Saturday, April 8, 2023
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Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)


ost of our young Africans, especially those who hadn't the opportunity of studying the history of Africa, and the history of European imperialism and colonialism in Africa from an African perspective, may be surprised with the growing enthusiasm over the recent Vatican Statement denouncing the so-called "Doctrine of Discovery", and why it must interest Africa. Many might have also forgotten that the early papal bulls in question, in relation to the "Doctrine of Discovery" have their roots in Africa.

The papal bulls in question include the following:

- The two bulls, Dum diversas (1452), and Romanus Pontifex (1455), in which Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), granted the Portuguese crown, the rights to lands in Africa, and beyond, and to subjugate all people they (Portuguese) encounter in those territories.

- The bull, Inter Caetera (1493), issued by Pope Alexander (Borgia) VI, in which he authorizes Spain and Portugal, the rights to lands, to colonize the Native peoples of the Americas as subjects. The decree asserts the rights of Spain and Portugal to colonize, convert, and enslave. It also justifies the enslavement of Africans. It gave the Spanish crown all the lands in the Americas west of the extant Portuguese holdings.

- The bull, Quae pro bono pacis, issued in 1506, in which Pope Julius II (1503-1513), divided the overseas continents and islands between Spain and Portugal. Spain was given the West Indies (Americas), while Africa, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and their islands went to Portugal.

In the first place, Papal bulls - from the Latin 'bulla', meaning "seal" with which such documents were authenticated - are principally not doctrinal statements. In the case of the "Doctrine of Discovery" saga, the papal bulls in question were those issued by different popes at the time of European colonial expansionism in Africa, West Indies (Americas), and the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the mid-15th Century. Those papal bulls (decrees), however, were attempts by the popes at that era of European colonial expansionism, exploration and exploitation of Africa, to regulate European crowns doing, first in Africa, and later, in West Indies (Americas), and parts of Asia and Oceania. "As Europeans set out on the seas, the Holy See was called in as a referee regarding competing claims overseas. Also, at that time, missionaries could only get to foreign lands via European explorers, so their status also concerned the Holy See."

All these imply that the issue at stake in the papal bulls in question, in relation to the "Doctrine of Discovery", obviously, has its roots in the European mid-15th Century colonial expansionism and exploitation in Africa. This is why the ongoing discussion on the "Doctrine of Discovery" and the new Vatican Statement repudiating it, should concern any relatively conscious African. It is why we as Africans, ought to appreciate, more than any other people and geographical region of the world, the significance of the Vatican Statement repudiating the "Doctrine of Discovery."

I know before now, most people from Africa may think that the "Doctrine of Discovery" in question, and the Vatican Statement denouncing it, is probably only about the West Indies - Natives of North America, Latin America, the Cariban Islands and the Aborigines of Australia, etc. However, it is clear that the papal bulls in question as well as the Vatican joint Statement on the "Doctrine of Discovery" were not only about those indigenous peoples of the other continents and islands, but basically, also, about African continent and people.

The so-called "Doctrine of Discovery" has its roots in papal concessions to the king of Portugal in the 1450s concerning Africa, well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 to the Americas. And before the Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, sailed down the Coast of the Atlantic Ocean, round the southern coast and crossed Indian Ocean to India in 1498, and encircled Africa for Europe.

The Content of Vatican Statement on the "Doctrine of Discovery"

The Vatican Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development, on Thursday, March 30, 2023, formally, issued a joint-statement, which denounced the infamous "Doctrine of Discovery." The joint statement of the two Vatican Dicasteries made it clear that the so-called "Doctrine of Discovery" is "not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church" and that the Church "repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples."

The Vatican's joint statement acknowledges that those papal bulls "did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples." But great mischief was made by the European colonizers, without adequate objection from missionaries:

"The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon."

The joint statement describes the "Doctrine of Discovery" as a legal and political term, not what Catholics mean by doctrine, truths belonging to the faith. Moreover, historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal bulls in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith. Again, these were the 15th Century papal bulls, through which the popes of the time attempted to regulate what the European crowns were doing in their so-called new found lands in Africa, West Indies (Americas), Asia and Oceania.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasize also, that the term "Doctrine of Discovery" is not a Catholic term. It is a legal principle, which comes from an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court opinion written by John Marshall:

"This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects or by whose authority it was made against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. The exclusion of all other Europeans necessarily gave to the nation making the discovery the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives and establishing settlements upon it."

The Church first condemned the concepts behind this doctrine in a document written by Pope Paul III in 1537. However, it thinks that its repudiation is still very necessary today, as the concepts behind this doctrine is still an issue. As matter of fact, Pope Francis during his last Pastoral Visit to Canada had met with leaders of Canada's First Nations (Natives), at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022. The Pope spoke vehemently against the concepts behind the "Doctrine of Discovery", and tried to distance the Church and its doctrinal teaching from it. The "Doctrine of Discovery" is "a doctrine that is not a doctrine", so to say. It is a mere legal and political appellations used in its secular sense by Western powers, to serve a particular purpose which has nothing to do with the Church's doctrine, or missionary and pastoral praxis, past and present.

To sum up, the "Doctrine of Discovery" is contained in the aforementioned 15th Century papal bulls promulgated during the so-called 'Age of Discovery' - the period of the European expansionism and invasion of sub-African Africa, Americas and parts of Asia and the Oceania. The papal bulls of the "Doctrine of Discovery" were never part of the dogmatic or doctrinal teaching of the Church. The two Vatican Dicasteries' joint statement is very clear on this point. The papal bulls (decrees) are only meant to serve as a mere social and political outreach of the papacy, to help resolve and mitigate the political intrigues and misunderstanding among the European powers during that period of European colonial expansionism into the continents of Africa, West Indies (the Americas), Asia and Oceania and the islands.

Africa and the "Doctrine of Discovery"

The claim of the protesters against the "Doctrine of Discovery" (that is, those who associate it with the papal bulls in question), is this. They claim that, in granting permission to the Portuguese crown to acquire lands in Africa in the mid-15th Century, the papacy created a "doctrine" in which those Europeans who "discovered" lands in Africa (and later in the Americas) could claim them, superseding whatever ownership existed among the Indigenous peoples. This "doctrine" then justified the seizure of Indigenous lands and property and the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, including the enslavement of the Africans by Europeans.

At the end of Slave Trade, and during the 19th Century European colonialism in Africa, the European colonial powers, through their respective Kings and Queens, and later, their sovereign governments, which inherited the control of those lands - African territories from their former European sovereign monarchs, continued with the business as usual. That is, in their relations with the natives of the New Found Lands. Even up to the time of the political independence of most of the African countries, the same tendency has continued. This includes years after the political independence of most of the African nation states from their former European colonial overlords.

In most cases, an entire territory, or country, with all its indigenous ethnic nationalities and peoples, logged together as one nation state, under a colonial fiat, may found themselves, seceded (as a company), to a commercial company owned directly by the crown of the European colonizing power. That was how, for example, Nigeria became the property of the British crown's Royal Niger Company (later re-named, United African Company (UAC), etc. Later, the company transferred the ownership of Nigeria to the Government of Her Majesty in London. Although, Nigeria gained its political independence in 1960, however, the West and other world powers still see and relate with Nigeria from that colonial perspective. That is, as 'a British colony' in the new dispensation of the neo-colonial ideology and project of Western powers and their allies in Africa.

This is because those "Doctrine of Discovery" concepts and principles, although no more officially invoked as before, but by hindsight, the ideals behind those concepts are still in force in the minds of most European and other world powers in their relations with Africa. The "Doctrine of Discovery' is still the 'fermenting' concept guiding the European powers - former African colonial powers' relationship and dealings with Africa. The concepts of the "Doctrine of Discovery" is invoked at some critical situations, as legal and political principles to justify most of the modern-day Western European neo-colonial agenda, stranglehold and continued plunder and exploitation of their former African colonies. It is no longer secret to say that former European colonial powers are still the ones, who from the backdoor, and through proxy, control and determine the political and economic fortunes or misfortunes, as well as directions, most of their former African colonies may choose to take in political and economic matters, among other things.

All these are happening many years after those African countries have gained political independence from their former European colonizers. An egregious example is Nigeria. The continued political imbroglio and instability in the country, if truth, be told, is largely, due to the British and its allies' continued meddling in the internal political affairs of Nigeria, especially, during national elections or times of national political crisis. Same scenario takes place across many countries of Africa, more especially, in the former French colonies of West Africa, among others. Former European colonial powers have refused to allow African people themselves to chart their own destiny as Africans. Although, African politicians and elites have their own blame too, since they are the ones who allow themselves be used as spinoffs (local agents) by the foreign powers to advance the Western neo-colonial agenda against their own people in Africa.

It is true that in 1537, the papacy had robustly clarified the rights of Indigenous peoples, but the attention then was not much about Africa, but rather, the Native Indians of the Americas. Thus, the King of Portugal had continued to appeal to the papal privileges in dealing with Africa up to the 20th Century. That is, until, when other European countries, such as Germany, Britain, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, etc., began to challenge Portugal's monopoly of exploitation of African lands, mineral and natural resources. The beginning of the paradigm shift in Europe's exploitative relationship with Africa - the gradual shift from the Slave Trade at the coastal zones of Africa, to the 19th Century European colonial incursion and invasion of African hinterlands.

Africa and the Maritime Revolution of Portugal and Spain

This was during the time of the Maritime Revolution championed by the Portuguese and Spanish, and which indeed opened a new phase in the history of Africa - paving way for the European penetration of the continent through the Atlantic Ocean voyage. Again, to Portugal and Spain, two Catholic countries and maritime powers in Europe at that time, Vatican assigned the task of seeing to the evangelization of the new found lands in Africa and Americas, respectively. In 1452 Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), in a Bull, "Dum diversas", requested King Alfonso of Portugal to charge of sending missionaries to the territories of new found lands in Africa. While the American continents were assigned to the sovereign of Spain.

This became necessary since it was discovered at the time that Portugal and Spain were found quarrelling over their New Found Lands for economic benefits and political domination. To solve the problem and if to remind them once more, of the necessity to concentrate on their primary duty of seeing to the evangelization of the New Found Lands, Pope Julius II (1503-1513), in a Bull, "Quae pro bono pacis", issued in 1506, divided the overseas continents and islands between Spain and Portugal. Spain was given the West Indies, while Africa, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and their islands went to Portugal.

Armed with the papal patronatus (Portuguese: padroado), the Portuguese sailed down the African coasts and established trading posts at the mouth of the great rivers, giving strange names to the peoples and places they found on the way. The names, which the Portuguese gave to the places along the African coasts indicate somehow what they were expecting from Africa and why they jealously defended their territorial claims there; for example, Pepper Coast, Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast, and so on. However, some of these names have been changed after the independence: For example, the former Gold Coast is now called Ghana, and the former Pepper Coast is the present Republic of Liberia.

Portugal was not alone in penetrating the coastal and interior lands of Africa. For it was not long before other European nations started to develop the same economic interest in Africa and so followed the example of Portugal. By 1590, the Dutch arrived in West Africa and soon challenged the total Portuguese monopoly in the area. In 1640 they destroyed the Portuguese positions in West Africa, leaving them with their strongholds in Angola, S�o Tome and Princip�. The Dutch settled in Cape region of South Africa, and forcefully drove out the natives into arid areas. Some of those deprived of their lands provided cheap labour on the farms of the white settlers. With this practice the seeds of the apartheid system were sown, only to be matured fully, later, and consolidated by laws enacted to protect the interests of the white minority (at the expense of the black majority who were also the owners of the land).

With the arrival of the Dutch and other European nations, such as the British, French and Germans, the real scramble for Africa began. Each European nation tried to establish areas of influence for commercial gains. This time the issue was not only on agricultural products, natural and mineral resources from the soil of Africa, but the Africans themselves became a commodity to be sold in the American plantations which provided raw material for the newly established industries in Europe and America. In his edited two volumes of works on slavery (entitled, "De la traite � l'esclavage" (Actes du Colloque international sur la Traite des Noire), Nantes, Paris, 1985; and "Soci�t� Francaise d'Historie d'Outre-Mer" (Centre de Recherche surl'Historie du Monde Atlantique), Nantes, Paris, 1988), S. Daget narrates not only the history of slave trade in Africa, but also the dehumanizing aspect of it. In a similar spirit J. Ki-Zerbo in his book ("Histoire de l'Afrique Noire", Hatier, Paris, 1972), tells us of how the continent of Africa lost millions of her sons and daughters during those four hundred years of trans-Atlantic slave trade, some sold as slaves, others killed in the slave raids or on the way from Africa to America.

However, while all these were going on the Church issued several statements condemning slavery. Although there have been accusations of one kind or the other, however, it needs to be mentioned that the Church in her official statements spoke vehemently against slavery. For instance, we have records of two Popes of the era who condemned slavery: Urban VIII in his bull of April 22, 1639, and Gregory XVI in his apostolic letter "In Supremo apostolatus" of 1839, regarding the institution of slavery, the bull resoundingly denounces both slave trade and the institution of slavery.

Even the papal privileges granted to the sovereign powers of Portugal and Spain had to be withdrawn. And the Congregation de Propaganda Fide which was founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV became fully responsible for the evangelization of the peoples of the new found lands; since it had been observed that the sovereign powers were more concerned with commercial gains than with the work of evangelization. Even though Portugal had continued to appeal to its papal privileges, which it sought and obtained from every reigning pope from twelfth to eighteenth centuries, on the pretext of Christianizing the infidels in Africa and blocking the advance of Islam; yet, it was clear that Portugal's aim was mainly commercial, and to keep other European nations out. Obviously, this practice was frustrating the process of evangelization that the intervention of the Church through the Congregation de Propaganda could said to be appropriate.


The establishment of the Vatican's Missionary Dicastery - Propaganda Fide in 1622 was part of the genuine efforts of the Vatican to take away the responsibility of foreign missions from the European Sovereigns. Although, Portugal, had continued to appeal to the papal privileges over its African missions and territories, which successive popes conceded them. Only the territories of Asia, Latin America and Oceania were transferred to the Propaganda Fide at its early foundation. That is, until after the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, when the Vatican new missionary juridical system of Ius commissionis, in which mission territories were assigned to different European missionary congregations and institutes, and no longer to the crowns as was the case under the Patronato (Papal Privileges), came into effect.

This was the situation until Vatican II missionary juridical system and mission theology of the local churches as agents of mission came into effect. Today, it is neither the European crown nor foreign missionary institute, but the local church, headed by its bishop that is responsible for the mission in its territory, including, Africa.