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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 4

conducted by means of fairly close contacts with at least the ruling
orders, Almada further describes the political structures and rivalries
among these African peoples. Finally, since the CVI traders regularly
formed settlements on the mainland, temporary or permanent, individual
or communal, informal or formal, legal or illegal, Almada is able to
supply fairly detailed information on local African ethnography, including
material culture and social structure.
Almada's information about the peoples of the western Guinea coast
derived partly from personal experience and observation (and is therefore
to be dated to the period 1560-1590) and partly from the accumulated
experience and common knowledge of the CVI trading community (and may
therefore be sometimes of earlier date). The balance between the two is
difficult to judge. What is certain, and very important, is that Almada
supplies information which may be described as entirely original - in
the sense that there is hardly a trace in his account of material derived
from earlier written sources, that is, in the main earlier printed
sources. In this respect Almada is sharply distinguished from the vast
majority of writers on Guinea between 1440 and 1800, these having borrowed
heavily (and often unthinkingly and inaccurately) from their predecessors
- in the case of later writers, especially from Almada. Almada's
information may not be always correct, or comprehensive, or contextually
sound, or free from a Eurocentric or other bias, but it is always fresh
and undiluted by bibliographical pretension. He seems to have read no
earlier accounts. Thus, as an original source on early Guinea Almada
ranks with Cadamosto, and towers above virtually every other writer; and
the region is fortunate to have been described by two Europeans possessing
such relatively uncluttered minds.
This is not the place to attempt a detailed assessment of Almada's
achievement, his outstanding contribution to our knowledge of the past
of western Guinea. It must be sufficient to say that he is almost
certainly the most important single source for the period before 1800,
the claim being made for several reasons. First, because, unlike
Cadamosto, Almada covers almost the whole stretch of the coast between
Cape Verde and the Shoals of St. Ann. Secondly, because the sharp detail
of his ethnographic description is impressive. And thirdly, because
his account, unlike Donelha's, very greatly influenced later writers -
though not always soundly. It is this third point I now discuss.
Almada's account was not published in his lifetime. As a separate
full-length account by a named author it only appeared in print in 1733;
and not until the 1840s was it fully in print and available, to any extent,
in translation for non-Lusophone scholars. Nevertheless it exercised a
profound influence on the developing historiography of West Africa. This
came about because a manuscript copy of the text fell into the hands of
the Jesuits when in 1604 they founded a mission station on the CVI and
proposed to missionarise western Guinea. A copy or a summary was sent
to Portugal, and in 1605, Father Fernao Guerreiro, preparing an edition
of letters from Portuguese missionaries worldwide, with chapters on the
newly-founded Cape Verde mission, included a chapter summarising Almada's
ethnographic information. To put it simply, this chapter listed the
ethnolinguistic units along the coast, giving them the names which in
most cases have continued to be used up to the present day. Before
Almada wrote, the fullest ethnographic information on this section of
the Guinea coast was in the writings c.1500 of Duarte Pacheco Pereira
and Valentim Fernandes, but these remained inaccessible in manuscript


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