French ecclesio-colonialism in Senegal

In an earlier collaboration between the faculties of theology in Brussels and Pretoria,1 I expounded the view that Dutch Protestantism exerted a clear and measurable influence on Dutch colonial activity in what is now Indonesia. My hypothesis was that a sense of blind national exceptionalism linked to Dutch Reformed perceptions of truth and salvation moulded an increasing intolerance towards the religions already present in Indonesia at the time of Dutch colonisation, chiefly Islam. This hypothesis, albeit already described elsewhere,2 requires some further elucidation to serve as the basis of comparison with our other historical case below. An examination of the VOC’s documents, as well as of Dutch history, reveals clear religious components to Dutch colonial policy. In Petrus Plancius (1552-1622), Dutch Protestantism was a driving force behind the very idea of colonial expansion overseas. Once established in colonial comptoirs, the Dutch deployed clear religious arguments to encourage and predict victory over indigenous peoples and to justify their own actions, however brutal and barbarous. More subtly but with equal force and vigour, the conservative Gomarist Calvinist victory at the Synod of Dort furnished Dutch Protestantism with theological underpinning for the “inevitable” victory of colonial exploits which purported to spread the Christian Gospel, alongside theological excuses for the poor ethical behaviour of individual colonists. We hold that Dutch Protestantism in the Golden Age favoured missionary activity, employed educated and thoughtful clergy, acted according to deep patriotic, indeed nationalist, criteria, and was cruel, implacable and capable of committing repeated acts of mass and genocidal murder with alleged biblical and theological justifications. Our conclusion was that this church-justified colonialism, which we call ecclesio-colonialism, stands in need of decolonisation in the same way that secular European policy in the Global South might also do.

We hold that this process does not cease with Dutch colonialism. Our postulate is that whatever the European Enlightenment polity, religion has been harnessed whether willingly or reluctantly to the colonial enterprise, and that this phenomenon is historically true whether the European power concerned is monarchic or republican, Catholic, Protestant or Anglican. The historical example we now choose is Senegal, an African and not an Asian country, whose modern and contemporary history is just as complex as Indonesia’s, whose colonial power was Catholic and then Republican France, rather than Protestant Holland. We shall see if ecclesio-colonialism operated in this very different colonial context in the same or analogous ways to the manner in which we hold it occurred in Indonesia.

In considering just Senegal and just France, what were the French Churches’ attitudes to slavery and the colonial process ? The Catholic approach to slavery, on which Richelieu leaned as he founded the West Africa companies rooted in the slave trade, offers a fascinating insight into an institution and culture determined to align itself with the society around it. Again, we offer here the barest of aperçus of an immensely dense and deep conversation within Christianity over the past two millennia, leaving to other specialists the care of furnishing the full detail.3 The Catholic Church considered slavery as a primarily pastoral question up to and including the conversion of Emperor Constantine I (272-337) to Christianity in 312.4 Constantine himself did not abolish slavery in the Roman Empire, but was concerned to improve the material conditions of slaves. Augustine (354-430), the greatest theologian of the Western Church, began a long tradition of apologetics for slavery by holding that Genesis taught that humanity was lord over other species in the natural world but not over other men, that slavery was therefore wrong, that the biblical text nonetheless spoke of slavery with acceptance and approval, and therefore that the continued existence of slavery was necessary evidence of the fallenness of humankind, a reminder to human beings of their need for salvation.5 Whilst such arguments strike almost all modern readers as a uniquely weak form of special pleading, we note that in the terms of traditional Christian soteriology they have a certain purchase: structuring human society to include freemen and slaves corresponds in one soteriological reading to a divine economy in which the divine represents and is freedom, whereas human laws represent and are slavery, and that both are simultaneously visible. This Augustinian teaching was maintained by the other great thinker of Western Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who followed Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in arguing that slavery was natural, a practical necessity for human life on earth. Medieval Catholic piety spiritualised these teachings by asserting the common slavehood of all humans, that we are all slaves before God, and so on.6

Nonetheless Catholicism does contain a strong counter-view: Pope Paul III (1468-1549) firmly declared the enslaving of indigenous Amerindians contrary to Catholic teaching in his papal bull Sublimis Deus of 1537, during the height of Portuguese and Spanish interest in enslaving the populations of Central and South America.7 Even if the pope’s injunction was largely ignored on the ground, the bull was a bold step, albeit mitigated by Paul III’s acceptance of the enslavement of sub-Saharan African peoples to compensate for the loss of manual labour implied by his forbidding of slavery for Amerindians. The reasons for Paul III’s distinction between African and Amerindian serve a fausse conscience hypothesis to the extent that Paul was simply, perhaps unconsciously, following the accustomed European prejudices and idées reçues of his time, which held that the Amerindians were independent peoples hitherto free of external control and were therefore free, whereas the universal experience in 16th century Europe was that Black Africans were already subject peoples who lacked local control over their own lives and destinies, who came under the control of established Muslim or pagan rulers, and who were therfore enslaveable. It is far from our purpose to take issue with this extraordinary claim; we simply state the common prejudices of 16th century Europeans. This also holds for common Medieval and Enlightenment doctrines of personal property, which were widely held to carry more ethical weight than the question of slavery. John Locke (1632-1704) on the Anglican side is adamant on this point, that a free citizen is absolutely entitled to own slaves and to exercise absolute and capital authority over them, whatever their religion, simply because they are his property.8 The main Christian Churches, which were considerable property-owners with huge portfolios of land and goods across Europe and the Americas, were strongly disinclined to criticise this line of argument, for fear of putting into question the legitimacy of their own property holdings.

Amidst the great swathe of European Christian views on slavery, we concentrate here on a single, entirely dominant belief and teaching, namely that Christian considerations of slavery are always to be considered as subservient to considerations of evangelism and of the colonialism which overtly supports evangelism. If rare examples in papal pronouncements can be found which are critical of the slave trade, this is – obviously, in terms of universal Christian doctrines of the global propagation of the Christian faith – never the case when evangelism is under discussion. Repeated papal decrees support the establishment of Catholic missions, churches, schools and charitable works in the New World and in Asia, and this is a universal constant scarcely criticised by any Catholic (or Protestant or Anglican) commentator.9 In this way, the anti-slavery debate within Catholicism is quickly lost inside the evangelism-colonialism debate, and indeed the serviceability of an evangelism-colonialist “cover” for slavery practices was not lost on European slave-traders and their cynical appeal to the exporting of Christian civilisation through the means of the triangular trade. A gloss on this evangelism-colonialism factor, one which underlines its potency, is that it operates in Christian European thought and apologetics not just during but after the historical period of the slave trade.10 The justification for ethical sharp practices on the part of the British and French governments in the years and decades following the complete abolition of slavery (1833 for the British Empire, 1848 for the French Empire), whereby former slaves were retained in practical bondage as part of an ongoing European colonial “civilising” and evangelising enterprise which continued seamlessly and without pause after formal abolition. Concealing slavery inside colonialism was an effective means for the European powers to maintain the practice of domination unchallenged and with ecclesiastical support long after abolition.

The outcome of these Catholic guidances on slavery and colonialism was that the French entered into a colonial relationship with Senegal with brio and enthusiasm during the 17th century. A succession of companies were founded with the express intention of conducting trade, most particularly the slave trade with Senegalese leaders. The Compagnie Normande was founded in 1626,11 blessed with Cardinal Richelieu’s monopoly of all French trade with, at various points in its existence, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea. Richelieu was the chief protector of the Compagnie Normande, as well as of the similar Compagnie des Îles d’Amérique (where he was also the largest shareholder), having personally authorised the slave trade just before his death in 1642, on the grounds that France’s major commercial competitors in Europe all profited from the trade. The Compagnie Normande was dissolved by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) for commercial reasons in 1659 and replaced by the Compagnie du Cap-Vert et du Sénégal, which had a more explicit orientation towards the triangular trade. In 1664, the Compagnie du Cap-Vert et du Sénégal was effectively replaced by Colbert’s Compagnie Française des Indes Occidentales, which absorbed also the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France. The Compagnie du Sénégal12 was formed by Louis XIV (1638-1715) in 1673, with the direct and explicit aim of fostering and conducting the slave trade, the Compagnie Française des Indes Occidentales having been seen as too focused on tobacco production rather than the more lucrative sugar production, which also happened to rely on cheap and mass slave labour. The Compagnie du Sénégal was, after the Royal African Company founded in England the year before, the first European company founded solely and specifically to conduct the slave trade. The establishment of the Compagnie du Sénégal undoubtedly helped to increase sugar production in the French West Indies, especially on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (which are to this day still French), to explode: in 1673, there were 2,400 slaves on Martinique; in 1680, there were 4,900; by 1700, there were 15,000.13

The successive foundation of the French African companies provides the context in which Louis XIV’s infamous Code Noir of 1685 must be received, a royal decree which encouraged the cultivation of sugar in the French Caribbean by slave labour, but which equally imposed conditions on the treatment of slaves (no work on Sundays, no separation of families at the point of sale, no use of torture or killing of slaves, proper food and clothing to be provided for slaves).14 21st century sensibilities inevitably trigger massive disapproval of the Code Noir, which is seen as racist, barbaric and a confected and spurious justification of unlimited French power over the lives and deaths of the unfortunate souls purchased by French plantation-owners.15 That is our position too,16 but it is a position which has almost no purchase in the context of the European debate about slavery and colonialism in the late 17th century. In its context, believe it or not, the Code Noir was seen as a progressive law by Louis XIV, which regulated the French slave trade, which outlawed the most egregious excesses of plantation-owners, which provided a possible route to some personal dignity for slaves, and even a route to their earning enough over a period of years to purchase their own freedom. We note again that the essential moral premise that slavery was legitimate was never challenged in the Code Noir.17

Thus, taking into account our earlier conclusions about Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, we see analgous processes occurring in the same 17th century in French colonialism in Senegal as well as in the French Caribbean islands which the Senegalese slave trade serviced. We arrive in short at a common witness from our study of Dutch Indonesia and French Senegal: that a colonial process occurred in which the Churches involved were acquiescent and largely silent about slavery, and openly supportive of colonialism if it was associated with Christian evangelism. In both cases, there are forms of ecclesio-colonialism operating. Protestant and Catholic debates about and pressure for abolition are a minority voice until the end of the 18thcentury.


  1. McDonald Jack, 2021. “The Dutch East India Company: Strict Protestantism and Intolerance” in Johan Temmerman (ed.), Religious Radicalism: Demarcations and Challenges, Brussels, ASP, 111-126. ↩︎
  2. To the bibliography contained at McDonald (2021), 125-126, we would now add Emmer Pieter & Gommans Jos, 2021. The Dutch Overseas Empire 1600-1800, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, a worthy successor as a definitive history of the VOC to Boxer Charles, 1965, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800, London, Hutchinson/Penguin, a generation ago. ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. For a complete history of Christian attitudes to slavery, see Grenouilleau (2021). For the best treatment in English, although it does not concentrate on religious attitudes, the magnum opus of the late Lord Thomas remains an important reference, see: Thomas Hugh, 1995. The Slave Trade: the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870, London, Macmillan. ↩︎
  5. We have anecdotally heard similar arguments deployed to justify capital punishment, that the death penalty is a necessary reminder to contemporary humanity of its need for punishment, of the gravity of crime and sin. We do not find such arguments convincing. ↩︎
  6. We have anecdotally heard similar arguments deployed to justify capital punishment, that the death penalty is a necessary reminder to contemporary humanity of its need for punishment, of the gravity of crime and sin. We do not find such arguments convincing. ↩︎
  7. Pope Benedict XIV confirmed this decision, prohibiting the enslavement of Central and South Americans but remaining silent on the question of the enslavement of Africans, in his bull Immensa pastorum principis of 1741. ↩︎
  8. The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina of 1669, authored or co-authored by Locke, makes this point about the primacy of property abundantly clear. ↩︎
  9. The first major papal bull encouraging missions, colonisation and perhaps enslavement of Global South peoples is Inter caetera by Alexander VI in 1493. This unpublished document, The Revocation of Inter Caetera (2020), by Antonio Mejia, Hackworth Fellow of Santa Clara University (USA), calls for Pope Francis to revoke and abrogate Inter caeteraMicrosoft Word – The Revocation of Inter Caetera.docx ( ↩︎
  10. The accomplished cynical callousness and political smearing by the slave trade lobby is well documented in: Hague William, 2008. William Wilberforce: the Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, London, Harper, 357-395. The slave trade lobby was prepared to lie, bribe and dissemble endlessly to prevent or delay abolition. ↩︎
  11. We have rendered some French titles with capital initial letters for ease of reading in English. ↩︎
  12. The Compagnie du Sénégal changed its name to the Compagnie Royale du Sénégal in 1694, reflecting Louis XIV’s especial favour and approval. In 1720, the activities of the Compagnie Royale du Sénégal were taken over by the Compagnie des Indes Orientales. The history of French colonial companies is evidently complex, reflecting the keen interest shown in France towards colonial exploitation, allied to Catholic evangelism, throughout the 17th and 18thcenturies. ↩︎
  13. See Haudrère Philippe & Le Bouëdec Gérard, 2015. Les Compagnies des Indes, Rennes, Editions Ouest-France, for an accessible history of the various French India companies, albeit one which avoids ethical comment in favour of maritime history. ↩︎
  14. For a comprehensive statement of the texts of the Code Noir and of successive French laws on slavery and abolition, see: Castaldo André, 2006. Codes Noirs : de l’esclavage aux abolitions, Paris, Dalloz. The term « Code Noir » was  a shorthand which only began to be used in the 18th century, the law’s original title being the Ordonnance ou édit de mars 1685 sur les esclaves des îles de l’Amérique française. The law originally applied only to Martinique and Guadeloupe, then from 1704 to French Guiana, then from 1787 to Haïti and St Kitts (which were then French colonies). It was almost never observed on the ground, being seen by plantation-owners as a sort of celestial ideal of the humane treatment of slaves which could never be applied in practice. ↩︎
  15. For a famous and thorough commentary and moral demolition of the Code Noir from a Marxist perspective, see: Sala-Molins Louis, 1987, 6th ed. 2018. Le Code Noir ou le calvaire de Canaan, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, which also contains a very complete bibliography of the slave trade to 1987. ↩︎
  16. For a review of the sordid barbarism of British and French practices relating to the slave trade, see: McDonald Jack, “Anglicanisme et abolition de l’esclavage dans l’Empire britannique” in: Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses, 2014, Tome 94 N.2, 163-176. ↩︎
  17. For a remarkable treatment of the slave trade in its African and cultural context all the way to the present day, see: Coquéry-Vidrovitch Catherine, 2021. Les routes de l’esclavage : histoire des traites africaines, VIe – XXe siècle, Paris, Albin Michel. This book was issued to accompany the 2018 Arte television documentary series (now available on DVD) of the same title. ↩︎