Indigenous Voices: Doctrine of Discovery

By Madeleine Cho

Before reading this article read: Indigenous Voices: The First Encounter

“They invoked their Doctrine of Discovery. Everything has led us to what we live with today. Trauma, identity issues, loss of culture and language, and land disputes.”

The Doctrine of Discovery was created in the mid-fifteenth century, propagated by two Roman Catholic popes, Pope Nicholas V and Pope Alexander VI, with full support of the European monarchy. First conceptualized in the mid-fifteenth century, various other rules and details were added just until the mid-twentieth century.

The purpose of the Doctrine of Discovery was to justify the colonization of lands outside of Europe. This law permitted the Europeans to claim lands, already inhabited by Indigenous peoples, as their own; under a pretense of discovery and to give them undisciplined authority.

The origins of the doctrine can be traced back specifically to Pope Nicolas V’s issuance of the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex in 1452. A papal bull is a type of public decree, letters patent, or charters issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. This particular bull allowed Portugal to claim and conquer lands in West Africa. Pope Alexander VI also extended the bull to Spain with the Papal Bull Inter Caetera, giving them the right to conquer newly-found lands in 1493.

Although, Christopher Columbus had already begun doing so. Arguments between Portugal and Spain led to the eventual Treaty of Tordesillas, which specified that only non-Christian lands could be taken, as well as drawing a line of distinction to allocate potential discoveries between the two competing powers.

The Indigenous peoples of these lands fell victim to this unjust decree. The devastation this document caused spread across a vast distance; from Europe, North America, South America, Central America and even Africa. It is the source of many current political disputes.

The influence of this powerful decree caused many Europeans to feel an entitlement to the land and a sense of superiority over the people who were already living there. This can be seen even in more recent documents such as school books. “The colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who would never civilize themselves,” [Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part I: Origins to 1939, p. 18]. This mindset set the stage for many arduous years of racism and discrimination. 

The Doctrine of Discovery was a fashion of twisting religion and using it as an excuse to justify what should be unjustifiable.

In 1537, a single pope repudiated the Doctrine. Unfortunately, the times were against him. More recently, in 1992, Santo Domingo, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing, Pope John Paul II confessed and begged for forgiveness for the sins of the Church in the Spanish conquest of America.

To this day, the government of Canada, the Indigenous peoples and even the Christian church are working towards reconciliation to make amends for generations of struggle, identity loss, abuse and injustice.