European Exploration and Trading

Hanno the Carthaginian

Accounts of early European exploration of the West African Coast date back to Hanno the Carthaginian’s expedition between 520 B.C and 470 B.C. His notable voyage included the north coast along Morocco and southwards down to Shebro Island, which he called the Horn of the South. It is believed that after the city of Carthage was conquered by the Romans in 146 B.C, exploration along the West African coast seized for several centuries.

17. Thence, sailing along by the fiery torrents for three days, we came to a bay, called Horn of the South.

18. In the recess of this bay there was an island, like the former one, having a lake, in which was another island, full of savage men. There were women, too, in even greater number. They had hairy bodies, and the interpreters called them Gorilla. When we pursued them we were unable to take any of the men; for they all escaped, by climbing the steep places and defending themselves with stones; but we took three women, who bit and scratched their leaders, and would not follow us. So we killed them and flayed them, and brought their skins to Carthage. For we did not voyage further, provisions failing us.

-Hanno, The Periplus of Hanno

The Normans and Genoese

The French Normans and Genoese exploration of the coast of West Africa occurred in the middle of the 14th century. They had earlier sailed along the North African Coast and the Canary Islands, but their voyages were now further south in search of the Guinea Coast and the Land of Gold. These Dieppe merchants arrived on the Grain Coast and setup Petit Dieppe (believed to be the site of Bassa Cove in 1835 and present day Edina, Grand Bassa County). They also established Grande Dieppe near the Cestos River. Their other settlements of Grand Buteau and Petit Buteau were located close to present Greenville, the capital of Sinoe County. Their excursions continued southwest to the Gold Coast where they setup trading posts at Elmina, Accra and Kormantin. It seems these West African settlements were deserted around 1413 with France having internal wars following Charles IV’s death.

Pedro de Cintra

Negroland and Guinea. Circa 1729
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Portuguese explorer, Pedro de Cinta, journeyed along Guinea and arrived at a location close to present day Marshall in 1461. He is known for naming Cape Mount (Cabo do Monte) and Cape Mesurado. On returning to Portugal, he forcefully took a native with him, as ordered by the King.

The Portuguese did not understand their native guest, but he did meet a female slave who understood a language similar to his. The most the King could gather from him was that there were unicorns in his homeland. After he had seen the sites of Lisbon, he returned in 1462 with many gifts from the King and told of the wonder of Lisbon.

De Cintra returned to the Guinea in 1462 along with another captain called Sueiro da Costa. They sailed as far as Cape Palmas. By 1471, more Portuguese captains were on the West African Coast, traveling further south past the Gold Coast and the past the bend of the continent. Trade along the West African Coast was monopolized by the Portuguese for about a century. Christopher Columbus also explored the Guinea Coast on multiple occasions before his voyage to the Americas. European traders got gold, ivory, camwood, pepper from the natives in exchange for rum, gun, gunpowder, cloth, hat and other goods.

The Portuguese named this region the Malagueta coast because of the Malagueta pepper grown and traded in these parts. In Europe, the Malagueta pepper was called “Grains of Paradise”. As such, the Dutch and English began calling this region, the Grain Coast. Prior to this name, the Portuguese called it the Coast of Ma gente (bad people). This area was also called the Winward Coast.

Sometime in the 17th Century, the English and French began their voyages and replacing the Portuguese traders. They were later joined by the Dutch and Brandenburg traders. The natives liked the French, but often clashed with the Germans because of their crude attitude.  The Dutch traded mainly on the Gold Coast at their Elmina settlement.

Other European Explorers

Dutch description of Cape Mesurado – 1750
Source: Liberia Past and Present

P. Grandpierre, a French traveler, in 1726 suggested that the River Cestos area be colonized. In his words, he intended “to fit out a large fleet filled with able and intelligent people, to make a conquest of tis fine country and change its nature by introducing the best social laws and religious knowledge.” At about the same time, Chevalier de la Brue, representing the French government, explored and recommended the Mesurado area as suitable for settlements.

King Peter, lord of the Mesurado area, give the French traveler Chevalier des Marchais King’s Island (currently Bushrod Island) to establish a colony in 1727. Chevalier however insisted that he wanted Cape Mesurado for the colony.

In 1776, a Swede named Ulrik Nordenskiold proposed a plan to colonize Cape Mount and Cape Mesurado, and recommending the creation of sugar cane plantation for the settlers. Most of these European colonization efforts were intended to create military forts. The Swedish attempt at colonizing Cape Mount and Cape Mesurado  in 1787 was unsuccessful because the Senegal Company failed to help and there was war between the natives. It is seen that these later explorations considered Cape Mount, Cape Mesurado and River Cestos areas as appropriate for forming European colonies.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the great inducement that brought Europeans to the West Coast of Africa was not merely the trade in gold, ivory, camwood, and pepper, but it was first and foremost, slaves. Liberia, however, for reasons which will be shown, suffered less than most parts of the west African Coast…

-Harry H. Johnston

Slaves from Negroland were present in ancient empires like Egypt, Rome and Byzantine. Islam also facilitated the sale of Negro slaves with their conquests in East Africa, regions of the Sahara Desert and the Niger River. These slaves were sent to Italy, Persia, India, Arabia and the Turkish Empire. Portuguese explorers during their early voyages, started the kidnapping of Moors and taking them to Portugal as servants. Over their expeditions, they took many slaves by purchasing some from the local kings and kidnapping others along the Coast.

With the English, Spaniards and Portuguese settling in the Americas and West Indies, and Spaniards mistreatment of their indigenous slaves unto death, Spain and Portugal decided to send some of their Negro servants to the new world to replace the indigenous laborers. The Negros were docile, more hardworking, and better suited for such laborious tasks. This transfer of Negro slaves began in 1502, and by the mid 16th Century, there was a direct flow of slaves from the Guinea Coast to the West Indies and Americas. England, Germany and Denmark joined the slave trade with the English outdoing the other nations, realizing the profitable nature of slave trading.

The areas mostly affected by this trade included the coastal areas “between the Gambia and Sierra Leone, the Slave Coast, the Niger delta, Old Calaber, Loango, and Congo” (Johnston, 1906). However, the British were noted for harassing and kidnapping the Grain Coast natives as slaves. The common natives of the Windward Coast banned the European traders as the slave trade caused wars and other problems in their villages.

Over its three hundred years from the mid 1500s to the later 1800s, the slave trade took millions of Africans to the new world in chains. Their journeys on the slave vessels were horrendous with some dying on the way. Those that reached their destinations were sold, and forced to work on sugar and cotton plantations in the US, Brazil and the Carribean. The slave merchants and owners treated the Negroes as if they were not human.

The move to abolish slavery began in 1792 with Denmark banning its citizens from participating in the slave trade. The US followed, banning the import of slaves in 1804. British subjects were barred from the slave trade following an act of Parliament in 1807. The full abolition movement took many decades, numerous advocates and measures like seizing slave ships on the Atlantic and resettling the freed slaves.


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Hanno. The Periplus of Hanno; a Voyage of Discovery down the West African Coast. Trans. Wilfred H. (Wilfred Harvey) Schoff. Philadelphia: Commercial Museum, 1912. Print.

Huberich, Charles Henry. The Political and Legislative History of Liberia : a Documentary History of the Constitutions, Laws and Treaties of Liberia from the Earliest Settlements to the Establishment of the Republic, a Sketch of the Activities of the American Colonization Societies, a Commentary on the Constitution of the Republic and a Survey of the Political and Social Legislation from 1847 to 1944 : With Appendices Containing the Laws of the Colony of Liberia, 1820-1839, and Acts of the Governor and Council, 1839-1847. New York: Central Book Co., 1947. Print.

Johnston, Harry. A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races. Cambridge: University Press, 1913. Print.

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Maugham, R. The Republic of Liberia, Being a General Description of the Negro Republic, with Its History, Commerce, Agriculture, Flora, Fauna, and Present Methods of Administration,. C. Scribner’s sons, 1920. Print.

Rodney, Walter. A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1970. Print.

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