The Doctrine of Discovery originated as policy in the 15th century as a result of Papal Bulls (decrees) to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain. According to According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations this amounted to a “virtual declaration of war against all non-Christians and an official sanction of the conquest, colonization, and eventual non exploitation of non-Christian people and their territories.”
Yesterday, I promised that I would opine on the historic comments of Pope Francis in Quebec last week. I have decided to make a few more comments on the Doctrine of Discovery today before I do that tomorrow.
As a result of a conversation yesterday, with a friend who is a professor of Religious studies, and clearly knows a lot more about the Doctrine of Discovery than I do, and says that the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated by Catholic Popes and church leaders more or less from the beginning. However, the attitudes that underpinned it, namely white supremacy and its corollaries, dominated western thinking for centuries. Those attitudes allowed the people from Europe to believe they had an inherent right, if not a religious right, to dominate the people of what they referred to as the New World. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging,
“The main principles of the discovery doctrine was accepted by European colonizers and remained an unspoken assumption until the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that the European colonizers had assumed dominion over North and South America during the Age of Discovery, and that the indigenous peoples had lost their rights to absolute sovereignty, but they did retain the right of occupancy in their own lands. In addition, Marshall claimed that the United States of America, upon winning it independence from Great Britain, simply assumed this right of discovery and the authority of dominion from the British. Succinctly put, the colonizing powers assumed the right to claim possession of the Americas by virtue of their belief in the superiority of Christianity and its adherents . In turn, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had inherited their right of possession, by way of the British, from the doctrine of a fifteenth century pope who was attempting to curry favour with the King and Queen of Spain.”
The basis of the policies that flowed from the doctrine were based on a fundamental assumption of European superiority over indigenous people. That attitude poisoned the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples for centuries even if Popes repudiated it. The religious leaders could not erase the attitudes of assumed European supremacy.