The Roman Catholic popes influenced European expansion into Africa, the Atlantic, and the world at large. One of the key ways they did so was through decrees and church policy. The religious influence was especially great before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century fractured Christendom in western Europe. This, then, is the period most under consideration in this entry, and the texts and wider contexts for papal donations or bulls in regard to colonization will be the main focus. Bulls are papal letters or edicts, the name of which derives from the Latin bulla, or leaden seal, which most often sealed the documents. These letters gathered more weight as the Middle Ages progressed. Donations were gifts or endowment of lands. The most famous was the Donation of Constantine, which stated that the Roman Emperor gave Italian lands to Sylvester, bishop of Rome (pope), in order to give papal territorial claims longer and more sturdy and lofty origins, but Lorenzo Valla (ca. 1407-57), an Italian humanist, showed this to be a forgery of the eighth century. This donation was a prototype to the donations made by the Holy Roman Emperor and the popes. Bulls of donation were, then, edicts setting out a gift of lands.


The language of the church, of canon law, and of papal authority became an instrument of European expansion and the subjugation of other regions and peoples. A legal framework was developed as the Iberian powers expanded.

Until the fifteenth century, relations with Islam had been a significant political and juridical consideration. In Iberia (a peninsula now occupied by Spain and Portugal), also known as Hispania, the Moors were thought to inhabit terra irredenta, lands that needed to be restored to legitimate Christian rulers, whereas pagan lands in Africa were considered terra nullius, uninhabited lands in the sense that these people lived without civility or a polis. Earlier writings, like those of Hortensius (Cardinal Henry of Susa, d. 1271), were used to justify Portuguese claims in Africa: Christ embodied temporal and spiritual lordship over the world, and this dominion was passed on to his representatives, the pontiffs or bishops of Rome, who could also delegate lordship over non-Christian lands.


The rediscovery of the Canary Islands off northwest Africa led to a conflict between Portugal and Castile. Pope Clement VI’s (1291-1352) bull of 1344 gave Don Luis de la Cerda (d. 1348), uncle of King Alfonso XI, king of Castile (1312-1350), the authority to Christianize the islands, but when he failed to take possession, Portugal and Castile, which had supported his claim, continued their disagreement. Later bulls of donation alternately favored the two sides. Not until 1479 was the question of ownership settled: by the Treaty of Alcafovas, Portugal ceded the Canaries to Castile.

Africa was the ground for the second controversy between Portugal and Castile. After the conquest of Ceuta in Morocco in 1415, Portugal made its claim in Africa by carrying out military expeditions in Morocco and voyages to Guinea. In the language of papal bulls, treaties and travel narratives attempted to establish the authority of the Europeans over various local or native populations. Slavery, trade, religion, and possession all were expressed in these documents. The Moors and Portuguese took slaves from each other. After the capture of Ceuta, slaves were more abundant and the papacy sanctioned the Portuguese practice.

On April 4, 1418, Pope Martin V (1368-1431) issued the bull Sane Charissumus, in which he appealed to Christian kings and princes to support Joao I (John I, 1357-1433) of Portugal in his fight against the Saracen Muslims from the Middle East and other enemies of Christ. Duarte Pacheco Pereira (ca. 1450-ca. 1526) noted the ”holy revelation” that Prince Henry (1394-1460) of Portugal experienced when he learned of the ”discovery” and ”when the first negroes were brought to these realms,” so that ”he wrote to all the kings of Christendom inviting them to assist him in this discovery and conquest in the service of Our Lord, each of them to have an equal share of the profits, but they, considering it to be of no account, refused and renounced their rights” (63-64). Pereira observed that Prince Henry, under the authority of his brother, Afonso V (1432-1481), then presented, as part of his case for the right of conquest, the renunciation of the other European kings.

On September 8, 1436, Pope Eugene IV (13831447) published the bull Rex regum, which said that all newly conquered lands would belong to Portugal. This language was part of a conflict of expansion between Christian and Muslim states, but would set a precedence for western Europe in its expansion into sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the New World. The route of Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469-1524) to India was a great event. Language, trade, and empire traveled the same routes. In 1434 the Portuguese navigator Gil Eanes helped to lead the way to the upper Niger, Guinea, and Senegal, where in the 1440s and 1450s slaves and gold made for a lucrative trade.

In Africa, as in the Canaries, the kings of Castile based their claim to conquest on its possession by their ancestors, the Visigoths. The doctrine of dominion over non-Christians imbued the language of a papal bull in 1452, which donated to the crown of Portugal sovereignty over subjects in the lands that had been discovered, and another in 1454 over peoples in territories that the Portuguese might discover in Africa as they proceeded south. By 1454, the two countries were embroiled in this African controversy. The crown was obliged to convert these peoples, who could be conquered if they resisted trade with, the dominion of, and evangelization by Christians.

In these bulls the pope gave Portugal a monopoly in the expansion south of Morocco on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455) issued the bull Romanus pontifex on January 8, 1455, giving exclusive rights to King Alfonso of Portugal in this African exploration and trade and thus extending the bull Dum diversas (June 18, 1452), in which Nicholas had given Alfonso the right to conquer pagans, enslave them, and take their lands and goods. The language of these bulls attempted to extend the pope’s authority and to rule on how Europe would expand. This linguistic framework had consequences for the European powers and the peoples with whom they came into contact. In the bull Rex regum (January 5, 1443), Pope Eugenius IV (13831447), Nicholas’s predecessor, had taken a neutral stance between Castile and Portugal regarding Africa.

The Europeans themselves did not accept these papal documents, but used them to establish authority over other cultures. The Castilians would not recognize the authority of the papal letters and continued to claim Guinea until 1479, when, after the War of Succession (in which Alfonso invaded Castile in an attempt to annex it), Portugal ceded the Canaries and Castile acknowledged Portugal’s claim to Guinea, the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands. This language of church authority had, but did not have, the power of enforcement.

The bulls of donation, or papal bulls, were not permanent laws. The parties involved in the disputes did not always accept them as remedies. Even though Portugal and Spain did not always admit the authority of these papal bulls or donations, these states insisted—from the late fifteenth century onward—that other nations, like France and England, abide by the papal bulls dividing the “undiscovered” world between the Iberian powers. Religious, legal, economic, and political aspects of language blend in the story of European expansion.

Portugal worked hard to differentiate itself: its quest for a Christian and “national” identity involved defeating the Moors and expanding effectively into Africa earlier than Spain. In the early 1450s, Muslim armies attacked Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and laid siege to Cyprus, Rhodes (in Greece), and Hungary. With expectations that this offensive would counter the attacks on Europe, Nicholas V was hopeful that the people of India would help Christians fight against Islam.

On February 16, 1456, Pope Callistus III (13781458) published the bull Etsi cuncti, in which he no longer addressed the other rulers of Europe, but instead appealed directly to Portugal to maintain monasteries in Ceuta. On August 31, 1471, Afonso published a law that forbade, under pain of death and the confiscation of ships, trade in and about Guinea. The Treaty of Toledo (March 6, 1480) confirmed Africa as Portugal’s sphere and the Canary Islands as Spain’s. A month later, Afonso ordered Portuguese captains that found foreigners in the seas in and about Guinea to seize their ships and throw those on board into the ocean.

During the fifteenth century, Portugal was cautious about expansion, looking after national self-interest and control. The Portuguese court had turned down the proposal of Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482) for a westward voyage in 1474 and dismissed Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) ten years later. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the French, Portuguese, and Spanish attempted to make territorial claims and seek remedies through papal bulls, even though the bulls were not permanent laws. The Portuguese had their own plans for southern and eastern expansion but also reacted to Columbus’s voyages by dividing the world unknown to Europeans with the Spanish by way of papal bulls.

Legal and political differences marked the Iberian expansion. One way of addressing controversies between Spain and Portugal was canon law, a mixing of legal principles with religious politics, as the name would suggest. In these donations, the issue of slavery arose early in the expansion of Spain and Portugal. As the bull Romanus Pontifex had given the Portuguese the right to reduce the “infidels” to slavery, the inhabitants of these new lands—”so unknown to us westerners that we had no certain knowledge of the peoples of those parts” (January 8, 1455, in Davenport, 21)—had no rights because they were not Christian. This pattern was like the one the popes made in their donations concerning the New World, except as the natives were deemed barbarous and not infidels, they were saved from slavery—at least theoretically—by their potential for conversion.

After Columbus’s landfall in the New World, the papacy continued to play a role in legitimizing exploration. Expansion and slavery owed something to the authority of the church, whose regulations were meant to underpin the political and economic power of Catholic Europe. Slavery was to become a key factor in the Portuguese role in the colonization of the New World.


Columbus changed this short-lived monopoly, and Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), a native of Valencia, Spain, passed five bulls that curtailed Portuguese power in expansion and discovery. In particular, Alexander’s Dudem siquidem (September 25, 1493) decreed that the Spaniards could sail westward and claim any area in India that the Portuguese had not discovered. To do damage control, Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494). These Portuguese attitudes toward monopolies, law, and violence would be played out and imitated later on, as can be seen in the discussion of Brazil as described by Jean de Lery (1990).

The Spanish Crown had tried to address these abuses, but sometimes its legalistic responses, such as the Requerimiento (Requirement) of 1510, were grotesque. The Requerimiento ranged from the Old Testament figure of Adam, through the papal donation of the lands to the Spaniards and a demand for homage from native peoples, to a threat of destruction if they did not agree. This document was to be read to American Indians before battle, even though it was in a language and a part of a legal tradition that the natives could not understand. Sometimes it was read from afar or while villages slept. In effect, the Requerimiento was often a text and pretext of the destruction of native peoples and cultures.

During the 1490s, the pope had Iberian connections, whereas his successor in the early 1530s had a family member in a key post in France. On one occasion, as much as French king Francois I (1494-1547) seemed to ignore the papal donation dividing the ”unknown” world between the Iberian powers, he sought to avoid the condemnation of Rome. On his behalf, through his relations with Cardinal Hippolyte de Medicis (1511-1535), archbishop of Montreal and nephew to the pope, Jean Le Veneur (?-1543), bishop of Lisieux (cardinal 15331543), approached Pope Clement VII (1478-1534), who declared in 1533 that the bulls of 1493 applied only to lands known to the Spanish and Portuguese before that date.

In 1532 the French king had come on a pilgrimage to Mont-Saint-Michel, France, where Le Veneur was also the abbot. Le Veneur had proposed to the king that he back a voyage of discovery and presented the French navigator Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), whose relative was a manager of the finances of the abbey, as his choice to lead it. It appears that the success of that mission helped to make Le Veneur a cardinal. Clement’s successor, Pope Paul III (1468-1549), did not intervene in the French colonization of America, a policy that troubled Charles V (1500-1558), the Holy Roman emperor. France was mounting a considerable challenge to Spain.

The English mounted a textual challenge to the legacy of Columbus and the papal donations that justified extending Iberian expansion. In Nova Britannia (1609), which was a promotional tract about Virginia, Robert Johnson (fl. 1586-1636) raised—as seen in earlier English works, including the “Discourse” (1584, pub. 1877) of the English geographer and historian Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1552-1616)—the specter of Alexander’s papal donation in the 1490s, which still had the power to haunt those in England who would promote colonization in the northern reaches of America. Johnson questioned Alexander’s donation and ridiculed the donation of Constantine (d. 337) of the western Roman Empire to Rome. In his appeal to “truth,” Johnson questioned how a temporal prince could give that empire to a pope and how a pope could donate the West Indies to a temporal prince. Furthermore, Johnson likened the donation of Alexander to the legalistic and tyrannical maneuvers of the flatterers of Cambyses II (d. 522 b.c.e.), king of Persia, to make the laws justify his incest. Beyond this attack on the authority of the popes, Johnson called the papal donations ”legendarie fables.”

The early promoters of Virginia also called into question Alexander VI’s donation. William Strachey’s The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1612) expressed a similar view on the lack of authority of papal bulls of donation. In the context of continued anxiety over the myth of origins and the papal authority behind the Spanish Empire, Samuel Purchas (1577-1626), a compiler of travel books, first referred to the Spanish missionary Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566). The compiler presented a commentary on the papal donation of 1493, which gave Spain the New World; he reprinted the donation and noted that the historians Francisco Lopez de Gomara (ca. 1511-1566) and Richard Eden (ca. 1521-1576) had included it in their work. Purchas attacked Pope Alexander VI personally and identified the corruption of Alexander with the corrupt nature of the papacy. His rhetorical strategy was to attack the papacy and the pope who gave Spain authority to colonize the New World and so to attack Spain indirectly. After pages of learned polemics and invective, bolstered with biblical typology and legal argument, Purchas quoted Francisco de Vitoria (ca. 1483-1546), ”a Spanish divine,” to prove that the pope had no authority in temporal matters and that the donation of 1493 was void. Vitoria’s proofs supported Purchas’s following propositions: ”That the Pope is not Lord of the World, That the Temporall Power depends not of him.” In 1615 Edward Grimestone translated into English the writings of Pierre d’Avity (1573-1635), who also questioned Catholicism, Alexander VI’s donations, and the view of Spain as the savior of America from the English and the Philippines from the Muslims.

Pope Alexander VI's Bull of Demarcation. This bull, issued by Alexander in 1493, divided the world between Spain and Portugal. The document is now held by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Pope Alexander VI’s Bull of Demarcation. This bull, issued by Alexander in 1493, divided the world between Spain and Portugal. The document is now held by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The United States later weighed in on the debate on donations and colonization. The buildup to and the actual Colombian World Exposition of 1893 in Chicago illustrates this interest. William Curtis’s scrap-book on the fair in the archives at Princeton University is a case in point. As an advocate of free trade and of the exhibition, Curtis himself played a role in Latin America and the exposition, which was partly about the United States as the leading American country and as the inheritor of the legacy of Columbus. As a collector and booster, Curtis found that Columbus and national origins were important to him and the fair for which he worked. One article, ”A Famous Papal Bull Wanted,” began:

William E. Curtis is, in the interest of the World’s fair, hunting for a copy of the famous bull of Alexander VI (1493) dividing the new world between the Spaniards and Portuguese. The particular copy he is after was bought at auction in London 37 years ago for some as yet unidentified New York collector. The only other known copy of the original pamphlet is in the Royal library in Munich.

This was the bull forged in response to Columbus’s landfall in the western Atlantic. The papal donations had now become museum pieces for display; they were no longer the threats that the French, English, and others had found in the Iberian monopoly on colonization.


Slavery and some of the donations went hand-in-hand. In their general policy and writing, the popes had a mixed view of slavery. In the sixteenth century, Las Casas and Pope Leo X (1475-1521) could argue against the teachings of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) and his followers, like the Spanish theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573), that slavery was unnatural and inhumane in the case of the Indians in the New World, but they did not make the same argument for Africans. In the seventeenth century, more antislavery voices arose. Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644), for example, condemned slavery in a letter of 1639 and threatened excommunication to those who practiced it.

The papal bulls and their successors constitute the legal and quasilegal underpinning of Iberian and western European expansion. Those laws engendered further interpretations, political documents, and reactions—such as the Code Noir in France (Black Code, 1688), the Declaration of Independence (1776) in America, and the abolition of the slave trade in Britain and the United States (1808). The papal donations were central to the story of western European, and particularly Iberian, expansion into Africa, the Atlantic, and beyond. To some, the donations might seem distant and strange to the modern world, perhaps not even immediate enough to display in collections, as in 1893, but they were key to the shaping of the modern world well beyond the Catholic domain.

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