The will of Álvaro de Caminha, São Tomé’s first Portuguese governor, shows the role played by São Tomé in the slave market. From about 1485 to 1521, all West African slaves exported by the Portuguese were supposed to pass through São Tomé for branding before being put on market.[1] Álvaro’s cousin, Pero Álvares de Caminha, wrote about dealing slaves in the thousands.[2] At this time, Portuguese colonists were exempt from paying taxes on goods, including slaves, sent to Portugal.[3] In 1500, they were licensed to exploit resources from the Niger River Delta through upper Angola without procuring an order from Lisbon.[4] In this context, it is striking how much Álvaro frets over domestic slaves in his will while surrounded by so many slaves destined for agricultural, mining, or porter work.

Álvaro’s will also illustrates Portuguese fears that Sub-Saharan Africans would convert to Islam. He gives explicit instructions not to let D. Pedro de Sousa marry the two female slaves he is sent, lest he apostatizes. We know that D. Pedro already had a “woman”[5] who had gone to Portugal with him and had socialized with the Queen, Dona Maria.[6]

[1] De Barros, Decada primeira, fol. 41.

[2] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 174-5.

[3] Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 50.

[4] The first half of this document gives open license for trade and exploitation of Central West Africa. The second half of the document states that this license must still be sought when going on exploitation missions to the Gold Coast. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 183.

[5] Molher.  Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 154. The word esposa (wife) is not used in Brásio’s volume. Even the Queen of Portugal is called the “Raynha Dona Lianor molher delRey Dom Joham.” Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 134.

[6] Brásio, Monumenta Missionaria, 222. This is a difficult translation due to the apparent misuse of gender and very archaic syntax, “Pedro seu primo, homem prudente, & com quem elrei dom Emanuel fallava muitas vezes, & ho mesmo era sua molher que cõsigo trouxe, áqual há rainha donna Maria fez sempre muita honra, & gasalhado”[sic.]. I modernize the second half of the sentence as “era ele mesmo quem trouxe sua mulher consigo, à qual a reina fez muita honra, e agasalhava-a ”. The agudo accent (á) in “áqual”is only used for pronunciation, whereas a crase accent (à) is the combination of a feminine definite article (a) and the preposition (a). If D. Maria was honoring and dressing up, or dressing up for, D. Pedro, it would say “ao qual”. I see it as a writing error, deciphering error, or lack of access to a keyboard that types crase diacritic symbols.

Excerpts from the Testament of Álvaro de Caminha

Item. João Álvares Viguairo came with me, and since for a long time he served the church alone, without other help, hence with the tithes that I had been given me for the maintenance of the young men of […] years, and hence what I paid in cash at my expense to the other clergyman for tithes for the said young men, I order that eight slaves per year be paid to him every five years so that they complete their service…[1]

Item. I order that that they give to Pedro de Manicongo a female slave that the King of Benin gave to Dom Francisco, his lord.[2] And so, since he [D. Pedro] served in all the ships as a mariner,[3] give him another female slave. And don’t marry one of them to him, and they are to live on the island, so that Manicongo does not turn Moor…[4]

Item. Inasmuch as matters of justice, they will always be done as they always have been done, with the counsel of Diogo Diaz[5] and those who will understand things best, or whoever is serving as judge, and from here onward, doctors[6] will serve, becoming the new judges, and helping the said Diogo Diaz and the said Pero Álvares and justice and its rule and [the rule] of the land, serving the said position very well as is always done. For the duration of his service, it would serve him and the King well to order whoever would do it to have eight slaves sent, paid for from the salary of the judge. And if by chance they disagree with the said Pero Álvares or because of some negligence or because they did something contrary to justice, or because of some other possibility, which I don’t believe – it wouldn’t be more than four slaves. And I trust that it will be well done to have those said eight slaves, and I order said Pero Álvares that when he goes to speak to the King, since he served well and was in charge for so much time, I ask that Your Highness sends him to go.[7]

And once Diogo Diaz has payment of the said slaves, everything is delivered entirely that they have that belonged to Catarina Vãaz, who was his woman, since he couldn’t marry her.[8] Hence, as to the part that pertains to the said Catarina Vãaz, that everything will be in her power. And that everything will be done in a way that nothing will be overlooked. And concerning that, I would like a document be made among my people and everything be sent to the Casa da Mina, to be given to her heirs…

[1] This is a charitable payment toward the manumission of small groups of slaves.

[2] D. Francisco might be one of six high officials baptized shortly after King João of the Congo in 1491. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 121. On a packing invoice from 1493, a D. Francisco  receives “Blacks” and luxury clothes. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 157. He appears again as filho delRey de Manicongo (the son of the King of Manicongo) on an order which mentions D. Amrrique, D. Pedro’s companion on his trip to Rome Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 287. It therefore seems that D. Francisco was D. Pedro’s lord, not the lord of the King of Benin.

[3] It was forbidden by the Pope to teach infidels to navigate. See Nicholas V. “The Bull Romanus Pontifex. 8 January, 1455,” European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, ed. Frances Gardiner Davenport (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1917), 16. D. Pedro was not an infidel but if he converted to Islam, then he would be an infidel who had been taught navigation, so it would be rather irresponsible to give him a slave woman from Benin.

[4] Tornar mouro (turn Moor, apostasize from Christianity to Islam).  Álvaro seems to fear that when D. Pedro returned to the mainland, which we know he did, he would  take along these women who had been  exposed to Islam in Benin, causing the King of Manicongo to convert to Islam as the King of Benin did. The King of Benin had been buying slaves from the Portuguese but this trade was embargoed when he apostasized. The embargo was an attempt to save the souls of enslaved Christian converts who might be forced to convert to Islam in Benin. During this period, the Mandinka people were brokering Benin’s slave trade with Muslims, probably in Mali. De Barros, Decada primeira , fol. 41.

[5] Not Bartolomeu Dias’ brother, as he was in East Africa during this period.

[6] Educated men with a doctorate, not medical professionals.

[7] To go from São Tomé to Portugal, either to retire or to have an audience with the King.

[8] Caterina may have been Portuguese. There was a Gonçalo Vaz de Castelo Branco who spent time in Africa and was entitled “Dom” by King João. De Pina, Crónica de D. João II. He was the uncle of Lopo Vaz, assassinated by Rui Gil, and the brother of Nuno Vaz, who governed São Jorge da Mina. “Gonçalo Vaz,” PhiloBiblon. If Catarina Vaz came from such lineage, it is possible that Diaz could not financially arrange to marry her. On the other hand, Caterina might have been African and a relative of Diogo Vaz. One of the packing slips from Rui Gil mentions a Diogo Vaãz. Brásio, Monumenta missionaria, 155. He may be the same D. Diego who was baptized with D. Francisco in Congo, or the same Diogo Vaz listed as a factor in São Jorge da Mina. Konadu, Africa’s Gold Coast, 374.

Discussion Questions

Review all of the texts concerning D. Pedro, paying special attention to the letter to Manuel I and the relationship between Manicongo, São Tomé and the Casa da Mina, and answer the following questions.

  1. It is ordered that Catarina Vãaz be delivered everything that belongs to her after the death of Álvaro de Caminha and once a payment of slaves is made to Diogo Diaz. Why might Catarina Vãaz’ possessions be held as collateral? Why might a payment of slaves made to her man reconcile that?
  2. What are two motives the King of Benin may have had for gifting enslaved women to BaKongo noblemen?
  3. List one potential pro and one con for the governor of São Tomé giving enslaved women from Benin to D. Pedro.

Related Primary Sources