Friday, January 27, 2012

Doctrine of Discovery

Fifth in a series of posts about the January UUA board meeting

Quick -- under whose authority did Columbus lay claim to the New World?

a) Elizabeth I of England
b) Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain
c) the Catholic Church
d) the U S Supreme Court

If you answered b and c, you were right -- but strangely enough, a), Elizabeth I, and d) the US Supreme Court, are involved in this drama as well, though after Columbus' "discovery" of inhabited lands.

The Spanish monarchs believed they had a god given right to seize lands and Christianize the inhabitants, forcibly if necessary, because of a series of decrees starting with Pope Urban II that decreed non-Christian lands "empty" (Papal Bull Terra Nullius ) and therefore subject to being seized by Christians. This was strengthened by Pope Nicolas V in 1452 with the Romanus Pontifex, which declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorized the taking their nations and territories. By the time Columbus showed up in the "New World", this "doctrine of discovery" was well established and used by many Christian nations to create and subjugate colonies in far-flung areas of the world -- think British Empire, as well as the work of the French, Portuguese, and Spanish. In fairness, later papal edicts denounced slavery and inhumane treatment of indigenous people, but the damage was done.

And the US Supreme Court? The Doctrine of Discovery was codified in US law in 1823 in Johnson vs. McIntosh, and given an American twist with John L. O'Sullivan's coining of the term Manifest Destiny (do we teach this in schools any more?):

".... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty… is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth."

It was used to justify the breaking of treaties, and taking of lands, as recently as 2001. According to Professor Robert Miller, the doctrine of discover underlies US "Indian law" today: Congress has very broad authority in Indian affairs, which diminishes tribal authority.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been repudiated by most members of the United Nations, excepting Australia, Canada, and the United States, as has the Episcopal Church. The UUA has been silent, despite a number of attempts by various groups to bring it to the floor of the General Assembly.

A resolution about the Doctrine will be on the Phoenix agenda, primarily because our allies and partners in our Justice GA have asked us to do so. It is a good reason to educate ourselves about how this ancient concept continues to impact our "vision of beloved community".


AJU said...

Wouldn't it be more useful to the congregations that the UUA is supposed to serve to have some reporting about the business of the board? For example, what does our Trustee representative say about the proposal to move the headquarters buildings? What is being done to form new congregations? What is the impact of the new relationship with the UUSC on the work of the UUA?

Linda Laskowski said...

Patience, Art -- but duly noted! I will be covering these over the next week or so.