The Evolution of ‘Portuguese’ Identity: Luso-Africans on the Upper Guinea Coast from the Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century

The Evolution of ‘Portuguese’ Identity: Luso-Africans on the Upper Guinea Coast from the Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century

The Journal of African History
Volume 40, Issue 2 (1999)
pages 173-191

Peter Mark, Professor of Art History
Wesleyan University, Connecticut

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, Portugal established a trading presence along the Upper Guinea Coast from Senegal to Sierra Leone. Emigrants from Portugal known as lançados—some of them Jews seeking to escape religious persecution—settled along the coast, where many of them married women from local communities. By the early sixteenth century, Luso-Africans, or ‘Portuguese’ as they called themselves, were established at trading centers from the Petite Côte in Senegal, south to Sierra Leone. Descendants of Portuguese immigrants, of Cape Verde islanders, and of West Africans, the Luso-Africans developed a culture that was itself a synthesis of African and European elements. Rich historical documentation allows a case study of the changing ways Luso-Africans identified themselves over the course of three centuries.

The earliest lançados established themselves along the coast as commercial middlemen between African and European traders and as coastal traders between Sierra Leone and Senegambia. Their position was formally discouraged by the Portuguese Crown until the second decade of the sixteenth century, but they nevertheless played an important role in trade with Portugal and the Cape Verde islands. Lançado communities were permanently settled on the Petite Côte, while in Sierra Leone and Rio Nunez much early commerce was in the hands of lançados who sailed there regularly from S. Domingos, north of present day Bissau. The offspring of these lançados and African women were called filhos de terra and were generally considered to be ‘Portuguese’.

Throughout the sixteenth century, the descendants of the lançados maintained close commercial ties with the Cape Verde islands. Cape Verdeans were themselves the offspring of mixed Portuguese and West African marriages. Sharing elements of a common culture and united by marriage and economic ties, mainland Luso-Africans and Cape Verdeans represented a socially complex and geographically dispersed community. Cape Verdeans, like mainland Luso-Africans, resolutely maintained that they were ‘Portuguese’, and both sub-groups employed the same essentially cultural criteria of group identification.

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