The doctrine of discovery

European map of the world, 1507

European map of the world, 1507

Did Europeans discover America?  Or had the New World already been discovered by the people who lived here?  I posted a map the other day of “actual European discoveries,” which consisted mainly of scattered uninhabited islands.  But a friend of mine argued:

When I say to someone I discovered this neat little restaurant, I really don’t think that no one else knew about it.

My answer is that we don’t think our discovery of a restaurant previously unknown to us entitles us to help ourselves to the food without paying for it.

But the “doctrine of discovery” proclaimed by the 16th century Papacy, European monarch discovers a land without Christian or European inhabitants, the discoverer has a right to take possession of it in the monarch’s name.  The “doctrine of discovery” is part of U.S. law to this day, and provides the legal justification for not recognizing Indian nations as having sovereign rights.

Some 500 years ago, most people of European ancestry lived in Europe, just as most people of African ancestry lived in Africa and most people of Chinese ancestry lived in China.  But now people of European ancestry are either the majority or the upper class in all of North and South America, Australia and northern Asia (Siberia).

Now this is part of the history of migrations of peoples, and is perhaps no different (on a larger scale) than the Angles and Saxons moving into England and pushing back the Celts, and being conquered in their turn by the Norman French.  Or the Arabs coming out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. and spreading into the Fertile Crescent and North Africa.  Or the Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire.

The great Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach said this is the way of the world.

In [Fehrenbach’s] Lone Star, Texas history is told as a series of encounters between different tribes—Spanish, Mexican, Comanche, Anglo—each so alien to the other that they might as well have come from different planets. … …

To Fehrenbach … the extermination of the Comanches … [is] just another example of the way human cultures have treated each other for millennia.  Before their own destruction, the Comanches nearly destroyed the Apaches, pushing them out of the buffalo grounds and into Mexican and Anglo lands.  Before that, the Apaches had nearly depopulated the villages of the Pueblo Indians and other tribes throughout the Southwest.

via The Texas Observer.

I’m not clear about what I think about all this.  I don’t feel guilty about being the descendent of European settlers who moved into lands that originally belonged to someone else, nor do I think I’m morally superior to my ancestors.  They didn’t come to the New World with the intention of oppressing people.  They were poor oppressed people themselves.  I honor their memory.  It is due to their struggles that I am able to spend a comfortable old age in reading, conversation and writing.

At the same time, I think American citizens are obligated to respect what’s left of  the land rights and treaty rights of the Indian nations.  And if a nation today were doing what the United States did in the 19th century Indian Wars, or the Spanish conquistadors did in Mexico and Peru, I would condemn them, just as I condemn ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Israeli displacement of the Palestinian Arabs and the Chinese colonization of Tibet.

T.R. Fehrenbach would say I lack moral clarity and intellectual consistency.  He would be right.

The least I can do is try to be aware of the facts of history as they are, and to shun comforting illusions.


Actual European Discoveries, a map by Bill Rankin showing uninhabited lands (mostly islands) discovered by European explorers.

Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) by The Oatmeal.  Hat tip to Tobias Buckell.

Discovery doctrine from Wikipedia.

Five Hundred Years of Injustice by Steve Newcomb, a call for the Roman Catholic Church to revoke the doctrine of discovery, and for the U.S. government to eliminate the doctrine from U.S. law.

Fehrenbach’s Texas by Saul Elbein for the Texas Observer.

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One Response to “The doctrine of discovery”

  1. Holden Says:

    I really like your last thought in the post. It is exactly about how I feel about our colonial history as well.


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