What was the pagan slave trade

How the Church laid the foundation for slavery

By Pavel Jerabek

For years Pius Adiele researched racism and the slave trade in history. How does the Nigerian church historian assess the current discussion about racism and police violence? He explains his findings in an interview.

Pastor Adiele, when you follow recent events in the United States and the current discussion about racism and police violence against African Americans, what are your thoughts?

As a church historian who focuses on the problem of racism and slavery in church history, current events are nothing new to me. There are still phenomena as they happened 600 years ago. The unfair treatment and fatal shooting of African Americans in the United States is also linked to the long history of slavery.

Have people learned so little from the past?

The situation for many African Americans has improved. In my estimation, however, the world has not yet learned that much from the history of slavery. There are still structures of inequality and a feeling of superiority among whites.

How did the slave trade start? This does not fit in with Christian teaching, which wants liberation for all people.

That was one of my research questions: whether the Christian doctrine of the equality of all people also applied to black Africans. If you look at the sources and literature of the time, that was not the case. A central passage is the book of Genesis, chapter 9, verses 18 to 27 - the curse of Ham. The justification of enslavement is based on this passage. There it is said that Noah cursed his son Ham and his descendants to be slaves to his brothers from now on. Christianity adopted this interpretation in the third and fourth centuries. It has been claimed that black Africans are the direct descendants of Ham and should therefore be treated as slaves. Of course, that is not the true interpretation of this passage.

How did this interpretation come about?

The philosopher and poet Philo of Alexandria declared in the first century that the word ham meant "black" and "hot". Christian authors later tried to interpret this in such a way that Ham was no longer white after his cursing by Noah, but was black, and so were all of his descendants. So "black" stood for something negative. The church fathers accepted this interpretation as a character trait and denied the black Africans any morality. And "hot" was seen as the place where these people could be found in the world, and that is Africa.


Pastor Pius Adiele comes from Aboh Mbaise in Nigeria. After studying philosophy and theology, he was ordained a priest on August 2, 1997 in Ahiara Mbaise, Diocese of Imo State. He works as a pastor in the Kapfenburg pastoral care unit and is deputy dean of the Ostalb dean's office in the Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese.

Pastor Pius Adiele comes from Aboh Mbaise in Nigeria. After studying philosophy and theology, he was ordained a priest on August 2, 1997 in Ahiara Mbaise, Diocese of Imo State. He works as a pastor in the Kapfenburg pastoral care unit and is deputy dean of the Ostalb dean's office in the Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese.

In the secret archives of the Vatican and in the National Archives of Portugal he researched for his doctoral thesis on the involvement of the Church in the enslavement of black people. The 600-page work was published by Georg Olms in 2017 under the title "The Popes, the Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans 1418-1839 (Slavery - Servitude - Forced Labor, Vol. 16).

Slavery and oppression are found practically everywhere in history. Were there any differences?

There were very many slave-holding societies - Rome, Greece, Russia, also in Africa, America and Asia. But this racist slave trade didn't exist until the 15th century. It was a different quality, a divine justification was used, so to speak, to keep people with black skin in eternal slavery.

How did the church leadership behave?

Popes have also justified slavery. With the bull "Dum diversas" Nicholas V gave the Portuguese king permission in 1452 to conquer the lands of the infidels and to lead the people living there into slavery. This justified the practice of "shipping the Saracens, pagans, infidels and enemies of Christ". Two years later this was confirmed in the bull "Romanus Pontifex". The King of Portugal believed that he could bring these people to Christianity in this way.

Wasn't there anyone in the church leadership who denounced this?

No. At that time Portuguese were also missionaries in Africa and the King of Portugal reported to the Pope: Through enslavement we lead Africans to the Christian religion in order to save their souls. And the Pope gave the decree to baptize these people.

Shouldn't these people - if one follows this line of argument - then at least get equal rights through baptism?

With the Indians, who were enslaved by the Spaniards at the same time as the Africans, this was the case from 1537. This year Pope Paul III. the bull "Sublimis Deus" issued against the enslavement of the Indians. But the Pope did not deny the enslavement of Africans with a single word. In the case of Africans, baptism was apparently insufficient to free them from slavery. That's what irritates me: that that didn't apply to us. It wasn't until 1839, when slavery had already been abandoned in Europe, that "In Supremo Apostolatus" was the first bull in which the humanity of Africans was also defended.

What role did the missionaries play?

They took part in the enslavement. The Jesuit order, which was active in Brazil or in Maryland in America, even had a slave ship. Jesuits used slaves on their plantations. They still had slaves until 1838. When it became apparent that the Pope denounced the enslavement of black Africans, they did not free their last slaves, but sold them to the southern states. There were also missionaries who spoke out for the liberation of Africans, but they did not get through or were ignored.

How did one deal with the injustice committed with the approval of the Church and by men of the Church from then on?

The popes claimed they had always denounced enslavement. Gregory XVI. (Pontificate from 1831 to 1846) and later Leo XIII. (1878-1903) declared that the Church had always taken a stand against the unjust enslavement of people. But none of the popes until Gregory XVI. in 1839 the black Africans had lost a word of defense. It was only John Paul II who spoke out on a trip to Africa in 1992 and denounced this as an evil. However, we are not mentioned in the great plea for forgiveness for the millennium.

What role did the Age of Enlightenment play in overcoming the myths about certain groups of people?

The state theorist Montesquieu (1689-1755) could not believe that God implanted a human soul in a black body. Hegel (1770-1831) said that the African had no soul. Some philosophers have even reinforced these myths. That was also a surprise for me. Of course, this understanding also flowed into the papal correspondence.

How do you personally deal with this Church mortgage?

I am a historian and a theologian. It is not God who created this injustice, but humans did it. It is people who have misinterpreted the scriptures and misused Christianity. As Christians and as a church, however, we are also in a constant process of conversion. I got over my shock from back then. I maintain my relationship with God and like to be a priest. That's important to me.

How should Christians get involved in the current discussion?

It's about justice. The Christian faith teaches righteousness. It's about human dignity. Everyone is made in the image of God. Not only the laws, but also our actions with one another must be shaped by what is fair. No religion represents this more than Christianity. That is our foundation.

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