Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Portugal made contact with the kingdom of Benin in West Africa, a civilization just as developed, well organized, and prepared for trade as its own. The two civilizations were able to ally as equals, providing Portugal with an important base and trading partner and providing Benin with increased wealth, resources, and military power.

Summary of Event

The Portuguese sailors and merchants who explored the west coast of Africa in the fifteenth century were prompted by several motives. They hoped to outflank their traditional enemies and trading opponents, the Muslims, who occupied North Africa and controlled trade with sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East. They also hoped to spread their Christian faith and to recruit a potential ally against the Muslims—the legendary Prester John, who was thought to rule a Christian kingdom somewhere in Africa. In 1485, these motives brought them into close and extended contact with the kingdom of Benin Benin, Kingdom of , an African civilization whose cultural and political achievements matched their own. Colonization;Portugal of Africa Aveiro, João Alfonso d’ Prince, Henry the Navigator Ewuare John II (1455-1495) Ozolua Esigie Henry the Navigator, Prince Ewuare Sequeira, Ruy Gomes, Fernão Aveiro, João Alfonso d’ Ozolua John II (king of Portugal) Esigie

Portuguese expansion into Africa had begun in 1415, when, under the command of Prince Henry of Aviz (later known as “the Navigator”), the European country captured the North African port of Ceuta from the Muslims. Further encouraged by Prince Henry, who established a school for navigation at Sagres in southwestern Portugal, the Portuguese then began an intensive period of exploration and discovery. They colonized the island of Madeira, near the coast of Africa, in 1420; rounded the difficult and supposedly impassable Cape Bojador in 1434; and reached the more southerly Cape Blanco in 1441. On a darker note, the captains responsible for this last accomplishment, Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão, transported a dozen African slaves to Portugal from the Cape Blanco region in 1441.

By 1472, Portugal’s explorers had reached what would later be identified as the mouth of the Niger. The mighty river emptied into the Bight of Benin, a large, open bay forming the northwestern part of the Gulf of Guinea. Inland lay the city and kingdom of Benin. Located west of the Niger in a humid, heavily forested region of what is now southern Nigeria, the kingdom of Benin (not to be confused with the modern nation of the same name) was originally populated by the Edo people.

Benin began to grow in power and influence in the fifteenth century under Oba (King) Ewuare, who had conquered the territory of the Yoruba people to the west and the Igbo people to the east. Subsequently Ewuare reorganized and rebuilt the capital city of Benin, enclosing his extensive palace complex within a series of moats and ramparts. He employed numerous artists and craftspeople to create works in ivory and bronze to celebrate the burgeoning kingdom. An extensive trade developed, helping to make the kingdom the largest and most powerful state on the Gulf of Guinea.

It is not certain when the Portuguese first reached Benin. The merchants Ruy Sequeira and Fernão Gomes sailed into the Bight of Benin in 1472, although it is unclear how far their voyage took them. It is more likely that João Alfonso d’Aveiro’s journey to the court of Benin in 1485 (or possibly 1486), during the reign of Ewuare’s son, Oba Ozolua, marked the first Portuguese visit. Subsequently, the explorer informed Portuguese king John II of the great opportunities for trade and proselytizing that awaited them there. The chief of Benin’s port city of Gwatto accompanied d’Aveiro as ambassador on his return trip to Portugal, where he was feted and treated as an equal.

For more than a century the Portuguese and the Edo lived, worked, and sometimes worshiped in close harmony. So pervasive did the European country’s influence become that Portuguese was spoken at court, startling later visitors. During this period, Portugal had no territorial or military ambitions beyond fortifying its trading stations against attack by its European competitors. Instead of conquering Benin and adding it to its empire, Portugal’s soldiers fought for the African nation as mercenaries in Benin’s own wars of territorial expansion. Portuguese missionaries built a church in Benin City in 1516, and in the same year Oba Esigie ordered his son and two of his noblemen to become Christians.

Portuguese merchants carried on trade with their counterparts, offering cheap European manufactured goods such as tools and simple weapons, coral and glass beads, and brass and copper manillas (bracelets), the latter of which became a form of currency that was in use well into the twentieth century. In return, they received stone beads, ivory, textiles, animal pelts, pepper, and—for a period of time—slaves. Slave trade Some of these commodities the Portuguese would exchange for gold on what had become known as the Gold Coast to the west, while others (such as pepper) would be transported back to Portugal. Trade;Portugal with Africa

Eventually, however, Portuguese activity in Benin foundered. Private trade in African pepper was prohibited by the Portuguese crown, which had established a monopoly in the spice imported from the East Indies. Benin itself suspended the sale of slaves, forcing the Portuguese to turn elsewhere for their commerce in human beings. In addition, the Portuguese, like other Europeans, found the region unhealthy, succumbing in large numbers to such diseases as malaria and yellow fever. The region’s reputation was summed up in a popular saying: “Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin/ Where few come out though many go in.” Finally, the fact that the Edo regarded the oba as divine inhibited the spread of Christianity.


Although Portugal would eventually establish several large colonies in Africa, its enterprises on the continent were seldom successful, and its achievements are not highly regarded, particularly given its extensive involvement in the African slave trade. Portugal profited briefly from its trade with Benin, principally from the gold it obtained indirectly, but it remained one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Benin profited more from its association with the European country, and in a greater variety of ways. Portuguese mercenaries (and, later, firearms) helped the kingdom subdue its enemies. Before the appearance of the Portuguese, Benin had imported copper from its eastern neighbors to make the alloy bronze. Thanks to the copper manillas the Portuguese offered in trade, the kingdom’s craftspeople were able to produce larger statues and bas-reliefs—highly sophisticated works that would influence the course of Western art when introduced into Europe in the twentieth century.

The kingdom of Benin itself declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1897, the city of Benin was captured by the British, and in 1900, the territory was absorbed by the British protectorate of southern Nigeria.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blier, Suzanne Preston. “Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese, ca. 1492.” Art Bulletin 75, no. 3 (September, 1993): 375-396. Discusses representations from Benin and other regions of West Africa of Portuguese explorers, merchants, and mercenaries. Notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, R. E. “The Kingdom of Benin.” In Benin Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Brief overview of the kingdom’s history as well as its social and political institutions. Excellent map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falola, Toyin. The History of Nigeria. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Opening chapters deal with the precolonial period and European penetration. Selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Nigeria: A Country Study. 5th ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1992. The study’s opening chapter sketches the area’s ethnographic makeup and summarizes its history, beginning with early states before 1500. Maps, substantial bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roese, Peter M., and D. M. Bondarenko. A Popular History of Benin: The Rise and Fall of a Mighty Forest Kingdom. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. A comprehensive history by two specialists in the field. Maps, illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryder, A. F. C. “From the Volta to Cameroon.” In Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Djibril Tamsir Niane. Vol. 4 in General History of Africa. Abridged ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Surveys the civilizations of the region at the time of their first contact with the Portuguese. Map, black-and-white illustrations.

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1502: Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

Aug. 4, 1578: Battle of Ksar el-Kebir

Categories: History