later by a century, were really a congeries of small
states, but they too moved overseas spectacularly.
With determination, newly developed skills and impetuosity, the
Dutch, practically afloat on their marshes at home and
beleaguered by larger enemies - English when not Spanish -
tackled the immense job of establishing a worldwide network of
forts, trading posts, and ships, with the naval forces to secure these.
Whereas the fate of the Portuguese was tied into that of
Spain, Dutch destiny was bound up first with Spain and
then with England.
In explaining the course of Dutch imperialism, a
connection ought be made between expulsion of Jews from Brazil,
and throughout the Spanish-Portuguese world, and their
settlement profusely in the Netherlands. (There were
always networks of Jews communicating from the many points
of their Diaspora.) In several places the Dutch succeeded,
usually by violence, in replacing the Portuguese. The Dutch went
to Brazil, even, but were eventually forced out there.
Settled originally by Batavians and other Teutons, the low countries
descended through Charlemagne as fiefs of various petty dukes,
and then were accumulated by the Dukes of Burgundy through a
century of noble intermarriages until they ended up in one marriage
too many, this with the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, thence
to the Spanish throne in direct line. In 1556 Philip II of Spain
inherited them as the Seventeen Provinces, the Northern part
already Calvinist Protestant, the Southern portion Catholic. From
1568 for nearly a century, until 1648, revolts of nobility and
populace erupted, were stifled, and once more broke out, until, in
the end, there stood an independent Republic of the
United Provinces in the North, based upon a
Union of Utrecht of 1579.
A Protestant, commercial, and seafaring nation, it warred
intermittently with Spain, England, France, Denmark and Portugal.
The House of Orange changed from a republican institution, the
Stadtholdership, a kind of fascist Duce, to a hereditary line,
subsisting up to this day, always limited in power by councils or
parliaments. Even while struggling against Spain in the 1500's and
1600's the Dutch managed their own Renaissance of the arts,
again a century behind Portugal.
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 as
the major arm of Dutch imperialism in the East. Its forces took
Ceylon and Malacca from the Portuguese, then the Cape of Good Hope, to
which many Dutch and French Huguenots repaired, and Sumatra.
With its multi-nationalism, agrarian-mining-industrial development,
civil wars and racist disturbances, over a period of 400 years, until
the formal acquisition of a democratic government by plebiscite in
1994, South Africa would afford some meaningful
analogies with the United States.
In 1619, it had been a Dutch ship that appeared off Jamestown,
Virginia, as if smelling a new market from afar, there to sell twenty
African slaves, the first such cargo to be delivered to the English
colonies of the mainland. (Recall that Indians had been enslaved all
over America by the Europeans, and that the Spanish had brought
African slaves into Florida long before now.)
In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was founded and given
jurisdiction over American and African affairs. Its agents became
active in Pernambuco and Brazil; they settled several islands of the
West Indies. They operated plantations and were active traders on
their own account and for others.
The big bargain was Nieuw Amsterdam. The United East India
Company had sent Henry Hudson, an Englishman, to search for a
Northwest Passage to the Orient, and it was he who
in 1609 toured the East Coast and came upon the
Hudson River. A New Netherlands Company was formed then;
so with three companies and Dutch officialdom involved,
a round of quarrels began over territorial jurisdictions.
Meanwhile a company of Swedes, in a brief fit of aggrandizement
under King Gustav Adolphus, settled in Delaware,
only to be turned out by the Dutch later on.
(After standing off for 250 years,
hundreds of thousands of Swedes would return to settle in the
upper Midwest.) The Dutch spread also into New Jersey, across
the Hudson River. There were hundreds of coastal miles in the
total setting invaded by the Dutch.
A village was founded on Manhattan Island and soon acquired a
cosmopolitan touch with the arrival of twenty
Portuguese Jews who had been expelled from Brazil.
The Dutch by then were Calvinist;
some Lutherans showed up and were tolerated, but
the Governor, Pieter Stuyvesant, would have
liked to send the Jews on their way,
on grounds that they were bound to be blasphemous,
usurious and deceitful in trading. His Dutch superiors at the
home office were in partnership with Jews, and
anyhow were not as much interested in setting up
a new Holy Land as they were in the "bottom line."
The Jews stayed, rather longer than did Pieter.
In 1664 an English expedition captured Nieuw Amsterdam and
renamed it New York, claiming it on tenuous grounds for their
own. Although the Dutch returned to take it a few years later, it
was promptly given back to England when peace came in 1674.
The local government changed from one Governor to another,
no one of them popular with either the
Dutch or English residents.
Dutch settlement, quite apart from later immigration
singly and in groups, to locales such as Michigan, and
notwithstanding its brief tenure on the Atlantic seaboard,
marked indelibly the elite to come of
New York and New Jersey, and lent to these areas a style,
various customs, a technology, even folklore to merge into the
American pot-pourri. Grave social problems were presented, too,
however, in connection with the huge land holdings granted by the
company to a few families, the patroons so-called, up the Hudson
River Valley. The Van Rensselear family acquired a million acres.
Immigrants were sought, advertisements sent out - deceptive,
speaking not of the severe climate or perils of crossing but about fat
turkey cocks, "six weeks sayle from Holland," and "the best clymate
in the whole world," like Barbados, it was said.
The patroons not only exacted rents, but set up
services of supply - milling, sawing, and so on, that their
tenants had to patronize. The patroon system was attacked by
populists and democrats for being feudal, which it was,
treating the large lower class roughly and poorly.
It was subjected, in consequence, to riots and
rebellions by the poor, the landless, and the oppressed tenantry.
But it persisted in some regards indefinitely,
serving as the basis of many American
fortunes of this day.
For the monumental impact of the first centuries upon America,
however, one turns to the Spaniards.