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The Slave-Interpreter System in the Fifteenth-Century Atlantic World

Joseph A.B. Jackson-Eade


This article analyzes the structures the Iberians developed to acquire linguistic mediators during their early imperial expansion into the Atlantic Ocean. It focuses on the specific case of slave-interpreters, indigenous captives that were taught European languages and used as guides and go-betweens during later expeditions to their homelands. Following the diffusion of the slave-interpreter system from the Canary Islands to West Africa and later to the American world, this article underlines the paramount importance of linguistic mediation within the broader Iberian imperial project. Slave-interpreters rapidly became key figures and indispensable for the Iberians’ success.  However, the Iberians’ dependance on these interpreters was also the source of suspicion and wariness. This pushed the Iberian expeditions leaders to constantly re-think their access to linguistic mediators, and their interactions with them. Through an analysis of contemporary sources, this article chronologically follows the evolution of the slave-interpreter system in the Atlantic throughout the fifteenth century. It focuses on the underlying tensions that shaped, and changed the relationship between the Iberians and their slave-interpreters.

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Copyright (c) 2018 Joseph Austin Bartholomew Jackson-Eade

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