Discovery doctrine

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
It's the
Icon law.svg
To punish
and protect

The discovery doctrine, also called the doctrine of discovery, is a legal and religious concept of property law that allows governments to lay claim to lands that have been "discovered" by citizens of that country, and to usurp any claims of the indigenous people of that land. Through the discovery doctrine, highly militarized countries have been able to colonize mineral-rich lands for centuries. Many times the conquering forces committed genocide against indigenous peoples. Due to the discovery doctrine, some cultures have been permanently wiped out of existence.

The United States Supreme Court has upheld the discovery doctrine many times,[1][2][3][4] as have the courts of other colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands.

During the General Convention of the Episcopal Church conducted on 8-17 August 2009, the bishops of the church adopted a resolution officially repudiating the discovery doctrine[5] — rather late and pointless, since the United Nations already had an effective declaration on decolonization by 1960.[6]


The discovery doctrine can be traced back to a series of papal bulls by the Catholic Church,[7] starting with Pope Nicholas V's Dum DiversasWikipedia in 1452.[8]:15 Dum Diversas granted the Catholic King Alfonso V the following rights, loosely translated as:[9][8]:17[note 1]

…to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit – by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.

It has been suggested that the motivation for Dum Diversas was for another Christian Crusade against Muslim lands by Portugal, but the more immediate motivation was the recent siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire,[11]:94 that lead to its seizure by the Ottomans in 1453. Dum Diversas also had the effect of legitimizing within the Catholic world Portugal's claims to lands of the North Africa that it had recently explored.[12]:162,168

Nicholas V later issued the Romanus Pontifex bull in 1455, which further ordered perpetual enslavement of non-Christians.[13] In a foreshadowing of slave owners' arguments in the Confederate States of America, church leaders at the time of the bull "argued that slavery served as a natural deterrent and Christianizing influence to 'barbarous' behavior among pagans."[13]

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed to the Caribbean, finding islands previously unknown to Europe and returned to his sponsors the King and Queens of Spain in 1493. Following the news of Columbus, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera in 1493. These events led to the creation of European empires that stretched across most of the globe.[8]

Inter Caetera validated Spain's claim to the lands claimed in the New World, but also established the rules of engagement between for competing European colonial powers.[8]:16

See also[edit]


  1. The long-winded translation of the run-on sentence in Latin[10] could be translated as (from Google Translate):
    We, therefore, considering that those who rise up against the Catholic faith, and those who intend to extinguish the Christian religion, must be resisted by that virtue and other constancy on the part of the faithful of Christ, so that the faithful themselves, inflamed by the ardor of faith, and by virtues which are abhorred for power, may not only hinder their purpose by the obstacle of a contrary intention, if from the opposition of strength they prevent unjust attempts, and the God for whom they serve, with their own assistance suppress the plans of the unfaithful, and we are invited by the divine love of the community, the charity of Christians, and bound by the duty of pastoral duties, those things which are the integrity and increase of the faith, for which Christ our God shed his blood, look upon the righteous the vigor of the faithful souls, and rightly desiring to encourage your Royal Majesty in this most holy purpose, to you Muslims, and Pagans, and other infidels, and enemies of Christ, whatever and wherever established Kingdoms, Dukedoms, Counties, Principalities, and other Dominions, Lands, Places, Villas, Camps, and whatever other possessions, movable goods and immovables consist in whatever things, and by whatever name they may be considered, held and possessed by the same Muslims, Pagans, infidels, and enemies of Christ, even of whomsoever, or whose Kings, or Princes, or Kings, or Princes' Kingdoms, Duchies, Counties, Principalities, and other Dominions, Lands, Places, Towns, Camps, possessions, and goods of this kind, to invade, conquer, conquer, and subjugate, and to reduce their persons to perpetual servitude; and other Dominions, possessions, and goods of this kind, to you and your successors the Kings of Portugal, to perpetually apply and appropriate, and to convert into yours and the same successors' uses and interests, full and free, by Apostolic authority, we grant the faculty of the present tenor, and the same Royal.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Worcester v Georgia.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
  5. General Convention renounces Doctrine of Discovery" by Mary Frances Schjonberg (27 August 2009) Episcopal Life Online, (archived from August 27, 2009).
  6. The United Nations and Decolonization: History The United Nations (archived from December 31, 2011).
  7. Untangling the roots: In his new book, scholar Robert P. Jones exposes the disturbing links between Christian Nationalism and white supremacy (Mar 28, 2024) Church & State Magazine, Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future by Robert P. Jones (2023) Simon & Schuster. 166800951X.
  9. Dum Diversas Doctrine of Discovery, Indigenous Values Initiative.
  10. Dum Diversas Cathopedia.
  11. The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam by Merryl Wyn Davies & Ziauddin Sardar (2004) Verso. ISBN 1859844545.
  12. Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil: 1500–1600 by Alida C. Metcalf (2005) University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292709706.
  13. 13.0 13.1 African Laborers for a New Empire: Iberia, Slavery, and the Atlantic World: Pope Nicolas V and the Portuguese Slave Trade by David Wheat (February 2014) The Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.