Rep­e­tition of inquiry is useless where there is lack of information…What can be said when a con­spiracy of silence is the only response to inquiry? 

Manuel Álvares, Etiópia Menor, c. 1615

One of the most resilient topoi of writing on Black Africa is that of the so-called silent trade. It first appears in Herodotus and from there it is duti­fully repeated in geo­gra­phies, his­tories, descrip­tions and travel accounts that portray African people (in Latin, Arabic, and dif­ferent European ver­nac­ulars) well into the 19th century. So much so that already by the 15th century Venetian captain Alvise Cadamosto con­cluded in the account of his travel to the rivers of Guinea: “Since it is related by so many we can accept it as true.” Each new telling presents a con­fab­u­lation of the last, updated according to shifting com­mercial net­works and changes in geo­graphical knowledge, yet certain fea­tures prove remarkably stable given the way the story tra­verses lan­guage, region, time. A ship or caravan of gold-seeking traders, con­sidered to be con­tinuous in some capacity with the nar­rator, tra­verses the Western reaches of the Mediter­ranean sea or a Saharan desertscape arriving at an inde­ter­minate location, sit­uated just beyond the proverbial “pillars of Her­cules,” which is to say, beyond where there is no beyond, nec plus ultra. There, they engage in a silent, indirect form of nego­ti­ation with the native people. Even eye­witness accounts like Ibn Battuta’s rihla, always stage the story just beyond where the nar­rator has actually been, pre­cisely at the point where infor­mation becomes second-hand. 

As early as 1507, Valentim Fer­nandes Alemão, a Moravian printer and amateur car­tog­rapher who enthu­si­as­ti­cally fol­lowed and doc­u­mented the Por­tuguese expansion from Lisbon, sur­mised that the silent trade was no more than a cam­ou­flage tale, recited to all for­eigners who asked after the where­abouts of gold, to protect the “Mandinga” com­mercial monopoly on the pre­cious metal. As we can see the reality of the silent trade was already suspect within the first few decades of the Por­tuguese voyages to Guinea and yet it per­sisted. More recently, scholars have gone about debunking the his­toricity of this com­mon­place. Yet the silent trade need not be a his­torical fact to be of his­torical interest.  This tale, so emblematic of a Mediter­ranean under­standing of the lands beyond the Sahara, presents us with a nar­rative con­den­sation of two well-established tropes on Black Africa. First, that it was a place where gold could be found in abun­dance. Second, that the inhab­i­tants of this land were socially dis­con­tinuous with the world that por­trayed them. 

In all the various iter­a­tions of this fiction, it is the lure of gold that drives the Northern mer­chants to extend com­mercial ties where social ties are impos­sible. The rubric of lan­guage (or its absence) within the logic of the allegory pre­sup­poses a space of absolute untrans­lata­bility between trading partners with irrec­on­cilable systems of meaning. As such, the silent trade is a sort of trans­val­u­ation not just without trans­lation, but without the pos­si­bility of translation. 

The silent trade nar­rative does not hold nor has it ever held a monopoly on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Black Africa or Black Africans. However, the social dis­con­ti­nuity and untrans­lata­bility that the silent trade the­ma­tizes con­tinue to structure our approaches to (or general avoidance of) the study of Black Africa even once the erro­neous and iden­ti­fiably colo­nialist tropes have been excised. In the Intro­duction to his 1947 work The World and Africa, an Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World HistoryW.E.B. Du Bois explains that  “the omission of Africa from world history was part of a con­sistent effort to ratio­nalize Negro slavery.” Jesuit mis­sionary Manuel Álvares, writing several cen­turies before from Sierra Leone, called this “omission” a “con­spiracy of silence”, also referring to the rela­tionship between the manip­u­lation of the his­torical record and the jus­ti­fi­cation of Black African slavery. Thinking about the per­sis­tence of the silent trade in light of this assertion shows that what this nar­rative announces is a “con­spiracy of silence” when it comes to the study of pre-colonial Black Africa, and that this con­spiracy insin­uates itself even into studies that aim to rectify. 

In a way that is par­tic­u­larly rel­evant for Iberi­anists inter­ested in inter­vening in and con­tributing to broader geo­gra­phies, this has resulted in the brack­eting of Black Africa in Mediter­ranean and Atlantic studies, despite its formal inclusion.  In this position paper, I will give a few examples of the way that the his­to­ri­o­graphical void on pre-colonial Black Africa is pop­u­lated with recurring fic­tions that persist in the face of abundant evi­dence dis­proving them and con­tinue to inform epis­te­mo­logical ori­en­ta­tions towards the con­tinent well after their debunking. 

The silent trade belongs to a meta­nar­rative that one might term the never-ending dis­covery and redis­covery of Africa, which is important for studies of slavery, Africa and Africans in the various sub-geographies of Iberian worlds. It is the social dis­con­ti­nuity that the silent trade stages that under­writes a recurring nar­rative of dis­covery. This insu­perable social dis­con­ti­nuity, if we under­stand social con­ti­nuity to be the result of his­torical processes, results in a retroactive par­ti­tioning of Black Africa from proper his­torical inte­gration into the extended Mediter­ranean and Atlantic worlds and thus also from the Iberian peninsula. 

In the larger field of Iberian Atlantic studies the primacy of the new-world as the extra-peninsular geog­raphy par excel­lence, has ren­dered Africa a timeless tableau of shore­lines and slave emporia. Further, the sin­gular focus on the uni­di­rec­tional trans-Atlantic traffic in enslaved Africans obscures the way Iberian Atlantic trade net­works were grafted on and even modeled after (pre)existing medieval and early modern West African ones. 

Recent work by his­to­rians Toby Green and Herman Bennett retake (albeit with dif­ferent angles) the project of Walter Rodney to go beyond the Africa-as-backdrop-to-Atlantic-history model. Bennett’s African Kings Black Slaves revises the thesis of an orig­inary African abjection and argues the modern Atlantic world emerged not just from imme­diate dom­i­nation, enslavement and con­quest but through a sus­tained political nego­ti­a­tions between African and European polities.  Yet this shared history between European and African con­ti­nents does not begin with the period of so-called dis­cov­eries. Nearly four decades before the first ships sailed past Cape Bojador the Por­tolano below was elab­o­rated by Majorcan map­maker Mecia de Viladestes showing that the known world did not stop at the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Those of you who have taken a virtual or in-person tour of the ongoing Sahel exhibit at the Met Museum may rec­ognize this par­ticular chart. Like its more well-known twin, the Catalan Atlas, this por­tolano is fre­quently dis­played for the por­trait of Mansa Musa, the leg­endary Emperor of Mali holding his sig­nature attribute, a gold disk. The tok­enized Black King is always pre­sented anew as a rare sign of life from pre-modern Black Africa on the Euro-Mediterranean radar, a curiosity. But a Por­tolan is not just a col­lection of emblems with geo-historical ref­erence.  Por­tolans are a late medieval Mediter­ranean car­to­graphic genre that visu­alize a bounded web of ports and harbors from a col­lection of sailing direc­tions. These sailing direc­tions are based on the records and cal­cu­la­tions of real pilots, using a tech­nique called dead reck­oning. In short, this por­tolan is an imago mundi, it presents us with a vision of a world that existed and had been tra­versed, replete with accurate depic­tions of the Atlantic coast­lines and arch­i­pel­agoes. It is a world of shared geog­raphy, history, pop­u­lated with flags, his­torical figures and toponyms and tra­versed by almost infinite wind-lines and doc­u­mented trade routes. This map offers us an image of what my friend and col­league Leonardo Velloso describes in his dis­ser­tation as the “physical con­nection between southern Iberia and Africa [that] inau­gu­rates the problem [of dis­tin­guishing between] what is properly Iberian and what is African.”  These Majorcan car­tog­ra­phers were true masters of their craft but they were not seers.  They did not foresee these trade routes, they merely sketched and illu­mi­nated on vellum what was reported to them. They are rep­re­senting the world as they know it. When we talk about rewriting the history of Black Africa into World History, it is not to connect two regions that were for­merly dis­con­nected, it is to shed light on the way that his­torical con­ti­nu­ities have been, whether strate­gi­cally or due to neg­li­gence, kept off the record. It is to reveal that behind the rep­e­tition of the silent trade and the social dis­con­ti­nuity it pre­sup­poses and repro­duces is, in fact, a “con­spiracy of silence.”  The point here is not to further expose the already painfully visible problems with the par­adigm of “dis­covery” (in its sug­gestion that one group of people is encoun­tered into exis­tence by another.) Nor am I inter­ested in offering, as a cor­rective to this, a story of counter-discovery where roles are reversed  and Mansa Musa “dis­covers” Italy, as has become somewhat fash­ionable. The point is that to write about medieval and early modern exchanges between the now dis­crete geo­graphical units of Europe and Black Africa it is really not nec­essary for anyone to dis­cover anyone else. 

There is an almost inex­haustible desire for the staging and restaging of a scene of encounter, that, whether glossed as dis­coveryor revised to seem less euro-genetic, presents a never-ending chore­og­raphy of col­lision between rad­i­cally het­ero­ge­neous groups.  By insisting upon this radical social dis­con­ti­nuity we are repro­ducing a civ­i­liza­tional divide here that dis­torts Mediter­ranean, West African and Atlantic his­tories and frankly is just bad schol­arship. To counter this it is nec­essary to rein­state the Western Sudan and Sahara as regions that con­nected rather than divided sub-Saharan Africa from the medieval Mediter­ranean system. Although phrased dif­fer­ently, black radical thinkers like Fanon, Du Bois and Cedric Robinson have all written about the urgent necessity to depar­tition pre-colonial Black Africa from a larger world system and to con­front the larger “geog­raphy of inten­tions” (Fanon). I would say the first question for Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Studies to ask is not how we can build a bridge between Iberian studies and the study of Black Africa, but rather, how and why we came to under­stand a place called “Iberia” and a place called “Africa” as hosting dis­crete civ­i­liza­tions in the first place? I am not proposing the col­lapsing of Iberian and African studies into a single field, but I am won­dering what we gain by insisting upon a con­ti­nental divide at every oppor­tunity to think them together.

Intel­lectual Dead Reckoning

Returning to the nav­i­ga­tional tech­nique of dead reck­oning, I’d like to explore what it might offer as metaphor for a critical engagement with the archives of Iberian com­mercial and imperial expansion in Black Africa in light of the prompt to proceed with a certain radical uncer­tainty. Dead reck­oning as a nav­i­gation tech­nique involves a cal­cu­lation of position through an esti­mation of speed and inter­vening dis­tances between dif­ferent ports or other fea­tures of land and sea.  The position deter­mined in this way became known by Iberian pilots of the time as the “ponto de fan­tasia” expressing the uncer­tainty involved in the esti­mation process (Gaspar 1).  With expres­sions like “ponto de fan­tasia” we see that pilots that relied on dead reck­oning had a well-developed meta-discourse about the dangers and uncer­tainties of the very nav­i­ga­tional tech­nique their lives depended on. The main danger with dead reckoning—and the reason why any given position could be a “ponto de fantasia”–is that its cal­cu­la­tions were subject to cumu­lative error, or what we call in multi-step math­e­matical cal­cu­la­tions, error carried forward. The cal­cu­la­tions of dead reck­oning, con­trary to the geo­metric pro­jec­tions of other forms of charting, involve a con­stant assessment of the position of the pilot vis-à-vis changing land and seascapes, always remem­bering that cer­tainty could be fantasy and cumu­lative error. Fic­tions like the silent trade and the fetish are the outcome of cen­turies of error carried forward, to the point that they have shaped entire dis­ci­plines and imag­i­naries, blurring the lines between fantasy and cer­tainty, the imag­inary and the actual, between fact and fiction.

What is nec­essary is not just a sur­gical excision of terms, motifs or nar­ra­tives deemed erro­neous or prob­lematic but a sus­tained and critical engagement with the cumu­lative error itself through his­tori­cization. Fic­tions, exag­ger­a­tions, silences, and mis­un­der­standings “like forg­eries, can be his­torical facts of the first order, them­selves making history.” [1] This is a hallmark of the human­istic inquiry that char­ac­terizes our field. What human­istic inquiry makes pos­sible is the trans­mission of not only what we see as true and valid but also human error–in the form of myths, fic­tions and debunked social prac­tices, things that have that no longer have sci­en­tific value–that are nar­rated in his­tori­cized forms, as examples of dif­ferent mindsets, value regimes, and modes of seeing the world. It is not nec­essary that we forsake the lit­erary or the central ques­tions that guide its study to do this kind of work. In fact, as is evi­denced in the work of José Silva Horta, textual analysis, the study of rhetoric and dis­course more broadly is essential to approaching this archive if you want to do more than extract data from the documents.

Last, it is fun­da­mental that any such project be under­taken in close col­lab­o­ration and intel­lectual engagement with past and con­tem­po­raryAfrican scholars. Scholars of medieval and early modern Iberian worlds should engage as rig­or­ously with the Black Radical Tra­dition as they do with their archives. Anti-Colonial mil­i­tants and thinkers like Franz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral and even W.E.B. Du Bois are often read as the­o­rists of the par­ticular political con­junc­tures they lived but all of these intel­lec­tuals also pro­duced his­torical analysis on empires they sought to dismantle.


  1. A quote attributed to Ernst H. Kan­torowicz in Cor­nelia Vismann, Files, p. 73.[]