Portuguese town opens window to its slave-trade history

Lagos, a Portuguese beach town of charming coastlines and sandstone cliffs, is also the birthplace of the African slave trade in Europe

LAGOS, Portugal -- To the casual visitor, Lagos is a striking beach town of charming coastlines and sightly sandstone cliffs. A medieval castle sits alongside boutique cafes and outdoor restaurants serving boiled and baked octopus. One can speed along the shore in a watercraft during the day and catch an intimate Fado show at night.

Lagos is also where the African slave trade took root in Europe.

And once you go looking for that, nothing erases its legacy — not the pristine waters, not the soft chords of a Portuguese guitarra.

Across Portugal, cities and residents are coming to terms with the country's role in a trade that ultimately enslaved an estimated 12.5 million Africans around the world. Activists and elected officials have debated placing memorial markers or establishing slavery museums. Like the state of New Mexico in the United States, Portugal is examining its conquistador past and the effects it had on subjugated peoples.

In Lagos, the community has made its move.

In 1444, the first 200 captured black slaves from West Africa arrived in this enclave in the heart of southern Portugal's Algarve region. They had been kidnapped in raids after Prince Henry the Navigator set up a trading post off the coast of present-day Mauritania. Different forms of slavery already existed, but a newly efficient and barbaric system soon arose.

Profits from the sale of those first enslaved Africans led to more Portuguese raids of West Africa. Over 10 years, an estimated 800 slaves came to Lagos through this pre-Middle Passage route. As a result, Lagos became Europe's first African slave market, and it was enriching the Portuguese Crown.

Within a generation, the Portuguese African slave market moved to the capital, Lisbon, where the monarch established rules on arrivals, taxation and sales. Other European navigators developed their own routes, and their nations followed in the lucrative African slave trade.

Walking around Lagos, it's hard to reconcile how a place of such beauty was witness to such human horror. After all, eating a bifana — a Portuguese sandwich made of marinated pork cutlets — while listening to the calm waves lap at boulders is soothing to any soul trying to escape the political divisions back home.

And yet, to the credit of this small beach town, it's not ignoring its past. It wants to you investigate it.

At the spot where the slave market began, a slavery museum has been erected. El Mercado de Escravos, or the Slave Market, sits in a building that once housed enslaved Africans. The museum tells the story of the first captured black slaves and the economic boom that followed. A striking sculpture of King Amador, who started a slave revolt on the island of Sao Tome in 1595, grabs your attention on the first floor. It stands next to a bench that some museum officials say is where slaves once waited to be sold.

Upstairs, the walls are painted with images of the slave route and of slavery. Exhibits include a book kept by a slave trader and chains that once held slaves.

Outside in the Praça do Infante D. Henrique square is the open space where slaves likely walked before experiencing their first sale. Castelo dos Governadores, a 13th century Moorish castle and fortress, is located around the corner. One can't help but imagine slaves walking through these tunnels where tourists now take selfies and stroll freely after a snack.

Carlos Fortuna, an economics professor at the University of Coimbra in Coimbra, Portugal, said that El Mercado de Escravos is part of a trend in travel that some call "dark tourism," where visitors seek out sites linked to misery and tragedy.

"Think Auschwitz," Fortuna said. "You can visit the site of this notorious concentration camp and then get ice cream right after just outside."

At El Mercado de Escravos, visitors can buy souvenir magnets and bookmarks.

So to take in the full impact of this town's connection to human suffering, one must put away the wallet and the selfie stick. Meditate on what took place here and appreciate the acknowledgement of that history after 500 years. It's a powerful feeling.


If You Go...

El Mercado de Escravos

Praça Infante Dom Henrique 1,

8600-525 Lagos, Portugal

Admission: € 4

Located in the Praça do Infante D. Henrique square, across from the Church of Santa Maria



Associated Press journalist Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras