Today, I discuss a fundamental starting point in our understanding of the ‘discovery’ and settlement of America by Europeans.
That is, the encounter with the Indigenous people of the lands the Europeans (and their descendants) went on to colonise. Historically this has come to be thought of as being based on the ‘doctrine of discovery’, an idea with significantly Christian religious underpinnings.
I start somewhere near the beginning of European encounters with and colonisation of people of the continent of America, stemming from the very early days of the Spanish ‘discovery’ of the islands and land mass of what came to be known as America.
Of course, this was not an empty place. The islands and the continent had been settled for thousands of years by many different nations and peoples. In this respect, European expansion into America was no different from their expansion into the African continent (as the Portuguese in particular explored their way down the African coast to find a route to the Indian Ocean), and then the subsequent expansions into the subcontinent of India and onward to the peninsular and islands of SE Asia, East Asia, and finally Australasia.
In all these places they did not simply enter ‘empty lands’ to freshly inhabit. They had to first encounter, negotiate with, and then find a way to live with the inhabitants of these lands. In most case, this eventually involved ruling over the existing populations.
What happened in America, however, was different from Asia and Africa, largely because the Europeans were successful in significantly dislodging the indigenous nations. We only have to think about the modern day entities that have emerged from this process — whilst much of Africa and Asia has remained controlled (in these post-colonial times) by native populations, most of America is predominantly Europeanised. The only other places that are comparable are Australia, New Zealand, and historic, apartheid South Africa.
The historic justification for the settlement and appropriation (or theft) of land by Europeans in north America is often referred to as the ‘doctrine of discovery’. This has a historic genealogy, going back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In particular, in the USA and Canada the Doctrine of Discovery relies on two main historical sources:
(i) the granting of lands by the English monarchs to settlers and colony companies, through justification of the initial patent by King Henry VII of England to the explorer John Cabot in 1496, and
(ii) declarations by various Popes (Papal Bulls), on the rights of European powers – particularly the Spanish in America – to take possession of these newly ‘discovered’ lands.
The University of Bristol research based website on the Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto, who was known in England as John Cabot
Henry VII’s Patent of 1496 to John Cabot: http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Maritime/Sources/1496cabotpatent.htm
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This is a podcast about history, the way in which we tell history and how we understand it.