I Found It so Now It’s Mine: The Doctrine of Discovery

Featured image: Image by Adolfo Félix from Unsplash. For the audio, see the recording on Twitch.


4 for Now

I remember learning in school about “separation of church and state” (the common paraphrasing from the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment). I don’t remember, however, learning that the establishment of the US—and every colonized nation, including the ones who became colonizers themselves—is based on decrees from the Christian Church.

The Doctrine of Discovery is the name given to a series of papal bulls issued in the 15th century. A papal bull is essentially the pope speaking something into law. He delivers a decree, and “civilized” Christian folks take it as gospel, so to speak.

The three papal bulls that established the legality of stealing land and lives the world over are:

  • Dum Diversas: issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, which gave King Alfonso V of Portugal permission to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all non-Christians and the lands and goods they held. It also permitted “perpetual slavery.”
  • Romanus Pontifex: issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1454, which allowed European Catholics to expand their dominion over so-called discovered land, claiming King Alfonso rightfully owned it all.
  • Inter Caetera: issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, which said that domination was only allowed over non-Christian nations, but it validated conquest in the name of spreading Christianity and overthrowing “barbarous” nations.

Essentially, these Popes gave their permission to create the European-dominated human hierarchy that undergirds white supremacy. European countries, with Portugal leading the charge, claimed Indigenously-inhabited land for themselves and enslaved Indigenous people—especially from Africa—to expand their empires.

Preacher John Winthrop told the colonists of Massachusetts Bay that they were forming the “City on a Hill.” This helped form a myth in the minds of the colonists—that they were chosen, promised the land of the American continent. Thus, they responded to King George’s order that they could not expand west of the Appalachians with the Declaration of Independence.

Once the colonies were free from the crown, they felt free to claim their promised lands and began displacing and exterminating the inhabitants en masse.

The Doctrine of Discovery was used to set a legal precedent in the US in 1823 in Johnson v. M’Intosh. The Supreme Court ruled that “the discovering country automatically gained sovereign and property rights over the lands of non-Christian, non-European peoples.” This precedent was used in the US as recently as 2005 (by Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Other countries have also used it to strip Indigenous peoples of the rights to the lands they occupied and stewarded for thousands of years.

So what do we do? We could pressure the pope to recant the doctrine, although considering his stance on the recently found bodies of Indigenous children, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.

The best thing we can do, since we can only control our own actions, is to work on unlearning the white supremacy and colonizer mindsets we’ve been conditioned into. And, of course, support Land Back efforts because you can’t find something that was never lost.

“When you are in the possession of stolen property and the people you stole it from are right in front of you, the only just thing to do is to give it back.” –Unsettling Truths, by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah


4 for Later

  1. Unsettling Truths by Mark Charles and Soong-Shan Rah (from Bookshop.org or signed copy)
  2. James Cook and the Doctrine of Discovery – 5 Things to Know by Tina Ngata (11-minute read)
  3. The Doctrine of Discovery: The International Law of Colonialism by Robert J. Miller (4-minute read)
  4. Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery (46-minute read)