23 February: Cardinal Lavigerie’s Campaign against Slavery, 2.

Pope Leo XIII

Fr Lourdel became influential at the royal court of Buganda, the main kingdom of what would shortly become the British protectorate of Uganda. He and the other missionaries, including the Protestant Alexander Mackay, would successfully lobby King Mwanga to have the abolition of slavery and freedom of religion enshrined in the treaty he signed with Great Britain in 1890.

Slavery was not a matter of abstract theology. Pope and cardinal were well aware of the real flesh and blood suffering and determined to bring it to an end. Lavigerie therefore left his diocese of Algiers and travelled through Europe, stirring up support for justice towards the victims of violence and abuse.

Instead of returning to Africa, I am going to Paris, not to ask for funds, but rather to finally tell what I know about the crimes without name which are destroying the interior of our Africa, and then to let out a great cry, one of those cries which shakes up to the bottom of the soul, of all that is still worthy the name of man and Christian in the world. What I have to do is nothing other than bringing into the light what Leo XIII has just written about African slavery.”

In his encyclical In Plurimis of 1888, Pope Leo welcomed the abolition of slavery in Brazil. He reiterated how Jesus had come to set the captives free, and how the popes, from Saint Gregory the Great onwards had urged the breaking of the chains of slavery to restore all men and women to the dignity God intended. Leo made clear that, ‘The system [of slavery] is one which is wholly opposed to that which was originally ordained by God and by nature.’ He rejected outright the theory that some people were born inferior and so could be legally and morally enslaved.

This excuse had been used down the centuries from pre-Christian times to the conquistadores in Latin America; it was how the Portuguese had justified slavery in Brazil and the Spanish in the rest of the continent, and its poison can still be felt in racist attitudes today. Pope Leo made clear that from Saint Paul onwards the Church had striven to put an end to slavery. However, human greed, as well as war had caused it to linger in Christian as well as Muslim lands until the 19th century when the successors of Columbus were still avariciously abusing Africans as well as Indians in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

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