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Analyses et comptes rendus

Tymowski Michal. — Europeans and Africans: Mutual Discoveries and First Encounters

Robert Launay
p. 245-247
Référence(s) :

Tymowski Michal. — Europeans and Africans: Mutual Discoveries and First Encounters. Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2020, 389 p., bibl., index, ill.

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1Despite its sweeping title, Tymowski’s fascinating book is about Portuguese expeditions to West Africa in the fifteenth century. Admittedly, not quite all the European protagonists were Portuguese. A few, like the Venetian Alvise de Ca da Mosto, were trading on Portugal’s behalf, while others, such as the Flemish merchant Eustache Delafosse, were unsuccessfully attempting to break the Portuguese monopoly. The Africans in question were all situated along the coast, from Berber fisherman in the Sahara through Senegambia to Benin. Significantly, Tymowski does not discuss the kingdom of Kongo, although systematic contact with Portugal also dates from the fifteenth century, suggesting (not entirely convincingly) that Kongo constituted an entirely separate case.

2As Tymoswski points out, perhaps not emphatically enough, the fifteenth century case is of absolutely critical significance. Coming before the “discovery” of the Americas and the successful circumnavigation of Africa to open up sea routes to Asia, this was the first systematic contact between Europeans and non-Europeans situated outside the Mediterranean orbit. In crucial respect, it established patterns of interaction that were replicated, not only through Africa but in other parts of the world distant from Europe. The expansionist narrative of European global domination truly begins with Portugal’s forays to Africa’s Atlantic coast, rather than with Columbus or Vasco da Gama. On the other hand, Tymowski also suggests that the balance of power was still far more evenly distributed, and that the unequivocal dominance of Europeans only came later.

3Tymowski attempts heroically to avoid constructing a Eurocentric narrative. He aims to depict African understandings of and reactions to Europeans as much as the European perspective. Admittedly, he is hampered by the nature of his sources. The written sources are invariably European, if not quite all Portuguese. The fifteenth century is too remote for African oral narratives to be of much if any help. Tymowski makes very interesting and creative use, on the other hand, of African artistic representations of Portuguese, not only Benin bronzes but also ivory carvings from Sierra Leone. Even so, the imbalance is palpable. The chapter on “Europeans’ Perceptions of Africans” is twice as long as the following one on “Africans’ Perceptions of Europeans.”

4The limitations of the written sources are most apparent in the early chapters of the book on “Fear and Courage,” “Death and Attitudes to Death,”, and “Astonishment, Wonder, and Curiosity” in initial encounters. These chapters deal with sensibilities, African as well as European. Tymowski acknowledges the problems of inferring African sensibilities from a limited range of responses: flight, armed resistance, but also willingness to approach and even board Portuguese ships. However, his assumption that European sensibilities are more immediately legible in the texts is contestable. Narrative conventions, especially in accounts of heroic deeds modeled after the Reconquista, yield little reliable information about the sensibilities of Portuguese knights, not to mention the unheroic seamen whose deaths do not even merit individual identification.

5The book is far more successful in its depiction and analysis of the highly ritualized meetings between the Portuguese or their proxies and members of African ruling elites, even those that ended in disaster such as the meeting between the Danish knight Valarte and the Serer aristocrat Guitenya. The chapter on African embassies to Portugal, including the visit of a delegate from Benin as well as the highly publicized journey of a deposed ruler of the Wolof kingdom of Jolof hoping for Portuguese assistance in restoring his rule, is particularly illuminating. Such meetings were centered on exchanges—of food (in the form of feasts), of gifts, of speeches. The texts only convey, however, the Portuguese understanding of the meetings, and even then only partly; the meanings of feasting would have been taken for granted by elite Portuguese, and consequently hardly needed explanation.

6The book masterfully explores the ways in which these fifteenth century encounters established paradigms that would continue throughout the era of European expansion, not only in Africa but in the New World and Asia. Slavery was an overwhelming concern. From the very beginning, the Portuguese actively sought to capture or otherwise acquire slaves, well before the development of a plantation economy. Even here, in São Tome, the Portuguese were (sadly) pioneers. The book devotes one of its most compelling chapters to the situation of African slaves in Portugal and Spain. Tymowski not only dwells on the lives of Africans compelled to live in Europe, but also Europeans who defected from Portuguese expeditions, lançados, and chose to stay in Africa, marrying local women, establishing families, and serving as critical intermediaries (and often as prosperous middlemen) between Africans and Europeans. Here again, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century were the first, as Tymowski demonstrates, to set a precedent for modes of interaction between Europeans and others.

7In spite of Tymowski’s commitment to telling the story of the encounter from the African as well as European perspective, there are critical lacunae in his narrative concerning African preoccupations. It is clear enough what the Portuguese sought to gain from the encounter: glory (for knights), slaves, gold, the conversion of Africans to Roman Catholicism. African interests are less obvious, partly because the texts focus so exclusively on royals, who were hardly the only Africans involved. Occasionally, such motives do show through, when a deposed ruler seeks to use the Portuguese to regain power, or when the oba of Benin, all the while restricting the movement of Portuguese within the kingdom, uses Portuguese musketeers and archers as auxiliaries in a demonstration of his power over his enemies. Still, the nature of Portuguese interaction with Africans, rulers and others, took place in the context of a political and economic field in Africa whose contours need to be far more precisely indicated in order to appreciate African motivations as well as perceptions. Without a more detailed understanding of the African context, Tymowski’s narrative, however well exposed, can only remain partial. Even so, this remains a very valuable contribution, as much for the questions it raises as for the answers it provides.

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Robert Launay, « Tymowski Michal. — Europeans and Africans: Mutual Discoveries and First Encounters »Cahiers d’études africaines, 253 | 2024, 245-247.

Référence électronique

Robert Launay, « Tymowski Michal. — Europeans and Africans: Mutual Discoveries and First Encounters »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 253 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2024, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/46859 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesafricaines.46859

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Auteur

Robert Launay

Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA

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