European expansion, African plantation slavery, and the development of the Atlantic world began in the Atlantic Islands off the coast of northwest Africa: the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, and São Tomé. In the fourteenth century, West African watercraft was specialized for coastal, riverine, and interior travel along the Gambia, Senegal, and Niger rivers, which connected with overland routes across the Sahara. With exceptions, West Africans did not pursue seafaring in the open Atlantic nor did they settle several of the islands along the Atlantic coast. The navigational difficulties presented by the eastern Atlantic’s Canary Current prevented Mediterranean and Arabic sailors from successfully navigating the Atlantic coast of Africa as well. Grain trade connecting Europe’s large inland seas, the Mediterranean, Baltic and North seas, stimulated innovation in Iberian shipbuilding as well as accidental voyages of discovery. Ultimately, the prospect of a sea route to West Africa’s goldfields prompted a collaboration of Iberian, Italian, French, and English people, vessels, and capital in the pursuit of short-range maritime exploration along the West African coast.
The rediscovery of the Canary Islands by Malocello in 1312 signaled the start of European exploitation of the Atlantic Islands as sources of profit and expansion. The Canaries were filled with natural products for commodification: timber, honey, hides, and dyestuffs. The Canaries were inhabited, and the Portuguese and Spanish raided the islands for cattle and people whom they sold as slaves in Mediterranean markets. Iberian endeavors to build trading factories and slave-raiding forts in the Canary Islands made them the first site of European trading and raiding in the Atlantic. In 1402 Castile sponsored the first permanent colonization of the Canaries with Norman colonists. In the following century the Canary Islands produced sugar, wine, and sheep and cattle products. Because the Canary Islands were a source of profit for Europeans, much attention was devoted to their navigation, shipping south of the Straights of Gibraltar increased, and raiding and commercial activity expanded further south.
The Canaries served as a crucial base for the development of additional European raiding and trading operations along the African coast as well as for the colonization of uninhabited Atlantic Islands to the west. In the fifteenth century, Portuguese colonized the uninhabited islands of Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and exported their wild products: honey, wax, and wood. Madeira and the Canaries soon began to export large quantities of wheat, cultivated by Canarians pressed into service as well as dependent laborers from Europe, to consumers in Portugal, North Africa, and West Africa. Madeira also produced and profitably exported wine; however, the cultivation of sugar, particularly in Madeira and, later, São Tomé, had the largest economic impact for the Atlantic Islands, and, ultimately, the Atlantic world. Preceding production in the New World, Portuguese and Northern Italians developed a sugar plantation complex in the Atlantic Islands where a non-reproducing slave labor force produced massive quantities of sugar for export.
The cultivation of sugar cane had originated in Southwest Asia during the ancient period and gradually spread westward to Persia. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Arabs brought sugar cultivation to the Mediterranean where the first plantation system emerged. Mediterranean shippers imported bond laborers from southern Russia (Slavs from whom the word slave derives), the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa to produce sugar for a European market. By the fourteenth century, Cyprus produced large quantities of sugar with the labor of Syrian and Arab slaves and the plantation system, based on coerced labor, large land units, and long-range commerce moved still west, to Sicily. Sicilian sugar plantation served as a model for the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Atlantic Islands where climate and soil were favorable and nearby African sources provided coerced workers. In 1420 Portugal’s Prince Henry sent to Sicily for cane plantings and sugar technicians. The desire for cane field labor fundamentally altered the nature of Portuguese slavery from domestic servitude to plantation labor. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries almost all of the Atlantic Islands experienced sugar booms. By the 1460s, Madeira was the largest producer of sugar in the Western world.
The Atlantic Islands provided a model and a launching ground for New World sugar cultivation based on African slavery and the plantation system; their successful exploitation prompted European explorers to seek additional islands further west in the Atlantic Ocean. The prospect of finding new Atlantic islands and the aspiration of reaching India inspired Christopher Columbus’ voyage of 1492. Trained in the Madeira sugar trade as a young man, Columbus brought his experience to the New World on his second voyage of 1493 when he introduced sugar cane plantings to the Caribbean. In the following century, the immense profits of sugar plantation in the Americas prompted the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade. The Atlantic Islands not only established the pattern of European colonization and plantation for the New World but also served as crucial way stations for Atlantic slavers.
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