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Ca Da Mosto

In: English and Literature

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Ca da Mosto’s account in An Early Portuguese Encounter with West Africans tells historians that Europeans perceived West Africans as uncivilized and inferior. This perception is exhibited through Ca da Mosto’s description of the West Africans’ lack of wealth, different beliefs, lack of knowledge and violent disposition. Ca da Mosto seemed to believe that wealth indicates how civilized someone is and how honest they are. During his initial voyage to West Africa, Ca da Mosto speaks of how highly the king is regarded, how trustworthy he is and how fair he is. It becomes clear, however, that his perception of the king is related more particularly to his wealth which is the only thing that he constantly references. He mentions that the king, “paid royally for what was brought to him.”[1] He spoke of how the king promised to give him one hundred slaves in exchange for the goods he received and how the king gave him a “handsome young negress.”[2] During his trip to the king’s home, Ca da Mosto went to the local market. There, he observed that “these people are exceedingly poor.”[3] He based this on their clothing, the products they purchased and the fact that they only bartered for items because no one had any money. He was also unable to find any gold. After realizing the poverty, it becomes obvious that Ca da Mosto’s view of the country had completely changed from somewhat positive to negative. He decided to go farther up the river, “in the hope of finding better disposed peoples.”[4] Ca da Mosto constantly makes references indicating that the West Africans had strangely different religious beliefs. Their actual religious denomination is never stated but Ca da Mosto’s account makes it clear that they are non-Christian. He considers their beliefs to be based on a lack of knowledge and somewhat ignorant as compared to Christianity. When he saw them they were amazed at seeing a Christian. When Ca da Mosto fired his mortar as a demonstration to the West Africans, they were frightened and believed that it was of the devil. They believed that his country pipe was “made by God with his own hands.”[5] Ca da Mosto notes that when he demonstrated how to use a candle for light, the West Africans exclaimed “we Christians had knowledge of everything.”[6] It appears that West Africans attribute any and everything that they do not understand to God, the devil or some other supernatural power. After defeating the West Africans they encountered while sailing, Ca da Mosto notes that “a great number of negroes were wounded. By the grace of God, however, not one of the Christians was hit.”[7] God protected them as Christians but not the uncivilized West Africans. After the battle, Ca da Mosto asked the West Africans why they attacked. One of the reasons was that “they firmly believed that we Christians ate human flesh.”[8] This, again points out Ca da Mosto’s belief that the West Africans are illogical. Ca da Mosto frequently pointed out his observation that West Africans lacked the knowledge of Europeans. They were amazed at his stylish clothing and were surprised to see that his skin was actually white. They believed that Ca da Mosto’s country pipe was a living animal with different voices and they were amazed by his ship and its construction. They thought the portholes in the ship were eyes so that the ship could see its way and they believed Ca da Mosto and his crew to be wizards because of the way that they were able to navigate the sea. He attributes this belief to the fact that the West Africans were ignorant of compasses and other navigational tools. They were amazed at the idea of a candle burning in a candlestick because they were unaware of means of light other than fire. According to Ca da Mosto, the West Africans only had two primitive musical instruments. Ca da Mosto seemed to imply that West Africans’ had an unnecessarily violent disposition. He went further upstream “hoping that in the country farther upstream we might find more civilized people than those we had seen in the canoes.”[9] On their way, they encountered canoes of about one hundred and fifty men with bows and arrows. According to Ca da Mosto, they began to attack and his men retaliated. After hearing the sound of bombards, the West Africans stopped in amazement and then proceeded to attack again. Even as Ca da Mosto tried to explain that they came in peace, the West Africans were not convinced. As astonished as they were with Ca da Mosto’s crew and weaponry, they continued to attack. From Ca da Mosto’s account, the West Africans attacked them even though they were just peaceful people looking for a friendly relationship with them. Ca da Mosto makes glaring distinctions between European culture and that of West Africa. In noting differences, he does so in a way that seems to unfairly characterizes the West Africans as uncivilized people who are leap years behind Europeans when it comes to wealth, thought, beliefs and self-control. In the end, the sailors opted to return home to avoid further danger. I suspect the danger was just differences.
G.R. Grone, “the Voyages of Cadamosto and Other Documents in Western African in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century” in Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America, Timothy Shannon, 9-14. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2004.

[1] G.R. Grone, “the Voyages of Cadamosto and Other Documents in Western African in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century” in Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America, Timothy Shannon (New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2004), 10
[2] Ibid., 10.
[3] Ibid., 11.
[4] Ibid., 13.
[5] Ibid., 11.
[6] Ibid., 12.
[7] Ibid., 13.
[8] Ibid., 13.
[9] Ibid., 12.

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