Pope Nicolas V and the Portuguese Slave Trade · African Laborers for a New Empire: Iberia, Slavery, and the Atlantic World · Lowcountry Digital History Initiative
Fifteenth-century Iberian legal traditions regulated Christians’ treatment of Jews, Muslims, and other Christians, clearly delineating, for example, who was enslaveable and who was not. In contrast, the juridical status of people who did not fit these categories was more ambiguous. Legal and philosophical arguments to address this issue began to evolve during the second half of the fifteenth century, once Portuguese mariners began to return to Iberia with captives acquired in West Africa and West Central Africa. Notably, the treatment of “black Gentiles” was addressed in 1452 and 1455, when Pope Nicolas V issued a series of papal bulls that granted Portugal the right to enslave sub-Saharan Africans. Church leaders argued that slavery served as a natural deterrent and Christianizing influence to “barbarous” behavior among pagans. Using this logic, the Pope issued a mandate to the Portuguese king, Alfonso V, and instructed him:
. . . to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever …[and] to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit . . .
Romanus pontifex, papal bull of Pope Nicolas V, Portugal, 8 January 1455, courtesy of the Arqivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, Portugal. This papal bull legally granted Portugal the right to enslave any and all people they encounter south of Cape Bojador, on the coast of Western Sahara. About midway through the bull, the Pope declares all Sub-Saharan Africans henceforth be held in perpetual slavery.
We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso—to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.
[Translation from Davenport, Frances Gardiner. Ed. European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.: 1917, p. 23.]