15th century papal edicts authorized the African slave trade, Indigenous land seizures

The worldview they helped create still is alive today

This blog has written often about the Doctrine of Discovery: 15th century Catholic Church edicts that provided the moral and legal justification for European monarchs and their “explorers” to seize Indigenous lands and enslave, convert, or kill Indigenous peoples in lands which would become known as the “New World.”

The Doctrine of Discovery also includes papal edicts issued decades before Columbus sailed, edicts that justified Portugal’s west African slave trade.

John Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)

There’s no single document known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It refers to a series of papal “bulls,” or edicts, and other Church documents that collectively have become known as the Doctrine of Discovery, or the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery was a declaration of Christian supremacy and should count among the founding documents of white, European supremacy. The Doctrine’s worldview is the common thread that links such things as American Indian boarding schools and mass incarceration, the violence at Standing Rock and the killings of George Floyd, Philando Castille, and so many others.

The Doctrine of Discovery was the precursor to Manifest Destiny, the worldview that New World leaders and settlers used justify abusing and killing Indigenous people for their land and black people for their labor.

One of the Doctrine of Discovery’s better known papal edicts is the Inter caetera of 1493. Pope Alexander VI issued it just after Columbus returned from his first voyage. It granted the king and queen of Spain the rights to the lands where Columbus traveled and other lands Spain might find, as long as no baptized Christians had a prior claim.

An 1863 photo of Gordon, an escaped slave, distributed by abolitionists. (From Wikipedia.)

The Doctrine’s less well known documents include Dum diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455). The Indigenous Values Initiative website provides the following summary:

Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas on 18 June, 1452. It authorised Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers” to perpetual slavery. This facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa. The same pope wrote the bull Romanus Pontifex on January 5, 1455 to the same Alfonso. As a follow-up to the Dum diversas, it extended to the Catholic nations of Europe dominion over discovered lands during the Age of Discovery. Along with sanctifying the seizure of non-Christian lands, it encouraged the enslavement of native, non-Christian peoples …

Together, the Dum Diversas, the Romanus Pontifex and the Inter Caetera came to serve as the basis and justification for the Doctrine of Discovery, the global slave-trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism.

Pope Nicholas apparently approved Portugal’s slave trade as part of a political quid pro quo, according to Wikipedia. Byzantine Emperor Constantine X wrote to Pope Nicholas seeking military help against the Turks, who had established a strong position just north of Constantinople.

It was not until Alfonso V of Portugal responded to a Papal call for aid against the Turks that Pope Nicholas V agreed to support the Portuguese claims regarding territory in Africa.

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, a year after Dum diversas.

Here’s a translated excerpt from Dum diversas, provided by the website African Heritage:

We grant you [King of Portugal …] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

Portion of “Discoverers and the Civilizers led to the Source of the Mississippi” mural in the Minnesota Senate Chambers.

Natalie Avalos, a Chicana scholar of Apache descent, writes that settler colonialism needs to be understood as a structure, not a past event. Colonial projects “must be continually re-inscribed” in order to justify ongoing injustices.

The white, Eurocentric worldview is still imbedded in our politics, culture, and art today, one reason Columbus statues are being toppled along with Confederate monuments. These are symbols of oppression.

Minnesota is an example of how difficult it is to change the narrative. The state Capitol went through a major renovation in the mid-2010s. The state created a subcommittee to review Capitol art. Some troubling paintings were removed or relocated to less prominent spaces in the Capitol. However, through back channels, the Minnesota Senate made it clear that the art subcommittee couldn’t touch the Senate Chamber’s art. That included a particularly offensive mural called “The Discoverers and Civilizers led to the source of the Mississippi.”

Instead of removing it, the state restored it.

The mural’s central element depicts a half-naked Native man and woman trapped by the advance of white explorers, settlers, and their protective angels. A priest extends a cross, behind him another man restrains two attack dogs. The message is clear: convert or die.

What’s so hard about changing the art every century or so? What’s so hard about admitting today that this is an offensive painting and acknowledging the harm it’s done? The devotion state leaders showed this mural reflects white supremacy thinking, and Doctrine of Discovery thinking.

The Doctrine of Discovery predated the Reformation and Protestant churches. In the 15th Century, to be Christian was to be Catholic. Today, many mainline Protestant Christian denominations and other religious communities have adopted formal statements repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and committed to make repairs.

The Doctrine of Discovery isn’t official Catholic Church policy and hasn’t been for centuries. Subsequent popes issued bulls overriding such things as the Inter caetera of 1493. But the Catholic Church has never formally revoked that bull, either. Native rights activists, such as Doctrine of Discovery authority Steve Newcom (Lenape), have been pushing the Catholic Church to formally repudiate it.

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