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A cast of lead Papal Bulla of Pope Alexander VI showing two heads on one side and the words Alexander Papa VI on the other side.
A cast lead Papal Bulla of Pope Alexander VI

Discovery Doctrine and Discovery Myth

You might have heard the words ‘discovery’, ‘discovered’, and ‘discoverer’ in relation to James Cook. Why might these words be problematic?

Bennett Collins and Ali Watson from University of St Andrews give the following explanation about the Discovery Myth.

Doctrine of Christian Discovery

  • The Discovery Myth is based on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and goes back to the 15th century.

  • The doctrine itself is not a single document, but rather a series of bulls, or decrees, issued by the various popes during the 15th century. One of these called on Christians to:

invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans … [and] the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods … held and possessed by them.

In essence, the Doctrine of Discovery allowed ‘Christian’ explorers to claim ownership over those who were living in ‘non-Christian’ lands.

Through perceiving lands owned by ‘non-Christians’ as nobody’s land or Terra Nullius, the Doctrine gave the Christian kingdoms of Europe permission to claim others’ lands with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church.

Terra Nullius

  • This Doctrine of Discovery and the concept of Terra Nullius was used by the British to claim lands in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand (and elsewhere) for the British Crown.

  • James Cook was able to claim South-Eastern Australia under this doctrine. Hence he has sometimes been referred to as ‘discoverer’ of Australia and parts of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

  • The Doctrine of Discovery has had far-reaching effects in many places, including North and South America, Australia and the Pacific. Many indigenous communities are fighting land claims to this day.

  • The Pope and the Roman Catholic Church have not condemned this doctrine, despite repeated appeals to do so.

United Nations reports

In its 2007 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations criticised practices like the Doctrine of Discovery as ‘racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust’.

In 2012, the UN reported that:

the Doctrine of Discovery had been used for centuries to expropriate indigenous lands and facilitate their transfer to colonizing or dominating nations, speakers in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues stressed today, urging the expert body to study the creation of a special mechanism, under United Nations auspices, to investigate historical land claims.

Go to the See Also section below to read the full article about the Discovery Doctrine, Discovery Myth and the Catholic Church by Bennett Collins and Ali Watson from University of St Andrews.

We will look in more detail about the impact of Terra Nullius in Week 3.

Where else do you think the Doctrine of Discovery has influenced history?

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This article is from the free online course:

Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in museums and public spaces

National Maritime Museum