“…the ultimate and only radical cure of the vices and miseries of Africa is Christianity…”
— Joseph John Gurney to John Scoble, English Christian ministers, Dec. 5, 1840
A small underground society swelled by devotion to God and by their supernatural acts became cherished by the people and, as we know, hated, hunted and extinguished by the government of Rome, which at that time considered itself to be the center of the known world — Roma Caput Mundi.
Years down the line, in the mid-15th century, with these words — “search out and subdue all Saraceans to perpetual slavery”— Pope Nicolas V made a slave trader of a young Portuguese ship captain. In this shift from outright murder to profiteering, all in the name of religion, the Catholic Church tossed its bedazzled mitre into the ring of what would soon become the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Saraceans (or Saracens) is an old term referring to desert-dwelling peoples, typically of the Islamic faith — opponents of Christianity, heathens and savages. Black and brown folk, naturally. So, Nic — not St. Nicolas, though; thank goodness for small favors — felt authorized and endued with the power of God to compel the enslavement of these and many more sub-Saharan Africans. Nic and fellow church leaders held that “slavery served as a natural deterrent and christianizing influence to ‘barbarous’ behavior among pagans.”
In a decree issued to the Portuguese king, Pope Nicolas gives express permission to invade lands held by non-Christians in Africa and enslave what people the Portuguese encountered there.
“We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation … 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 … possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” the papal bull read.
Fast forward to the early 1500s and the first documented case of captive Africans in the Native territory (later renamed Carolina), where again Whites empowered by government made a device of control out of religion.
“Servants, be obedient unto them that are your masters, according to the flesh, with fear and trembling in singleness of your hearts, as unto Christ, … as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart ... whether he be bond or free,” reads the Bible in the book of Ephesians.
It’s a heart-wrenching reality that this trap of the psyche was the single hope of a violently displaced and unloved people.
Winthrop Jordan writes in The White Man’s Burden that through the mid-1600s the terminology the English most often used to describe themselves was Christian (while at once stealing both land and people). Astounding, but not at all surprising.
So, “heathen” are enslaved under the pretense and justification of a Christian duty to convert, are worked as machinery, bred as livestock, and then die illiterate, destitute and still enslaved, but likely converted — as evidenced by slave narratives of secret prayer meetings in the deep woods amongst themselves.
This fraudulent, circular, manipulative campaign — this salvation story — carried on successfully, with slaves taking on the religion of their oppressors and even becoming Christian ministers themselves, for more than three and a half centuries. In America today, Blacks make up the greatest percentages of regular church goers.
This is a brief history of institutionalized socio-economic management by way of religion, but it’s also a tribute to the Ancestors whom, rent from family and faith, under threat of death for use of their native tongue, not only stabilized themselves on no foundation, but also survived and multiplied in the foreign land of their enemy, so that eventually, in many years to come, a Black woman awakening in Seattle could write this not-so-Christmas story.
Carla Bell is a writer and abolitionist engaged in restorative justice and civil rights advocacy, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.
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