Plan of the fortress at the island of Arguin in 1721. Originaly plublished by Jean-Baptist Labat (1663-1728).
Plan of the fortress at the island of Arguin in 1721. Originaly plublished by Jean-Baptist Labat (1663-1728).

Arguin: A Portuguese Fortress in Mauritania 1445-1633

Written by Marco Ramerini. English text revision by Dietrich Köster.

Situated on the Arguin island (today Mauritania), this was the first fort the Portuguese built in Africa. The fort remained under Portuguese control between 1445 and 1633.

The Arguin area was explored by the Portuguese around the years 1442-1444 by Gonçalo de Sintra (1442), Dinis Dias (1442), Nuno Tristão (1443) and Lançarote (1444), according to Valentim Fernandes, Arguin island was discovered by Gonçalo de Sintra in 1445.

Arguin is described as a very populated island located off the African mainland “hua legoa em largo e duas em longo e quatro em redondo” (Valentim Fernandes), where the water originates from the sands (Diogo Gomes), around the island there are the dangerous “Baixas de Arguin” (sand banks of Arguin) and the access to it was possible only on day time and with high tide.

Around 1445 (or according to some authors as Diogo Gomes, the fort was built in 1445, but this first structure was probably just a factory. The Portuguese had built a “feitoria” (trading factory) for trade in slaves, gold, fishes and arabic resin.

Later in 1461, Soeiro Mendes built the fort: “E em de 1461 (el Rey dõ Afonso) mandou Soeiro Mendez fidalgo de sua casa fazer o castello Darguim a que deu alcaydaria” (Barros). Mendes was later named captain of the castle of Arguin.

The castle was, according to some sources, a small structure. “Arguim foi sempre cousa pouca” but Valentim Fernandes gives us a different information: “em huum penedo muy alto tem el rey de Portugal hûa fortaleza muy forte e fremosa”. Sadly no plan of the fort of the Portuguese period has survived to our days, the earlier (undated) detailed image is that of the Vingboon’s atlas that perhaps represents the fort at the beginning of the Dutch rule (1633), but the illustration of the fort was probably still as the Portuguese had left it. In this image the fort had a quadrangular shape with a bastion on each angle (north and south) of the land side of the fort. The gate is near the southern bastion and is protected by a quadrangular structure.

The trade of Arguin was under crown control and the captains were appointed, usually every three years, by the king. The captain of the castle had the right over 1/4 of the trading goods, the “feitor” (Factor) received 1/8 of every transaction, the “escriuam” (clerk) for his service received 20,000 “Reis” and a slave. The Arguin area was inhabitated by Moors and Blacks (Maures). The importance of Arguin was due to the great fishing grounds. With the castle the Portuguese could control the fishing trade of this zone, which is still today one of the richest fishing grounds. In Arguin the Portuguese exchanged clothes, silver, pepper, flax, honey etc. for slaves, gold, Arabic rubber, camels etc.

In 1487 a “feitoria” (trading factory) was founded inland in Ouadane (Ouadan, Uadem, Audem or Wadan). Probably, according to Diogo Gomes, another temporary Portuguese settlement was built near the river St. Jean in Mauritania “in fluvio de S. Johannis que est circa Cofia et Anteroti”.

In 1488 or 1490, the Portuguese did also an attempt to build a fort at the mouth of the Senegal River. This attempt ended in a failure.

In the years 1505-1508 the garrison of the castle was composed of 41 people among whom were 18 soldiers and 5 sailors. Towards the end of 1555 or at the beginning of the year 1556 Arguin was attacked by the Portuguese pirate Brás Lourenço. In 1569 there were about 30 people in the fort garrison.

The trade declined in the following years and the Portuguese crown contemplated to abandon Arguin. A consequence of this was that in 1592 the castle of Arguin and the right to the fishing grounds was donated by the King of Portugal to the Conde (Count) de Atouguia. The fort at that time had a garrison of 12 soldiers and 4 gunners. In the fort there were 4 “colubrine medie” and 2 “sacres”. Inside there was also a church. In 1595 the fort was sacked by a French expedition from La Rochelle en route to Salvador.

It seems that at the beginning of the 17th century, at the time of the captain Rodrigo Freire, the Maures also occupied for a short time the castle. Near the castle was a Maures’ village with 200 inhabitants. The Conde (Count) de Atouguia remained the possessor of the castle until the Dutch conquest in 1633. On 29 January 1633 three Dutch ships of the WIC (West-Indische Compagnie) arrived near Arguin. Luckily the Dutch took a Maures’ ship, the crew of which showed them the route to the fort and its location. After the disembarkation the Dutch put the fort under siege. On 5 February 1633 the Portuguese garrison surrendered and the fort was occupied by the Dutch.


Soeiro Mendes 1464-
Afonso de Moura
(capitão, alcaide-mor, feitor)
Fernão Soares (capitão,
Gonçalo de Fonseca (capitão) 1505-1508
Francisco de Almada
Pero Vaz de Almeida
Estevão da Gama
Antonio Porto Carreiro
Gonçalo da Fonseca
João Gomes o Souro
(Osouro) (capitão)
Gil Sardinha (capitão) before 1549
Cristovão de Rosales
Lionis da Gama (capitão) 1569
João Leite Pereira
Rodrigo Freire (capitão)
Amador Louzado
Francisco Cordovil
1624 ?


– Blake “Europeans in West Africa”

– Fernandes, Valentim “Descripçam de Cepta por sua costa de Mauritania e Ethiopia pellos nomes modernos proseguindo as vezes algûãs cousas do sartão da terra firme …” In: Rainero, Romain “La scoperta della costa occidentale d’Africa …” Milano, 1970

– Gomes, Diogo “De prima iuentione Gujnee” In: Rainero, Romain “La scoperta della costa occidentale d’Africa …” Milano, 1970

– Madeira Santos, Maria E. “Viagens de exploração terrestre dos portugueses em Africa” Lisboa, 1988

– Monod, T. “L’Ile d’Arguin (Mauritanie). Essai historique” Lisboa, 1983 – Rainero, Romain “La scoperta della costa occidentale d’Africa …” Milano, 1970

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