Today, Africa is the world’s poorest continent. In the fifteenth century, it was known for its wealth. Mansa Mūsā, the ruler of Mali, had literally put his realm on the map in 1324 when he led a great pilgrimage to Mecca, distributing so much gold along the way that its price was depressed for a decade. Until 1434, however, no European sailor had seen the coast of Africa below the Sahara, or the forest kingdoms south of Mali that contained the actual gold fields. But in that year, a Portuguese ship brought a sprig of rosemary from West Africa, proof that one could sail beyond the desert and return. Little by little, Portuguese ships moved farther down the coast. In 1485, they reached Benin, an imposing city whose craftsmen produced bronze sculptures that still inspire admiration for their artistic beauty and superb casting techniques. The Portuguese established fortified trading posts on the western coast of Africa. The profits reaped by these Portuguese “factories”—so named because merchants were known as “factors”—inspired other European powers to follow in their footsteps.

An engraving, published in 1668, of a procession of the oba (king) outside Benin on the western coast of Africa. The image suggests the extent of the city, a center of government, trade, and the arts.

Portugal also began to colonize Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, which lie in the Atlantic off the African coast. Sugar plantations worked by Muslim captives and slaves from Slavic areas of eastern Europe had flourished in the Middle Ages on Mediterranean islands like Cyprus, Malta, and Crete. Now, the Portuguese established plantations on the Atlantic islands, eventually replacing the native populations with thousands of slaves shipped from Africa—an ominous precedent for the New World. Soon, the center of sugar production would shift again, to the Western Hemisphere.

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