Portugal's Museums: Slave Market (Mercado de Escravos), Lagos
Slave Market (Mercado de Escravos), Lagos
The Slave Market (Mercado de Escravos) located in the old town of Lagos on the Algarve is a fascinating new museum that re-opened in 2016.
The Slave Market Museum is housed in an historic building in the Praça do Infante D. Henrique square close to many of Lagos' other attractions: the Igreja de Santa Maria, the Igreja de Santo António, the Museu Municipal and the Castelo dos Governadores.
The Slave Market Museum traces the history of slavery in Lagos and the Algarve from the arrival of the first slaves in the mid 15th century.
Black African slaves were first brought to Lagos from the western coast of Africa in 1444. The building now containing the museum was built in the 17th century to house the Royal Overseer's office and from 1755 onwards, the customs house.
The terrible sufferings of these first 235 slaves is described in a contemporary book Crónica do Descobrimento e Conquista da Guiné by Gomes Eanes de Zurara. The captives were divided into groups, husbands separated from wives, children from mothers and siblings amid much suffering and lamentation.
Henry the Navigator - the "father of the Age of Discoveries" was in attendance, convinced that he was saving the soul of the slaves. He would also be pocketing one fifth of the price of the slaves with profits of around 700% to be made on each captive.
Most were kept in Portugal working both in households and local businesses. According to the booklet on sale at the museum the slave women would have sold seafood, vegetables, water and coal in the streets whereas the men were engaged as sweepers, laborers, fishermen and to transport heavy goods and serve on galleys.
Many slaves were also sold on to other countries in Europe. Life was harder and more lonely for slaves working on estates in the countryside than for those in urban areas, who could, at least, meet more easily with their fellow slaves and socialize. By the 16th century it is estimated that slaves made up about 10% of the population of the Algarve.
The first room of the museum has various panel displays in Portuguese and English detailing the lives of the slaves as they were baptized and integrated into European society and from 1500 onwards were often taken to the then Portuguese colony of Brazil. The panels explain how: "The slave trade from the Portuguese ports in Africa grew with the involvement of Portuguese-African communities on the coast of Angola and the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe."
Visitors then pass outside and through a side door to a second floor. Here with the aid of a tablet they can see more of the exhibits related to the slave trade than can be shown on the premises. These include manacles, weapons, maps and information regarding the history, growth and architecture of Lagos as a port and slave market.
Excavations of the medieval rubbish tip in Lagos have also led to the discovery of the skeletons of captive slaves whose bound bodies had been thrown into the pit. It would appear that they had not survived the journey and their bodies had been discarded as "worthless waste". Other bodies seem to have been placed with more care in the pit as if by relatives or friends, who have given them a decent send off.
The Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary was the religious order that did most for the care of slaves in Portugal and its colonies providing assistance in time of need, helping with burials and raising funds to secure the freedom of some members.
Overall, the Slave Market Museum is an engaging reminder of this largely forgotten piece of European history.
Praça do Infante Dom Henrique
Lagos 8600-525, Portugal.
Hours: The Slave Market Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-12.30pm & 2pm-5.30pm in summer with varying hours in the winter.
Admission: 4 Euros.
Close to the Slave Market Museum is the Museu Municipal which contains the lavish Igreja de Santo Antonio. Also nearby at the southern end of Praça do Infante Dom Henrique is the Igreja de Santa Maria. Another interesting museum in Lagos is the Museu de Cera dos Descobrimentos (Portuguese Discoveries Wax Museum) at the Marina on the other side of the river.