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  • Christian Imperialism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Katie Geneva Cannon (bio)

The transatlantic trade in Africans was founded on Christianity. Religion was key in motivating Prince Henry of Portugal, later called Henry, “the Navigator” (1394–1460), to put in motion Europe’s aggressive and ruthless expeditions to Africa. Henry was not only the governor of Algrave Province, who managed a large economic infrastructure based on the unbridled grasp of enormous wealth from trans-Saharan commerce, but he was also the administrator of the Order of Christ, the Portuguese successor to the Knights Templar, a famous Western military order founded in the aftermath of the First Crusade at Clermont on November 27, 1095.1 As one of the best fighting units, the Soldiers of Christ prompted a series of striking maritime exploits, ensuring the safety of Europeans who made pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

It is important to note that during this historical period, the feudal states of European countries were just beginning to unite and major religious wars were being fought between Christians and Muslims, especially the Moors in Morocco. Henry trained men to sail from Portugal, down the west coast of Africa in search of the limits to the Muslim world, in order to halt the Islamization of West Africa and to accelerate the spread of Christianity. In order to further God’s intentions for humankind, Ogbu Kalu contends that within the context of religious logic, papal bulls offered rights of patronage to Henry, authorizing him to appoint clerical orders for evangelization and to fend off competing European interests.2 According to Peter Russell, Henry the Navigator considered [End Page 127] conversion and enslavement as interchangeable terms, experiencing no cognitive dissonance in using Christianity as a civilizing agent for making converts into slaves.3 In “Christianity: Missionaries in Africa,” Modupe Labode sums it up this way:

The case of the Portuguese exemplifies the close relationship between Crown and Church. In the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), the pope recognized Portuguese claims to Africa. The Crown was also responsible for attempting to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Much of the missionary effort over the next two and half centuries was conducted under Portuguese authority. The vast majority of the missionaries at this time were Roman Catholic priests, many of them belonged to religious orders such as the Jesuits, Capuchins, and Franciscans.4

Being that Prince Henry’s administration is a hallmark of the rise of globalized imperialistic voyages of captivity—aided by an unholy alliance of contorted logic, I will briefly elaborate two ethical concepts, namely the missiologic of imminent parousia and the theologic of racialized normativity, embedded within the literature of slavocracy. Obeying the muse, I crafted these two cutting-edge phrases in order to critically interrogate the meaning and consequences of mission when it intersects with parousia and to examine the intricately discursive confluence of theology and race during two epiphenomena—the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. By reassembling the logic of each concept, I destabilize the purported value-free meanings in our current biblical and theological vocabulary, so that the phrases elaborated in this essay will gain canonicity within the lexicon of womanist and liberationist theologians.

Missiologic of Imminent Parousia

In the bulk of literature on chattel bondage that has come down to us, missiologic of imminent parousia can be defined as the link created between biblical urgency and cultural reasoning that legitimates the mission strategies of Christian imperialists. Strictly speaking, European expansionists who perpetrated human trafficking synchronized the Christian understanding of parousia—the quickly approaching, expected hope of the return of Christ as judge to terminate this world order, with the early church’s confession of a universal christophany, commonly referred to as “the great commission” based on Matthew [End Page 128] 28:18–20. Thus, for three centuries the missiologic of imminent parousia served as the standard European false justification with vicious consequences for more than 12 million Africans who embarked on hellish voyages to the Americas in wretched, suffocating, demeaning conditions, shackled and chained as marketable commodities.5

According to The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the word parousia is a transliterated word used in classical and koine Greek that was adopted as a technical...


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