Lieutenant James Cook's landing at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770, by E. Phillips Fox (Source: Wikipedia)
WHEN SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th century to land on the shores of the Americas, they were struck by how advanced the indigenous Aztec and Inca empires were. The Aztecs were the last great Mesoamerican civilisational group that flourished in the Americas for 200 years before European settlers arrived.
The Europeans knew they could conquer the ‘New World’ with their superior weaponry. But they needed a legal justification for occupying territory that had belonged to indigenous civilisations for generations.
The Pope stepped in. The Vatican passed the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ in 1452. The doctrine was a papal decree that conferred legal and religious rights to Europeans who had ‘discovered’ new lands. The doctrine enabled Spanish and Portuguese settlers in the Americas to transfer land rights to themselves.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, explains how this theft of indigenous people’s land occurred: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal and religious concept that has been used for centuries to justify Christian colonial conquest. It advanced the idea that European peoples, culture, and religion were superior to all others.
“In the Canadian context, the Doctrine of Discovery has led to the seizure of Indigenous lands and the displacement of Indigenous peoples. As colonial settlements spread over the territory that became Canada, many Indigenous peoples entered treaty relationships defining how they would share the land with the newcomers. Influenced by the absolute claims to power and authority expressed by the Doctrine of Discovery, Canadian law interpreted these agreements as surrendering title and control. The Canadian government has also claimed title and control over unceded Indigenous lands. This was demonstrated in a 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling.”
As pressure from human rights activists built up, the Vatican was forced into a mea culpa. Pope Francis visited Canada in 2022. He apologised for the Catholic Church’s role in endorsing the Doctrine of Discovery.
National Public Radio (NPR) reported: “Nearly 500 years after papal decrees were used to rationalise Europe’s colonial conquests, the Vatican repudiated those decrees in March 2023, saying the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ that was used to justify snuffing out indigenous people’s culture and livelihoods is not part of the Catholic faith. The doctrine was invoked as a legal and religious stand by Europeans who ‘discovered’ new lands and violently seized them from people who had been living there for generations. It has been cited in different arenas for centuries, including by the US Supreme Court—as early as 1823 and as recently as 2005.”
The recent referendum on giving Aborigines—called Australia’s ‘First People’—just a small voice in their own affairs, not even financial compensation, was defeated by a 60-40 per cent margin on October 14, 2023
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The Rev David McCallum, executive director of the Program for Discerning Leadership, based in Rome, says: “Back in the 19th century, the doctrine was used as a precedent which gave people title to land that had not been owned with an official title.”
The Pope’s apology and withdrawal of the doctrine, McCallum adds, “repudiates the very mindsets and worldview that gave rise to the original papal bulls. It renounces the mindset of cultural or racial superiority which allowed for objectification or subjection of people, and strongly condemns any attitudes or actions that threaten or damage the dignity of the human person.”
Can the Pope’s repudiation in 2023 of a 500-year-old doctrine reverse the damage done to indigenous people over generations? The statistics tell a grim tale.
In 1492 when the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus opened the way for Europeans to begin colonising the Americas, the total population of indigenous people on the continent was estimated at 60 million. In comparison, the population in 1492 of Portugal was one million, of Spain 10 million, and of England three million.
The other continent where the original inhabitants, Aborigines, suffered similar deprivation and depopulation at the hands of Europeans was Australia.
Being Protestants and not under the Church of Rome, British settlers in Australia didn’t invoke the papal Doctrine of Discovery. They simply seized land and killed any Aborigines who resisted.
There are over 300 officially documented massacres of Aborigines in Australia by British settlers between the late 1700s and early 1900s.
The recent referendum on giving Aborigines—called Australia’s “First People”—just a small voice in their own affairs, not even financial compensation, was defeated by a 60-40 per cent margin on October 14, 2023.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said before the referendum that the result would show what kind of country Australia is. It did.