Romanus Pontifex

"Romanus Pontifex" [See full text pp.13-20 (Latin) and pp.20-26 (English) in [ "European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies to 1648"] , Washington, D.C., Frances Gardiner Davenport, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1917-37 - Google Books. Reprint edition, 4 vols., (October 2004), Lawbook Exchange, ISBN 1-58477-422-3] is a papal bull written January 8 1455 by Pope Nicholas V to King Afonso V of Portugal. 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.


Aside from long passages of praise for the success of earlier expeditions of conquest into Africa and a call to limit trading on terms of equality with non-Christians, the weight of the Bull's precedents exist in the passages: cquote|...those Catholic kings and princes, who... not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion, sparing no labor and expense, in order that those kings and princes, relieved of all obstacles, may be the more animated to the prosecution of so salutary and laudable a work.

...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, 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 -- by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.


In the early 15th century the Portuguese quest for a sea route to India to participate in the spice trade. As a first step Prince Henry the Navigator launched expeditions to explore the West Coast of Africa.

The expeditions need long years and were expensive. The Portuguese expected, that a later profit need to be shared, because other European countries could use the new sea route, too.

Henry the Navigator, who was the governor of the Order of Christ, negotiated with the Pope and offered him to propagate the Christian faith in the new countries. So the bull was enacted, which politically protected the rights of the Portuguese.



These passages specifically granted to nations and explorers cause to seek out lands unknown to Christians. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued "Inter caetera" stating one Christian nation did not have the right to establish dominion over lands previously dominated by another Christian nation, thus establishing the Law of Nations. Together, the "Dum Diversas", the "Romanus Pontifex" and the "Inter Caetera" came to serve as the justification for the Discovery Doctrine, the global slave trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism.

Portuguese colonial realm

King Afonso V gave a ceremonious lecture on the bull in Lisbon Cathedral on October 5, 1455 to inform the foreign representatives of commerce. [cite web |url= |title="University of Calgary: Religion & Exploration"| accessdate=2007-12-28| format=HTML]

With the bull the Portuguese had a monopoly for trade in the new areas in Africa and Asia. It also served as the legal basis for boarding foreign ships in that area. From the Portuguese point of view, it was even legal to board ships from Asian countries. The sea trade with Asia, despite the great distance involved, proved highly profitable for Portugal.

About 1600, the Dutch boarded a Portuguese carrack in the Strait of Malacca, which was transferred to Amsterdam for a public sale. The auction proceeds were 13 tonnes of gold, and this helped to convince the Dutch government to engage in the Asian trade.

The Dutch East India Company, which was founded in 1602, called the jurist Hugo Grotius to defend the seizure. The result of Grotius's efforts in 1604-1605 was a treatise that he provisionally entitled "De Indis" ("On the Indies") and was long years later published under the title "De Jure Praedae" ("On the Right of Capture"). In 1609 a chapter of the treatise was published under the title "Mare Liberum" ("The free Seas"), in which he formulated the new principle, that all nations were free to use the sea for seafaring trade.

With that moral ground, the Calvinist Dutch began to fight for the right of seafaring trade in Asia with military forces.


The rights bestowed by "Romanus Pontifex" have never fallen from use, serving as the basis for legal arguments over the centuries. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1823 case "Johnson v. M'Intosh "that as a result of European discovery and assumption of ultimate dominion, Native Americans had only a right to occupancy of native lands, not the right of title. This decision was upheld in the 1831 case "Cherokee Nation v. Georgia", giving Georgia authority to extend state laws over Cherokees within the state, and famously describing Native American tribes as "domestic dependent nations." This decision was modified in "Worcester v. Georgia", which stated that the U.S. federal government, and not individual states, had authority in Indian affairs, but it maintained the loss of right to title upon discovery by Europeans.

In recent years, Native American groups including the Taíno and Onondaga have called on the Vatican to revoke the bulls of 1452, 1453, and 1493.


After Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India in 1498, the Portuguese practiced just trading for four centuries. Portuguese clerics were only responsible for the needs of the Portuguese, and clerics of other nations were not allowed to operate in Portuguese India.

In Goa envoys of the Pope were arrested and sent back. So the Catholic Church threatened, to open the East for all European Catholics. Around 1540 King John III started the Christian mission by sending the Society of Jesus to Goa. The missionaries were supported by the colonial administration, who offered incentives for baptized Christians (rice for the poor, good jobs for the middle class and military support for the local rulers). The missionaries were successful and spread in Asia.



*cite book
last =Daus | first =Ronald | authorlink = | coauthors =
title =Die Erfindung des Kolonialismus | publisher =Hammer | date =1983
location =Wuppertal/Germany| pages = | url = | doi = | id = ISBN 3-87294-202-6

*Panzer, Joel S. "The Popes and Slavery", New York : Alba House, 1996. ISBN 0-8189-0764-9 [ Review]

External links

* [ Romanus Pontifex] Encyclical of Pope Nicholas V, January 8, 1455
* [ Sublimus Dei] Encyclical of Pope Paul III: "On the enslavement and evangelization of Indians", May 29, 1537
* [ The Popes and Slavery: Setting the Record Straight] by Fr. Joel S. Panzer
* [ Sicut Dudum] Encyclical letter of Pope Eugene IV: "Against the Enslaving of Black Natives from the Canary Islands", January 13, 1435. Sicut Dudum is one of two bulls issued by Pope Eugene (Eugenius) regarding slaves in the Canary Islands. Both are printed in appendix II, pp. 207-209 of [ "Carácter de la Conquista y Colonizácion de las Islas Canarias: Discursos leidos ante la Real Academia de la Historia"] , (1901) by Don Rafael Torres Campos. See notes, p. 17 in Davenport's "European Treaties"... above.

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