Trade among European and African precolonial nations developed relatively recently in the economic history of the African continent. Prior to the European voyages of exploration in the fifteenth century, African rulers and merchants had established trade links with the Mediterranean world, western Asia, and the Indian Ocean region. Within the continent itself, local exchanges among adjacent peoples fit into a greater framework of long-range trade.
The merchants from Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands who began trading along the Atlantic coast of Africa therefore encountered a well-established trading population regulated by savvy and experienced local rulers. European companies quickly developed mercantile ties with these indigenous powers and erected fortified “factories,” or warehouses, on coastal areas to store goods and defend their trading rights from foreign encroachment. Independent Portuguese merchants called lançados settled along the coasts and rivers of Africa from present-day Senegal to Angola, where they were absorbed into African society and served as middlemen between European and African traders (1991.17.31).
Those goods imported to Africa in greatest volumes included cloth, iron and copper in raw and worked form, and cowry shells used by local populations as currency. Nonutilitarian items such as jewelry, beads, mechanical toys and curiosities, and alcohol also met a receptive audience. Catholic countries such as Portugal were, in theory at least, forbidden by papal injunction from selling items with potential military uses to non-Christians, although it is unclear how closely this order was followed in practice. In exchange for their wares, Europeans returned with textiles, carvings, spices, ivory, gum, and African slaves.
Contrary to popular views about precolonial Africa, local manufacturers were at this time creating items of comparable, if not superior, quality to those from preindustrial Europe. Due to advances in native forge technology, smiths in some regions of sub-Saharan Africa were producing steels of a better grade than those of their counterparts in Europe, and the highly developed West African textile workshops had produced fine cloths for export long before the arrival of European traders.
It may therefore seem surprising that European importers found many customers for their goods among local populations in West Africa. Nonetheless, the novelty and comparative rarity of European imports together constituted a significant advantage over local products, and powerful rulers readily adopted them for use as courtly regalia. An example of this type of status object fashioned from a trade commodity is a Chokwe chief’s necklace from Central Africa (1996.456). The white ceramic “shell” attached to a woven basketry band was an item manufactured in Europe, probably Germany, for use by Portuguese slave traders. Round, white shells are valued symbols of spirituality and leadership in many Central African cultures, and European merchants clearly created this ceramic form to meet the particular demands and interests of their trading partners. Local leaders who prospered from the international trade also commissioned other prestige objects, such as sumptuous wood and ivory carvings, from local artisans.
Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Trade Relations among European and African Nations.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aftr/hd_aftr.htm (October 2003)
Bassani, Ezio, and William B. Fagg. Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Center for African Art, 1988.
Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick. Art, Innovation, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Benin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. "Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese, ca. 1492." Art Bulletin 75, no. 3 (September 1993), pp. 375–96.