The Church had enjoyed 1,500 years during which it had had the power to ban slavery but had failed to do so, or even to have expressed any desire to do so. (The Anglican Church’s missionary organisation , the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, had been branding its slaves on the chest with the word SOCIETY to show who owned them.
Some historians argue that if churches had used their power, the Atlantic slave trade might have never occurred. By the same logic, others argue that the Catholic church and Catholic missionaries could have also helped to prevent the colonization and brutality of colonialism in Africa. However, history shows that the Catholic church did not oppose the institution of slavery until the practice had already become infamous in most parts of the world. In most cases, the churches and church leaders did not condemn slavery until the 17th century. The five major countries that dominated slavery and the slave trade in the New World were either Catholic, or still retained strong Catholic influences including: Spain, Portugal, France, and England, and the Netherlands.
Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons… It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.
The Catholic Church And Its role In Slavery
The actions of the Catholic church towards slavery proved to be insincere. History shows that the first extensive shipment of black Africans that would later become known as the Transatlantic slave trade, was initiated at the request of Bishop Las Casas and authorized by Charles V in 1517. Ironically, Catholic missionaries such as the Jesuits, who also owned slaves, worked to alleviate the suffering of Native American slaves in the New World. While showing mercy to Native Americans, the church placed some books critical of slavery on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Holy Office between 1573-1826. Capuchin missionaries were excommunicated for calling for the emancipation of black slaves in the Americas.
At various points the Catholic church would appease its followers and their conscience by trying to find a middle ground. Because Catholics considered baptized slaves in full communion with the Church, as opposed to some non-Catholic colonies, masters could not kill a slave without facing murder charges. If able, slaves had a right to purchase their freedom, referred to as an act of manumission. Slaves could not be worked on Sundays or on the thirty Catholic feast days, guaranteeing some days of leisure. Slaves could also join lay Catholic fraternal organizations alongside free blacks. All of these protections, perhaps, provided slaves in Catholic territories with a degree of protection from the harshness of the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Amazingly, Catholic Bishops would publicly condemn slavery but privately allowed it to continue in colonies that economically enriched the church.
Finally, in 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that forced slavery was an infamy that dishonored the Creator and was a poison in society.
CATHOLIC CHURCH TIMELINE OF CRITICAL POINTS IN HISTORY
YEAR – CHURCH’S POSITION
362 AD – The local Council at Gangra in Asia Minor excommunicates anyone encouraging a slave to despise his master or withdraw from his service. (Became part of Church Law from the 13 to 20 centuries).
354- 430 AD – St. Augustine teaches that the institution of slavery derives from God and is beneficial to slaves and masters.
650 AD – Pope Martin I condemns people who teach slaves about freedom or who encourage them to escape.
1179 AD – The Third Lateran Council imposes slavery on those helping the Saracens.
1226 AD – The legitimacy of slavery is incorporated in the Corpus Iuris Canonici, promulgated by Pope Gregory IX which remained official law of the Church until 1913. Canon lawyers worked out four “just titles” for holding slaves: slaves captured in war, persons condemned to slavery for a crime; persons selling themselves into slavery, including a father selling his child; children of a mother who is a slave.
1224 – 1274 AD – St.Thomas Aquinas defends slavery as instituted by God in punishment for sin, and justified as being part of the ‘right of nations’ and natural law. Children of a slave mother are rightly slaves even though they have not committed personal sin!
1452 AD – Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas on 18 June, 1452. It authorizes (King) Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers to perpetual slavery.
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 in Africa and the New World.
1493 AD – Pope Alexander VI authorizes the King of Spain to enslave non-Christians of the Americas who are at war with Christian powers.
1494 AD – Pope Alexander VI, in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, divides the known New World between the two countries. As there was a need to locate a group to work in areas where the supply of indigenous labor was insufficient, to sustain their colonies, Spain and Portugal imported Africans.
1500 – 1850 AD – Twelve million Africans arrived in the Americas to toil as slaves. The vast majority of these slaves worked in the Catholic colonies of Spain and Portugal.
1548 AD – Pope Paul III confirms the right of clergy and laity to own slaves
1866 AD – Pope Pius IX declares:
Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.
Pope John Paul II in 1985 apologized to black Africa for the involvement of white Christians in the slave trade.
He said the task of Christians involved ”healing and compassion” because ”the man who is in need, on the side of the road, is their brother, their neighbor.”
He continued, ”In the course of history, men belonging to Christian nations did not always do this, and we ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the trade in blacks.”
The Church of England And Its role In Slavery
The record of the Anglican Church was no better than that of the Roman Church. It was the universal opinion of churchmen that God had ordained slavery, and clergymen had no qualms about owning slaves themselves.
The Church of England generally accepted the idea of slavery. It had links to the slave trade through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and plantations in Barbados. Its slaves were branded on their chest with the word ‘society’. The Church of England supported laws not to educate slaves.
Anglican slave traders were often extremely devout, and widely respected by their fellow Christians. It never occurred to them, or to their priests or ministers, that slave trading might be immoral. The most famous English slave trader, Sir John Hawkins, named his slave ships Angel , Jesus and Grace of God.
Hawkins, a cousin of Sir Francis Drake, had been granted permission from Queen Elizabeth for his first voyage in 1562. He was allowed to carry Africans to the Americas “with their own free consent”. He agreed to this condition, and set sail in the Jesus, a ship lent by the Queen, which her father had bought as Jesus of Lubeck from the Hanseatic League.
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Hawkins had a reputation for being a religious man who required his crew to “serve God daily”. Sir Francis Drake, who accompanied Hawkins, was also devoutly religious. Services were held on board twice a day. Hawkins sold most of the slaves in what is now the Dominican Republic. He came home with ships laden with ivory, hides, and sugar. Queen Elizabeth, livid that slaves had been acquired without their free consent, assailed Hawkins for his detestable behaviour, but soon changed her opinion. When she learned of the profits, the devout Elizabeth joined in partnership with Hawkins to organise fresh expeditions. So began the British slave trade. Hawkins was granted a coat of arms with a crest consisting of a slave (“a bound negro issuant proper.”)
Churchmen owned slaves and were not particularly notable as good masters. Indeed some of the worst masters were clergymen. In the court of St Ann’s in Jamaica in 1829, the Rev. G. W. Bridges was charged with maltreating a female slave. For a trivial mistake he had stripped her, tied her by the hands to the ceiling so that her toes hardly touched the ground, then flogged her with a bamboo rod until she was a “mass of lacerated flesh and gore” from her shoulders to her calves. Cases like this rarely came to court, but when they did they generally ended in acquital, as in this case, so the Reverend gentleman walked free.
The Reverend Richard Fuller summed up the Church’s position in 1845: “What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin”.
The Church had enjoyed 1,500 years during which it had had the power to ban slavery but had failed to do so, or even to have expressed any desire to do so. The Anglican Church’s missionary organisation , the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, had been branding its slaves on the chest with the word SOCIETY to show who owned them.
Bishops of London and archbishops of York were involved in the management of the Society, while its governing body included archbishops of Canterbury. One Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Thomas Secker, wrote to a fellow bishop in 1760 about slave deaths, his concern apparently being for the financial implications: “I have long wondered and lamented that the Negroes in our plantation decrease and new supplies become necessary continually… Surely this proceeds from some defect, both of humanity and even of good policy. But we must take things as they are at present.”
Once reform was in the air, the mainstream churches opposed it with all their power. They vilified reformers and attacked them for daring to question the plain word of God. Anglican clergymen still owned slaves and continued to oppose abolition well into the nineteenth century. One of their number was the most effective supporter of slavery during the 1820s abolitionist campaign in Jamaica. All mainstream Churches agreed with the traditional view that slavery was ordained by God. To practice slavery was therefore meritorious, and to try to stop the practice was sinful.
In 1807 Britain became the first major power to permanently abolish the slave trade, but slave owning was still legal in the colonies. When the British parliament voted to abolish slavery in the colonies in 1833, the Bench of Bishops voted against — as they did on almost all reform bills. To get the bill through, Parliament voted to compensate slave owners (There was no compensation for the slaves themselves). The Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 provided for £20 million to be paid to West Indian plantation slave owners in compensation for the loss of their ‘property’. The Anglican Church received £8,823 8s 9d, for the loss of slave labour on its Codrington plantation in the West Indies.
The Church of England apologised for its part in 2006. In a debate held by the Church’s governing body, before the vote Rev Simon Bessant described the Church’s central role in the slave trade, saying: “We were at the heart of it.” and “We were directly responsible for what happened. In the sense of inheriting our history, we can say we owned slaves, we branded slaves, that is why I believe we must actually recognise our history and offer an apology.”
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