The Doctrine of Discovery was a late-medieval philosophy that provided early Christian European explorers with the spiritual, legal, and political grounds for the seizure of land inhabited by non-Christians. It was used in Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and the Americas.
The Doctrine stemmed from a series of Papal Bulls, particularly Romanus Pontifex (1455), and Inter Caetera (1493).
Romanus Pontifex “granted” King Alfonso V of Portugal a monopoly of trade and colonization with all lands south of Cape Bojador in Africa. It also encouraged the seizure of land from Saracen Turks, and the enslavement of non-Christians.
Inter Caetera “granted” King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castille sovereignty to any “unclaimed” lands west and south of the Azores and Cape Verde islands. It resulted in the colonization of the Americas.
The Doctrine of Discovery in CANADA
“We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens 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.”
The Documentary “Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts,” was produced by the Anglican Church of Canada* and reflects on the implications of Inter Caetera on the Indigenous People of Canada. *The Museum and Archives of Vernon (MAV) is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with the Anglican Church of Canada, or any of its subsidiaries or its affiliates.
The Doctrine of Discovery undoubtedly informed Canada’s earliest European explorers, whose voyages to the “New World” paved the way for France and England to lay claim to the land.
In looking at Canada’s more recent history, the Doctrine of Discovery has never been explicitly cited in a Land Title Claim case; however, many argue that its implications continue to inform Canadian Law and negatively impact Indigenous Peoples. For instance, during the 1990 Supreme Court of Canada R. v. Sparrow case, the following was stated:
“It is worth recalling that while British policy towards the native population was based on respect for their right to occupy their traditional lands, a proposition to which the Royal Proclamation of 1763 bears witness, there was from the outset never any doubt that sovereignty and legislative power, and indeed the underlying title, to such lands vested in the Crown.”
Actions like the introduction of Bill C-15 into the House of Commons in 2020, an attempt to establish a process for implementing the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which includes a complete rejection of colonialism and the Doctrine of Discovery, demonstrate that this medieval philosophy is not merely an artifact of the past.
Join the conversation! Learn + Connect: Towards Reconciliation is a free online program that has been developed so participants can explore colonial perspectives of history, reflect on how they influences our understanding and actions, and discuss ways we can move forward.
The first session, which explores the Doctrine of Discovery via the “Stolen Land, Strong Hearts” documentary, will take place on January 20, 2022, from 7:00-8:30 PM via Zoom. All are welcome to join!