The doctrine of Christian “discovery”

C. K. Raju

The claim that Vasco da Gama “discovered” India or that Columbus “discovered” America or that Cook “discovered” Australia is manifestly derogatory to the people who earlier inhabited those lands. This was no accidental act of Eurocentrism. Christian triumphalist history, from the 5th c. Orosius to the 20th c. Toynbee, was expressly intended to be derogatory to non-Christians and to glorify Christians as superior. That is the very essence of church propaganda, and the mainline Western story of the ultimate triumph of Christianity as the end of history.

Thus the real meaning of the term “discovery” relates to a religious doctrine enunciated by the church in two papal bulls (fatwas). The bull Inter Caetera of 1493, shortly before Vasco's voyage, declared that half of the world was owned by Spain and the other half by Portugal. The underlying religious principle was the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery” that the first Christian to sight any piece of land, became its “discoverer” hence owner. It is in this sense of land ownership that Vasco da Gama “discovered” India or Columbus “discovered” America. When he reached America, Columbus performed a little pooja taking over the land in the name of his king.

Strangely, this dogma of Christian “discovery” is also part of current law. Native Americans had no concept of ownership of land. However, in 1823, a native American tried out the Western justice system: he claimed that his ancestral lands were unjustly occupied and should be returned to him (Johnson v. McIntosh, 8 Wheat., 543 1). However, the court rejected the claim on the legal grounds of Christian “discovery”.

The judge stated that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the Americas during the “Age of Discovery”—after having been “discovered” by Christians, the native “Indians” had “lost their rights to complete sovereignty”. The judge argued that the US inherited its laws from Britain2 and had succeeded to that “right of discovery”. And, while Britain was a Protestant country, it fully accepted the papal dogma of Christian discovery, since it sent out people (Cabots) on its own missions of “discovery”, and they were authorised to take possession of lands, “notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.” That is, the claims of “discovery” by Columbus et al are not historical claims alone: they are, in reality, a legal claim of land ownership, deriving their legitimacy from a religious doctrine.

The church not only conferred land-ownershp on Christian “discoverers”, it encouraged them to kill and enslave the earlier non-Christian inhabitants. The 1452 bull Romanus Pontifex explicitly directed all Christians

to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans…and other enemies of Christ [i.e., all non-Christians]…to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate…[their] possessions, and goods, and to convert them to...their use and profit…3

This papal incitement to mass murder was justified by quoting bloodthirsty parts of the Bible. “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” [Psalm 2:8-9 N.I.V.] “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackled of iron, to carry out the sentence written against them. This is the glory of all his saints. Praise the Lord.” [Psalm 149:6-9 N.I.V.].

The genocide which was actually carried out in the Americas and Australia drew its inspiration from these murderous preachings. Here is a first hand account of that genocide by Las Casas, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage4

And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil!'…They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles....

The references to the Devil, the Apostles etc. clearly mark these genocides as religious hate crimes. The Christians committing these religious hate crimes thought they would go to heaven, and it was the innocent children they killed who would go to hell to be tortured eternally by the Christian god for the crime of being born non-Christian.

Las Casas' initial estimate of the number of people killed by the Christians in America was ten million: far more than even the highest estimates of the number of Jews killed by Hitler. The last Australian aborigine is dead. So, if we go by facts alone, Christianity far more than Nazism comes across as a doctrine of world power through genocide.

But Christians have never been proportionately condemned. On the contrary, this genocide of non-Christians is regularly celebrated. Apart from celebrating Columbus' “discovery”, there is the vast mythology, in “Western” films, stories and “comics”, which glorifies the killing of “Injuns” by cowboys, and makes every American child want to be a cowboy and go out and shoot “Injuns”.

The remaining few native Americans protest against the vile doctrine of Christian discovery. Each year, they burn copies of those papal bulls, and demand that they be withdrawn.5 But the church does not budge on grounds of papal infallibility and quotations from the Bible.

The practice of regarding the killing of non-Christians as great moral acts never really stopped. Napalm dropped on children in Vietnam was for the high moral act of containing communism. Today, drones drop bombs on hapless children, for the high moral act of combating Islamic terrorism. The common American still believes continuous mass murders of non-Christians are all moral acts!

This then is the real meaning of those claims of “discovery” by Vasco, Columbus and Cooke: we are asked to glorify and celebrate the genocide of non-Christians on three continents.

1 Johnson and Graham's Lessee V McIntosh 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 5 L.Ed. 681(1823).

2Since India too inherits its laws from Britain, on the judge's logic, the doctrine of Christian discovery is also part of our laws!

3 F. G. Davenport, European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, Vol. 1, Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington, D.C., 1917, pp. 20-26.

4 Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, trans. N. Griffin, Penguin, 1992. Also, Robert Francis, “Two Kinds of Beings: The Doctrine of Discovery And Its Implications for Yesterday and Today,” web article at

5 Steve Newcomb, “Five Hundred Years of Injustice”, Shaman's Drum, Fall 1992, pp. 18-20. See the website of the Indigenous Law Institute,