Lauri Tähtinen (Harvard University)

Religion, Statehood, and Sovereignty in the Portuguese Expansion into Africa

The background for my analysis lies in the relationship between Christianity and the advent of the concept of state sovereignty in international history. If international history is understood in a traditional sense, as the study of the relations between particular sovereign nation-states, it commonly relies at its foundation on mythologizing some specific historical event, most often the Peace of Westphalia, as a break from the past. Recent scholarship has downplayed the importance of “Westphalia,” as a threshold between a mythical medieval past of universality under Christianity and a complex network of particular sovereigns. Debunking this simplistic notion should allow for a fuller appreciation of the international relations of the pre-Westphalia era as well as facilitate the analysis of the role of religion and other universalities post Westphalia. The conversation should also be broadened to reach into the extra-European world to truly study international history in the broadest sense of the concept.

I wish to set the wide-ranging questions of the role of universalities, and of religion in particular, in world history against the backdrop of early Portuguese imperial expansion into Africa. Specifically, I will cover the period beginning with the conquest of Ceuta (1415) and ending with the incorporation of Dom Afonso I, the King of Congo, into the Respublica Christiana during the early sixteenth century. In addition to the basic historiography, I am already familiar with the works of Gomes Eanes de Zurara, the royal historian, who chronicled the early conquests by Prince Henry the Navigator. For the intellectual framework within which relations between Europeans and non-Europeans were settled, I will consult the works of James Muldoon and James A. Brundage.

At least, four historical peculiarities of the Portuguese case of imperial expansion and one more general intellectual development warrant detailed study. First, the Portuguese imperial effort was first embarked upon under the auspices of “The Order of the Christ” (hereafter “The Order”), not directly under the Portuguese crown. As the primary function of The Order was to fight the Moors in northern Africa, the connection between the medieval crusades and the advent of modern European imperial expansion is deeper than often acknowledged. Second, The Order was a complex entity that did not fit easily under the sovereignty of either Rome or Lisbon and primarily practiced informal imperial rule (a comparison with later East India Companies could prove fruitful). Third, as Portugal was a distinguishably sovereign kingdom already at the end of the 14th century its particular status does not fit the simplified standard accounts of the deferential puppet kings of pre-Westphalian Europe. Fourth, the relationship between Dom Afonso I, an African Christian ruling a sub-Saharan kingdom, and his fellow believers requires careful research. In this particular instance, the conversion of an African ruler to Christianity seems to have to some extent allowed for his entry into established relations with European Christians. Finally, the mid-fourteenth century debunking of the Treatise of the Donation of Constantine by Lorenzo Valla deserves to be read as a piece of international history in the making as the role of Papal bulls of donation becomes re-evaluated at large.

With this study of Portuguese imperial expansion, I wish to illuminate how international life was not all about religion pre-1648 (or before any other arbitrary date) as well as hint at the fact that it did not become exclusively secular thereafter. A careful study of the early Portuguese expansion into Africa will provide a nuanced picture of the interplay between religion, statehood and sovereignty in the late medieval and early modern era. It should also confirm the need for future scholarship on how to best capture the complexity of the ground on which international and religious history meet.

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