Portuguese mariners were the first Europeans to explore the western coast of Africa. In the mid-15th century, they began a series of voyages in search of a sea route to Asia and on the lookout for opportunities to trade and plunder on the African coast. In the 16th century they established a significant trade with the expanding Edo Kingdom. Diplomatic relations were forged between Lisbon and Benin City with emissaries from Benin being sent to the Portuguese court.
Early European cargos from West African ports and rivers were mainly composed of forest products, elephant tusks, and some enslaved people. Smaller quantities of fine textiles, mats, baskets and carved ivory works were also shipped to Europe. Benin’s well organised guild of merchants, which was controlled by the royal court, and its extensive trade network, allowed Portuguese mariners to buy valued West African goods in the Edo Kingdom, like stone beads, fine cloth, and camwood dye. The Portuguese then exchanged these goods for gold at coastal settlements in present-day Ghana. In return, the powerful ruler of the Edo Kingdom, the Oba, was supplied with prestige goods for his court in Benin City, including cloth woven in India and Europe, coral beads, and brass currency bracelets called manillas.
Intricately carved ivory saltcellars, spoons and hunting horns were exported to Europe from West Africa on Portuguese ships from about 1500 to 1650. Surviving historical records indicate that most of the ivories were made by African carvers from a wide stretch of the West African coast from present day Sierra Leone to Guinea-Bissau. During this period, Portuguese and African-Portuguese merchants conducted a trade that connected African groups in the region. Many ivories that survive in European museums show a mixture of imagery drawn from African, European, and even Indian sources. They represent an early ‘art of globalization’, although very little is known about the African sculptors who made them.
The collection at National Museums Scotland includes four incomplete Afro-Portuguese ivory saltcellars. These 16th century works would not normally have been used to hold salt. They mainly served as novelty ornaments that were displayed in the homes and cabinets of aristocrats, and they were given as prestigious gifts to popes and kings. In the following centuries, negative views of Africans that were spread to justify slavery and colonial rule, helped to erase knowledge of the saltcellars’ African origin. It was only through research undertaken from the 1950s that the West African origin of these extraordinary works of art was recognised again.
The work below is the middle section of one of three similar saltcellars made by a sculptor known only as ‘The Master of the Heraldic Ship’. The four standing figures in Portuguese dress and regalia, all bear a striking resemblance to a 16th-century portrait of Afonso de Alburquerque, second Governor of the Indies, who sailed around the African coast to reach Asia. The carver has captured details of his clothing, features and demeanour. A complete saltcellar by the same sculptor is held by the British Museum, while another is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
You can see two Afro-Portuguese ivory saltcellars on display in the Artistic Legacies gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.