The right to conquer and claim: Captain Cook and the Doctrine Of Discovery

On the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook arriving in Aotearoa, Tina Ngata looks at the whakapapa of colonisation in Aotearoa – the 15th and 16th century laws issued by the Catholic church that gave British and European monarchies permission to oppress and enslave indigenous people.

This year’s TUIA250 Cook commemorations are New Zealand’s response to the 250th anniversary of the inception of colonisation on this land. Across the nation, communities will be recounting their perspectives of what this means for them, but there is arguably a bigger picture to be considering this year – the story of imperialism, and the religious doctrine that drove it across the globe. Ethical remembering calls upon us to understand the greater systems that commemoration belongs to, and how they can function to maintain injustice. To understand the ethics of commemorating Cook, we must go much further back in time, and begin the story in, of all places, medieval Rome.

The Doctrine of Discovery (also known as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery) is an international legal concept that is borne out a number of Catholic laws (called ‘papal bulls’) issued by the Vatican in the 15th and 16th centuries. It gave the monarchies of Britain and Europe the right to conquer and claim lands, and to convert or kill the native inhabitants of those lands.

One of the early papal bulls of this set, Dum Diversas, accorded rights to the King of Portugal to attack, conquer and subjugate Saracens (Muslims) and pagans (non-Christians). It recognised the Portuguese attacks upon West Africa as a type of holy crusade. This papal bull accorded King Alfonso the right to seek out and capture others, and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery and commit them to his and their use and profit”. This then facilitated the European and transatlantic slave trade that eventually displaced over 13 million Africans.

Following on from this decree were the papal bulls Romanus Pontifex and Inter Caetera which extended these rights out into the lands of the new world, proclaiming all non-Christians enemies of God, and commanding that the monarchy “for the defence and increase of the faith, vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us” (Romanus Pontifex).

Romanus pontifex, papal bull of Pope Nicolas V, Portugal, 8 January 1455. This papal bull legally granted Portugal the right to enslave any and all people they encounter south of Cape Bojador, on the coast of Western Sahara. About midway through the bull, the Pope declares all sub-Saharan Africans henceforth be held in perpetual slavery. Image: Arqivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, Portugal.

Importantly, these laws have never been rescinded since they were issued in the 15th century. They also sculpted a societal reasoning of European superiority over all who are non-white and non-Christian, accompanied by a sense of supreme European entitlement to all non-white, non-Christian lands and resources.

The following centuries saw these European empires expanding across the globe, claiming lands, establishing colonies, and carrying this out through some of the most horrific acts of torture, abduction and mass-slaughter of men, women, children and babies that the world has seen. The Doctrine of Discovery located and channelled indigenous wealth to Europe from every inhabited continent on the planet.

This arrangement was foundational in establishing a global finance system which ensured Europe’s financial domination over the countries it extracted from. That global financial hierarchy still exists today in the international banking system, regulating global economic fundamentals such as free trade and third world debt.

Over time, the British Empire became the British Commonwealth of Nations, and even though the various colonial outposts established their own settler colonial governments, still land and self governance was never returned to the peoples of those lands.

HM Bark Endeavour and Captain Cook setting out on his voyage in 1764. Image: Wellcome Collection

Maintaining these structures of power over other people’s lands and bodies requires purposeful acts of maintenance. It requires social programming to reduce resistance to the system. This social programming occurs across multiple platforms – education, media, currency, place names, monuments, national heritage schedules, public holidays and commemorative events communicate to us in implicit and explicit ways every day whose perspective is centered, who is important to remember, and how they should be remembered. They uphold colonial fictions that justify European domination, which could also reasonably be described as white supremacy.

Such fictions include:

“Colonisation is historical”

“The coloniser is great, benevolent and non-violent”

“Colonisation was invited”

“Opposition to colonisation is dangerous and divisive”

“Colonisation is beneficial”

“Colonisation is inevitable and unavoidable”

“Colonisation is localised”

“The coloniser is central to our identity”

In spite of its attempts at inclusion, TUIA250 cannot help but entrench many of these fictions, by centring the stories of the nation around the date of the arrival of Cook. Even our own voyaging history has been hitched to the core date of Cook’s arrival. No doubt some see this as an opportunity for Māori, but in failing to dismantle the core fictions upon which these frameworks of domination rest, an even greater opportunity has been granted to the colonial project to reaffirm its place at the centre of our nation.

What would it take to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, as has been requested by the United Nations? Here are three very important steps: an independent indigenous truth forum; rescinding the papal bulls; and returning indigenous lands.

The first step on the pathway to justice is simply truth. Uncompromising, unwavering, unsanitised indigenous truth. The “two truths” model – the belief that Māori and Pākehā have equal claim on the truth about colonisation – fails to reconcile historical injustice. The fact that Cook could map a coastline and sail a ship is not equal in relevance to the fact that he and his crew abducted, stole from, tortured, infected, shot at and killed masses of indigenous peoples in a project of imperial expansion. It also fails to address the significant role that colonial fiction has played in erasing the truth. Colonial fiction has had its day and the only reason to perpetuate it is to pander to fragile white supremacists. Giving nothing to racism demands us to move beyond “two truths”. We deserve our own truth forum, on our terms, unhitched to the coloniser tale.

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The Australian HMB Endeavour, a replica of Cook’s ship, arrived in New Zealand this week to mixed reception. Northland iwi banned it from docking in Mangonui. It will start its voyage from Gisborne to Auckland on October 11. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Doctrine of Discovery is still very much present in our society today. Legally, it provided a precedent for the alienation of land by the USA, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments. It underpinned the European belief in their right to set up a government which violates the Treaty of Waitangi without impacting upon their right to remain. The Vatican has been called upon to rescind the papal bulls multiple times and consistently refuses to do so. Should the Vatican rescind these laws it will provide an important legal and moral impetus to review the status of Indigenous lands. Our land and water territories are our economic, cultural and spiritual base, and they thrive under our care. Reinstating Indigenous lands provides us with the economic basis upon which to pursue all other rights, aspirations and futures.

Ethical commemorations demand a deep understanding of the colonial project. Cook certainly did not discover us, while innocently sailing the Pacific. His was a military mission to facilitate the expansion of the British Empire. That mission was unjust, and founded upon principles of white supremacy, but most importantly – it was just one part of a global story that continues to this day.

My story, as a Māori mother marching for land rights alongside my brothers and sisters of Ihumātao, is connected to the story of a wahine Māoli atop Mauna Kea right now, telling her imperial occupier that he has taken enough from her. It is connected to the young Mohawk woman making a stand for her sacred ancestral waters being stolen from beneath her very feet by multinational corporations. Here in 2019, my story is connected to that of a young man ripped away from his family in Ghana and transported by Portuguese slave runners to be sold to a plantation owner in the USA. It is connected to his descendant, being pulled over for no apparent reason on the streets of DC. My story is connected to the Berber woman in 15th century North Africa running for her life from Crusaders. It is connected to the African child whose mother cannot access healthcare because of US sanctions upon her country. My story is connected to my Kashmiri brother caged in his own home, staring out the window at his lands, wondering if his world will ever be the same again. It is connected to my sister in Hong Kong, on the ground, bleeding onto the tarmac out of her nose, cracked by the truncheon of enforced Chinese law. My story is connected to my brothers and sisters in Linwood Mosque who will never, ever recover from the entitlement of white supremacists to claim this land as theirs, with complete rights to all who walk upon it. All of these stories are woven together by the Doctrine of Discovery, and we cannot wait another moment to dismantle it.


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