A Feeble Blow Against Slavery – It Happened Today, January 13, 2017

So I’m trying hard to be fair here. Which requires me to note that on January 13 of 1435, before European colonization really got going, Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull called Sicut Dudum which said you couldn’t enslave Canary Islanders who had converted to Christianity or were about to.

Sixtus IV was obliged to repeat this warning in "Regimini Gregis", threatening the excommunication of seafarers who enslaved Christians. But as I’m sure you know, it didn’t stick. There was an initial argument that enslaving Africans was OK because they weren’t Christian, but when slaves began announcing their conversion and requesting their freedom it is sadly predictable that they didn’t get it. (Incidentally the Canary Islands have a long and interesting history including, despite being off West Africa, being settled by people who appear to have been more Arab than sub-Saharan African.)

In some cases slave conversions may have been a dodge to get freedom. And it’s not obvious how you would enforce the rule if, after being liberated, they turned around and said actually I don’t find your religion convincing on sober reflection. But it doesn’t really matter in the simpleminded sense that it’s just plain wrong to enslave anybody of any race. A point that was in fact made by the local bishop, Fernando Calvetos, prompting Eugene’s bull.

It’s amazing the feebleness of the reasoning, in retrospect, for enslaving people. The original impetus behind Sicut Dudum was that as the Canaries were disputed between Portugal and Castille people said we might as well, you know, just rush over there in the absence of effective authority and stuff the inhabitants into sacks or something. Even though many of those inhabitants had already converted to Christianity before the shackles descended.

It’s also amazing how readily people acquiesced in what amounted to a rebirth of slavery in the Christian or at least Roman Catholic world after it had all but vanished in the Middle Ages. Including in many cases the Church itself. So it is important to note that there were at least some moves in the other direction, however inadequate, including Sicut Dudum itself, which imposed the penalty of excommunication for anyone who did not free any enslaved Canary Islander. As well as the arguably more significant point that it did not apply more widely, then or later.