They call it The Age of Exploration. It began in the early 15th century and continued into the early 17th century, as feudalism changed to a wage system and the dominance of trade and merchants grew.It was the imperative of capitalist expansion that drove Europeans to ‘explore’ the lands across the Atlantic and it was the Doctrine of Discovery that gave them licence to do so.  And in order to facilitate this expansion a hierarchy of racial categorization was developed.

The Christian (Catholic) kings of Europe were subject to the authority of the pope and by the 15thcentury popes were regulating European expansion through a series of Papal Bulls.

(A papal bull is a type of public decree, letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is named after the leaden seal (bulla) that was traditionally appended to the end in order to authenticate it.)

The Dum Diversus(Until different) of 1452 gave Alfonso V of Portugal the right to conquer Saracens and pagans and consign them to ‘perpetual servitude.’ In 1455 Romanus Pontifex(The Roman Pontiff) gave Portugal the right to seize slaves and land in West Africa. Columbus’ ‘discovery’ prompted the pope to issue the Papal Bull, Inter Caetera (Among other works),which gave Spain the right to conquer any land Columbus had ‘discovered’ as well as any Spain might yet discover. Note the ‘perpetual servitude’ and ‘yet to be discovered’. This gave the right to colonize, convert and enslave forever, which right, as we will see, still stands today.

The English King Henry VII got in on the act in 1496 and granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people, to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. The Jamestown colony was a descendant of this English Crown Licence, the first permanent English colony in the Americas. Being unable to find financial backers led The Virginia Company to the practice of issuing ‘patents’ and one was granted to the Merchant Adventurers for the Mayflower voyage in 1620.

And what was the justification for dishing out these lands to the kings of Europe? Why, the inhabitants were not Christian. That being so, they were not human. The land they occupied was Terra Nullius, devoid of humans. Since they were not baptized they did not exist. The Bulls, and charters and Vatican documents used by the Christian States of Europe and their successors in the Americas and elsewhere promoted on a global scale a Framework of Dominance, and the theft of indigenous peoples’ land, territories and resources, under the guise of activities that are deemed ‘just’ and lawful’.


How does a 15th century papal ruling affect indigenous peoples today?

In 1823 the basis for the USA Federal Indian law system was created by the ruling in the case of Johnson vs M’Intosh. This was a fraudulent land dispute, the two sides pretending to have a dispute in order to get the case before the USA court system. The newly formed United States needed to manufacture a political identity for Indigenous peoples and a concept of Indian land title that would open the way for the US in its westward expansion. In the Johnson vs M’Intosh ruling, the US Supreme Court claimed that the original rights of American Indians, ‘to complete sovereignty, as independent nations’had been ‘necessarily diminished’by the right of discovery. The first principle of international law, that ‘the authority of a nation within its ownterritory is absolute and exclusive’was denied to American Indian Nations. The indigenous peoples had only a title of ‘mere occupancy’, a temporary right, inferior and subject to the absolute title and dominance of early Christian European powers and later state actors such as the USA. Being heathens, pagans, infidels or unbaptized persons, they were denied status as sovereign independent nations and their lands, resources, persons, their individual and collective human rights could be violated with impunity. And the Supreme Court used the Doctrine of Discovery as the basis for this ruling.

But that was the 19thcentury. Surely this can no longer be applicable. You think? The Tee-Hit-Ton Indians in Alaska sued the United States when the US Forest Service, in 1947, sold to the Ketchikan Pulp and Paper Company ‘the right to all harvestable inthe Tongass National Forest, estimated at 1,500,000 cubic feet’. They lost – because it was a well recognized principle in international law that ‘the lands of heathens andinfidels’ were open to acquisition by ‘Christian nations.’ So an edict issued by the pope 500 years earlier is now a principle of international law!

And fifty years later, in 2005, in the case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Doctrine of Discovery is still being used as an active legal principle. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted, ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery . . . fee title 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 theUnited States.’


Ginsburg spent a considerable part of her legal career as an advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights I did not expect to be disappointed in her.

But, – it’s about law but not justice.


The coloniality of gender

The growing of crops in the colonies came to be ordered on capitalist lines – not for immediate use but for sale. That the inhabitants did not ‘develop’ their land in this way was the rationale for expropriating it. This meant that the women whose role was that of agriculturalists were displaced. European colonization also included the imposition of the European gender system upon the cultures that were colonized. Gender differentials were introduced where there were none. My main focus is on North America but the destruction of cultures and the theft of their lands occurred throughout South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.

In Yoruba society (what is today Nigeria, Togo and Benin) gender was not an organizing principle – until colonization. Many Native American societies acknowledged three to five gender roles – female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male, and transgendered. But such gender variance could no longer be tolerated.

In the Andes, Spanish constructs of gender hierarchies meant that women lost the social, political and economic rights they had previously enjoyed and women could no longer own land independently of their husbands or hold important religious offices. In Canada women were no longer permitted their role in community decision making. They were even denied the status of being Indian if they married a non-Indian man.

Many of the Indigenous nations were matriarchies or matrilineal, not a structure acceptable to the colonists. Women were removed from their decision making roles. In some indigenous societies women set the direction for all their people. In cases where there were male chiefs, women often chose the chief and were able to take his power away. Women could decide on war, distribute wealth in the community, and decide who was allowed to be a member of the nation. But that was before colonization. There is no equality of power and the colonized have no choice. The ideology of superiority and entitlement allows the theft of land and culture. It is rape on every level.

The women on the Mayflower were not a great deal better off. None of them was permitted to sign the Mayflower Compact. The passenger list always put the man first and his wife does not always even have a name. And she is not always a Separatist, as her husband is. Only four of the Mayflower women survived that first winter, so their daughters were hastily married off to the widowers.


Perpetual servitude: Racism and Slavery

A basic tenet of Christianity is that all are equal in the eyes of God. So how to reconcile this with the theft of land and the enslavement of its inhabitants? Well, if you take the land because its occupants are not human you can also scalp, massacre, and enslave those non-human people. There are plenty of examples of this so I’ll cite just one. In Tennessee in1833 an attempt to declare unconstitutional the state’s having awarded itself jurisdiction over Cherokee lands (State vs Foremen), Justice Catron wrote, ‘It was more just that the country should be peopled by Europeans, than continue the haunts of savage beasts, and of men yet more fierce and savage.’ To his mind the Indians were‘mere wandering tribes of savages’ who ‘deserve to be exterminated as savage and pernicious beasts.’ Simply by right of power whites could exert their dominance. ‘Our claim is based on the right to coerce obedience. The claim may be renounced by the moralist. We answer, it is the law of the land.’ So again, law not justice. And hang morality.


The Mayflower passengers brought servants with them and if they were indentured they had no choice. Indentured servants agreed, or in many cases were forced, to work with no pay for a set amount of time, often to pay off a debt, and could legally expect to become free at the end of the contract. In 1619 the Jamestown colony bought kidnapped Angolans from the White Lion that had taken them from a Portuguese ship. Initially they were labelled indentured, but the reality became perpetual servitude.


The early English colonists of Virginia and New England adopted slavery as a labour practice and this spread across the North American sub-continent throughout the 18thand 19thcenturies. From 1492 to 1900 it is estimated that in the Americas there were in total, 2.5 to 5 million Indigenous slaves, of which 147,000 to 340,000 were enslaved in North America.

Our ‘brave explorers’ and ‘freedom seekers’ on the Mayflower were, quite simply, journeying to make profits for their backers, the Merchant Adventurers. The impact on the ancient cultures, they encountered, and the women of those societies was devastating. Their legacy is four hundred years of oppression of Indigenous and African Americans and of African Caribbeans.




The reality is that New England armies, courts, and magistrates enslaved more than 1200 Indian men, women, and children in the seventeenth century alone, and bound many others into finite terms of servitude.

Colonisers do not knock on the door of the colonised, and ask politely if it is OK to borrow a cup of sugar and a couple of eggs. There is no equality of power, and the colonised cannot respond politely that they have nothing to give, or alternatively choose to offer the cup of sugar and two eggs. The key factor here is choice. The colonisers step in with superior weaponry, efficient bureaucracy and organisation, all supported by an ideology of superiority and entitlement, and they take. It’s theft of land, resources, culture. It is rape on every level. It is taking what isn’t theirs without asking permission, and without concern for the impact that this has on the ones from whom they are taking.

imis Deus (English: The sublime God;[1] erroneously cited as Sublimus Dei) is a papal encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul III on June 2, 1537, which forbids the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (called Indians of the West and the South) and all other people.[2] It goes on to state that the Indians are fully rational human beings who have rights to freedom and private property, even if they areheathen.[3][4][5][6][7][8] It strengthens the recent decree issued by Charles V of Spain in 1530 in which the King prohibited the enslavement of Indians.[9] Another related document is the ecclesiastical letter Pastorale officium, issued May 29, 1537, and usually seen as a companion document to Sublimis Deus.[10]

There is still some controversy about how this bull is related to the documents known as Veritas ipsaUnigenitus Deus and Pastorale officium (May 29, 1537). Alberto de la Hera (see footnote 1)[citation needed] believes thatVeritas ipsa and Unigenitus Deus are simply other versions of Sublimis Deus, and not separate bulls. Joel Panzer (The Popes and Slavery [New York: Alba House, 1996] p. 17)[citation needed] sees Veritas ipsa as an earlier draft of Sublimis Deus. While some scholars see Sublimis Deus as a primary example of Papal advocacy of Indian rights, others see it as part of an inconsistent and politically convenient stance by Paul III, who later rescinded Sublimis Deus or the Pastorale in 1538.

In Sublimis Deus, Paul III unequivocally declares the indigenous peoples of the Americas to be rational beings with souls, denouncing any idea to the contrary as directly inspired by the “enemy of the human race” (Satan). He goes on to condemn their reduction to slavery in the strongest terms, declaring it null and void for any people known as well as any that could be discovered in the future, entitles their right to liberty and property, and concludes with a call for their evangelization.

The bull had a strong impact on the Valladolid debate, and its principles eventually became the official position of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, although it was often ignored by the colonists and conquistadores themselves. The executing brief for the bull (“Pastorale Officium”) was annulled by Paul in 1537 at the request of the Spanish who had rescinded the decree previously issued by Charles.[11] The bull is cited at times as evidence of a strong condemnation by the church of slavery in general, but some scholars point out that Paul sanctioned slavery elsewhere after the issuing of Sublimis Deus.[12]

 American Indian affairs, particularly relating to the Cherokee nation, were also were pressing issues during Catron’s tenure on the Tennessee high court. In 1833, the state legislature, following the earlier example of Georgia’s general assembly, passed laws giving itself jurisdiction over Cherokee land within its boundaries. In State v. Foreman, 16 Tenn. 256, it was charged that these laws were unconstitutional. Catron upheld the state laws in a long opinion that is notable for its brutal attitude toward the Indians. “It was more just,” Catron wrote, “that the country should be peopled by Europeans, than continue the haunts of savage beasts, and of men yet more fierce and savage.” The Indians were, in his mind, “mere wandering tribes of savages” who “deserve to be exterminated as savage and pernicious beasts.” Furthermore, it was simply by right of power that whites could exert their dominance: “Our claim is based on the right to coerce obedience. The claim may be denounced by the moralist. We answer, it is the law of the land. Without its assertion and vigorous execution, this continent never could have been inhabited by our ancestors.” The issue resurfaced a few years later during Martin Van Buren’s presidency when the Cherokee were forced to give up their land and make a long march on what was called the Trail of Tears to land west of the Mississippi.



  1. The bullRomanus Pontifex— along with all other such Vatican documents and royal charters — provides evidence of the Doctrine of Discovery used by the Christian States of Europe and their successors in the Americas and elsewhere to promote on a global scale a framework of dominance and the theft of indigenous peoples’ lands, territories, and resources, under the disguise of activities that are deemed “just” and “lawful”. The dominance framework was acknowledged in a working definition of “indigenous peoples” set out in the early 1970s: Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons or a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a State structure which incorporates mainly the national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant. (17)



at least one commentator has noted that Johnson, by holding that only the federal government could purchase Native American lands, created a system of monopsony, which avoided bidding competition between settlers and thus enabled the acquisition of Native American lands at the lowest possible cost.[5]

Johnson vs M’intosh Whether a title conveyed by the Native Americans can be recognized by the Federal Courts?


um Diversas (English: Until different) is a papal bull issued on 18 June 1452 by Pope Nicholas V. It authorized Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude”.[1][2] Pope Calixtus III reiterated the bull in 1456 with Inter Caetera (not to be confused with Alexander VI‘s), renewed by Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 and Pope Leo X in 1514 with Precelse denotionis[clarification needed]. The concept of the consignment of exclusive spheres of influence to certain nation states was extended to the Americas in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI

ith Inter caetera.[3][4][5][6]


Romanus PontifexLatin for “The Roman Pontiff”,[1] is a papal bull written in 1454 by Pope Nicholas V to King Afonso V of Portugal. As a follow-up to the Dum Diversas, it confirmed to the Crown of Portugal dominion over all lands south of Cape Bojador in Africa. Along with encouraging the seizure of the lands of Saracen Turks and non-Christians, it repeated the earlier bull’s permission for the enslavement of such peoples. The bull’s primary purpose was to forbid other Christian nations from infringing the King of Portugal’s rights of trade and colonisation in these regions, particularly amid the Portuguese and Castilian competition for ascendancy over new lands discovered.[2]


Inter caetera (“Among other [works]”) was a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI on the … of 1452 (Dum diversas), 1455 (Romanus Pontifex), and 1456 (Inter caetera), recognizing Portuguese territorial claims along the West African coast.

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