The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ & the Myth of Papal Bulls

Activist claims about 'Discovery' and Papal Bulls are incorrect.

By Peter Best and Nina Green


IT IS A POPULAR REFRAIN among activists, indigenous and non-, that explorers from Europe did not really “discover” North America. They point out that indigenous peoples were already here — a fact that was first discovered, oddly enough, by explorers. The Assembly of First Nations claims that “Discovery was used as legal and moral justification for colonial dispossession of sovereign Indigenous Nations.” The so-called “Doctrine of Discovery,” moreover “...emanates from a series of Papal Bulls.” Some native activists now demand that the Pope revoke several of these Papal Bulls concerning “terra nullius,” the legal concept that “no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty,” as the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in 2014. It is worth taking a few minutes to demonstrate that such claims about dusty papal parchments are bogus.

The first of these ancient edicts is the Bull of 1095 issued by Pope Urban II which allegedly mentions terra nullius. But fact-checking reveals that this is a myth. Urban II did issue a Papal Bull in 1095, but it had to do with the excommunication of the ruler of the Kingdom of Aragon (in Spain), and makes no mention of terra nullius.

Other Papal Bulls issued prior to 1493 had no effect on the Americas. Some concerned Africa, such as the Papal Bull of 1455. Others concerned lands in the Middle East occupied by the Saracens.

When Columbus, believing he had reached Asia, returned to Europe in 1493 from his voyage to what is now the West Indies, the news he brought resulted in increased competition between the two principal European sea-powers, Spain and Portugal. In an attempt to settle matters between them, Pope Alexander VI issued four Papal Bulls on May 3 and 4, and September 26, 1493. The first two were superseded by the third, and none had any effect on the Americas as they were all in turn superseded on June 7, 1494 by the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal. The Treaty provided that:

a line ‘from pole to pole’ would be drawn 370 leagues from the Cape Verde islands. The eastern part would be part of the Portuguese domain, and the western part that of the Spanish. Each would commit to not sending vessels to navigate in the partner's area, although an exemption allowed Spanish ships to cross the Portuguese domain in a ‘straight line’ toward the West. The signatories also committed to not appeal to the pope's authority for support against the commitments of the treaty, but only to request its recognition, which was provided in 1506.


Although the Treaty of Tordesillas bound Spain and Portugal, it had no practical effect on the ambitions of other European monarchs such as the King of France or the King of England, who considered it a “bilateral commitment applicable only to the signatories.” 

A mere two years later, on March 5, 1496, Henry VII of England issued Letters Patent to the explorer John Cabot and his sons, Genovese-Venetians who had settled in Bristol, authorizing them to “to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.” 

Cabot’s 1496 voyage ended in failure. In the following year he did reach the coast of North America. Believing he had reached the northeast coast of Asia, he claimed it for Henry VII.

In 1534, ignoring both the claims of Spain and Portugal under the Treaty of Tordesillas and Henry VII’s Letters Patent to Cabot, the explorer Jacques Cartier claimed Canada for the King of France, Francis I.

Clearly, if Indigenous leaders have a quarrel concerning a so-called Doctrine of Discovery, that quarrel originated in 1497 and 1534 with the rival claims to Canada made on behalf of Henry VII of England and Francis I of France, not with irrelevant Papal Bulls. In bringing their wild assertions about terra nullius to Pope Francis in Rome earlier this year, they were barking up the wrong tree.

The subsequent struggle between France and Britain for control of North America is a long and complex story beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say it terminated with the British victory (aided by its Indian allies) in the Seven Years War in 1759-60, and the 1763 Treaty of Paris by which France surrendered its claims in Canada to the British.

The claim that there was a papal “Doctrine of Discovery” behind French and British colonization of Canada is thus a myth. One could even go so far as to state that it is absurd. 

It is worthwhile also to take a step back and consider the wider historical movements involved. What motivated the French and British to sail to North America can be understood in the context of historical factors that have motivated all of humanity since perpetually migrating man first walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago. That obviously includes the Siberian migrant ancestors of today’s indigenous people, the Iroquois who conquered Huronia, the Blackfoot who displaced the Kootenay people of Alberta (forcing them to settle west of the Rockies), and so on. Such factors and movements include overpopulation, pressures at one’s borders, resource scarcity, poverty at home, the exigencies of war, expansionist and proselytizing urges, trade, and even simple curiosity and desire for adventure.

Law of Conquest

The real legal justification for the colonization of Canada by France and Britain is the simple age-old law of conquest, an accepted principle of international law which the word “subdue” in Henry VII’s Letters Patent reflected. The two conditions of the law of conquest are, first, physical dominion and control acquired by the conquering nation over the nation or tribe conquered; and secondly, the conquest being accepted by the international community.

The conquest need not be military in nature. It can be peaceful social, cultural and economic domination, essentially acquiesced in by the Aboriginal peoples of the day, which was the case with Canada. 

By the late 19th century, as Tom Flanagan wrote in First Nations? Second Thoughts, “the Indians had become subject de facto to the sovereignty of the Crown. They knew it and everybody else knew it at the time.” The treaty deliberations and the treaties themselves confirmed this. Queen Victoria was referred to as “the Great Mother” by the Indians, and the Indians were described and referred to themselves as the Queen’s “children.” 

The pathos-filled inevitability of the situation was illustrated in the realistic assessment by one of the Cree Chiefs prior to the signing of Treaty No. 6 at Fort Carlton on the banks of the Saskatchewan River in 1876. Pointing to the river, he said: “No more can you stop the flow of that river than you can stop the progress of the Queen’s Chief,” meaning the head negotiator, Alexander Morris, the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories appointed by Ottawa.

The treaties themselves contained several standard provisions that presumed the absolute sovereignty of the Crown, including explicit land surrender wording, and the Indians’ promise to “conduct themselves as good and loyal subjects of the Queen.” Aboriginals regard treaty promises as sacred. One can’t be a loyal subject of the Crown of Canada and at the same time assert that one is a member of a separate, independent, sovereign nation.

In summary, even if the Papal Bulls had ever been relevant, that relevance ended centuries ago. Now these things are empty, abstract, straw-man word constructs without any relation to present, practical life.

Focusing on these irrelevant abstractions distracts Canadians from what should be everyone’s preoccupation: the terrible social conditions on and off First Nations reserves, well-described by Tanya Talaga in her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers.

The Doctrine of Discovery, Papal Bulls, and Papal apologies are all irrelevant. They are red herrings, “castles in the air,” or rhetorical tricks. Castles in the air do not require very rigid foundations; their enchantment lies in the fact that they are built on almost nothing.” Focussing on them will do nothing to improve the lives of Aboriginal Canadians in 21st-century Canada. 

Peter Best has practiced law in Sudbury, Ontario for 45 years. He is the author of There Is No Difference- An Argument for the Abolition of the Indian Reserve System ( Nina Green is an independent researcher.

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  • Jack Morrow on

    The same kinds of lies are being told in Australia as in Canada, but fortunately, there’s an Australian equivalent of the Dorchester Review that addresses them:

    Australian author Michael Connor addressed the misuse of terra nullius in that country in his book The Invention of Terra Nullius (2005).

  • April on

    It is difficult to read your smug words and self-interested research voice. Here is a direct quote from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on the topic, “The following text considers and repudiates illegitimate concepts and principles used by Europeans to justify the seizure of land previously held by Indigenous Peoples and often identified by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. An appendix provides an historical overview of the development of these concepts vis-a-vis Catholic teaching and of their repudiation. The presuppositions behind these concepts also undergirded the deeply regrettable policy of the removal of Indigenous children from their families and cultures in order to place them in residential schools. The text includes commitments which are recommended as a better way of walking together with Indigenous Peoples.” The fact that you position Christopher Columbus as someone who simply “brought news” that tipped the balance of power and that the Papal Bulls were simply measures to develop peaceful relations between European powers also reflects your lack of research into consequences of referring to Columbus as “pleasing to the Lord, you, with the wish to fulfill your desire, chose our beloved son, Christopher Columbus, a man assuredly worthy of the highest recommendations and fitted for so great an undertaking” (Papal Bull, 1493, Pope Alexander VI). Columbus’s journals and those of the other men of his company, documented the heinous and abhorrent exploitation that Columbus committed upon Indigenous peoples. There are detailed accounts of Columbus responding to the opportunity to have peaceful relations with Indigenous people, by becoming drunk on power, and demonstrating his intoxication through obscenely violently rampages of murder, enslavement and sexual violence upon the peoples of the Caribbean. It is a wonder that within your article you chose to downplay the fact that Indigenous peoples weren’t generally interested in continuous and horrific violence, and thus signed treaties in good faith. The people of Turtle Island signed treaties not to bend a knee toward a superior/conqueror, but to follow a protocol that would end in fair exchange and sustainable peace. Your article is an exercise in avoidance of the vile and disgusting truths of violence enacted by European colonizers, and maintains the enduring stupidity that is destroying the life systems of planet. Your lack of deep research and good faith is the last thing the world needs right now.

  • Scott B on

    For a clear introduction to and analysis of the elements of the Doctrine of Discovery as applied international law, see Professor Robert J. Miller – Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery:

  • Ken Bell on

    The first people’s of North America were not homogeneous. They owned the lands, in a way different from but equivalent to Eurocentric land tenure.
    Some cultures did transfer Lans through treaty agreements, others did not.
    Those who did not were often met with aggressive colonists backed by state violence.
    The Doctrine of Discovery was irrelevant to the lethal point of colonization. It has hover been used as a Post Hoc justification by the Roman Catholic Church for the mistakes of the past.
    History will always include the present.

  • Graham Brown on

    There is a good discussion of the issues of “discovery”, “title” and “sovereignty” in Jim Reynolds, “Aboriginal Peoples and the Law: A Critical Introduction” (Purich Books, 2018). “Discovery” is about the agreement among the European powers about which one could make an exclusive claim to a part of the world, not about how a claim that was made could be justified. The assertion of political authority (sovereignty) over existing societies and their territories has no agreed moral justification but could acquire one over time and under conditions that met the acceptance of those covered by the assertion. The Supreme Court of Canada has said in several cases that, to quote one, “The historical record leaves no doubt that the native peoples acknowledged the ultimate sovereignty of the British Crown” (La Forest, J., Mitchell v. Peguis Indian Band, 1990). But “ultimate” does not mean ‘absolute’, nor does acceptance of legitimate authority imply agreement in advance with the laws and policies that the authority may decide from time to time. Crown authority by long legal tradition was qualified by the rights and laws of the peoples over whom sovereignty was asserted. Aboriginal peoples were told and understood that as “subjects” of the Crown, their laws and rights would be respected by the society being set up by the British. Naturally, the respect was not always maintained, but also, failures of respect were often corrected. Admittedly, the assertion of sovereignty limited Aboriginal peoples to a political relationship with only the British. But as the history of North America unfolded from the time of British assertion, alternative political relationships may well have seemed less attractive to Aboriginal groups, e.g., the US or France.

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