Opinion: Doctrine of Discovery alive and well

"Recent news reports state that global warming and the shrinking Arctic icecaps are opening new sea lanes and making barren islands suddenly very valuable. In fact, the international community might experience a new race of exploration, conquest and acquisition for this “new world” - these newly available lands and sea routes. Conflicts could arise over shipping lanes, islands, fish stocks, minerals and oil that are now becoming accessible and commercially exploitable.

This kind of conduct is nothing new. It mirrors exactly the actions taken by European and American governments in the 15th-20th centuries in their race to claim the lands and the assets of the New World of the Americas, Africa, and other areas. That race was conducted under the international legal principle known today as the Doctrine of Discovery. Under various papal bulls, Spain and Portugal could establish claims to the lands of indigenous, non-Christian, non-European peoples by merely “discovering” the lands. Spanish, Portuguese, and later English and French explorers engaged in numerous types of Discovery rituals upon encountering new lands. The hoisting of their flag and the cross and leaving evidence that they had been there was part of the Discovery process. In 1776-78, for example, Captain Cook established English claims to British Columbia by leaving English coins in buried bottles. In 1774, he erased Spanish marks of ownership and possession in Tahiti and replaced them with English ones. Upon learning of this, Spain dispatched explorers to restore its marks of possession. Furthermore, in 1742-49, French military expeditions buried lead plates throughout the Ohio country to reassert the French claims of discovery dating from 1643. The plates stated that they were “a renewal of possession.”

Americans also engaged in Discovery rituals. The Lewis & Clark expedition marked and branded trees and rocks in the Pacific Northwest to prove the American presence and claim to the region. They also left a memorial or memo at Fort Clatsop in March 1806 and gave copies to Indians to deliver to any whites that might arrive to prove the U.S. presence and claim to the Northwest. The memorial stated that its “object” was that “through the medium of some civilized person . . . it may be made known to the informed world” that Lewis & Clark had crossed the continent and lived at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean. This was nothing less than a claim of discovery and possession of the region and a claim of ownership under the Doctrine of Discovery."

Get the Story:
Robert J. Miller: A “New World” to Claim - The Arctic (The History News Network 4/16)

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Jodi Rave: Doctrine of Discovery and Indians (4/11)