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This Week: The Doctrine of Discovery


Is Nygaard Notes “journalism” or is it “commentary”?   Well, since Nygaard Notes is totally independent, I can blur the lines.  This issue, for example—which appears to be Part 2 of a 3-part series, much to my surprise—gives a bit more of the history and context needed to understand the importance of an off-hand comment made by a Trump-appointed member of the Interior Department in late May.  I could simply report the comment, which would be journalistic.  Or I could tell you what I think of the comment, which would be commentary.  But what I do instead is to report the background and context necessary to understand the comment.  Journalism, or commentary?  In fact, that line is always blurry, as the decision to talk about one thing and not another is a commentary in itself.

By the way, in the last Notes I said, “In the next Nygaard Notes I’ll discuss a small but important expression of this principle that has recently been in the news.”  As it turns out, we need a little bit more context than I was expecting, so the recent news discussion (about the Interior Department guy’s comment) will be in NN #612.  Apologies.


“Quote” of the Week: “With the Help of God We Shall Use Force Against You”

The following excerpt is taken from a letter sent along with Christopher Columbus on his second trip to Haiti in 1493.  The letter was written by the Spanish King Ferdinand, and was to be communicated by Columbus to the Taino/Arawak Indians that Columbus had first encountered the previous year.  It included the following words:

“…God chose St. Peter as leader of mankind, regardless of their law, sect or belief. He seated St. Peter in Rome as the best place from which to rule the world but he allowed him to establish his seat in all parts of the world and rule all people, whether Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles or any other sect. He was named Pope, which means admirable and greatest father, governor of all men. . . .”

“Therefore, we request that you [the Taino/Arawak Indians, that is] understand this text, deliberate on its contents within a reasonable time, and recognize the Church and its highest priest, the Pope, as rulers of the universe, and in their name the King and Queen of Spain as rulers of this land, allowing the religious fathers to preach our holy Faith to you. You own compliance as a duty to the King and we in his name will receive you with love and charity, respecting your freedom and that of your wives and sons and your rights of possession and we shall not compel you to baptism unless you, informed of the Truth, wish to convert to our holy Catholic Faith as almost all your neighbors have done in other islands, in exchange for which Their Highnesses bestow many privileges and exemptions upon you. Should you fail to comply, or delay maliciously in so doing, we assure you that with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and of Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals. And we declare you guilty of resulting deaths and injuries, exempting Their Highnesses of such guilt as well as ourselves and the gentlemen who accompany us.”

Origins of the Doctrine of Discovery

In 1452, forty years before Columbus stumbled upon what is now called “America,” the Portuguese King Alfonso approached Pope Nicholas V seeking the pope’s blessing for the various activities in which the Portuguese crown was then involved.  This included the trading of slaves, in which Portugal had a leading role in the 15th Century, and which led the Portuguese to establish settlements in, and eventually to colonize, various parts of Africa.

The Pope obliged the King, issuing an edict (known as a “papal bull”) called “Dum Diversas” in 1452.  It began, “To the dearest son in Christ Alfonso, illustrious King of Portugal and the Algarbians, Greetings and Apostolic Blessing.”

The edict then began: “As we indeed understand from your pious and Christian desire, you intend to subjugate the enemies of Christ, namely the Saracens [Ed note: this was the European term for Arabs/Muslims], and bring [them] back, with powerful arm, to the faith of Christ, if the authority of Apostolic See supported you in this.”  The support of the Church was exactly what the King was seeking, and the papal bull gave the King what he desired, stating that “we grant to you full and free power … to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ…”  The Pope also granted the King the “full and free power” to “apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”  Permission was also given to subject the non-Christian residents of these areas—Portugal at this time was heavily involved in“discovering” Africa—to “perpetual slavery.”  This language “facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa,” according to

Perhaps considering the possibility that the Portuguese conquering forces (and their funders and supporters back home) might engage in some conduct that might be considered sinful, criminal, or otherwise objectionable, the Pope’s edict added that “we grant, by the power of your sacrifice, a plenary forgiveness of all and individual sins, crimes, trespasses, and digressions which you and they have confessed with contrite heart and by mouth, to you and to those who accompany you, as often as you and they happen to go into any war against the mentioned infidels, and indeed to those who do not accompany you but are sending and contributing…”

Forgiven in Advance

Then the Pope granted the conquering armies the promise of eternal salvation, assuring them that, due to their service as Christians, they would be rendered as innocent as newborn babes. (Does this sound familiar?).  Lest you accuse me of hyperbole, here are the Pope’s actual words to the King in the papal bull:

“And nevertheless, if it should happen that you or others of those accompanying you against the Saracens and other infidels of this kind, on the way there, staying there, or on the way back, departed from this world, we restore you and those accompanying you, remaining in sincerity and unity, through the present letter, to the pure innocence in which you and they existed after baptism.”

American Indian scholar Steve Newcomb summarizes, saying that “Acting on this papal privilege, Portugal continued to traffic in African slaves, and expanded its royal dominions by making ‘discoveries’ along the western coast of Africa, claiming those lands as Portuguese territory.”

And not just “Portuguese territory,” but Christian territory.  Newcomb explains that “Under various theological and legal doctrines formulated during and after the Crusades [during the 12th-13th Centuries], non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human.”  Once one accepts this logic, then one can accept the idea that lands were not “discovered” until seen by Christians.  Although non-Christian beings may live there, they amount to about the same thing as squirrels, or monkeys, or any other non-human organism.  That is, the land can be “possessed” only by whichever Christian nation first sets foot upon them.  This is what history has come to call the Doctrine of Discovery.

This is an important point, as some people think that the Age of Discovery/Age of Conquest was all about Europeans vs non-Europeans.  But the Doctrine of Discovery came from the Pope, and was explicitly based on religion, with the European conquerors planting not only their flag in the soil of the conquered lands, but also the cross.

The second half of the 15th Century saw a number of papal bulls dealing with issues of subjugation and conquest.  It was first come/first served in this claiming of lands, as we see with a look at one of the later bulls, the 1493 bull Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI, which stated that “one Christian nation did not have the right to establish dominion over lands previously dominated by another Christian nation.”

And so it went for the next 360 years or so, as European Christian nations, with the blessing of the Pope, used their “full and free power … to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels” who happened to be living in the “discovered” lands.  Over the centuries, over 80 percent of the planet was thus claimed by the Europeans.

But what does this have to do with Indians in the United States, a nation that wasn’t even born until more than 300 years later?  After all, the United States from the beginning guaranteed that Church and State would be separate, right?  Not so fast…

The Doctrine of Discovery in the United States

Back in 1823, more than 370 years after the Pope granted Christian nations the right to rule over every non-Christian territory they came across on their voyages of “discovery,” the young United States was still struggling with the issues involved in the colonization of the massive land base on which they found themselves. What came to be called “Manifest Destiny”—the idea that God had given the United States a mission to expand their territory throughout North America—was an animating principle from the beginning, although the term wasn’t coined until the 1840s.

Historian Donald M. Scott gives some perspective on the religious roots of the American project: “The notion that there was some providential purpose to the European discovery and eventual conquest of the land masses ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus was present from the beginning. Both the Spanish and the French monarchs authorized and financed exploration of the ‘New World’ because, among other things, they considered it their divinely appointed mission to spread Christianity to the New World by converting the natives to Christianity. Coming later to the venture, the British and especially the New England Puritans carried with them a demanding sense of Providential purpose.”

Don’t Own It.  Can’t Sell It.

The year 1823 is important because that was the year that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the indigenous inhabitants of the continent had no rights to the land that they had occupied since time immemorial.  And the ruling they issued in the case (known as Johnson v M’Intosh) explicitly relied on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.

The Johnson case had to do with a dispute between two people who had purchased the same land.  One side acquired the title by directly purchasing it from Piankeshaw Indians in 1775.  The other side bought the same land from the federal government in 1815.  The Supreme Court was asked to decide who had the right to sell it in the first place: The Indians?  Or the U.S. Government?  The ruling is a little complicated, but essentially the Court ruled that the United States had the right to sell the land to whomever it chose, while the Indians could sell their land only to the U.S. Government.  Gale Courey Toensing explains that “The high-court ruling said that the title of land, which had been ‘discovered and conquered,’ belonged to the conquering nation and the Indigenous Peoples of the land had only a ‘right of occupancy’.”  Don’t own it; can’t sell it.

Scholar Patricia Engle, writing on the website of Lehigh University’s Literature of Justification, notes that Supreme Court Justice John Marshall “upholds discovery rights on principle,” and refers us to the following words from the Johnson ruling, which were written by the legendary Chief Justice himself:

“On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all, and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity in exchange for unlimited independence.”

Marshall continues: “No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle [of Discovery] more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.  In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned.  The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries ‘then unknown to all Christian people,’ and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the King of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.”

The “principle which has been mentioned” is, of course, the Doctrine of Discovery.

Scholar Steve Newcomb writes that “Most of us have been brought up to believe that the United States Constitution was designed to keep church and state apart.  Unfortunately, with the Johnson decision, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was not only written into U.S. law but also became the cornerstone of U.S. Indian policy over the next century.”

And beyond.  As recently as 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Oneida Indian Nation, in a case called City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, citing the same 1452 Doctrine.  In “Footnote 1″ of that ruling the Court said: “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery’…” ownership of “the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”

In the next Nygaard Notes, we’ll jump ahead not a century, but 64 years, to the year 1887, when the U.S. Congress passed the notorious Dawes Act into law.