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Slavery was dying in the West. The moral justifications for slavery had been eroding for centuries and it had been nearly abolished by the end of medieval times; and yet, slavery would revive and persist for hundreds of years. Some blame–perhaps–can be traced to two great movements at the beginning of the 16th-century:

The Age of Discovery

The first movement was the Age of Discovery: the Portuguese, in their explorations down the west coast of Africa, along with Columbus’ discovery of the new world of the Americas. The well-known result was the eventual transport of more than twelve million enslaved Africans to work the plantations and mines of the new world. Most were taken to the Caribbean and South America. Another 400,000 were brought to North America.

The Renaissance

This new expansion of an otherwise dying institution was also enabled by the second great movement of that age: the Renaissance, (meaning “rebirth”) a time marked by the popular rediscovery of Greek and Roman antiquity. While the middles ages had not been ignorant of the Greek and Latin writers, the Renaissance idealized classical antiquity to an extent that precluded any prudent sifting of the classical wheat from the chaff. Régine Pernoud in her book, Those Terrible Middle Ages notes the overreach that resulted:

“What was new was the way classical Antiquity was used, if one can put it so. Instead of seeing in it a treasure to be exploited (a treasure of wisdom, knowledge, artistic or literary process from which one could draw indefinitely), as had been the case previously, people suddenly realized that the ancient works could be considered as models to be imitated. The Ancients had achieved perfect Works; they had attained beauty itself. So, the better one imitated their works, the more certain one would be of attaining Beauty.”

This love of Rome became a centuries-long infatuation that demanded—above all—imitation; an unexamined imitation which embraced everything Roman, including the harsh reincarnation of chattel slavery, coming at that moment in history when the colonies of the new world were ripe to exploit a cheap source of labor.

The Church and the natives

Sixty years before Columbus sailed, in 1435, Pope Eugene IV, in the papal bull, Sicut dudum, condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa:

“We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex that, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their pristine liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.”

While the pope had no navy to enforce his order, disobedience incurred the penalty of excommunication. This respect for the humanity of native peoples—along with the desire to bring them the Gospel—was demonstrated again in the papal bull of Pope Paul III, Sublimis Deus (The sublime God) (1537). The pope took the same hard line toward Native Americans, whom the Spanish were enslaving on grounds that the Indians were not Christians. The pope declared that “the Indians themselves were true men” and ordered that they and all other discovered peoples “should not be deprived of their liberty or of their possessions.” He declared the Indians’ enslavement to be “null and void.”

This prohibition—against both the slave trade and slavery itself—would become a great point of contention in later years, especially with regard to the enslavement of West Africans.

African slavery

While the popes condemned slavery and the slave trade as regarded natives of the newly discovered lands, the enslavement of Muslims remained an accepted practice, no doubt spurred by years of war against Islam and the long-term practice of Muslim enslavement of Christian Europeans. It hardly made sense, however, for the Church to protect Native Americans from enslavement while at the same time permitting the enslavement of black Africans since both groups were newly discovered non-Christians and definitely not Muslims.

Father John Maxwell, in his book Slavery and the Catholic Church, lays the blame on Portuguese duplicity: by 1452 the Portuguese were anxious to establish their property rights over their newly discovered West African territories, and so Pope Nicholas V was approached and was apparently led to believe that these territories of the “Guinea Coast” were inhabited by “Saracens” and other enemies of Christendom.

The Portuguese, of course, knew that these black Africans were not Saracens, were not Moslems, and were not the enemies of Christendom. In light of the Papal prohibitions against enslaving native peoples, mis-labeling the Africans as prisoners of war was a way to keep the West African slave trade alive.

In addition to this original deception, there had long been moral distinctions of just vs. unjust slavery. Those who unjustly enslaved innocent persons were regarded as no better than kidnappers.

In the matter of African slaves, the Portuguese (and later, the Spanish, the Dutch, English, and French) did not themselves enslave most of the Africans they brought to the new world. They purchased them from other Africans, albeit without questioning the legality or justification for their current status as slaves.

This issue of just vs. unjust enslavement was significant enough that Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia felt the need to address this old issue in his 1842 treatise on moral theology. Kenrick considered the issue to be moot because even if Africans had been brought to America unjustly, the legal time limit had run out for challenging defects in the owner’s title to the slaves.

Despite these dubious justifications, the Church actually did condemn African slavery as early as 1686, but that was swept under the carpet and legal slavery persisted until the 19th century. In the United States alone, almost a million would die in a war before slavery would end.


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