Excerpt from The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (1450)

Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eannes de Azurara compiled accounts of the early slave trade. His description of the division of captives in 1450 demonstrates the prejudices of the Europeans and the horror of the slave trade in pursuit of profit.
Gomes Eannes de Azurara
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 1 and 4.

Wherein the Author reasoneth somewhat concerning the pity inspired by the captives, and of how the division was made.

On the next day, which was the 8th of the month of August, very early in the morning, by reason of the heat, the seamen began to make ready their boats, and to take out those captives, and carry them on shore, as they were commanded. And these, placed all together in that field, were a marvellous sight; for amongst them were some white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned; others were less white like mulattoes; others again were as black as Ethiops, and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere. But what heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company? For some kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help of the Father of Nature; others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves at full length upon the ground; others made their lamentations in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country. And though we could not understand the words of their language, the sound of it right well accorded with the measure of their sadness. But to increase their sufferings still more, there now arrived those who had charge of the division of the captives, and who began to separate one from another, in order to make an equal partition of the fifths; and then was it needful to part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brother from brothers. no respect was shewn either to friends or relations, but each fell where his lot took him.

O powerful fortune, that with thy wheels doest and undoest, compassing the matters of this world as pleaseth thee, do thou at last put before the eyes of that miserable race some understanding of matters to come; that they may receive some consolation in the midst of their great sorrow. And you who are so busy in making that division of the captives, look with pity upon so much misery; and see how they cling one to the other, so that you can hardly separate them.

And who could finish that partition without very great toil? for as often as they had placed them in one part the sons, seeing their fathers in another, rose with great energy and rushed over to them; the mothers clasped their other children in their arms, and threw themselves flat on the ground with them; receiving blows with little pity for their own flesh, if only they might not be torn from them.

And so troublously they finished the partition; for besides the toil they had with the captives, the field was quite full of people, both from the town [Lagos] and from the surrounding villages and districts, who for that day gave rest to their hands (in which lay their power to get their living) for the sole purpose of beholding this novelty. And with what they saw, while some were weeping and others separating the captives, they caused such a tumult as greatly to confuse those who directed the partition.

How Dinis Diaz went to the land of the Negroes, and of the Captives that he took.

As the caravel was voyaging along that sea, those on land [Africans] saw it and marvelled much at the sight, for it seemeth they had never seen or heard speak of the like; and some of them supposed it to be a fish, while others thought it to be a phantom, and others again said it might be a bird that ran so on its journey over that sea. And after reasoning thus concerning the novelty, four of them were bold enough to inform themselves concerning this doubt; and so got into a small boat made out of one hollow tree-trunk without anything else being added thereto...And they came a good way out towards where the caravel was pursuing its course; and those in her could not restrain themselves from appearing on deck. But when the negroes saw that those in the ship were men, they made haste to flee as best they could; and though the caravel followed after them, the want of a sufficient wind prevented their capture. And as they [Portuguese] went further on, they met with other boats, whose crews, seeing ours to be men, were alarmed at the novelty of the sight; and moved by fear they sought to flee, each and all; but because our men had a better opportunity than before, they captured four of them, and these were the first to be taken by Christians in their own land, and there is no chronicle or history that relateth aught to the contrary.

And for certain this was no small honour for our Prince [Henry], whose mighty power was thus sufficient to command peoples so far from our kingdom, making booty among the neighbours of the land of Egypt; and Dinis Diaz ought to share in this honour, for he was the first who (by his [Prince Henry’s] command) captured Moors in that land. And now he pushed on till he arrived at a great cape, to which they gave the name of Cape Verde.

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/exploration/text7/azurara.pdf.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What evidence of African culture does de Azurara mention in his account?
    He describes the enslaved Africans as “lament[ing] in the manner of a dirge, after the custom of their country,” thus implying they are singing; speaking in their own language; description of familial bonds.
  2. Question
    What does de Azurara mean when he says the Africans appear to be of a “lower hemisphere”?
    In this section, he is describing the enslaved Africans. He believes their bodies to be so “ugly” as to show observers that they are of a lesser status or lower members of humanity than their white counterparts.
  3. Question
    In what ways does the author humanize the Africans?
    In several places, the author describes the enslaved people’s emotions, even though he can’t understand their language. He notes their “sadness” and “sufferings.” He also describes the attempts of the men and women to reconnect with their loved ones, including children being torn from their mothers.
  4. Question
    “Oh powerful fortune, that with they wheels doest and undoest…”
    A) What message does the author have for the enslaved peoples in this paragraph?
    He is implying that he hopes the captives know of the “matters to come,” which can be interpreted as an afterlife where they no longer have to suffer.
  5. Question
    B) What message does he have for the captors in this paragraph?
    He hopes that the captors take notice of the suffering they are inflicting on the Africans, particularly in consideration of how the families “cling one to the other, so that you can hardly separate them.”
  6. Question
    Based on this passage, how would de Azurara’s description provide support or opposition to slavery?
    Answers may vary: though the author suggests darker Africans look as though they are from a lesser group of humanity, this passage emphasizes the humanity in their suffering. In particular, he describes how the enslaved are mothers, fathers, and children, who are being torn from one another. He also makes a point of describing their cries of suffering in ways that would relate to a white audience (e.g., implying that the cries are to God, they are dirges, etc.)
Reveal Answers