The Blog November 24, 2020

BLOG—Phantom Africa: The Topos of Silent Trade

Credit: Iberian Connections at Yale University
Phantom Africa: The Topos of Silent Trade

By Lexie Cook

Issue 07 — Fall 2020 — Session 02 — Contemporary Pasts

Originally published at:


Repetition of inquiry is useless where there is lack of information…What can be said when a conspiracy of silence is the only response to inquiry? 

Manuel Álvares, Etiópia Menor, c. 1615

One of the most resilient topoi of writing on Black Africa is that of the so-called silent trade. It first appears in Herodotus and from there it is dutifully repeated in geographies, histories, descriptions and travel accounts that portray African people (in Latin, Arabic, and different European vernaculars) well into the 19th century. So much so that already by the 15th century Venetian captain Alvise Cadamosto concluded in the account of his travel to the rivers of Guinea: “Since it is related by so many we can accept it as true.” Each new telling presents a confabulation of the last, updated according to shifting commercial networks and changes in geographical knowledge, yet certain features prove remarkably stable given the way the story traverses language, region, time. A ship or caravan of gold-seeking traders, considered to be continuous in some capacity with the narrator, traverses the Western reaches of the Mediterranean sea or a Saharan desertscape arriving at an indeterminate location, situated just beyond the proverbial “pillars of Hercules,” which is to say, beyond where there is no beyond, nec plus ultra. There, they engage in a silent, indirect form of negotiation with the native people. Even eyewitness accounts like Ibn Battuta’s rihla, always stage the story just beyond where the narrator has actually been, precisely at the point where information becomes second-hand. 

As early as 1507, Valentim Fernandes Alemão, a Moravian printer and amateur cartographer who enthusiastically followed and documented the Portuguese expansion from Lisbon, surmised that the silent trade was no more than a camouflage tale, recited to all foreigners who asked after the whereabouts of gold, to protect the “Mandinga” commercial monopoly on the precious metal. As we can see the reality of the silent trade was already suspect within the first few decades of the Portuguese voyages to Guinea and yet it persisted. More recently, scholars have gone about debunking the historicity of this commonplace. Yet the silent trade need not be a historical fact to be of historical interest.  This tale, so emblematic of a Mediterranean understanding of the lands beyond the Sahara, presents us with a narrative condensation of two well-established tropes on Black Africa. First, that it was a place where gold could be found in abundance. Second, that the inhabitants of this land were socially discontinuous with the world that portrayed them. 

In all the various iterations of this fiction, it is the lure of gold that drives the Northern merchants to extend commercial ties where social ties are impossible. The rubric of language (or its absence) within the logic of the allegory presupposes a space of absolute untranslatability between trading partners with irreconcilable systems of meaning. As such, the silent trade is a sort of transvaluation not just without translation, but without the possibility of translation. 

The silent trade narrative does not hold nor has it ever held a monopoly on representations of Black Africa or Black Africans. However, the social discontinuity and untranslatability that the silent trade thematizes continue to structure our approaches to (or general avoidance of) the study of Black Africa even once the erroneous and identifiably colonialist tropes have been excised. In the Introduction to his 1947 work The World and Africa, an Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World HistoryW.E.B. Du Bois explains that  “the omission of Africa from world history was part of a consistent effort to rationalize Negro slavery.” Jesuit missionary Manuel Álvares, writing several centuries before from Sierra Leone, called this “omission” a “conspiracy of silence”, also referring to the relationship between the manipulation of the historical record and the justification of Black African slavery. Thinking about the persistence of the silent trade in light of this assertion shows that what this narrative announces is a “conspiracy of silence” when it comes to the study of pre-colonial Black Africa, and that this conspiracy insinuates itself even into studies that aim to rectify. 

In a way that is particularly relevant for Iberianists interested in intervening in and contributing to broader geographies, this has resulted in the bracketing of Black Africa in Mediterranean and Atlantic studies, despite its formal inclusion.  In this position paper, I will give a few examples of the way that the historiographical void on pre-colonial Black Africa is populated with recurring fictions that persist in the face of abundant evidence disproving them and continue to inform epistemological orientations towards the continent well after their debunking. 

The silent trade belongs to a metanarrative that one might term the never-ending discovery and rediscovery of Africa, which is important for studies of slavery, Africa and Africans in the various sub-geographies of Iberian worlds. It is the social discontinuity that the silent trade stages that underwrites a recurring narrative of discovery. This insuperable social discontinuity, if we understand social continuity to be the result of historical processes, results in a retroactive partitioning of Black Africa from proper historical integration into the extended Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds and thus also from the Iberian peninsula. 

In the larger field of Iberian Atlantic studies the primacy of the new-world as the extra-peninsular geography par excellence, has rendered Africa a timeless tableau of shorelines and slave emporia. Further, the singular focus on the unidirectional trans-Atlantic traffic in enslaved Africans obscures the way Iberian Atlantic trade networks were grafted on and even modeled after (pre)existing medieval and early modern West African ones. 

Recent work by historians Toby Green and Herman Bennett retake (albeit with different angles) the project of Walter Rodney to go beyond the Africa-as-backdrop-to-Atlantic-history model. Bennett’s African Kings Black Slaves revises the thesis of an originary African abjection and argues the modern Atlantic world emerged not just from immediate domination, enslavement and conquest but through a sustained political negotiations between African and European polities.  Yet this shared history between European and African continents does not begin with the period of so-called discoveries. Nearly four decades before the first ships sailed past Cape Bojador the Portolano below was elaborated by Majorcan mapmaker Mecia de Viladestes showing that the known world did not stop at the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Those of you who have taken a virtual or in-person tour of the ongoing Sahel exhibit at the Met Museum may recognize this particular chart. Like its more well-known twin, the Catalan Atlas, this portolano is frequently displayed for the portrait of Mansa Musa, the legendary Emperor of Mali holding his signature attribute, a gold disk. The tokenized Black King is always presented anew as a rare sign of life from pre-modern Black Africa on the Euro-Mediterranean radar, a curiosity. But a Portolan is not just a collection of emblems with geo-historical reference.  Portolans are a late medieval Mediterranean cartographic genre that visualize a bounded web of ports and harbors from a collection of sailing directions. These sailing directions are based on the records and calculations of real pilots, using a technique called dead reckoning. In short, this portolan is an imago mundi, it presents us with a vision of a world that existed and had been traversed, replete with accurate depictions of the Atlantic coastlines and archipelagoes. It is a world of shared geography, history, populated with flags, historical figures and toponyms and traversed by almost infinite wind-lines and documented trade routes. This map offers us an image of what my friend and colleague Leonardo Velloso describes in his dissertation as the “physical connection between southern Iberia and Africa [that] inaugurates the problem [of distinguishing between] what is properly Iberian and what is African.”  These Majorcan cartographers were true masters of their craft but they were not seers.  They did not foresee these trade routes, they merely sketched and illuminated on vellum what was reported to them. They are representing the world as they know it. When we talk about rewriting the history of Black Africa into World History, it is not to connect two regions that were formerly disconnected, it is to shed light on the way that historical continuities have been, whether strategically or due to negligence, kept off the record. It is to reveal that behind the repetition of the silent trade and the social discontinuity it presupposes and reproduces is, in fact, a “conspiracy of silence.”  The point here is not to further expose the already painfully visible problems with the paradigm of “discovery” (in its suggestion that one group of people is encountered into existence by another.) Nor am I interested in offering, as a corrective to this, a story of counter-discovery where roles are reversed  and Mansa Musa “discovers” Italy, as has become somewhat fashionable. The point is that to write about medieval and early modern exchanges between the now discrete geographical units of Europe and Black Africa it is really not necessary for anyone to discover anyone else. 

There is an almost inexhaustible desire for the staging and restaging of a scene of encounter, that, whether glossed as discoveryor revised to seem less euro-genetic, presents a never-ending choreography of collision between radically heterogeneous groups.  By insisting upon this radical social discontinuity we are reproducing a civilizational divide here that distorts Mediterranean, West African and Atlantic histories and frankly is just bad scholarship. To counter this it is necessary to reinstate the Western Sudan and Sahara as regions that connected rather than divided sub-Saharan Africa from the medieval Mediterranean system. Although phrased differently, black radical thinkers like Fanon, Du Bois and Cedric Robinson have all written about the urgent necessity to departition pre-colonial Black Africa from a larger world system and to confront the larger “geography of intentions” (Fanon). I would say the first question for Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Studies to ask is not how we can build a bridge between Iberian studies and the study of Black Africa, but rather, how and why we came to understand a place called “Iberia” and a place called “Africa” as hosting discrete civilizations in the first place? I am not proposing the collapsing of Iberian and African studies into a single field, but I am wondering what we gain by insisting upon a continental divide at every opportunity to think them together.


Returning to the navigational technique of dead reckoning, I’d like to explore what it might offer as metaphor for a critical engagement with the archives of Iberian commercial and imperial expansion in Black Africa in light of the prompt to proceed with a certain radical uncertainty. Dead reckoning as a navigation technique involves a calculation of position through an estimation of speed and intervening distances between different ports or other features of land and sea.  The position determined in this way became known by Iberian pilots of the time as the “ponto de fantasia” expressing the uncertainty involved in the estimation process (Gaspar 1).  With expressions like “ponto de fantasia” we see that pilots that relied on dead reckoning had a well-developed meta-discourse about the dangers and uncertainties of the very navigational technique their lives depended on. The main danger with dead reckoning—and the reason why any given position could be a “ponto de fantasia”–is that its calculations were subject to cumulative error, or what we call in multi-step mathematical calculations, error carried forward. The calculations of dead reckoning, contrary to the geometric projections of other forms of charting, involve a constant assessment of the position of the pilot vis-à-vis changing land and seascapes, always remembering that certainty could be fantasy and cumulative error. Fictions like the silent trade and the fetish are the outcome of centuries of error carried forward, to the point that they have shaped entire disciplines and imaginaries, blurring the lines between fantasy and certainty, the imaginary and the actual, between fact and fiction.

What is necessary is not just a surgical excision of terms, motifs or narratives deemed erroneous or problematic but a sustained and critical engagement with the cumulative error itself through historicization. Fictions, exaggerations, silences, and misunderstandings “like forgeries, can be historical facts of the first order, themselves making history.” [1] This is a hallmark of the humanistic inquiry that characterizes our field. What humanistic inquiry makes possible is the transmission of not only what we see as true and valid but also human error–in the form of myths, fictions and debunked social practices, things that have that no longer have scientific value–that are narrated in historicized forms, as examples of different mindsets, value regimes, and modes of seeing the world. It is not necessary that we forsake the literary or the central questions that guide its study to do this kind of work. In fact, as is evidenced in the work of José Silva Horta, textual analysis, the study of rhetoric and discourse more broadly is essential to approaching this archive if you want to do more than extract data from the documents.

Last, it is fundamental that any such project be undertaken in close collaboration and intellectual engagement with past and contemporaryAfrican scholars. Scholars of medieval and early modern Iberian worlds should engage as rigorously with the Black Radical Tradition as they do with their archives. Anti-Colonial militants and thinkers like Franz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral and even W.E.B. Du Bois are often read as theorists of the particular political conjunctures they lived but all of these intellectuals also produced historical analysis on empires they sought to dismantle.


1. A quote attributed to Ernst H. Kantorowicz in Cornelia Vismann, Files, p. 73.

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