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Discovering the Doctrine of Discovery

7 August 2009

This week I discovered the Doctrine of Discovery, and discovered a whole can of worms that went with it.

It started innocently enough — I read a news item on the web about the Episcopal Church in the USA repudiating the “Doctrine of Discovery”, and blogged, semi-jocularly, about being behind the times in learning that some people were getting rid of doctrines I didn’t even know had been adopted in the first place. Brian McLaren blogged about a similar problem — someone demanded that he provide scripture to back up his “kingdom now theology” and he didn’t even know what “kingdom now theology” was.

I don’t know if Brian McLaren has discovered what “kingdom now theology” is, but I was quickly put on the right track about the “Doctrine of Discovery”.

One Peter d’Errico, who seems quite a cool guy, wrote a comment to tell me that “the answer and a study of the resulting lineage in law is in Steve Newcomb’s book, Pagans in the Promised Land (Fulcrum Press):“. I didn’t think the comment was quite so cool, though. Ordering a book from overseas with the resultant bank charges, customs duties etc, and waiting a month or three for it to arrive seemed a bit like overkill, or oversell.

But the author of the book, Steven Newcomb himself, showed up with a comment which did little to clear the air, and at this point I did what I probably should have done in the first place, and looked it up on Google, and Wikipedia gave me the answer I was looking for in half a minute rather than waiting six weeks for a book to arrive (it wasn’t in the university library – I looked).

The Discovery Doctrine is a concept of public international law expounded by the United States Supreme Court in a series of decisions, most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. The doctrine was Chief Justice John Marshall’s explanation of the way in which colonial powers laid claim to newly discovered lands during the Age of Discovery. Under it, title to newly discovered lands lay with the government whose subjects discovered new territory. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments.

So it was a doctrine of public international law, rather than theology, and had been formulated by the US Supreme Court, which is probably why I hadn’t heard of it before — not my field, and not my country.

Ok, that’s the story of how I came to open this particular can of worms. Now we need to look inside the can.

The first thing I am aware of is that there are different discourses here.

The matter we are dealing with is Western European imperialism and colonialism, from the 15th century to the present.

I queried whether Steven Newcomb was referring to

1. the Doctrine of Christian discovery


2. The Christian doctrine of discovery

as one of his references was rather ambiguous, and his reply was

I have always used the doctrine of Christian discovery until this posting when, in imitation of the eminent scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., I used “the Christian doctrine of Discovery.” Numerous Vatican papal bulls of the fifteenth century called upon Portugal, as a Christian monarchy, “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue ” all non-Christians, “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and “to take away all their possessions and property.”

Now I don’t have access to his book, and perhaps there is more to it than that, but one impression I get from that statement is that he is trying to deomstrate that the Christian faith is somehow inherently genocidal, and that this is part of its core teaching.

About fifteen years or so ago such a notion was being propagated in the West by some neopagans, with their myth of “the burning times”, as a convenient means of stirring up hatred against Christians. Historical studies have shown the falsity of that, and responsible neopagans reject the idea of “the burning times”. But perhaps pinning responsibility for Western imperialism at the door of the Christian faith might provide a new stick to beat Christians with, at least for the next couple of decades, until fresh historical research shows that it wasn’t quite as simple as that.

But in this case there are some things that can be queried, right away, and perhaps they have to do with the differences in historical discourses between American and South African historians over the last couple of decades. There are two things that point to this — a presence and an absence.

In what I have seen on the web in trying to followi up the “Doctrine of Discovery” and its background, there is one word that shouldn’t be there, but is: medieval. And there is another word that should be there, but isn’t: capitalism.

In the “burning times” discourse, the word “medieval” cropped up quite frequently. And when one went from the academic to the popular level, “medieval” sometimes got pushed back another 500 years or so and became “Dark Ages”.

The fact is that both the Great European Witchhunt and the beginning of Western European expansion belonged not to the medieval, but to the early modern period (both of which are, in any case, terms devised by later historians). So this whole thing is bound up with modernity. And the early modern period was also characterised by the rise of capitalism, which played a very significant role in Western imperialism. Newcomb may deal with this in his book, so perhaps I’m being unfair in criticising him for not mentioning it in blog comments or web pages, but the role of capitalism in Western imperialism and colonialism plays quite a large part in southern  African historiography of the last 30 years or so.

There seems to be an attempt to project 19th and 20th century American problems back to Europe, with the “doctrine of discovery”, apparently formulated as such by the US supreme court in 1823. If this “doctrine” was used in Southern Africa, I’m not aware of it.

I can give one example, which relates to my wife’s great grandfather’s half-sister, Ada Maria Green, in Namibia. Ada Maria Green, known as Kaera, was the daughter of Frederick Thomas Green, a Canadian-born hunter and trader in what is now Namibia and Botswana. Kaera’s mother was a Herero princess. When the Germans were invading South West Africa, Samuel Maharero, the Herero chief, gave her a piece of land. Knowing that the Germans liked things in writing, he gave her a written deed, signed by the Herero chiefs’ council.

The Germans duly invaded, and gave the land to the South West Africa Company. Kaera sued in the colonial court, and won her case. The court tuled that the land was hers. The South West Africa Company claimed that the deed was invalid, that Samuel Maharero had no jurisdictio0n over the land he gave her, and various other things, but after hearing evidence (oral testimony going back 50 years and more) the German colonial court ruled for Kaera.

Then came the First World War, the South African invasion in 1915, and South Africa began to adminsiter the territory under a League of Nations Mandate. The SWA Company then appealed against the decision of the German colonial court in a South African court, and so the whole thing began again. This time, however, they had different grounds. Their argument was that it was intrinsically wrong that a non-white woman should own such a large piece of land. It was pure racism, with a bit of sexism thrown in.

And the South African court also found for Kaera. The land belonged to her. She lost it soon afterwards by standing surety for her no-good son-in-law, but that’s another story.

But nowhere in this case was any appeal made to any “Doctrine of Discovery”, at least not to my knowledge. Perhaps I should check through it again, a couple of hundred pages of court records. There can be no doubt that both the German and the South African court were embedded in societies imbuedwith notions of white superiority, if not white supremacy, yet they did not seem to use the argument. And most racist of all was the company – a capitalist institution.

As a missiologist, I do not think that the last word has been said on the entanglement of Christian mission with imperialism and colonialism, and on this particular point, I think that perhaps a lot more needs to be said. Looking it from a non-American point of view, I think that there is more to it than has been said about the “Doctrine of Discovery”.

The apparent silence, from the American side, on capitalism, is also something that needs to be examined. Bulls by Renaissance Roman popes are one thing, but it seems that capitalism is a bit of a holy cow in America, and Americans would prefer the Roman pope not to open his mouth about that — see here, for example.

I think it would be a very good thing if Christians in America generally (and not just Episcopalians) did a theological critique of the “Doctrine of Discovery” and called for a renegotiation of relations on a more just and equitable basis, but I suspect that “liberals” (who are not at all liberal) and “conservatives” (who are not at all conservative) will sidetrack the whole thing — the former into yet another excuse for Christan bashing, and the latter by trying to coopt God to support their cause, whatever it may be, without bothering to consult Him first. I wouldn’t put it past them to come up with infantile arguments like “they want to send us all back to Europe”.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 August 2009 10:10 pm

    I don’t remember the last time I learned that much from a single blog post. Thank you!

  2. 8 August 2009 8:18 pm


  3. Mark permalink
    16 August 2009 7:43 pm

    This Nation-State is like a “shining city on a hill” — only, there are red bodies and feathers buried in the gardens and basements.

    The entire Legal Structure is built on Lies and Genocide. Its true of most Nation-States. How do ‘citizens’ deal with it? Two ways. First, “denial”. The facts are buried. They are not taught. They are minimized when they are talked about.
    Second: Myths are created. Myths about ‘chosen people” or “making deserts bloom” or “liberty rights” or “contract rights” etc. Its all built on Lies.

    This Nation wasnt ‘discovered’ — it was Conquered. It would be nice if Christians could be honest about that. As to what they should ‘do’ about their gardens of blood? I dunno. What would Jesus do?

    Mark Pellegrin

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