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Almada, André Alvares d', fl. 1594, et al. / Brief treatise on the rivers of Guinea
Part I (1984)

Introduction [with maps],   pp. 1-12 ff.


Page 3

Almada's account of western Guinea
Andre Alvares de Almada was born in the Cape Verde Islands (= CVI),
apparently c. 1550. The islands had been settled for almost a century.
Almada's family was relatively well-to-do and therefore slave-owning.
The islands are still today in general somewhat arid and offer few
economic opportunities; hence a thin population of pioneering Portuguese
settlers was soon outnumbered by African slaves and freedmen descendants,
often of mixed extraction. The Almada family, like many others, made a
living in part by trading to the mainland; and Andre's maternal grandmother
appears to have been black. Thus, Almada was a member of an Afro-
Portuguese society which, despite its claim to be merely 'Portuguese', had
already generated a Luso-African group and was well placed to act as an
intermediary between European and African cultures.
According to his own account, Almada was involved in trading to
various points of the mainland between at least the 1560s and the 1580s.
Mainly he seems to have traded in the 'Rivers of Guinea', that is, on
the section of the West African coast between the Gambia River and the
Sierra Leone River; but he also occasionally traded further North, on
the Senegal coast, where the island traders were rapidly losing out to a
combination of Luso-Africans, run-away Portuguese Jews, and non-Portuguese
European shippers. As a patriot, but one who seemingly had no misgivings
about the Philippine take-over of the Portuguese crown, Almada expressed
horror at the decline of Portuguese influence caused by non-Iberian
aggression, referring both to the situation in Senegal and to the distress
in the islands caused by various Anglo-French assaults after 1580. The
purpose of Almada's account seems to have been the common one of Iberian
pamphleteers in the period, that of offering advice to the Crown on ways
of stemming Iberian decline. Almada's account includes many references
to the hostile activities - as he saw them - of the French and English,
and to the need for the Portuguese to establish new bases on the Guinea
mainland. While his loyalty to the Philippine regime and his Portuguese
patriotism may have been very real, it must be remembered that he dedicated
his account to the Crown's governors in Portugal and perhaps hoped that
it would reach the monarch himself. There are good reasons why the CVI
trading community must have had reservations about its marginal role in
the trading system imposed by the metropolis and why it often took a
more relaxed view of foreign traders, 'enemies' and 'heretics' though
they might be. But we find nothing of this in Almada's account. Yet
his loyalist stance may have been ineffective as far as the account was
concerned. It was not published in his lifetime and it is conceivable
that one reason was the reluctance of the authorities to have details of
the Guinea coast publicised, lest foreigners be encouraged to trade
there.
Almada's account is thus discreet about the European aspect of CVI
culture and activities, not least the political element - the rivalries
between metropolis and imperial periphery, the rivalries within the
state, within the church, and between the two, the rivalries within the
local government of the CVI. But it makes up for this by being outstand-
ingly informative about the African aspect - the role of the CVI in the
coastal economy, and the shape of the mainland societies with which the
islanders were in contact. Being a trader, Almada first provides
information about the commercial aspects of the European interaction with
African trading networks, and hence about the internal economies of the
African peoples involved. Since these commercial relations were


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