The Sordid Influence of the Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery (DOD) was developed by Roman Catholic Popes beginning in 1452 to justify and provide a legal basis for European Christian nations to expand their empires, take the land and resources of non-white civilizations around the world, and destroy those who would not convert to Christianity. The origins of the document can be traced to Nicholas the V’s Papal bull (official charter) which allowed Portugal to claim and conquer lands in West Africa. Alexander the VI extended the right to Spain in 1493 to conquer newly found lands and peoples through his own Papal bull, after Christopher Columbus had already begun his “explorations” in the Americas.

The following is a quote from a timeline of the Christian European Spanish barbarism that was part of the conquering and depopulating of the Americas, provided by Kenneth Humphreys.

"The plunder of the empires of the Americas was to good purpose—it allowed Spain to finance religious persecution in Europe for over a century. Spanish wars of conquest included laying waste much of the Netherlands and a disastrous attempt to invade England. By destroying diverse cultures in the New World the Christian conquerors were able not only to eradicate civilizations more ancient than their own but also were able to senselessly erase a vibrant artistic legacy and even scientific knowledge. In their stead the Christian adventurers imposed a racist tyranny…."

The absolutism of the DOD made its way through the Americas bringing disease to Native tribes and peoples, literally wiping out entire civilizations. In addition, it provided legitimacy for slavery and shipping of Africans to the new world, and the oppression of other ethnic groups. Always it was justified on two major premises; one, bringing Christianity to the savages and heathens of the New World; and two, the belief that one race had the divine right and superiority to civilize the world and expand their reach.

Estimates of the pre-Colombian population of the Americas vary but possibly stood at 100 million—one fifth of humanity in 1492. Between 1500 and 1600 the population of the Americas was halved. In Mexico alone, it has been estimated that the pre-conquest population of around 25 million people was reduced within 80 years to about 1.3 million. In Hawai'i, the population was estimated to be as much as 800,000 at the time of contact in 1798. In less than 60 years, less than 100,000 Native Hawaiians remained.

How could this trail of destruction have been denied for so long? More shockingly, why did post-Columbian America continue the oppression? The European settlers arrived in “America” to escape the oppression of the old world and the British Empire and then in the 18th and 19th centuries they repeated the exact behavior of their European oppressors. It was justified under a doctrine called Manifest Destiny which upheld the same dogma as the DOD.

In many court cases, U.S. law cited the Doctrine of Discovery. For example in Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court cites this theory of Christian expansion and possession of newly discovered lands, despite Native presence, as one under which all colonial powers operated. Chief Justice Marshall, writing the decision, held that the United Kingdom had taken title to the lands which constituted the United States when the British discovered them. The tribes which occupied the land were, at the moment of discovery, no longer completely sovereign and had no property rights but rather merely held a right of occupancy. The discovering nation or its successor had the right to take possession of the land from the natives by conquest or purchase.

To this day, the truth about the Doctrine of Discovery is still not taught in school history books or acknowledged by our government with honesty. Some people in this country may have heard bits and pieces of DOD history over the years, and many have certainly witnessed its impact. Why do most choose to forget and allow this doctrine to remain? Is America in a state of denial?

T. Lulani Arquette (Native Hawaiian) is President and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver, Washington.