The sale of slaves unleashed a shower of imported products. Although Africa produced good quality iron and steel, European swords were status symbols for the monarchs and courtiers of the many kingdoms and principalities that sold blacks to white companies. It was the same story with African fabric made of fibers ranging from cotton to tree bark. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Portuguese navigator Duarte Pacheco reported palm-leaf clothing from the Congo was “soft as velvet and so beautiful that Italy does not have better.” But imported clothing, which cost twice as much, conferred prestige. Price dictated value. Being cheap and abundant, slaves worth nothing, while expensive and scarce objects were coveted. And the less practical the better: the fascination with what came from abroad gave pride of place to useless novelties and changing fashions, today this, tomorrow that, the day after who knows what. These fleeting splendors, symbols of power, separated the rulers from the ruled. Like today.

 

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