Christian European discovery doctrine

The discovery doctrine, also called the doctrine of discovery, is a concept of public international law that was promulgated by Christian European monarchies in order to legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside Europe. Between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, this idea allowed European entities to seize lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples under the guise of “discovering new land”, meaning land not inhabited by Christians.


The Doctrine of Discovery emerged during the Age of Exploration.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, which authorized Portugal to conquer Saracens and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude”. His successors issued several bulls confirming or expanding the Portuguese right to subjugate non-European peoples in newly explored territories. On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull known as Inter Caetera that provided Portugal and Spain the religious backing to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity. The papal bull said that land not inhabited by Christians could be claimed, while “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” In 1506, Pope Julius II ratified the Treaty of Tordesillas between the Portuguese and the Spanish by issuing the bull “ea quae pro bono pacis” and turning the line of Tordesillas into a “papal line of demarcation”.

The kingdoms of France and England also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their claims on the New World, while refusing to recognize a Spanish-Portuguese duopoly in colonial affairs, with Francis I of France notably saying that he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Portugal and Spain. Leo X and Clement VII accepted the French view and argued that the previous bulls in favor of Spain and Portugal did not apply to those lands, such as New France, explored and discovered by other nations.

When colonial disputes arose between Christian nations, especially when two nations claimed to have discovered the same territory, the Pope would be consulted and requested to arbitrate the dispute. Following the English reformation and the break from Rome, England refused to recognize Papal bulls concerning the partition of the world as binding, but retained the Doctrine of Discovery. The papal position evolved over time: in 1537, Pope Paul III issued the Bull Sublimis Deus which forbids the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (called “Indians of the West and the South”) and all other people. It states that the “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have rights to freedom and private property, even if they are not Christian.

American jurisprudence

In 1792, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that this European Doctrine of Discovery was international law which was applicable to the new US government as well. The Doctrine and its legacy continue to influence American imperialism and treatment of indigenous peoples.

The discovery doctrine was expounded by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. Chief Justice John Marshall explained and applied the way that colonial powers laid claim to lands belonging to foreign sovereign nations during the Age of Discovery. Under it, European Christian governments could lay title to non-European territory on the basis that the colonisers travelled and “discovered” said territory. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring aboriginal possession of land in favor of modern governments, such as in the 2005 case of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation.

The 1823 case was the result of collusive lawsuits where land speculators worked together to make claims to achieve a desired result. John Marshall explained the Court’s reasoning. The decision has been the subject of a number of law review articles and has come under increased scrutiny by modern legal theorists.

Johnson v. M’Intosh

The plaintiff Johnson had inherited land, originally purchased from the Piankeshaw tribes. Defendant McIntosh claimed the same land, having purchased it under a grant from the United States. It appears that in 1775 members of the Piankeshaw tribe sold certain land in the Indiana Territory to Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia and others. In 1805 the Piankeshaw conveyed much of the same land to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, thus giving rise to conflicting claims of title. In reviewing whether the courts of the United States should recognize land titles obtained from Native Americans prior to American independence, the court decided that they should not. Chief Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been affected if the case were decided in favor of Johnson. Rather than recuse himself from the case, however, the Chief Justice wrote the decision for a unanimous Supreme Court.


Marshall found that ownership of land comes into existence by virtue of discovery of that land, a rule that had been observed by all European countries with settlements in the New World. Legally, the United States was the true owner of the land because it inherited that ownership from Britain, the original discoverer.

Marshall noted:

On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe … as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. … The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.

Chief Justice Marshall noted the 1455 papal bull Romanus Pontifex approved Portugal’s claims to lands discovered along the coast of West Africa, and the 1493 Inter caetera had ratified Spain’s right to conquer newly found lands, after Christopher Columbus had already begun doing so, but stated: “Spain did not rest her title solely on the grant of the Pope. Her discussions respecting boundary, with France, with Great Britain, and with the United States, all show that she placed it on the rights given by discovery. Portugal sustained her claim to the Brazils by the same title.”

United States law

Marshall pointed to the exploration charters given to the explorer John Cabot as proof that other nations had accepted the doctrine. The tribes which occupied the land were, at the moment of discovery, no longer completely sovereign and had no property rights but rather merely held a right of occupancy. Further, only the discovering nation or its successor could take possession of the land from the natives by conquest or purchase.

The doctrine was cited in other cases as well. With Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), it supported the concept that tribes were not independent states but “domestic dependent nations”. The decisions in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1979) and Duro v. Reina (1990) used the doctrine to prohibit tribes from criminally prosecuting first non-Indians, then Indians who were not a member of the prosecuting tribe.

Legal critique

As the Piankeshaw were not party to the litigation, “no Indian voices were heard in a case which had, and continues to have, profound effects on Indian property rights.”

Professor Blake A. Watson of the University of Dayton School of Law finds Marshall’s claim of “universal recognition” of the “doctrine of discovery” historically inaccurate.

In reviewing the history of European exploration Marshall did not take note of Spanish Dominican philosopher Francisco de Vitoria’s 1532 De Indis nor De Jure belli Hispanorum in barbaros. Vitoria adopted from Thomas Aquinas the Roman law concept of ius gentium, and concluded that the Indians were rightful owners of their property and that their chiefs validly exercised jurisdiction over their tribes, a position held previously by Palacios Rubios. His defense of American Indians was based on a scholastic understanding of the intrinsic dignity of man, a dignity he found being violated by Spain’s policies in the New World. However, the legal scholar Anthony Anghie has demonstrated that Vitoria – after applying to the Indians the concept of ius gentium – then found them to be in violation of international law through their resistance to Spanish exploration and missionary activities. By resisting Spanish incursions, Indians were, according to Vitoria, provoking war with the Spanish invaders, thus justifying Spanish conquest of Indian lands.

Marshall also overlooked more recent American experience, specifically Roger Williams’s purchase of the Providence Plantations. In order to forestall Massachusetts and Plymouth designs on the land, Williams subsequently traveled to England to obtain a patent which referenced the purchase from the natives. The Rhode Island Royal Charter issued by Charles II acknowledged the rights of the Indians to the land.

Nor does Justice Marshall seem to have taken note of the policy of the Dutch West India Company which only conferred ownership rights in New Netherland after the grantee had acquired title by purchase from the Indian owners, a practice also followed by the Quakers in Pennsylvania Colony.

Watson and others, such as Robert A. Williams Jr., suggest that Marshall misinterpreted the “discovery doctrine” as giving exclusive right to lands discovered, rather than the exclusive right to treaty with the inhabitants thereof.

Contemporary advocacy efforts

The discovery doctrine has been severely condemned as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic and fundamental human rights. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) noted the Doctrine of Discovery “as the foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous people) human rights”. The eleventh session of the UNPFII, held at the UN’s New York headquarters from 7-18 May 2012, had the special theme of “The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples),” and called for a mechanism to investigate historical land claims, with speakers observing that “The Doctrine of Discovery had been used for centuries to expropriate indigenous lands and facilitate their transfer to colonizing or dominating nations….”

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, conducted on 8–17 August 2009, passed a resolution officially repudiating the discovery doctrine.

At the 2012 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, delegates passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on Unitarian Universalists to study the Doctrine and eliminate its presence from the current-day policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism.

In 2013, at its 29th General Synod, the United Church of Christ followed suit in repudiating the doctrine in a near-unanimous vote.

In 2014, Ruth Hopkins, a tribal attorney and former judge, wrote to Pope Francis asking him to formally revoke the Inter caetera papal bull of 1493.

At the 2016 Synod, 10-17 June in Grand Rapids, Michigan, delegates to the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church rejected the Doctrine of Discovery as heresy in response to a study report on the topic.

At the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (2016), commissioners called on members of the church to confess the church’s complicity and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. The commissioners directed that a report be written reviewing the history of the Doctrine of Discovery; that report was approved by the 223rd General Assembly (2018), along with recommendations for a variety of additional actions that could be taken by the church at all levels to acknowledge indigenous peoples and to confront racism against them.

In 2016, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), adopted Assembly Action CA16.02.04 entitled Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by a vote of 912-28, describing the Doctrine of Discovery as “an example of the ‘improper mixing of the power of the church and the power of the sword'”

Later in 2016, on November 3, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific papal bull underpinning the doctrine, as part of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

During Pope Francis’ July 2022 penitential pilgrimage to Canada to apologize and ask forgiveness for abuses suffered by Canadian indigenous children in residential schools, Canadian bishops called on the Catholic Church to issue a new statement on the Doctrine of Discovery. The bishops “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

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