The Doctrine of Discovery: Ethnocentrism & Conquest in Western Colonialism

Professor Robert J. Miller of Lewis & Clark Law School has posted The International Law of Colonialism: A Comparative Analysis.  The paper explores the history of legitimizing the colonization of the non-European world—including American expansion following Independence—through the international legal precept of the “Doctrine of Discovery.”  Under the Doctrine of Discovery, conquering powers gain exclusive title to lands previously held by conquered nations—here, the native tribes of North and South America.  Professor Miller finds historical similarity in each nations’ use of the Doctrine of Discovery and urges all nations to repudiate it.

According to Miller, the Doctrine of Discovery contained two elements of ethnocentrism particularly relevant to the CLR Forum:  (1) Christianity, whereby non-Christian nations were deemed to lack the same rights of ownership, sovereignty, and self-determination as Christians.  (Indeed, in the fifteenth century, the Vatican issued papal bulls granting ownership to Portugal and Spain over inhabited South American land.)  And (2) Civilization, whereby European society was deemed superior to those of native, non-European cultures, thus engendering a divine mandate—and entitlement—to dominate and educate these non-“civilized” cultures in the customs of Christian society.  (For example, the Spanish crown ordered all conquistadors to bring clerics with them to convert indigenous peoples to the Catholic faith.  In the United States, conversion was often used as a pretext for trespass on native territory, and certain denominations were granted tribal lands; in addition, Native American traditions and religious beliefs were outlawed for over one-hundred years).

For more information on the Doctrine of Discovery’s continuing presence in American law, and Professor Miller’s abstract, please follow the jump.

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