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The Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

By Candace Santana

As we approach the Emancipation Day holiday in Trinidad and Tobago, it is a good time to discuss a topic whispered about in many circles, the Catholic Church’s involvement in enslavement and the slave trade. Slavery was widespread in the ancient world and found in almost every other ancient civilisation. Enslavement of people from the African continent can be traced back to the 25th century BC starting with the extraordinarily complex Indian Ocean slave trade. The trans-Saharan slave trade can be traced back to the 5th century BC. The Transatlantic slave trade, which impacted us here in the Caribbean and Trinidad and Tobago, started in the 15th century.

The early 15th century was the start of the transition of Europe from the Middle Ages to modernity. It was a period of the rise and fall of many empires, kingdoms and nations, trade, and the arts. Many European monarchies yearned for means to further establish themselves and give them dominance and power. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V’s papal bull (a public decree) Dum Diversas, authorised King Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers” to perpetual slavery. This facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa. Thereafter, the desire to find new routes to India and the East for trade increased because the desire for dominance and power was etched into the society.

By 1492, Spain sponsored a major exploration led by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, he came to the Americas on three voyages, landing in several places from 1492 to 1502 including Trinidad in 1498. Meanwhile, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull, Inter Caetera, in which he authorises Spain and Portugal to colonise the Americas and its native peoples as subjects. This quickly led to the extensive invasion and colonisation of the ‘New World’ which actually was not new but already inhabited by the Amerindian tribes. The decree asserts the rights of Spain and Portugal to colonise, convert, and enslave. It also justified the enslavement of Africans. By 1501, the first African slaves arrived in the Caribbean and landed on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic).

In that time and space, the Church’s view on the transatlantic slave trade mirrored the views of European rulers. They did not view persons from West Africa as morally equal. The only mandate from the Church was to convert, perform the holy sacraments including baptism and to attend Holy Mass on Sunday. Slave owners were also required to give slaves the Sabbath as a day of rest. The Church was subservient to slave-owners and European monarchs. Priests and nuns all had large numbers of slaves and very rarely did Church leaders try to stop slave auction, denounce the religious regimen of the slave quarters or the brutality dished out.

In Trinidad and Tobago and other British territories, the last slaves arrived in 1808 and were freed on August 1, 1838 after an apprenticeship period that started in 1834. Meanwhile in Rome, in 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a papal bull, in which he condemned slavery, with reference to

New World colonial slavery and the slave trade: Inhumanum illud commercium. The exact meaning and scope of this papal bull was disputed at the time and remains so among historians because there was not a clear call for the emancipation of all existing slaves. Spain and Portugal ignored it, while slaves were already emancipated in British and French territories. The Vatican only pronounced clearly against slavery after, Brazil, one of the largest and last Catholic countries in the Americas had abolished slavery in 1888.

Reading and researching this broke my heart! Being a facilitating agent of the enslavement of people is probably one of the biggest and most inhumane errors of the Church in its long history. I am horrified that my Church that taught me about love, respect, justice, mercy, and compassion was an enabler to the slave trade and the oppression of people from West Africa. One hundred to 150 years after the Emancipation of slaves, Pope John Paul II formally apologised to African leaders for the Church’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. He said, “we ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the slave trade” This led to a multitude of Orders apologising for their slave-holding pasts and beginning to take steps to atone for it in various ways.

On July 10, 2015, during a speech in Bolivia, Pope Francis apologised and asked for forgiveness for the ‘grave sins’ committed by the Church during the colonial era. He called for a global social movement to shatter a ‘new colonialism’ that has fostered inequality, materialism, and the exploitation of the poor. The Church recognised its role, its misstep, and its own wrongdoings during the colonisation of the Americas. This brought to the forefront growth in the Church’s approach to its own history and deep introspection into the way forward. It illustrated to every Catholic around the world and the global community that even an institution as mighty and as powerful as the Church needed to humble itself, repent for the sins, open the wounds of the past, forgive and start the healing process. “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” — James 5:16.

Apologising and repenting is a great first step but was not enough especially since it is estimated by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that the transatlantic slave trade, the largest long-distance forced movement of innocent people in history uprooted 25 to 30 million Africans, shackled, dragged off to the Americas and the Caribbean and forced to endure unspeakable misery, as did their descendants for hundreds of years. Since 1985 to the present, the Church has made an effort to bring redress and reparation in various ways and will continue to do so for a long time to come.