The Doctrine of Discovery

Engraving of Doctrine of Discovery

Methods Discussion: Although the "sage on the stage" idea we have previously discussed has lost some popularity, if you are a REALLY GOOD LECTURER, you can use the Lecture/Discussion method which is demonstrated with this brief piece on the Doctrine of Discovery.

Lecture: At the beginning of the Crusades in 1095, Pope Urban II issued the Papal Bull Terra Nullius - a decree explaining the policy of the Catholic Church about empty land. This decree gave European kings the right to "discover" and claim land in non-Christian areas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V extended this policy through the Papal Bill Romanus Pontifex that declared war against all non-Christians in the world and authorized the conquest of their nations and territories.


  1. A Papal Bull and a decree are the same things. What do you think they are?
  2. In year year 1095, where in the world would "empty land" be available? Would it really be empty?
  3. In your own words, what were the two Popes declaring in these Papal Bulls?

These two decrees were based upon two beliefs:

Thereafter, Portugal expanded its territory by making "discoveries" along the western coast of Africa and claiming those lands as Portuguese territory. Thus, in 1492, when Columbus sailed to the "New World" he did so with the clear understanding that he was authorized to "take possession" of any lands he "discovered" that were "not under the dominion of any Christian rulers." When he returned to Spain, the Spanish Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull on May 3, 1493, "granting" to Spain the right to conquer the lands which Columbus had already found, as well as any lands which Spain might "discover" in the future. Pope Alexander also stated his desire that the "discovered" people be "subjugated and brought to the faith itself."


  1. Given your understanding of these three Papal Bulls, what were the goals of the Doctrine of Discovery?
  2. Why would Spain and Portugal be so eager to subscribe to these Papal Bulls in the years between 1095 and 1493?Map of 1493 Papal Decree

When Portugal protested this Papal concession to Spain, Pope Alexander stipulated in another Papal Bull issued in 1493 that Spain could not establish control over lands which had already "come into the possession of any Christian lords." He then drew a line between the two poles, indicating that all lands discovered west of a meridian about 300 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain and any new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal. This papal bull also claimed that all lands already under the control of a "Christian prince" would remain under that same control. In essence, the Pope gave Spain the rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe, and Portugal over the other.

Portugal felt their colonial impulses were limited by the line and thus King John II of Portugal negotiated with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to move the line to the west. King John's rationale to Ferdinand and Isabella was that the Pope's line extends all around the globe, thus limiting Spanish influence in Asia.

On June 7, 1494 Spain and Portugal met at Tordesillas, Spain and signed a treaty moving the line west of Cape Verde. This new line gave Portugal more claim to South America as well as control over most of the Indian Ocean and the exclusive right to pursue trade routes around Africa.

In essence, the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world into two exploration and colonizing areas: the Spanish and the Portuguese. These divisions later became known as the Doctrine of Discovery which gave European Christians legal right to discover all lands occupied by non-Christian peoples merely by setting foot on it.

Map of Treaty of Tordesillas

A similar agreement (the Treaty of Saragossa) was later reached for a line dividing the other side of the world, such that Spain and Portugal each claimed authority over half the planet.

Map of Treaty of Saragossa


Over 325 years later, the Doctrine of Discovery was infused into American law with the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543). Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the unanimous Court, stated that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that such "discovery" meant the North American Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands. According to Marshall, when the United States became independent in 1776 it retained the British right of "discovery" and also acquired Britain's power of "dominion."


  1. How did the Doctrine of Discovery influence the way the United States was able to gain "dominion" over Indian Lands?
  2. How do you think Catholic doctrine became the way to take Indian land in a Protestant nation?

The "bottom line:"

The Doctrine of Discovery Today. In February 2012, the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) denounced the "Doctrine of Discovery" in a statement calling the nature of the doctrine "fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus". Additionally, the statement

European countries like Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland used the doctrine as a basis for colonization for over 500 years. And as we learned above, the doctrine was introduced to U.S. through its use in the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M'Intosh in 1823, which in turn has been cited by courts in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Along with the Episcopal Dioceses of Maine and Central New York and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, many churches have denounced the doctrine in the United States and Canada. In 2011, several Unitarian Universalist churches and Quaker organizations also adopted resolutions to repudiate the doctrine.

Methods Discussion: To give your students a more contemporary understanding of how churches have reacted to the Doctrine of Discovery in the 21st Century, you should read in full the WCC statement published in 2012 at Because it is three pages long, this would be a good time to test your abridgement skills that we discussed earlier in the semester. (See "Teaching History 2016 at and scroll down to Goal #3 - see the section "abridging primary documents."). Once you abridge the document down to about 1 full page, then create either a DBQ or a Close Reading assignment.