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Was the 'Discovery' of America a 'Holy and Praiseworthy' Christian Mission?

Can the European discovery and acquisition of land in America, either in intent or execution, be properly characterized as a project to pursue the “holy and praiseworthy” work of encouraging the rise and spread of the Catholic faith? Let’s pause for a moment, then, and take a better look at the principal architect of this “holy and praiseworthy” mission and the man who chose to frame the mission in such words, Pope Alexander VI.

Who was Pope Alexander VI?

Prior to his election, Pope Alexander VI was the Cardinal Borgia, and as such a member of one of the most notorious Spanish clans of the early Renaissance. He was a true Borgia in name and in blood, characterized by ambition, avarice, and sensuality and as “totally without scruple”. And, his election to the Holy See did nothing to curb his desires or his ambition. “When the Pope in course of time fell under the influence of his son Cesare Borgia, his violent measures assumed that character of devilish wickedness which necessarily reacts upon the ends pursued.” In terms of calculation and conspiracy, the very manner of his election as God’s appointed representative stands as one of the hallmark achievements of this ruthless clan. Pope Alexander VI fathered eleven children, and his court was known principally for its lasciviousness and the practice of simony and nepotism. He was rumoured to have died accidentally by his own 

hand alongside his son Cesare Borgia after mistakenly eating sweetbreads destined for a wealthy cardinal whose assets were coveted by the two Spaniards. His son Cesare’s adviser was none other than Machiavelli and Cesare is considered to be the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book on power politics, The Prince. Certainly, the context was different, but at the same time, Pope Alexander VI was an essential player in the nascent “great game” of European overseas expansionism during the 15th century. The proper successor of Pope Alexander VI in the contemporary world would not be Pope Francis, but rather a former President or Prime Minister sitting on the advisory board of a global resource company.

Was the Vatican’s aim and purpose to pursue the “holy and praiseworthy” work of spreading the Gospels?

Pope Alexander VI was also the man who proclaimed Inter Caetera, the decree that was to divide the world into two and alter the destiny of the Americas. He achieved his supreme rank as “Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God etc”, amidst rumours of bribery and against the backdrop of a College of Cardinals well-disposed to such practices. The College of Cardinals was a long ways from its days of the early Roman Church, and “had become a representative body for European monarchs and princes as well as one in which the popes could, and did, perpetuate the influence of their families in the affairs of the Church”. Of the 27 cardinals alive upon the death of his predecessor, Pope Innocent VIII, no fewer than ten were cardinal-nephews, eight were crown nominees, four were Roman nobles and one other had been given the cardinalate in recompense for his family's service to the Holy See. Only four were able career churchmen.

To characterize the Vatican during the Age of Discovery as a well-meaning Christian mission doesn’t fully reflect the reality of a body of well-seasoned practitioners of the art of the deal, and still less the inclinations of the supreme Pontiff himself. Although there’s mention of bringing “barbarous” nations to the faith, the underlying intent of Inter Caetera, and particularly the two Papal Bulls that preceded, Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Dum Diversas (1452) was to legitimize the Portuguese monarchy’s engagement in the slave trade in North Africa and thereafter to justify land claims in the New World by other Christian monarchs.

The moral/legal pretext invoked by the Vatican to ratify the Spanish crown’s project to discover and seize lands in the Americas invites a comparison with certain modern-day corporate and para-public entities that justify large-scale land and resource acquisition in Africa on the basis of higher causes such as sustainable development, food security or even wildlife conservation. This technique is certainly worthy of further investigation.

Were the Papal Bulls naive wishes to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with heathen?

Any suggestion that the spoliation and oppression of indigenous peoples are the unintended result of an altruistic mission gone awry would appear to be contradicted by the Papal Bulls themselves. The very existence of the New World at the time of Papal Bulls was of recent vintage and still subject to speculation in the mid-15th century. But the intent of exploration was plain and unmistakeable from the outset. The goal and end purpose was acquisition and its animus was greed. Romanus Pontifex authorizes the Portuguese King “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed […] and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” The Letters Patent issued to the explorers Cabot, that underlie the entire North American claim to radical title, authorize the three Italian explorers to “subdue, occupy and possesse” all the “townes, cities, castles and isles […]of the heathen and infidels” provided they were unknown to Christian Kings.

An increasing number of writers on the issue of indigenous land title, principally Steven Newcomb, have been arguing for years that the basis for the notion that the US government has title to lands in America is grounded in these Papal Bulls. As Newcomb, Peter d’Errico and Robert Miller have repeatedly pointed out, the leading US case in the field, Johnson v. M’Intosh, implicitly acknowledges the connection between the Papal Bulls of Discovery and the government claim to superior title. The issue is gaining traction worldwide. The Long March to Rome, a march of indigenous peoples worldwide on the Vatican to formally seek revocation of the Papal Bulls of Discovery, is scheduled for May 2016. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike can benefit from learning how the 15th century Vatican manufactured a system of inequality to legitimize first the slave trade and thereafter the assertion of sovereignty over the New World, with little regard for the impact of such a policy upon indigenous peoples worldwide.

David MacKinnon (top photo) is a former trial lawyer, member of the Law Society of British Columbia and the Barreau du Québec. Dr Sandra J.T.M. Evers (bottom photo) is a tenured professor and Senior Researcher in Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Long March to Rome 2016 is a worldwide public awareness march of indigenous peoples on the Vatican to formally seek rescission of the Papal Bulls of Discovery, Romanus Pontifex, Dum Diversas and Inter Caetera. For more information, please consult: