“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
There is a very lively debate over his journey and his impact upon Turtle Island. The atrocities visited by him and his crew upon these shores is well recorded. There is no doubt that their acts were inhumane and vile. On October 12, 1492, on the banks of Guanahani, genocide began in what has been called “The New World.”
It is clear that two major motivations got Columbus and his crew on board for this historic voyage. Wealth and fame. The wealth that would come from finding a shorter, relatively safer route to India, coupled with the fame of being the first. And despite his utter failure at finding India, this voyage has profoundly shaped history for the Indigenous of Turtle Island, Africans of the Diaspora, and Europeans who would one day become Americans (and Canadians, Mexicans, Panamanians, Brazilians, etc.).
Were they bloodthirsty madmen? Well they acted like madmen, that much is clear. It is easy to dismiss this as individual failings of character. And perhaps that is what it was. I can’t make a diagnosis from this distance. My judgment is limited to condemning these acts as crimes against the Indigenous peoples of this hemisphere.
But whether they were madmen or not, they were acting out a divine calling. They were under a Holy Charge. The wickedness these men brought to Turtle Island was sanctioned and encouraged by the Holy Roman Catholic Church. They knew that all their acts of savagery were pardoned before they even considered them. They were safe in a promise of acceptance into heaven, having been absolved of sin decades before they even set sail.
The Catholic Church had already been asserting dominance over life in Europe for several hundred years. Monarchs received acknowledgement of their “rightful” claim to a given throne through the endorsement of the Vatican. The Pope was the ultimate voice of Catholic doctrine and law. If he said God approved, then everyone knew; God approved. It was from this environment that a series of documents emerged.
Portugal was establishing slave trade along the west coast of the African continent. As should be obvious, this often involved butchery and conquest. At some point, King Alfonso V needed some reassurance that their ventures would not land them in Hell. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull, “Dum Diversas” to address exactly these concerns and establish the divine nature of Alfonso’s slave trade. Pope Nicholas effectively framed the slave trade as defense of Christianity.
A “bull” is a written edict from the Holy See, comparable to an Executive Order. In “Dum Diversas,” Nicholas wrote;
…we grant to you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same Saracens, Pagans, infidels, and the enemies of Christ, also realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps, possessions of the king or prince or of the kings or princes, and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.
But wait, there’s more…
… we grant, by the power of your sacrifice, a plenary forgiveness of all and individual sins, crimes, trespasses, and digressions which you and they have confessed with contrite heart and by mouth, to you and to those who accompany you, as often as you and they happen to go into any war against the mentioned infidels, and indeed to those who do not accompany you but are sending and contributing, as mentioned before, to those who persist in sincerity of faith, in the unity of the Holy Roman Church, by our obedience and devotion and of our successors Roman Pontiffs entering canonically, to the remaining a suitable confessor whom you and anyone of them selected can forgive merely once at the moment of death.
And just in case…
..if it should happen that you or others of those accompanying you against the Saracens and other infidels of this kind, on the way there, staying there, or on the way back, departed from this world, we restore you and those accompanying you, remaining in sincerity and unity, through the present letter, to pure innocence in which you and they existed after baptism.
But more than an Executive Order, a papal bull is an order FROM GOD. The Pope has been considered the voice of God on earth. His words become dogma. And, the Church’s dogma is recognized as valid by God. This is a neat trick. If the Pope says it is so, God recognizes it as so.
The “Dum Diversas” is seen as a key document in the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The Doctrine outlines who has a right to discover whom, and under what circumstances discoverers must leave well enough alone. In a nut shell, the first Christian power to “discover” empty territory had dibs. It was open season and whatever a conquistador/explorer/discoverer could secure when they happened upon an empty territory, was theirs to keep. After contributing to the church and crown, of course.
This seems reasonable enough, until one begins to uncover what the definition of “empty territory” is. In 1095, Pope Urban II issued an edict to justify the Crusades. In this bull, empty territory is described as any territory that Christians have not already claimed. This has become known as “Terra Nullius,” after the bull by the same title, and is a critical component of the Doctrine of Discovery.
From these and other documents it has been established that;
- if a territory is occupied by non-Christians it is essentially empty,
- all of those folks inhabiting empty territory are enemies of Christianity and can be enslaved and have their territory taken by force, and
- the Christians who do this are preemptively forgiven of any sins they may commit in “defending” Christianity.
Columbus knew this. His crew knew this. They were on a mission from God. And as much land as they could lay claim to, would become the realm of Spain.
As modern people, we can look back on this and shake our heads in pity or disgust. We can see the atrocious nature of such a policy. We can hold ourselves above such obscene beliefs and acknowledge, outwardly at least, that every culture and society has a right to exist. These were the failings of our less evolved ancestors who simply didn’t know any better.
It’s not that easy, though. Us moderns are still operating from the principals laid out in the Doctrine. For one, it has never been revoked by any modern Pope. Additionally, it has been cited in American legal arguments upholding colonial rights to title over Indigenous lands.
Yes. The Doctrine of Discovery is referenced in American legal documents to justify genocide and land theft.
In 1823, two men claimed ownership to the same piece of land. The case, Johnson v. M’Intosh was eventually heard by the Supreme Court. Johnson had inherited land purchased from the Piankeshaw tribe. McIntosh claimed the same land, having purchased it under a grant from the United States of America. Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that the title stemming from the US had validity over the title purchased from the Piankeshaw;
On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe … as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. … The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.
And in case you believe that these ideas have become out dated in our more modern, enlightened age, in 2005 in City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation, the US Supreme court stated;
Under the ‘doctrine of discovery…’ fee title (ownership) to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign – first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.
This progression from Catholic dogma to American law is a critical underpinning to maintaining white supremacy. The land we (Americans) live upon, was stolen from Indigenous people. The African continent was plundered for slaves to provide labor on this newly stolen land. Both of these acts were seen as divinely ordained. The documents which commanded our ancestors to go forth and commit these barbarisms, are continuing to be cited by our highest court as recently as 2005.
White supremacy rests upon a condition that white people (and eventually ALL people) not question its validity. The mechanisms of legal and economic control which dominate the US, have taken on a mythical stature in our country. Europe may not be as mesmerized by our self declared exceptionalism, but they do accept it out of hand. Most likely because it rests upon the same legal justifications that solidify their own sovereignty.
To any reader who may not fully grasp the implications of this lineage, the edicts of Popes from the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, should have no bearing whatsoever upon non-European or non-Christian peoples. And as Americans, our claim to the lands of Turtle Island are based upon the terminally racist, xenophobic, and megalomaniacal attitudes of Popes and Kings eager to fill their vaults with plundered gold. These claims need to be examined today in the light of our modern ideals of democracy and liberty, to see if they actually embody the values that we claim to champion.
There is no justification good enough to ignore the inhumanity that white supremacy has wreaked upon this continent and the world. It is rooted in brutality and survives through ignorance. The beautiful image of justice that America clings to, must be validated through a rigorous self-assessment. Today, that assessment would reveal our country to be in gross negligence for the continued crimes it perpetrates. If we are to ever live up to the vision expressed by the founding fathers, we must be willing to sacrifice our idealism for realism. We must be willing to recognize the harm we have caused, and are causing. We must be willing to make amends for the legacy of abuse that lies at the heart of our most trusted institutions.