A History of Denial

Ben Heller Collection, New York/Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Images
A sculpture from the Fon people of Benin, date unknown

In the year 1415, an unnamed envoy from the East African city-state of Malindi sailed from the Red Sea to China aboard a ship commanded by the great Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He. Upon his arrival in Beijing, the envoy was escorted to the inner gates of the imperial palace, where he presented a live giraffe to the Ming emperor as a form of tribute. The giraffe so dazzled the imperial audience that its presentation was depicted in paintings, some of which entered the imperial collections and survive to this day. In fact, Chinese curiosity about Africa was piqued to such a degree that during the last two of Zheng’s seven famous voyages, culminating in 1433, his enormous and heavily armed fleet plied the East African coast, establishing relations between the Ming and local rulers in Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Malindi, Mogadishu, and Mombasa. In one of history’s great coincidences, Zheng’s voyages and the abrupt and fateful inward turn by China that followed them coincided almost exactly with Europe’s “discovery” of western Africa.

Upon his return from the capture of a trading island off the coast of North Africa in 1415, the poor Portuguese prince who came to be known as Henry the Navigator gathered a team of cartographers to begin charting the West African coast. Cut off by Spain from the Mediterranean’s rich trading opportunities, tiny Portugal, with Henry’s encouragement, wagered on southward exploration of the Atlantic. A primary objective seemed to be the discovery of the African source of the trans-Saharan gold supply, but Portugal soon also sought to establish a sea route to the silk and spices of Asia that would allow it to bypass the stranglehold of the formidable Ottoman Empire on the land routes.

The Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão first made contact with the Kingdom of Kongo in west central Africa in 1483. Over the next few years, as diplomatic relations were established, Kongo nobles were brought back to Portugal for conversion to Christianity, then returned to their country. The Portuguese quickly came to depend on the kingdom for a large portion of their slave trade, and the Kongo elite sent envoys to the Vatican and numerous students to European capitals. After an initial period of remarkably equal exchanges, however, conflict arose over Portuguese efforts to undercut rules in Kongo aimed at limiting what was fast becoming a bottomless demand for slaves. In 1526, amid a series of written entreaties to Lisbon to respect these rules, Afonso, the ruler of Kongo, composed a striking complaint to his Portuguese counterpart:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely…


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