1430s - Portugal establishes colonies in Africa

A map of 15th century Portuguese colonial explorations in Africa.

      The famous North African port of Ceuta was the Muslim staging ground for invasions of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century.  This Portugese conquest set up further explorations that led to the discovery of Madiera, the Canary Islands, the Cape Verdes Islands, and other lands on the west African coast, all raising the ire of their Iberian neighbors, the Spaniards.  (For more, click here)

      Since Spain and Portugal could not be trusted to settle their differences, Pope Eugenius IV responded to the crisis by banning all European Christians from the Canary Islands in order to protect the converted populations.  This was a momentous intervention by a fearless pope.  The Portuguese king's men, who had been raping, plundering and terrorizing the timid natives of the Canary Islands, pleaded with the pope to lift his ban ay arguing that agents of the king were bringing the heathens into Christ's flock.  With slightly different language, these are the same arguments Americans would use under the banner of Manifest Destiny to claim Indian lands in the Americas four centuries later. 

      Eugenius asked his lawyers to come up with a proper theological response to the Portuguese king's request. (For more on Eugenius, click here)

      The lawyers defaulted to Innocent IV's commentary, arguing that the Pope could direct his agents to deprive infidels of their property if they refused to yield to the civilizing influence of Christian missionaries. 

       His subsequent bull codified these opinions and authorized the Iberian kings' to convert the 'barbarous natives and control the islands' in the name of the papal see.  As Robert Williams notes in The American Indian In Western Legal Thought: Discourses on Conquest, the door to conquest and the subjugation of native peoples in the Americas, based on Natural law and theocratic responsibility, were now in place at the threshold of the Age of Discovery.  Eugenius' bull would be repeated several more times, in refined forms, in the 15th century, bringing Innocent IV's original commentary into Pope Nicolas V's final decree, Romanus Pontifex, issued in 1453, which gave the Portuguese crown full title to any territories in the African region, and gave the king full authority to "freely and lawfully...make in those territories...any prohibitions, statutes and decrees whatsoever, even if they be penal and include the imposition of any kind of tribute." http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11058a.htm

        Nicholas V was granting the kings plenary power to establish and enforce trade monopolies against other European nations, a nod of approval that legitimated the Portuguese slave trade on the Gold Coast of Africa under the pretense of establishing "the higher transcendent goals of unity and hierarch contained in the pope's Petrine Mandate.