The Doctrine of Discovery and the Europeanisation of the land that became America (part 2)

This is the second part of the discussion of the Doctrine of Discovery. For the first episode on this topic (part one, HIP009), click here.

Show notes

In the previous episode (HIP009, part 1 of this discussion), I introduced the English King Henry VII’s claims (his letter patent) to the lands of America in 1496, with the voyage of the Italian John Cabot.

When Henry made his claim both he and the English monarchy were very much within the Catholic religious and political fold. However, by the time that English colonialism in America began seriously, around a hundred years after Henry, at the end of the sixteenth century, England had become a Protestant country.

By the time that the first English settlers began to attempt to live precariously in America, English colonialism was a form of challenge against Spanish (and thus Catholic) dominance of the region. This was in some respects why Henry VII’s claim of the new lands was so important to the English, since the Spanish had themselves claimed the whole of the American continent for their crown and on behalf of the Catholic polity.

That is, to the European colonialists of Spain and England, the issue of rights to land ownership and settlement were largely seen in competing claims between themselves, rather than with reference to the indigenous people.

Thus, for the Spanish, the ‘new world’ (and in particular the large territory of ‘New Spain’) had been claimed by Columbus on his landing at Guanahani (San Salvador) on 12 October 1492. He had claimed the lands, and established Spanish sovereignty — even though at the time he had no idea exactly where he was, or even that the islands he found on that visit were adjacent to the vast continent that stretched thousands of miles to the north, south, and west. And of course he had done so without any thought about the indigenous people, such as the Taino on the islands where he landed.

Relating to the Spanish claims of sovereignty and ownership — and also to a certain extent the initial Tudor claim — there was a religious articulation of the Europeans’ sense of what they were doing, particularly with respect to the people who were already there.

The complexities of these ideas are often bound together in the idea called the Doctrine of Discovery, referring to Papal statements relating to the new worlds ‘discovered’ and the people who lived there already.

There were in fact several edicts and bulls by different Popes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the Inter Caetera from Pope Alexander VI in 1493.

Useful links

A useful website related to the Doctrine of Discovery:

A translation of Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Papal Bull, known as Inter Caetera:

A translation of the Requerimiento

The 1832 US Supreme Court judgement by Chief Justice John Marshall on the case of Johnson v McIntosh (based on the Doctrine of Discovery):

Blake Watson’s lengthy discussion of the Marshall judgement

The March 2016 joint statement by a range of Canadian Catholic organisations on the Doctrine of Discovery





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