14551400s: Papal Bulls
Colonization, Captivity, and Catholic Authority
In the 1400s, the Catholic Church served as a pseudo-governmental organization, issuing papal bulls: edicts dictating status, limiting freedom, and permitting the confiscation of land and people. Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V, “granted” Portugal “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.” Combined with the Romanus Pontifex of 1455, which asserted Portugal’s rights to territories it “discovered” along the western African coast, the Inter Caetera of 1456 set Portugal up as a powerhouse of the slave trade.
By 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Spain the sole right to go forth and conquer land and people in the western Atlantic World, establishing colonies as well as converting and enslaving indigenous people. It also reiterated and limited Portugal’s activities in western Africa. Enacted with the intent to spread the Catholic faith and engage in the gold trade, colonization paired with race-based slavery and commercial desires generated significant profit for the Church, Portugal, and Spain. Other European nation states entered the slave trade throughout the 1500s, as the different countries competed for wealth and geopolitical power gained through the model of colonization, slavery, and a plantation economy. Priests stationed in churches embedded in slave forts on the western African coast forcibly baptized captive African people before sending them to a life of enslavement.