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Published by (November 2003)

Jose C. Curto. "Alcool e Escravos: O Comercio Luso-Brasileiro do Alcool em   Mpinda, Luanda e Benguela durante o Trafico Atlantico de Escravos (c. 1480-1830) e o Seu Impacto nas Sociedades da Africa Central Ocidental". Translated by Marcia Lameirinhas. Tempos e Espacos Africanos Series, vol. 3. Lisbon: Editora Vulgata, 2002. 402 pp. Tables, maps, notes, bibliography, glossary.
EUR 25.00 (cloth), ISBN 972-8427-24-7.

Reviewed for H-LusoAfrica by Jeremy Ball, Department of History, Whitman College

Alcohol and Slaves

Jose Curto's main argument is that alcohol constituted one of the most important trade commodities in the Atlantic slave trade at Mpinda, Luanda, and Benguela c.1480-1830. This argument is not new, but what is original is Curto's careful analysis of the imports of alcohol over four centuries, the impact of these imports on the societies of West Central Africa, and the profits--as much as 500 percent--realized by Brazilian and Portuguese merchants. Unfortunately Curto was not able to tabulate the profits accruing to African merchants, whose profits were realized in prestige and dependents. Curto argues that African merchants' preference for Brazilian "cachaca" (rum) over Portuguese wine gave Brazilian merchants a competitive advantage in the Angolan slave trade, which led in the late-seventeenth century to the predominance of Brazilian merchants, and of "cachaca" over wine.

Curto, who is an historian, pieced together information from disparate sources on three continents. His sources include import statistics collected in Brazilian, Angolan, and Portuguese archives; missionary accounts; travelers' accounts; records of merchants; and government reports. The exhaustive process of compiling statistics is laid out in the thirty-six tables in the appendix. The absence of oral sources, which Curto explains would be of little use for the time period ending in 1830 (p. 35), is an understandable lacuna. Curto discusses his sources throughout the text.

The book is divided into nine chapters. The first two describe the production and cultural significance of locally made wine and beer. Though his sources come primarily from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century missionary and traveler accounts, Curto provides a comprehensive explanation of the types of alcohol produced and consumed in West Central Africa at the time of the first contacts with Europeans in the fifteenth century. Two widely consumed African alcoholic beverages at contact were "malafu", a wine extracted from raffia palms, and "ovallo", a beer produced from local cereals such as sorghum and millet. Curto explains how elites in the raffia palm zones enjoyed daily access to raffia palm wine, whereas commoners only drank as part of rituals or feasts. Beer, on the other hand, was more democratic. One of the drawbacks of both "malafu" and "ovallo" was that neither lasted longer than a few days; thus neither could be transported. Thus, Curto argues that durability, in addition to potency, explained the popularity of imported European and Brazilian alcohol among Africans (p. 80).

Another argument of Curto is African agency in the slave trade. He is not the first historian of Africa to argue for African agency in determining the nature of the commodities exchanged for slaves.[1] However, with his meticulously collected trade statistics Curto does support his argument with evidence. Unfortunately, he does not have the data to assess African profits, though it
is not unreasonable to suggest that the switch from wine to "cachaca" in the mid-seventeenth century meant larger profits for African, as well as Brazilian, merchants.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the alcohol trade in the Kindgom of Kongo (chapter 3) and Luanda and its hinterland (chapter 4). Curto highlights patterns established in the Kingdom of Kongo, which hold true for Luanda and Benguela as well. For example, the fact that wine is one of the few trade items offered by the Portuguese that interests African merchants (p. 105). One of the most
interesting arguments is that Roman Catholic missionaries working in the Kingdom of Kongo used tributes of Portuguese wine to receive permission to proselytize from Kongolese rulers. Further south in Luanda, Paulo de Novais, who received the first land grant to found Luanda, insisted on a monopoly on the importation of alcohol, which he considered vital to the slave trade (p. 121).

In chpater 5 Curto builds on Joseph Miller's work on the workings of the southern Atlantic economy, and specifically the battle between Portuguese and Brazilian merchants for the lucrative alcohol commerce at Luanda. Ultimately Portuguese merchants lost market share to the Brazilians, in spite of great government protection, because Africans preferred "cachaca" to wine (p. 129).
The Portuguese ban on the importation of "cachaca" in 1679 hurt the all-important slave trade and was thus rescinded in 1695.

Chapters 7 and 9 focus on the profitability of the alcohol trade at Luanda and Benguela respectively. Curto draws on his meticulous research statistics to argue that "cachaca" equalled roughly 25 percent of the value of exported slaves from Luanda between 1700 and 1830 (p. 201), and proved profitable for all involved in this commerce. Brazilian merchants realized profits with "
cacha┴a" of as much as 500 percent (p. 217). African slave traders in the interior, who acquired slaves through warfare and the collection of debts, used foreign alcohol to attract dependents and acquire status.

"Alcool e Escravos" makes an important contribution to our understanding of the African side of the Atlantic slave trade. By arguing that African merchants determined the assemblage of trade goods accepted in exchange for slaves, Curto argues for African agency and ultimately a shared responsibility for the slave trade. The most challenging aspect of the book for the reader is that it reads much like the dissertation from which it came and is dry in parts. A well-written introduction adds to the book's overall cohesiveness.


[1]. See, for example, John K. Thornton, "Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 44.

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