"Go and teach all nations.., Christ's command was a sacred trust - and a

charter for paternalism and oppression. Catholic missionaries brewed cruel

persecution to spread their Word, but with it they took imperialistic attitudes

that would give the Church a problematic place in modern history.

People dwelling in darkness have seen a great light - Matthew 4:16

Christ's apostles had spread the Gospel through Syria and Asia Minor, and westward to Rome - which, as far as the first century was concerned, was the centre of the world. There was even a tradition that St Thomas had carried the Gospels as far as India. Several centuries of consolidation followed, but by the High Middle Ages a new spirit of evangelization was stirring: missionary work appealed to the enterprising ethic of the new friars. St Francis of Assisi had taken his followers out of the monastery and on to the road as mendicant preachers; the black-robed Dominicans were highly-motivated teachers, carrying the Christian message far and wide.

St Francis of Assisi meets Egypt's Ayyubid Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219 in an effort to convert him - and bring to an end the Fifth Crusade. The later Middle Ages saw renewed attempts to spread the Christian word beyond the confines of Europe to the wider world.

Their first objective had been the revival of Catholicism in a Europe sinking into apathy and worse (this was the age of the Cathar heresy in southern France). But both orders of friars had missions to the Pagan peoples of Western and Central Asia from the thirteenth century. In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV dispatched John of Montecorvino with a party of Franciscans to take messages to Kublai Khan of China and other leading Mongols in the East. Setting up in Beijing, he built his own impressive church in which he baptized some 6000 people over 11 years, he reported proudly.

A Wider World

An impressive score, indeed - but at approximately 0.01 per cent of China's population it was clear the Middle Kingdom wasn't going to become Christian any time soon. All these early missions were necessarily small-scale ventures: geographically and politically, Christianity was confined to Europe by the forces of Islam to the east, by the Sahara to the south and by the Atlantic to the west. But the voyages of discovery

St Francis Xavier (1506-52) was a protege of Ignatius Loyola and founder with him of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). An indefatigable proselytizer, he took the Catholic message to India, Indonesia, Japan and finally to the very doorstep of China.

made by Portuguese and Spanish navigators - of whom Vasco da Gama and Columbus were only the most famous - opened up a door to a much vaster and more varied world. Out there, they found, were innumerable nations who, however different they might be in their 'civilization' or 'savagery', were all alike in never having heard of the Gospel Word.

The evangelizing impulse had never quite gone, but it had been lost sight of for a while in the confusion of the Middle Ages, in the conflicts over the papacy and the eruption of heresy in the heart of Europe. Now, however, it found a new impetus. Despite a demoralizing blow, the Church was bouncing back from the Reformation, and here were new worlds to conquer, fresh peoples to convert.

Into the East

The Jesuits led the way: in 1542, St Francis Xavier established an outpost in Goa on India's western coast. The 'Apostle of the Indies' went on to preach his faith in Indonesia and, from 1549, Japan. The other orders were not idle: the Franciscans had a mission up and running in the Sultanate of Malacca, in Malaysia, and Augustinian friars began operations in the Philippines.

China was a challenge: this vast and complex empire had its own ancient history and religious traditions. And a civilization that still, in many respects, put European culture to shame - heathens the Chinese might be, but 'benighted' never. They pushed on undaunted nonetheless. Francis Xavier was about to embark on his mission to China when he died on an

Out there were innumerable

nations who were all alike in

never having heard of the

Gospel Word.

island off Guangdong, on its southern coast, in 1552. Within a few decades, his fellow-Jesuits, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, established their own mission in Beijing.

The Jesuits were welcomed by the Chinese elite and made important contacts in a scholarly and scientific community eager for fresh thinking from the West. There were few takers for Catholicism, though, and progress was hampered even further by ill-tempered competition between Jesuits and Franciscans. In 1644, in any case, Manchu invaders swept away the old regime in China, inaugurating a new order that was far less accepting of 'foreign' faiths.



The right of Europe's great Catholic seagoing powers to colonize the world was never questioned: it was indeed felt that they had a duty to take the light of Christianity to those who dwelt in darkness. That the enterprise was likely to be fabulously profitable was incidental; if people were to be killed, subjugated and enslaved, the Christianizing cause was just.

The Church's greatest concern was that the new colonialism might lead to conflict at home in Europe. Separate spheres of influence for the greatest powers were going to be needed. So it was that, in Spain in 1494, in the immediate aftermath of Columbus' first voyage and under the supervision of Pope Alexander I, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed. This gave Portugal authority over newly-discovered territories to the east of a line (roughly) corresponding with that of longitude 48° W. Areas to the west of this line would belong to Spain.

Hence the allocation of so much of Latin America to the Spanish, along with the Philippines, while the coastal colonies of Brazil were granted to the Portuguese. In addition, Portugal could claim proprietorship over Africa and the East Indies, as well - if they could get a foothold - over China and Japan.

The Way of the Cross

Despite its later isolationism, Japan was welcoming to its first European visitors, survivors of a Portuguese ship that was blown onto rocks on the coast and wrecked in 1543. Even when the first missionaries arrived a few years later, relations remained cordial: the priests (from the Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit orders) were greeted as guests of honour at the imperial court. Far from being impeded, their evangelizing activities in the decades that followed seem to have been accepted: anything up to 200,000 embraced the creed of Christ.

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had given Portugal all territories to the east of longitude 48°W. Spain got most of the New World, then - except for the eastward jutting coast of South America, now Brazil

It wasn't until 1587 that Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved against the missionaries. The despot saw them as a threat to his centralizing rule. On Hideyoshi's orders, the foreign priests were expelled altogether from Kyushu, Japan's southwestern island, although even now individual believers were left in peace. Missionary work continued undercover and many thousands more were converted before Hideyoshi decided to seriously crack down.

In 1597, Hideyoshi decided that enough was enough. An example would have to be made if the foreigners and their culture were not to take over. On 5 February, no fewer than 26 Catholics - both foreign missionaries and Japanese converts - were publicly put to death at a mass-execution in the town of Nagasaki. Since they set so much store by Jesus' death on the cross, Hideyoshi had apparently reasoned, it was only fitting that they should themselves be crucified. A cold and sadistic logic, which might have made sense had the sufferers not gone to their deaths with a dignity that made the symbolism of the occasion irresistible. 'I have committed no crime,' said St Paul Miki - a Japanese convert to Catholicism, 'and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, when, you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way.'

Christianity was not formally abolished until 1614, but the crucifixions continued regardless. Nagasaki, the main port for European traders, was naturally the focus for missionary activity: inevitably, then, it was the



'I want to free the poor Hindus from the stranglehold of the Brahmins and destroy the places where evil spirits are worshipped.' St Francis Xavier's words on arriving in Goa (1542) sound sympathetic. Except that - arguably - his priests were replacing one 'stranglehold' with another, still more constricting, as the Indians living here had already found. The Portuguese fleet had arrived here three decades before had begun by killing an estimated 10,000 Muslim defenders of what had for several centuries been an Arab Sultanate, before going on to extirpate 'Pagan' worship in the city and surrounding area. And, however pious his intentions, his proselytizing mission cannot sensibly be separated from a military campaign and administrative takeover on the part of the Portuguese which was, to all intents and purposes, imperialistic.

And so it was to continue, as can be seen from a 1566 decree by Antonio de Noronha, the Portuguese viceroy in the region: 'I hereby order that in any area owned by my master, the king, nobody should construct a Hindu temple and such temples already constructed should not be repaired without my permission. If this order is transgressed, such temples shall be destroyed and the goods in them shall be used to meet expenses of holy deeds, as punishment of such transgression.'

The oppression only intensified into the 1580s, as an Italian visitor, the Florentine Filippo Sassetti, was to observe: 'The fathers of the Church forbade the Hindus under terrible penalties the use of their own sacred books, and prevented them from all exercise of their religion. They destroyed their temples, and so harassed and interfered with the people that they abandoned the city in large numbers, refusing to remain any longer in a place where they had no liberty, and were liable to imprisonment, torture and death if they worshipped after their own fashion the gods of their fathers.'

In the decades that followed, many thousands were to be brought before the Goa Inquisition, and untold numbers were tortured and killed. The tribunal wasn't wound up till 1812. 'Poor Hindus' indeed.

St Francis Xavier's remains are kept in Goa, his first landfall in Asia, where they are housed in a great basilica built in his honour. They are brought out briefly for exposition once every ten years. Pilgrims flock to his shrine from all around the world

focus for the crackdown too. Richard Cocks, an English sea captain, reported seeing 16 martyred in the city, 'whereof five were burned and the rest beheaded and cut in pieces, and cast into the Sea in Sackes of thirtie fathome deeper yet the Priests got them up againe, and kept them secretly for Reliques.' Cocks noted the burning down of churches across Japan, the digging up of their hallowed graveyards and the building of pagodas and Buddhist temples in their place. All, he wrote, 'utterly to roote out the memory of Christianitie out of Japan.' At Miyako, he saw 55 Christians put to death at once, 'and among them little children five or six years old burned in their mother's arms, crying out: "Jesus receive our souls". Many more are in prison who look hourly when they shall die, for very few turn pagans.'

Japan's Catholics - native converts and European missionaries - got the message. The former decided to lay low while the latter left. When, a few years later, an attempt was made to smuggle some missionaries back in from the Philippines, it was the signal for a new wave of repression. In total 55 Christians (including the returning missionaries) were executed - burned or beheaded - and in the weeks that followed many more were martyred - whole families, including small children, condemned to a cruel death. Further pendulum-swings were to follow, as successive Shoguns either clamped down on Christianity or decided to tolerate it (partly for the sake of external trade). According to the eighteenth-century legal scholar Arai Hakuseki, another wave of persecution in the 1650s saw anything up to 300,000 converts forced to 'lean on their own staffs' - in other words, commit hara kiri.

A fitting end for those who followed the foreign creed with all its talk of sacrifice and of walking the 'Way of the Cross'? The first of a number of mass-crucifixions in Japan was held in February 1597, at Nagasaki.

Hispaniola's Holocaust

The victims in Japan, the Catholic missionaries were very much the villain in the Americas, where conversion and subjection went hand in hand. Justified by their Christianizing mission, the Spanish conquerors pursued policies of hideous cruelty, killing and terrifying indigenous populations into submission. As Fray Bartolome de las Casas observed at firsthand during the conquest of Hispaniola in the early sixteenth century, Christ's emissaries didn't display much in the way of love: 

'They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were sheep herded into a pen. They even placed bets on whether they could cut a man in two - or decapitate or disembowel him - at a single stroke of the axe. They grabbed suckling babies from their mothers' breasts and swung them across nearby rocks to smash

 The Spanish Jesuit Charles Spinola was one of several Christians - foreign missionaries and local converts - who were burned at the stake by the Shogun's officials in 1623. The crackdowns in Japan came after years of comparative tolerance, so Christianity was well-established, with a great many adherents.

their heads in - or, laughing and joking, tossed them over their shoulders into a running river. They spared no one, setting up special wide gallows on which they could set their victims dangling, their feet just off the ground, while their bodies were burned alive ...'

Lest, however, their pious purpose should be forgotten in the confusion and the carnage, they hanged them thus 'thirteen at a time, in honour of Our Blessed Saviour and the Twelve Apostles'.

Indeed, concluded Las Casas, 'they invented so many new methods of murder that it would be quite impossible to put them all down on paper.'

Those who survived such treatment - men, women and children alike - were set to work in the new mines and plantations, forced to carry heavy loads (and their masters in their litters) over enormous distances. In short, said Las Casas, 'they were treated as beasts of burden and developed huge sores on their shoulders and backs as happens with animals made to carry excessive loads. And this is not to mention the floggings, beatings, thrashings, punches, curses and countless other vexations and cruelties to which they were routinely subjected and to which no chronicle could ever do justice nor any reader respond save with horror and disbelief.'

In Cuba, Las Casas described how hospitable villagers brought out offerings of bread, fish and other foods for the arriving Spanish. Some 3000 men, women and children were promptly cut down in an unprovoked spree of slaughter.

Bartolome de las Casas was a friar himself, of course, so it's only right that his courageous witness should be recorded on the positive side of the Church's historic moral ledger. Other churchmen were to do what they could to ease the condition of the conquered in the Americas, like those Jesuit missionaries whose Paraguayan Reducciones in Paraguay - although originally conceived as reservations (almost concentration camps) became a safe haven for the

... they were treated as beasts of

burden and developed huge sores

on their shoulders and backs as

happens with animals made to

carry excessive loads.

Indians from enslavement. Or like Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in Michoacan, Mexico, who did so much to protect his indigenous flock from those who would oppress them. The problem is that Las Casas' counsel was falling on deaf ears, while such credit as is due to the memory of these other benevolent priests is so overwhelmingly outweighed by the debit on the other side.

Under the protection of the crucifix, Francisco Pizarro seizes the Incan King, completing his conquest of Peru. The conquistadors were to kill, rape, plunder and enslave, but the worst of the destruction they brought was quite unwitting - the introduction of germs to which New World natives were not immune.

Mexican Massacres

Hernan Cortes, who in 1521 became the conqueror of Aztec Mexico, made much of his evangelizing zeal in his letters home. As he explained to Charles V of Spain, the Aztecs had practiced human sacrifice systematically and on an appalling scale. In one of his letters, he described to his monarch how he had himself ventured into the heart of the Pagan temple in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). Here, he said:

'... are the images of idols, although, as I have before said, many of them are also found on the outside; the principal ones, in which the people have greatest faith and confidence, I precipitated from their pedestals, and cast them down the steps of the temple, purifying the chapels in which they had stood, as they were all polluted with human blood, shed in the sacrifices. In the place of these I put images of Our Lady and the Saints, which excited not a little feeling in Moctezuma and the inhabitants, who at first remonstrated, declaring that if my proceedings were known throughout the country, the people would rise against me; for they believed that their idols bestowed on them all temporal good, and if they permitted them to be ill-treated, they would be angry and without their gifts, and by this means the people would be deprived of the fruits of the earth and perish with famine. I answered, through the interpreters, that they were deceived in expecting any favours from idols, the work of their own hands, formed of unclean things; and that they must learn there was but one God, the universal Lord of all, who had created the Heavens and Earth, and all things else, and had made them and us; that He was without beginning and immortal, and they were bound to adore and believe Him, and no other

Hernan Cortes rides into battle - a monstrous sight in itself for his Aztec enemy, who had no idea such things as horses might exist. Cortes' achievement was extraordinary, but he was assisted by his enemies' bewilderment in the face of firearms, armour and other strange things.

Moctezuma, held hostage by the Spaniards, begs his warriors to abandon their attack as the battle for Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) rages. Their technological advantages apart, the outnumbered conquistadors had quickly learned the advantages of pursuing a policy of divide-and-rule.

creature or thing. ... I said everything to them I could to divert them from their idolatries, and draw them to a knowledge of God our Lord.'

Yet it hardly seems so tendentious to complain that Cortes and his men had offered 'human sacrifices' in the name of Christ on their campaign through Mexico, fighting and killing as they went. By their own testimony, they had killed 30,000 people in the city of Cholula alone; some 200,000 may have died at Tenochitlan.

In the long run, the casualties were to be a great deal higher in Mexico itself and in the Americas at large. Factor in diseases brought to the New World (albeit unwittingly) by the European conquerors and it is believed that more than 90 per cent of the population was probably wiped out.

The Requirement

Can the Church be held responsible for colonial crimes it didn't itself commit? Perhaps not, but it benefited hugely from the slaughter. It also licensed it - and this was no mere technicality but a significant thing in an age in which Europeans did genuinely fear for the

Tenochtitlan fell on 13 August 1521, after a heroic last stand by the Aztec warriors. They could not prevail against European technology - or the ruthless courage of the invaders. Soon vast areas had been absorbed into a - strictly Catholic - 'New Spain'.

fate of their immortal souls and might at least have tempered their excesses if encouraged to do so by their moral guides. It's been fashionable as late to scoff at the 'religious' motives of those now seen as entirely cynical, brutal opportunists - and such scepticism is fair enough, up to a point. It's nevertheless surely significant that, for what it's worth, these Spanish conquerors invariably took pains to read the Requerimiento ('Requirement') aloud - and have it formally witnessed by a notary - to any indigenous chief or monarch they met before his realms were ransacked and his people killed or captured. Ludicrous as it may seem now, this document did underline the 'legitimacy' of such depredations and made clear the connection between the colonialists and the Catholic Church:

' [I] hereby notify and inform you that God Our Lord, One and Eternal, created Heaven and Earth and a man and woman from whom you and I and all the peoples of the world are descended ... God placed one man named St Peter in charge of all these peoples ... So it is that I request and require you to acknowledge the Church as your mistress and as Governess of the World and the Universe, and the High Priest or Pope in Her name and His Majesty in his place, as Ruler, Lord and King.'

If the hearer didn't heed this 'request', the document continued:

'I will come against you in overwhelming force, and make war on you in every way I can and subject you to the yoke and the obedience of the Church and of His Majesty the King, and I will take your women and children and make them slaves ... The responsibility for the death and destruction this will bring will rest with you.'



In 1550-51, an important debate was held in Valladolid, then the Spanish capital. Two Dominicans, Fray Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Fray Bartolome de las Casas, took the floor. Up for discussion was the question of whether the indigenous peoples of 'New Spain' should be considered human, in the way that Europeans were. On the one hand, the explorers reported, they looked like humans - at least superficially: they stood upright; had heads, arms, legs and unfurred skin as humans did. On the other, it was said, they went about their lives completely naked, just like animals, and they had none of those technologies or skills that signalled civilization to Europeans. Were such beings to be treated as equals? Or should they be taken under subjection for their own

sake? Sepulveda eloquently argued the latter case. Had not Aristotle himself written that some peoples were by their very nature slaves, and needed to be subjected for their own good? On the contrary, Las Casas maintained, the 'Indians' were entitled to exactly the same treatment as Europeans. Although, as he went on to argue, these rights were being scandalously ignored. Las Casas' was the first influential voice to be raised against the cruelty of European colonialism and Catholic evangelism in the New World.

 At the Valladolid Debate, Spain's Charles I (Emperor Charles V) consulted clerical advisers. Here Fray Juan de Quevedo and Bartolome de las Casas make the case that America's 'uncivilized' natives all are human - and all equally worthy of respect.

Risorgimento and Retreat

Throughout the Age of Discovery and on through the Enlightenment era, the geographical reach of the Church was being steadily extended in the New World. Ironically, though, the conditions were already being created - in the philosophical and scientific scepticism of Descartes and his successors - for the erosion of its importance at home in Europe.

Even in 'Catholic' countries the Church was in retreat. Nationalism was on the rise among an increasingly affluent and educated urban middle class that wanted autonomy and freedom for the individual as well as for country. Marx might have dismissed the resulting turbulence as a 'bourgeois revolution' but it was quite corrosive enough as far as Catholicism was concerned. Italy itself wasn't to be spared: the

Catholic America (sporting the simian features of Thomas Nast's cartoon-Irish) seeks to assist an unceremoniously unseated Pope Pius IX. Dislodged from the Papal States by a moustachioed Victor Emmanuel, King of the New Italy, the Pope was most indignant, but most Americans beheld his plight unmoved.

Pius IX appears with more dignity in this respectful portrait. More dignity than he actually possessed, it might be argued. In an apparent headlong flight from modernity, Pius took a succession off what now seem desperate measures to shore up the failing authority of the Church.

Risorgimento or 'Resurgence' which swept the country in the nineteenth century was not such good news for the Vatican. The new mood of cultural self-esteem and the political confidence this brought with it made it apparent that the new Italy was in no mood to take any orders from the Church. The papacy was squeezed

Alarmingly Pius IX's 'Syllabus

of Errors - an Index of ills in the

modern world - included free

speech and religious toleration.

- quite literally, it might be said, the Papal States first forced to democratize, then absorbed into a unified Italy. Confined to his own little corner of Rome, the Vatican Palace still nominally (if a little incongruously) a sovereign state, the Pope cut an increasingly beleaguered figure.

As of 1870, indeed, Pius IX was the self-proclaimed 'Prisoner of the Vatican', although the only obstacle to his leaving was his own papal pride. The Church has never been conspicuously forward-looking, perhaps, but its longstanding resistance to radical change and its profound suspicion of liberalism and all its works were undeniably underscored by the humiliations of this time. The assumption that there was a natural affinity between Catholicism and what might loosely be called the 'forces of reaction' was to dog the Church for a century and more.

Pius' passive-aggressive self-imprisonment only underlined an intellectual retreat he'd been making since the 1860s when he'd started drawing up his 'Syllabus of Errors' - an increasingly baggy, catch-all index of all the Vatican thought was wrong with the modern world. Alarmingly, it included things such as free speech and religious toleration. It was of course Pope Pius IX who, in 1869, staged the First Vatican Council - the convention that definitively recorded the dogma of papal infallibility. Could it have been a coincidence that the first Pope ever to feel the need to

Pius IX presides over the First Vatican Council (1869) with quiet authority - if only his writ had run beyond the palaces of Rome. Increasingly beleaguered, Pius set his Church against modernity, storing up problems which have even now to be resolved.



Edgardo Mortara almost met his maker when he was a few weeks old in 1851, when he was very nearly carried off by a bout of fever. So badly had his condition scared the servant girl looking after him that at one point she'd splashed him with water in an emergency baptism. An understandable reaction in a devoutly Catholic young woman, perhaps - no matter that Edgardo and his family were Jewish. Edgardo got better and the whole thing was forgotten until a few years later when he was seven and the affair was brought to light. Edgardo had been raised in the Jewish faith - but this was against the law in what were still the Papal States, where canon law prevailed over all else. The authorities felt they had no alternative but to take Edgardo away from his outraged parents: it was forbidden for any Catholic child to be brought up in a non-Catholic home. So it was that young Edgardo grew up the adoptive child of the Holy Father: a vociferous campaign by his desolate parents and by Jewish and liberal activists couldn't shake Pope Pius IX's resolve to keep him. Or, in fairness, Edgardo's to stay: reaching adulthood in 1870 when the Papal States ceased to be, he made his own choice to continue in the Church and become a priest.

always be right had this set down as dogma at a time when his true authority was coming under question?

In a sense, successive Popes were going to be 'Prisoners of the Vatican' for a while: Pius' withdrawal from the world marked the start of a 70-year sulk.

Into Africa

The Church's precarious position in a changing Europe meant it had all the more reason for looking outward. In the colonialist 'Scramble for Africa' it was well to the fore - but in a background role, of course. While the great European powers aggrandized themselves, the Church helped out with behind-the-scenes support, the spiritual arm of imperialist expansion in Africa. (Not that the Catholic Church was alone by any means. From the start of the 'Scramble' in the 1880s, the sun never set on the work of Anglican and Protestant missionaries spreading the Word of British supremacy along with that of God.)

Railways and the rule of law went hand in hand with enslavement and exploitation; savage repression in pursuit of a 'civilizing' mission. The legacy of colonialism in a 'Dark Continent' apparently all the gloomier for European intervention has been hotly debated down the decades since.

The same sort of weighing of one thing against another has to take place for the Church's contribution to be assessed. Missionary priests and nuns may have fed the starving, nursed the sick and educated children - weren't they just 'enabling' oppression, though, overall?

Sometimes they went much further. Even in the annals of colonialism, the story of the Congo Free State (CFS) stands out in its acts of cruelty: between 1885 and 1908 over ten million people are believed to have died. At this time what was later to be the 'Belgian Congo' (and later still the Democratic Republic of Congo) was pretty much a private enterprise, bought and owned personally by Belgium's King Leopold II. The grotesqueness of the project started with its scale (the CFS covered well over 70 times the area of Belgium itself) but went on to include an administrative system bordering on insanity. Massacres were almost routine - whole communities killed to 'encourage the others' to work harder. Rape was not just a soldiers' 'perk' but a means of social discipline. No taboo was sacred when it came to instilling the fear of God and Leopold's Congo Company: boys were forced to have sex with their sisters - their mothers, even. Production norms, in agriculture, rubber-tapping or mining, were enforced by physical mutilation: if you didn't meet your target, you lost your hand.

 Belgium's Leopold II, a giant constricting snake, crushes the Congo in his 'rubber coils'. (Rubber was among the most lucrative crops being cultivated there.) Though not directly responsible for perhaps the cruellest colonization of modern times, the Church played an important ancillary role.

Forced labourers carry equipment in the Congo for their colonial overlords. The prevailing view in Europe, and in a Church which was European in its attitudes, was that Africa was a 'Dark Continent' that should be converted - by force if necessary - and set to work.

The Church's culpability in one of modern colonialism's most terrible atrocities is disputed. And with some reason. Individual priests spoke out against the abuses at the time. Officially, moreover, the Church took no part in and had no influence over what was primarily a matter of policy in the power of Leopold and his managers in what amounted to a commercial company. But the Church's notorious child-colonies didn't just take in orphans: in the long term they created more. These institutions fed directly into the Force Publique - the notorious paramilitary police force of the Free State, the vicious instrument of official terror in the country. Parentless boys were brought up by the missionaries to identify entirely with the occupying authorities and see their own people as an enemy to be raped, mutilated, killed and generally kept down.

The cruelty didn't come from one side only: Catholic converts were among the 45 or so young Christians burned alive at Namagongo (in modern Uganda) in 1886. As pageboys of the King of Buganda, Mwanga II, they might have expected to be protected by their status, but their lord had started to feel threatened by the inroads the foreign missionaries were making among his people. Rulers like Mwanga were right to feel that their position was precarious, and that Christianity was (as it were) oiling the wheels of a European takeover in East Africa.

Twenty-two Ugandan Catholics (as well as a number of Anglican converts) were killed by King Mwanga II in the 1880s. This banner commemorates their canonization, which took place in 1964 as the Church woke up to the importance of its role in Africa.



They were white themselves, of course, but it was their dress that gained the Society of Missionaries of Africa their common nickname as the Peres Blancs or 'White Fathers' from their foundation by Charles Lavigerie.

Their robes - pure white from head to foot - offered a sort of homage to those of the Arabs of the Sahara region, where their missions got under way in

the 1870s. They subsequently pushed south and east, doing genuinely heroic service (several were killed by hostile tribesmen) in what are now Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Uganda and Burundi. Although their work was peaceful in itself, its strategic value should not be ignored. The Presence of Cardinal Lavigerie in Tunis, remarked one French statesman, 'is worth an army to France'.








Keith Hunt