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This Week In History

Romanus Pontifex and the Age of Imperialism. January 8, 1455.

From the point of view of European History, the coast of Guinea has always been mainly associated to slavery. In fact, one of the names used commonly for this region is “The Slaves Coast”. When Portuguese arrived at the Atlantic coast of Africa around 1430, they were mainly interested in gold. Since Mansa Musa´s, king of the Empire of Mali, hajj to Mecca in 1325 with 500 slaves and 100 camels, each of them loaded with gold, the region was famous for its richness. The commerce of Subsaharan Africa had been until then controlled by the Islamic Empire that extended along the north of Africa. The commercial routes of the Muslims crossed the Sahara Desert. These routes had existed for centuries and the main goods were salt, textiles, fish, grain and slaves. When the Portuguese extended their influence along the western coast, they created commercial posts in Senegambia, Mauretania and Guinea.

Romanus Pontifex was a papal bull granted by Pope Nicholas V to king Alfonso V of Portugal on January 8, 1455.

Through this document, the pope recognized the right of the Kingdom of Portugal (specifically to Alfonso V, his successors and Prince Henry) to the exclusive property of all the islands, lands, ports and seas conquered in the regions comprehended between Cape Bojador and Cape Nam, all through Guinea and over until the meridional shore. It also assured the right to continue their conquers against “muslims and pagans” in these territories, as well as the right to commerce with the inhabitants of these territories, conquered or about to be so, except for products forbidden to the unbelievers: iron tools, wood for building, ropes, ships or armours.

This papal bull was confirmed years later by the following popes, Calixtus III in 1456 (bull Inter Caetera) and by Sixtus IV in 1481 (bull Aeterni Regis).

This document contains also the Portuguese Crown´s official account of their discoverings around the “Ocean Sea” in the first half of the 15th century. This account starts with the conquer of Ceuta by King Juan, after which prince Henry fought against unbelievers in Morocco, populated some islands and converted to Christianism some inhabitants of other islands. The account also asserts that the Portuguese continued sailing in their caravels in expeditions to the “shores of the South and to the East”, through territories that had been unexplored before, searching for “the Indians that are said to adore the name of Christ”. It also mentions seeking to subjugate and convert to Christianism the pagan peoples thay they could encounter en route.

According to the bull, some time later, the Portuguese arrived at Guinea, where they conquered some islands and ports and discovered the estuary of a great river. They fought for years with the inhabitants of the region until they were able to subdue a number of nearby islands. From these lands they brought to Portugal “Guinean and other negroes” for slaves, some captured by force and others brought through “licit commerce”. Finally, the king and the prince of Portugal granted themselves the monopoly of the commerce of the region, granting licenses to commerce or to fish in exchange of the payment of a tax.

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