the justification for slavery -- 10/07/14

Today's selection -- from Brazil: Five Centuries of Change by Thomas E. Skidmore. Europeans in the 1400s and 1500s, including devout Christian groups such as the Jesuits, developed theological justifications for slavery:

"Slavery [of sub-Saharan Africans] did not begin in the Americas. The Portuguese had been bringing Africans to work as slaves in Portugal since at least the mid-fifteenth century. Given the tenets of the Christian faith ... they looked for and found two principles that could be used as legal justification for enslaving other human beings The first was the principle of the Just War, derived from the debates of classical philosophers and the writings of Christian theologians on how the killing inherent in war could be justified, given the Sixth Commandment (thou shalt not kill). Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) thought up the answer. He specified a war as just and not a sin when three conditions were met. The sovereign had to give authority for it; those who were attacked should deserve it; and the attackers should intend, by their actions, to advance good in the world. The second principle was used to justify slave trading (i.e., the purchase of slaves). This was the principle of ransoming (resgate) -- that is, buying back of -- persons who had been taken as prisoners of war, presumably by the 'unjust' side. Resgate was a very useful rationalization in Brazil because indigenous tribes were sometimes found to have captured members of other tribes for cannibalism ceremonies -- making it particularly 'virtuous' for the colonists to save them from such an 'unjust' fate.

Debret: a Guarani family captured by slave hunters in Brazil.

"The Jesuits were just as comfortable with the principles used to justify the legality of enslavement as were the colonists. Indeed, slave labor was considered necessary to run the mission villages (aldeias) that the Jesuits founded to house the indigenous people they were striving to convert. Jesuits also needed indigenous slaves to run the cattle ranches, cotton plantations, and sugar plantations they set up to finance their mission (and possibly enrich themselves in the process).

"But many Jesuits had considerable qualms about how the settlers were applying the slavery principles on the ground, including the fact that they sometimes raided the mission villages, capturing any Indians they could and causing thousands of others to flee (and thus be lost from the Jesuit sphere of influence). The leader of the Jesuits' first mission to Brazil, Manuel da Nobrega, for example, assessed the colonists' motives this way: 'their subjection of the Indians is not to save them nor to know Christ ... but to rob them of their sons, their daughters, and their women.' But Manuel da Nobrega's sentiments about the indigenous peoples were not always noble. At another point, possibly after the first bishop of Brazil was killed and eaten by indigenous people after a shipwreck, he said, 'Indians are dogs who kill and eat one another. And in their vices and dealings with one another, they are pigs.' "


Thomas E. Skidmore


Brazil: Five Centuries of Change, 2nd Edition


Oxford University Press


Copyright 1999, 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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