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5th - 15th century AD
16th - 18th century
     Outsiders around Africa
     Portugal's empire
     Dutch and British trade

19th century
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Outsiders around Africa: 16th century

The story of Africa from the 16th century is that of outsiders prying round its coasts in search of plunder or trade.

The north receives the attention of the two most powerful Mediterranean nations. The so-called Barbary coast, stretching from Algeria to modern Libya, is disputed between the Spanish and the Turks - with the Turks prevailing. Around the rest of Africa, from Morocco down to the Cape and then up the east coast, European interest is pioneered by the Portuguese.


The beginnings of Portugal's empire: 15th - 16th c.

The Portuguese, in their bold exploration along the coasts of Africa, have an underlying purpose - to sail round the continent to the spice markets of the east. But in the process they develop a trading interest and a lasting presence in Africa itself.

On the west coast their interest is in the slave trade, resulting in Portuguese settlements in both Guinea and Angola. On the east coast they are drawn to Mozambique and the Zambezi river by news of a local ruler, the Munhumutapa, who has fabulous wealth in gold.


In their efforts to reach the Munhumutapa, the Portuguese establish in 1531 two settlements far up the Zambezi - one of them, at Tete, some 260 miles from the sea. The Munhumutapa and his gold mines remain beyond the grasp of the intruders. But in this region of east Africa - as in Guinea and Angola in the west - Portuguese involvement becomes sufficiently strong to survive into the 20th century.

Throughout the 16th century the Portuguese have no European rivals on the long sea route round Africa. The situation changes in the early 17th century, when both the Dutch and the British create East India companies. the Dutch, in particular, damage Portugal's eastern trade.


Dutch and British trade: 17th-18th century

The commercial interest of the East India companies is focused on the spice islands of the East Indies. Africa is merely a large object to be sailed around. But sailing ships need secure ports where they can take on water and fresh meat and vegetables.

The British ships make the island of St Helena, far out in the Atlantic, their main port of call. The East India Company forms a settlement there in 1659; it has remained a British possession, but a place of little consequence, ever since. By contrast the Dutch choice of a similar settlement has had momentous repercussions in history. They select in 1652 a harbour at the southern tip of Africa, nestling beneath Table Mountain at the Cape.


The expansion of the Dutch colony at the Cape is one of the two most significant developments in Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries. The other is a vast increase in the long-established African slave trade. European ships - increasingly from Britain - pick up their human cargo at collection points along the west coast of Africa and transport the slaves, in appalling conditions, across the Atlantic to plantations in the West Indies and continental America.

In both these undertakings the Europeans make contact only with the coastal regions of Africa. The 19th century brings an increasing interest in the interior of this last unexplored continent.


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