Doctrine of Discovery

The Australian Broadcasting Council (ABC) was in the last two weeks, discussing the concept of the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on Indigenous people. This was not a concept that I was aware of and so explored this further.

Weblog #1

The UN Permanent Forum this year focuses on the Doctrine of Discovery.

This is a fifteenth century Christian dogma from the Catholic church Papal Bulls eg. Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455). These allowed for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs.

In the 19 century was used by the US to declare the right of territorial domination and has become embedded in international law and policy.

In Australia its impact was in the term ‘terra nullius” or wasted land. This allowed the colonisers to take over the land from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders because they did not ‘use’ the land.

In May the UN Forum debate continued, and argued for the doctrine to be repudiated by the UN. In response to calls on the Church for rapid action, a representative from the observer delegation of the Holy See, reiterated that Papal bulls were an “historic remnant with no juridical or spiritual value”.

UN Economic and Social Council 2012 ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, Used for Centuries to Justify Seizure of Indigenous Land, Subjugate Peoples, Must Be Repudiated by United Nations, Permanent Forum Told . 8 May.

UN Economic and Social Council 2012 Forum Speakers Say ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ Shameful Root of Today’s Indigenous Oppression, Remnants Still Evident in Many Constitutions Must Be Removed. 9 May.


Weblog #2 Religious responses

The World Council of Churches (WCC) met in February 2012 and developed the Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples. It provides a good overview of the history as well as the WCC response to the Doctrine. Since 2007 many Christian churches that have studied the  Doctrine and  have repudiated it, and are working to ameliorate the legal, economic and social effects of this international framework. The WCC Statement denounced the doctrine, urged countries to dismantle the legal structures and policies based on this Doctrine and dominance, encourage churches to support Indigenous poples in their ongoing efforts to exercise their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights, to continue to raise awareness about the issues facing Indigenous Peoples and to develop advocacy campaigns to support the rights, aspirations and needs of Indigenous Peoples; and to continue development of theological reflections by Indigenous peoples.
WCC statement


From an Australian perspective Brett writes  a theological critique of sovereignity with a focus on some Australian aspects that I was unaware of.  He describes a theological concept of complex and storied space – which contrasts the concept of terra nullius. The ‘Clapham Sect’ who were involved in abolition of slavery, turned the eyes onto Aboriginal peoples and provided a base for a number of writers to ascert natural Indigenous rights. They had significant influence on the establishment of the colony of South Australia and the development of the New Zealand Treaty of Waitangi. He writes “as so often has been the case in asutralian hisotry, matters of principle were overwhelmed by ecomonic interest.” He calls for faith communities to go on to post colonial engagement with Aboriginal and torres Strait Islanders and not trust the “tides of Australian parliaments”.

Brett M. 2012. Making Space for justice after Mabo: Theological critiques of sovereignty



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