The Spanish had been the first European rival to find a route travelling westwards. The fact that the Americas lay in between Europe and Asia by this route was an added complication. Eventually a southern route around the Cape Horn was discovered, but it was so treacherous and arduous that it was not really a viable option for the frail ships of the Sixteenth Century.
It might seem a little strange to understand that despite being on Europe's doorstep, Africa was the Continent that, with a few exceptions, was pretty much left to last on the imperial check list. The reasons for this had to do with various geographical and environmental challenges which were severe enough to curtail most European endeavours to penetrate the Dark Continent despite its physical proximity.
Asia and the Americas appeared to offer more lucrative economic opportunities in more benign conditions. The Doldrums beneath West Africa became notoriously difficult to navigate through safely.
In time, Europeans came to the conclusion that it was easier to cross the Atlantic to South America before catching the Southern Hemisphere's Trade Winds back towards the Cape of Good Hope and then they could catch the Indian Ocean's Trade Winds and pretty much bypass Africa completely and access the lucrative Asian spice markets directly.
Land access to Africa was equally problematic from the North with the Sahara Desert presenting a formidable natural obstacle to Europeans.
It did not help that the more palatable Mediterranean Coastline was occupied by more formidable Arab and Ottoman societies which were strong enough to compete with and repel European incursions for many centuries. These would act as conduits for limited trade opportunities from the African interior but even they had to deal with the difficulties of traversing the Sahara Desert and imposed their own costs and taxes on any goods coming out of Africa - if not consume these goods themselves.
These Arab and Ottoman states tended to view Europe with suspicion and although not averse to trade did so only if it was to their own advantage. The one part of the Africa's Western coastline which is not desert is West Africa and the Congo's equatorial forests.
The local populations had built up considerable natural defences and immunities to the myriad diseases and pathogens to be found in the area. Early European connections to West Africa would literally see them 'drop like flies' as they discovered themselves how harsh the conditions were to the European constitution and especially with its severely limited understanding of medical knowledge and especially the causes of disease.
It would take centuries of scientific endeavour before Europeans would have enough understanding of prevention and treatment of diseases to be able to feel confident enough to stay in the region for extended periods of time.
Yet another barrier to European incursion was the formidable African societies that existed throughout most of the continent. Unlike the sparsely populated Americas or Australia, Africa was a densely populated Continent with many sophisticated societies well adapted to their environment and not cut off entirely from the rest of the World.
The Arab cultures in particular brought many of the world's key technological and cultural advances to the attention of many African tribes - even if these were often used as a means by the Arabs to subdue and exploit African lands and peoples themselves.
Still, many African societies were aware of concepts such as literacy, organised religion, iron-making and gunpowder.
This meant that Europeans would not find Africans as easy to dominate and intimidate as they were able to do in other parts of the World. However, if there was one weakness to the African polity when Europeans did begin to show an interest in exploiting the resources of the Continent, it was the relative fractured nature of African societies.
There were so many competing tribes and societies that it was hard for Africa to offer a sustained and consistent level of resistance to these Europeans. These divisions would often fatally undermine the Continent's ability to defend itself.
So Europe was more than aware of the existence of Africa and Africans but with formidable Islamic buffer civilisations, the Sahara Desert, a hostile and difficult to reach coastline, disease and an often densely populated and sophisticated indigenous populations it perhaps becomes less surprising that Africa took so long to come to the attention of Europe's empires.
Perhaps it is something of a complement to the Continent that it was the last part of the World that was systematically divided up by the Europeans - only after they had established colonies, settlements or trading relationships with the rest of the World did they turn to 'The Dark Continent'.
The Portuguese Period Undeniably, it was the remarkable maritime achievements of the Portuguese in the late 15th and early 16th centuries who first brought the European spotlight onto the Africa beyond its Mediterranean coastline.
Portuguese sailors patiently probed the African Western coastline in an attempt to discover if they could round the Continent in order to enter the Indian Ocean and plug themselves into the Spice Trade and thus bypassing the Arab and Ottoman strangleholds on this immensely lucrative trade.
A decade later, his fellow countryman, Vasco de Gama, made the first successful voyage all the way to the Spice Islands from Europe and return by the same route.
The proof of concept had been achieved by the Portuguese. The Portuguese were naturally very defensive about the routes and method by which they were able to reach the Spice Islands. They set up a series of forts along the route and jealously guarded their maps and charts.
Their forts provided the first serious European presence on the Continent, but even these tended to hug the coastline and were little more than victualling and resupply bases for the ships taking the long and arduous journey to and from Asia.
The defenders rarely entered the interior if they could at all help it. They entered into an agreement with Spain, the Treaty of Tordesilhas, in in an attempt to clearly define each others' spheres of influence. The Spanish were effectively to have control over the American route to the Orient and Portugal over the African route.
The one aberration to this agreement was a Portuguese claim to Brazil which unbeknownst to the signers of the agreement lay on the wrong side of the dividing parallel.
However, this agreement ensured that the two Catholic powers at least would not squabble over the increasingly profitable routes.
Slaves in the Interior One commodity that did catch the eye of these early Europeans in Africa were slaves to act as manpower. Initially, slavery was something of an opportunistic seizing of curious onlookers.
There was little market back in Europe as labour was one commodity that the Feudal System had in abundance. Besides, their Arab neighbours had a much more sophisticated slave trading system that had been in operation for many centuries.
It was not until the Spanish discovery of the Americas whilst searching for their own route to the Spice Islands that attitudes to slavery were transformed.
After it became clear that the local indigenous populations in the Americas were being wiped out by European diseases or escaped into the interior there was an immediate demand for hardy labour.
The Spanish granted the monopoly rights The Asiento de Negros to supply slaves to the Americas to the Portuguese who by this time were well established along their maritime routes around Africa.Transcript.
Michael Binyon, leader writer and former diplomatic editor for The Times, explores the background to the Syria conflict in conversation with Pod Academy’s Tanjil Rashid..
Pod Academy: Let’s start at the vetconnexx.com did the Syrians decide to rise up in March ? Michael Binyon: I think it was probably the influence of the “Arab Spring” in other countries.
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