I’ve read so many resources about how Europe’s desire to trade with the east, and the resistance by the Ottoman Empire to gain access was what triggered their voyage around the African continent, and inevitably sparked the slave trade later in the century.

All that said, this African trade is said to have started as a pure trade agreement between the European nations and the African indigenous peoples. And although it’s clear what resources the Europeans desired as export from Africa, if the trades were indeed started as “good faith” trade agreements, what was it that was the primary export of the Europeans? Particularly Spain and Portugal since they are said to have initiated this event in history? And if one knows further, why was this particular resource valuable to the African people?

I cannot find a single resource which goes into detail about this and would appreciate answers with sources which throw some lighton this

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    This is a really good question. Not just trading with Africa, but Asia as well. What the Europeans traded in exchange is often overlooked.
    – Schwern
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:27
  • That was exactly my thought. We always hear of the fine silks in Asia, and the ivory and gold in Africa… but I never hear about what the Europeans were trading in exchange of all of these “fine” resources. And I’m having a hard time finding it tbh. Nov 3, 2023 at 0:29
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    Not my area of expertise, but I think the premise of the question is somewhat off with regard to Portugal, which was a largely agrarian and poor country at that time. It first sought to expand its agricultural base: uninhabited Azores and Madeira plus the easily conquered inhabited Canary Islands, then expanding into textiles after acquisition of the previously uninhabited Cape Verde islands. Thus close to no trade between Portugal and Africa in the early 15th century. Cloth from Cape Verde would later be traded in Africa, I am not sure of the time frame.
    – njuffa
    Nov 3, 2023 at 0:36
  • 2
    I'm not sure if the timelines in the original question line up. The Ottoman Empire was in no position to prevent European trade until the early 16th century.
    – SPavel
    Nov 3, 2023 at 1:31
  • 3
    Consider changing "Spain" by "Castille". First, because Spain exists only after 1814, what exists before is "Spanish Morchany", which was comprised by many territories. Second, you need to consider that Atlantic trade was particulary reserved to "Castille" and it was specially banned from any Catalan-Aragonese ports until 1778, quite late regarding this question. Catalan-Aragonese ports had commercial ties with Africa during that period (like Alexandria, Tunis, Djerba...), but Mediterranean ports only, which if I understand well, it's not the focus of this question.
    – James
    Nov 3, 2023 at 15:28

2 Answers 2


Portuguese trade with West Africa wasn't based on direct trade, as in our understanding of mercantilist economic history, where produce from Portugal were exported to Africa.

To increase its national wealth, Portuguese expanded by colonising northern and western Africa, via a multistage endeavour of conquest, mixed with trading with the hinterland of Africa. By conquering Cape Verde islands, for instance, cotton produced there were used as currency (as well as exported as commodity) to buy imports, including slaves from Western Africa. Thus, began the Atlantic Slave trade.

1. Gold via Conquest (Ceuta)

As the first stage, it began with Portuguese expansion into North Africa in 1415 by invading Ceuta. Chosen for its good anchorage, its location on north coast of Africa (Morocco) allowed Portugal to establish its first colony in Africa against the Marinid sultanate. Today, it's under Spanish authority. This was the first stage and it gave them access to gold from North Africa. There wasn't any export from Portugal, because they took gold by military means, namely via tribute or booty from North Africans.

From A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire - From Beginnings to 1807, vol 2 (2009), p. 14:

Portuguese service nobles hoped expansion into Morocco would bring them gains in the forms of both honour in battle and windfall riches. Those who went on to serve in the garrisons aimed for the same benefits by participating in the perennial ‘little war’ – raids and ambushes in which stout deeds were done and prisoners, cattle or other prizes taken. The ‘little war’ provided opportunities for young noblemen to build up their service records so they could then claim doações and mercês from the crown. In the vicinity of the Portuguese fortresses in northern Morocco there were various tributary villages, a number of which were granted out as doações by Joao I or his successors. It also became the accepted practice for one-fifth of the tributes payable by pacified Muslims – the so-called mouros de paz – to be given to the relevant fortress captains. More doacoes were later distributed by Afonso V following renewed expansion in the 1470s.

More details, including a discussion on why Ceuta was chosen, is available in Chapter 17: Engaging with Atlantic Africa.

1.a. Portugal's Need for Gold

The purpose of introducing Ceuta and gold importation was to explain Portugal's lack of economic strength. I did not mean that gold was used to trade with Africa. As raised in comment, Portuguese trade with Africa did not involve exporting gold. Ceuta was a base for the hinterland of Africa to import or take gold. It was never sold back to Africa. In fact, the Portuguese crown's monetary need for gold was severe. Ibid, pp.13-4:

The capture of Ceuta gave Portugal access to gold imported via the Saharan caravans from West Africa, enabling the royal mint to strike gold coins for the first time for over fifty years. This was an important step forward because since the mid-thirteenth century Portugal had experienced great difficulty in acquiring gold. In its earlier years, the kingdom had obtained what supplies it could of the yellow metal mainly from Gharb al-Andalus through trade, tribute or booty; but this source disappeared when the Portuguese Reconquest was completed. Meanwhile the Roman mines at Tres Minas had long since been abandoned, and in early Avis times only negligible quantities of alluvial gold were being extracted from the sands of the lower Tagus. But Ceuta had long imported gold overland from sub-Saharan Africa and was famous for its gold ceiti or Ceuta doubloon. After conquering Ceuta in 1415 the Portuguese tapped into the same West African sources of supply, and eventually in 1436 King Duarte was able to introduce a new Portuguese gold coin called the escudo, as part of a major monetary reform program. Although the escudo was a relatively low-quality coin of only eighteen carats, it both stimulated commerce and boosted Duarte’s prestige. As Magalhães Godinho has shown, its production can be explained only by the Portuguese occupation of Ceuta.

2. Wine Production in Canary Islands

After conquering the Canary Islands, Portugal's need for imported slaves were for sugarcane plantations in the Canaries initially, but they gradually developed a wine production which brought them great wealth.

From Portugal and Africa (1999), pp 3-4:

The second stage of Portuguese expansion therefore attempted to establish a wine industry overseas. The necessary skills were available in the wine industry of Portugal. But Portuguese domestic wine, like Portuguese grain, suffered from severe problems of cartage to the coast. Even in the eighteenth century, when port wine became a lucrative export, the shooting of the rapids on the Douro river made transport almost suicidal. The prospect of using colonial islands for the growing of vines was therefore attractive. The territory chosen was the Canary Islands, off the Moroccan coast of Africa.

... Unlike the Azores, the Canaries were already inhabited and conquest was necessary before plantations could be established. Once conquered, however, the surviving islanders could be compelled to slave servitude. Migrants from Portugal's impoverished backlands sailed in to create vineyards using both local and mainland slaves. Even when the colony was transferred in 1479 from Portuguese suzerainty to control by the Crown of Castile, Portuguese immigrants continued to provide many colonists for Tenerife.

A very good book on Portuguese and Castilian administration of the Canaries, which I do not have anymore and therefore cannot reference, is The Canary Islands after the Conquest: The Making of a Colonial Society in the Early Sixteenth Century (1982).

3. Cotton from Cape Verde Islands

From Portugal and Africa, p.4:

The third stage of Portuguese experimentation in colonial practices was focused on another set of Atlantic islands, the Cape Verde islands. The Cape Verdes became famous over time for their textile industry. Portugal was almost as severely short of textiles as it was short of wheat. One reason for the development of wine exports was to pay for woollen materials from England. Cotton was also bought in significant quantities from Muslim suppliers in north Africa and, after the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, from the great textile industries of India. But the Cape Verde islands offered an opportunity to create a colonial textile industry.

Cotton and indigo plantations were established on the islands for spinning and dyeing. Labour was purchased on the West Africa mainland. Craftsmen were also brought over from the mainland to introduce the necessary weaving skills. The styles of textile adopted were those which would sell best in Africa. The industry soon became self-perpetuating. Cloth woven in the islands was sold on the mainland in return for more slaves who would further expand the plantations. The only European input was sea transport. The Portuguese shipped cloth up and down the coast in the cabotage trade.

An interesting article from 1982 on agriculture in Cape Verde islands: The Evolution OF Cape Verde's Agriculture (African Economic History).

4. Cotton as Currency

The value of cotton was not its use merely as a commodity, but also as currency.

From Money in Africa (2009), p.9:

In the geography of pre-colonial currencies in West Africa, Senegambia was the heart of a cloth-currency territory. The use of cloth strips as money was well established by the 16th century and the use of cloth as money was still expanding in the 18th century. It is also clear that many other commodity currencies were in use alongside cloth: cattle were a standard of value in the north of this zone; dates were sometimes used in the Sahara; measures of millet were common in the Sahel, and bars of salt were used at certain times in the interior. As discussed in this chapter, much of the cloth currency was made locally in Senegambia, and increasingly also in the Cape Verde Islands. Locally-made cloth used as money was called pagne in Senegalese French, country cloth in Gambian English, soro in Pulaar, tama in Soninke, and panos in Portuguese. This cloth money was the dominant currency along the upper Guinea coast when the Portuguese first arrived, and it had spread eastward along the sahel and throughout much of the region of Mandinka and Fulbe culture. When soro was first used in the Fuuta Jallon highlands is not known, but the Fulbe made it the dominant currency there in the 18th century. Cloth currency had spread to the coastal zone well before the 18th century and was even produced in the Cape Verde Islands by the 16th century.

... Information on cotton cultivation in the Cape Verde Islands demonstrates that the use of cloth strips as money on the upper Guinea coast was well established by the late 15th century. Indeed the growth of a local industry to produce cloth strips in the Cape Verde Islands was closely associated with Portuguese trade on the upper Guinea coast and the Rivers of Guiné, it also competed with locally produced cloth for use as a currency.

In all of these transactions, Portugal had an extensive tariff (tax) policy to generate income for the crown/government - Portugal in a European Context - Taxation and Fiscal Policies in Late Medieval and Early Modern Western Europe, 1100-1700 (2023).

  • It is usually said and heard that manufactured goods, such as jewels, iron-based products were used for trade in the triangular slave trade. You might want to note that cotton and gold came from sub-saharian Africa so the Portuguese, by raiding its trade in North Africa, could not sell it again to the initial producers because the initial producers did not need gold Nov 4, 2023 at 14:14
  • @totalMongot - Agreed. Have added a paragraph to explain the importance of gold to Portugal.
    – Pūnicus
    Nov 4, 2023 at 17:06
  • 1
    Nice thank you :) Nov 4, 2023 at 21:22
  • Godinho, V. M. (2005). Portugal and the Making of the Atlantic World: Sugar Fleets and Gold Fleets, the Seventeenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 28(4), 313–337. jstor.org/stable/40241758
    – Pūnicus
    Nov 6, 2023 at 17:01

This answer may need expanding on, but Vogt (1975) is a good article for Portuguese trade presence in Africa in 1480-1540 and it says:

Portuguese ships hauled cargoes of copper, textiles, cowries, glass beads, slaves, wine, and foodstuffs to barter in their coastal factories, but the two most essential to the successful conduct of trade were copper and cloth. In absolute bulk the two constituted more than three-fourths of all the trade merchandise shipped to Morocco and West Africa.

  • 1
    Oh wow! Could you expand on why copper and cloth would be of value to the Africans? Cloth in particular seems like a strange thing to barter given the Africans, from what I hear, had superior textiles that themselves were a highly sought after commodity to the Europeans. Am I wrong on this? Nov 3, 2023 at 1:03
  • @njuffa africanhistoryextra.com/p/… Nov 3, 2023 at 1:16
  • @njuffa I have a couple of books which mention it also, but I have to find which ones on my shelves. Nov 3, 2023 at 1:17
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    Completing this answer, according to "Global goods and the Spanish empire, 1492-1824", Spain (well, Castille to use the proper term) exported to Africa cereals, olive oil and leather. I was surprised we didn't export wool, but according to the book, that happened in the 16th century. Nov 3, 2023 at 2:44

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