The horrors of slavery remain a blot upon the human conscience and collective human history. However, even in modern times, despite being outlawed many years ago, slavery still continues in various forms, such as prostitution and trafficking, around the world, including in many ‘civilised’ European cities. The Canary Islands have a story to tell about this perfect example of 'man’s inhumanity to man'.
The Spanish occupation of the Canary Islands coincided with the massive deportation of the native Guanches from these islands, many of whom were sent as slaves to Spain and other European countries. The Guanches who remained on the islands were forced to work on the estates and businesses run by their new masters. The ownership of the Canary Islands had been the subject of a long running dispute between Portugal and the Kingdom of Castille for many years. This period of instability resulted in periodic raids on the islands to acquire slaves.
The Catholic Church developed an early form of an anti slavery policy in the 15th century which, to its credit, attempted to rescue many Canary Islanders from the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade. A papal decree, known as Sicut Dudum, was issued in 1435 by Pope Eugene IV, and sent to the Bishop of Lanzarote, which was intended to prohibit Portuguese traders from capturing and incarcerating slaves from the Canary Islands, and shipping them across the Atlantic.
Sadly, this decree only applied to those who had recently converted to Christianity or were, more likely, tricked into baptism, and threatened much dreaded excommunication to those who failed to return the newly processed Christians to the Canary Islands. This decree appears, at first light, to be an enlightened step during those turbulent times to protect Canary Islanders from the evils of this horrendous trade in human lives. However, although African converts to Christianity were now protected by the papal decree, the same did not apply to Muslims, Jews, heathens or atheists who were still considered to be ‘fair game’ by the Vatican.
Whatever the truth behind Pope Eugene’s original intentions, his successor, Pope Nicholas V, as part of the fight against Islam in 1452, gave the Portuguese king the right to enslave people who were not Christian. Indeed, this agreement was used by the Portuguese to enslave Africans for many years to come. Needless to say, there have been many attempts over the years by Christian academics to credit the Vatican as taking the first steps towards the banning of slavery and crediting Pope Eugene 1V, in particular, with enlightened views about freedom and morality, which many present day historians and academics say he simply does not deserve.
Sadly, the truth in the Canary Islands seems to be that you either converted in a manner dictated by Pope Eugene IV or risked being rounded up by the Portuguese and sold into slavery - not really much of a choice, was it? The religious concept of free will appears to have been forgotten too, and due to be repeated many times in the future, with Jewish and Muslim converts joining the ranks of Christianity to avoid the violent machine of the Spanish Inquisition.
Still, as we all know, the rewriting of history is a popular pastime, as well as a strategy much loved by some politicians, historians and newspapers. Maybe some things will never change.
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724