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


  • Joseph A.B. Jackson-Eade Università Degli Studi di Bologna



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.

Author Biography

Joseph A.B. Jackson-Eade, Università Degli Studi di Bologna

Joseph has recently completed his Master’s Degree in ‘Global Cultures’ at the University of Bologna, Italy, after having studied History and Anthropology at University of Lyon II, France. His dissertation is focused on cross-cultural communication in the early phases of the Iberian expansion into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He has been seeking to understand how the Iberians gained access to interpreters, and which mechanisms determined the relationship between the colonizing Iberians and their interpreters.