Another Slavery Hotspot: Lagos, Portugal

I had just spent two weeks in Western Africa, where the main tourist sights related to slavery; the ugly capture and transport of millions of Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, so I thought Portugal would be a welcome relief from the saddening tales of the Ghanian and Senegalese slaves.

The Slave Trade:

My landing point was Lagos, a city of 30,000 on the south coast of Portugal, in the famed Algarve region. A friend had stayed here last year and highly recommended it as an inexpensive but warm vacation spot with lots of good food, plenty of sunshine and decent wine. I booked a place for 12 days and arrived after an all night flight from Dakar (only red eyes fly from Senegal to Europe) to Lisbon, a quick hop to Faro and an hour mini-van ride from the airport to the hotel. Situated right on the marina, my one bedroom offered a large balcony, reliable hot water and decent wifi, all welcome contrasts to my prior hotel in downtown Dakar. As an added bonus, there was no daily 6AM call to prayer to wake me.

But my belief that I had left the slave trade behind was completely erroneous. In fact, Lagos had been the capital of European slavery for centuries, beginning as early as 1450. Fifty years before the Portuguese claimed Brazil and 42 years before Columbus discovered America, Europeans were importing slaves from North Africa and selling them in the main market square in Lagos. A small Slave Museum, located in a former Customs House, details the slave trade to Portugal. Slaves, allegedly mostly prisoners of war sold by Arab traders, were sold in Europe where they were used in construction and heavy labour jobs. Somewhat incomprehensible to this explanation in the museum is an extract from a contemporaneous manuscript describing a slave auction, where a mother tried desperately to stay with her child. How mothers and children became prisoners of war is never explained.


I took a walking tour with a history fanatic through the center of Lagos. In addition to the slave history above, we were handed a sheet with a timeline of significant events in Lagos, which went something like this: original inhabitants were Celtics, followed by the Romans whose main legacy is the road system.. When their empire disintegrated and the dark ages reigned, the Visigoth tribes moved in. In the 8th century, Arabs conquered the area and created cities using Arab building techniques still evident today. Between the 11th and 13th century, tribes who eventually became the Portuguese from Astoria in the north battled the Moors for supremacy, eventually driving the Arabs out of Portugal in 1249.

Lagos reached its heyday in the Middle Ages, when ships bound for Africa and America called it home. Fleets moored in Lagos during the Spanish/ British wars were attacked by Sir Francis Drake (Portugal was under Spanish rule at the time), along with various pirates who regularly plundered the city.

In 1755, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed the city along with most of coastal Portugal. Lagos slowly rebuilt itself.

Portugal remained a monarchy through the Napoleonic invasions and the industrial revolution. A few 19th century civil wars reduced the monarch’s power to that of one of a constitutional monarchy but in 1910, the king was deposed and sent into exile. The Republic was born.

Over the next 65 years, Portuguese politics was plagued by military coups, dictatorships, fascism and communist parties. It remained neutral during WWII, assisting both sides as the wind blew. But in 1975, the country adopted a democratic government which has ruled ever since.

Henry the Navigator:

Lagos’ most famous citizen was Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince born in 1394 , died in 1460, and who, while he was a prince was not much of a navigator. Rather, his claims to fame are his contributions to navigation; he is rumored (but disputed) to have started a school of navigation in nearby Sagres, where two significant discoveries were made. First, the caravel, a lighter, more maneuverable ship was developed under his tutelage. Second, cartographers mapped more of the world, including the Canary Islands and the Azores in the Atlantic and the coastal areas of Africa below Bojador in the Western Sahara. They learned how to navigate using the stars, permitting the Portuguese to sail beyond the coastline, something the Vikings had figured out some 400 years before but that’s neither here nor there.

Lagos today:

Of course, most people don’t come to Lagos for its history or its architectural marvels. Rather, its primary attraction is as a well-deserved, relaxing tourist destination. Prices are inexpensive, with good Portuguese wine costing only a few dollars a glass, rotisserie chickens in the supermarket the equivalent of $5.00 and bus fares costing just $2.00. Hotels with all the modern conveniences abound, there’s a pretty pedestrian way with restaurants offering lots of fish dishes. Along the main road, pretty white low-rise buildings evoke pictures of traditional Portuguese houses and palm trees sway in the breeze.

Lagos and its canal

The area has at least 13 golf courses and lots of water sports, including fishing. For those that prefer to walk, the streets are lined with sidewalks, zebra crossings are everywhere and cars most diligent about stopping to let pedestrians cross the street.

Tourists walk along the canal, up the shopping streets, towards the fort or beside the churches. It’s a bit of a walker’s paradise, with oodles of hiking trails. My favourite was a 45 minute walk from the marina, up a hill, to Ponta de Piedade, where wooden walkways criss-cross fields and run alongside cliffs overlooking limestone formations in the Atlantic Ocean below. Along some of the the walkway, a bevy of yellow flowers were in bloom, making for a lovely sight, but naturally, not in the pictures below:

Large numbers of Europeans – Brits, Germans and French – come here every winter to enjoy the mild (average about 20 degrees) weather and sunshine and Canadians have started coming here also. One sign read “We speak francais and quebecois.” Bars catering to foreigners line the marina  where British football matches play continuously, menus advertise Roast Dinners every Sunday and the singer, a guitarist, played mostly Tom Jones songs, but the loudest singalong was reserved for Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.


Thirty kilometers away is the town of Sagres. Reputedly home to Henry the Navigator’s sailing school, at its end is Cape St. Vincent, the most southwestern point in Europe and regarded as the end of the earth in ancient times. A lighthouse marks the end of the Atlantic Ocean where ships enter the Mediterranean Sea.

Today the lighthouse still stands and, in clear weather, its light can be seen for 60 kilometers. People, myself included, flock here for the nightly sunset, watching the sun drop into the ocean.

Sunset at Cape St. Vincent

The Grottos

The waves have carved beautiful grottos into the limestone cliffs; most are accessible only by boat. Kayak and stand-up paddle boat tours take intrepid travellers into them, but I, being less fit and much lazier, opted for the speedboat. Little did I know the driver considered terrifying the passengers with sharp turns and dizzying speeds over high waves part of the experience, so I gamely held on  to my chair for the 25 minute terror ride to the grottos. The views were my reward; I will let some pictures speak for themselves.

Closing Thoughts:

Lagos wasn’t the most fascinating place I’ve been to, historically, architecturally or  culturally, but what it lacks in those areas, it certainly makes up for in great weather, easy travelling and nice, welcoming people. After 12 days here, I understand Portugal’s attraction for tourists escaping winter.

Next: Travelling in the time of Covid-19