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Romanus Pontifex is a papal bull written January 8, 1455 by Pope Nicholas V to King Afonso V of Portugalmarker. As a follow-up to the Dum Diversas, it confirmed to the Crown of Portugal dominion over all lands discovered or conquered during the Age of Discovery. Along with encouraging the seizure of the lands of "Saracens, pagans ... and other enemies of Christ", it repeated the earlier bull's permission for the enslavement of such peoples. The bull's primary purpose was to forbid other Christian nations from infringing the King of Portugal's rights of trade and colonisation in these regions.


The bull praises earlier Portuguese victories against the Muslims of North Africa and the success of expeditions of discovery and conquest to the Azores and to Africa south of Cape Bodajor. It also repeats earlier injunctions not to supply items useful in war such as weaponry, iron or timber to either Muslims or pagans. The weight of the Bull's precedents exist in the passages:


In the early 15th century the Portuguese quest for a sea route to India to participate in the spice trade. As a first step Prince Henry the Navigator launched expeditions to explore the West Coast of Africa.

The expeditions need long years and were expensive. The Portuguese expected, that a later profit need to be shared, because other European countries could use the new sea route, too.

Henry the Navigator, who was the governor of the Order of Christ, negotiated with the Pope and offered him to propagate the Christian faith in the new countries. So the bull was enacted, which politically protected the rights of the Portuguese.



These passages specifically granted to nations and explorers cause to seek out lands unknown to Christians. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued Inter caetera stating one Christian nation did not have the right to establish dominion over lands previously dominated by another Christian nation, thus establishing the Law of Nations. Together, the Dum Diversas, the Romanus Pontifex and the Inter Caetera came to serve as a justification for the Discovery Doctrine and the Age of Imperialism. They were also early influences on the development of the slave trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, even though the papal bull Sublimus Dei of 1537 forbade the enslavement of non-Christians.

Portuguese colonial realm

King Afonso V gave a ceremonial lecture on the bull in Lisbon Cathedralmarker on October 5, 1455 to inform the foreign representatives of commerce.

With the bull the Portuguese had a monopoly for trade in the new areas in Africa and Asia. It also served as the legal basis for boarding foreign ships in that area. From the Portuguese point of view, it was even legal to board ships from Asian countries. The sea trade with Asia, despite the great distance involved, proved highly profitable for Portugal.

About 1600, the Dutch boarded a Portuguese carrack in the Strait of Malaccamarker, which was transferred to Amsterdammarker for a public sale. The auction proceeds were 13 tonnes of gold, and this helped to convince the Dutch government to engage in the Asian trade.

The Dutch East India Company, which was founded in 1602, called the jurist Hugo Grotius to defend the seizure. The result of Grotius's efforts in 1604-1605 was a treatise that he provisionally entitled De Indis (On the Indies) and was long years later published under the title De Jure Praedae (On the Right of Capture). In 1609 a chapter of the treatise was published under the title Mare Liberum (The free Seas), in which he formulated the new principle, that all nations were free to use the sea for seafaring trade.

With that moral ground, the Calvinist Dutch began to fight for the right of seafaring trade in Asia with military forces.


The rights bestowed by Romanus Pontifex have served as the basis for legal arguments over the centuries. The logic of the rights of conquest and discovery were followed in all western nations including those that never recognised papal authority. The U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker ruled in the 1823 case Johnson v. M'Intosh that as a result of European discovery and assumption of ultimate dominion, Native Americans had only a right to occupancy of native lands, not the right of title. This decision was upheld in the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, giving Georgia authority to extend state laws over Cherokees within the state, and famously describing Native American tribes as "domestic dependent nations." This decision was modified in Worcester v. Georgia, which stated that the U.S. federal government, and not individual states, had authority in Indian affairs, but it maintained the loss of right to title upon discovery by Europeans.

In recent years, Native American groups including the Taíno and Onondaga have called on the Vatican to revoke the bulls of 1452, 1453, and 1493.


After Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India in 1498, the Portuguese practiced just trading for four centuries. Portuguese clerics were only responsible for the needs of the Portuguese, and clerics of other nations were not allowed to operate in Portuguese Indiamarker.

In Goamarker envoys of the Pope were arrested and sent back. So the Catholic Church threatened, to open the East for all European Catholics. Around 1540 King John III started the Christian mission by sending the Society of Jesus to Goa. The missionaries were supported by the colonial administration, who offered incentives for baptized Christians (rice for the poor, good jobs for the middle class and military support for the local rulers). The missionaries were successful and spread in Asia.



  • Panzer, Joel S. The Popes and Slavery, New York : Alba House, 1996. ISBN 0-8189-0764-9 Review

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