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The Doctrines of Christian Discovery and Domination
Indigenous people in what is now known as North and South America developed their own religions and governmental organization over millennia, but Europeans regarded their complex societies as "barbarous" and therefore open to colonize, convert, and enslave. Pope Alexander VI's Papal Bull Inter Caetera proclaimed all land not inhabited by Christians was open to be "discovered" by Christian Europeans—the basis of colonization.
Two Papal Bulls—1452 pertaining to Africa and 1493 to the Americas—are known as the Doctrines of Christian Discovery and Domination. These documents allowed European settler colonialists to profit through taking ownership of land and enslaving Black and Indigenous people. Although it is 528 years old, this Doctrine is the underpinning of American racism—and Christianity is at the center of it.
The Lasting Effects of the Doctrines of Discovery
My family is from the Cape Verde Islands, a small archipelago about 400 miles off the coast of Senegal.
Cape Verde and the Doctrines of Discovery
Read Lelia DeAndrade's story
The Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited until the 15th century when the Portuguese arrived. Sanctioned by the Doctrines of Discovery, they claimed the islands and used them in their quest to colonize Africa. They imported enslaved Africans, who were sold, or used to support the local economy. Like many other colonizers, the Portuguese also used their position of power and violence to create a new subordinate population of racially mixed people, and a racist hierarchy that rewarded all things White and Portuguese.
Over generations, as Portuguese interest and presence in the islands declined, the Cape Verdean population became truly multi-racial and the sharp racial divisions enforced by the Portuguese faded. It also developed its own unique culture—informed by, but different from, a myriad of Portuguese and African cultural practices and values. Cape Verdean resistance to Portuguese oppression also grew. Finally, in 1975 Cape Verdeans won their independence from Portugal.
This history leaves me in a complicated relationship with the Doctrines of Discovery. I see them as the impetus of violent exploitation, oppression and White supremacy enacted by the Portuguese. However, at the same time, I know that without it, my people, my culture, my history wouldn’t exist. No doubt this is a pattern common in history—from the bad, selfish awful, comes good, life, and strength.
America has never fully embodied equality, liberty, and justice. What it has always had was a dream of justice and equality before the law.
—Heather Cox Richardson, 2018
Dunlap Declaration of Independence, 1776
Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society
The Second Continental Congress representing 13 colonies in America declared their independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, and formed the United States of America. This founding document, one of 26 surviving copies printed by John Dunlap, is based on the noble principle that "All men are created equal," while in reality, it excluded women and people of color. Forty-one of the 56 signers owned slaves. William Whipple is widely known as the only Mainer to sign the Declaration of Independence—his merchant business participated in the Atlantic slave trade and he enslaved Africans on his Kittery estate—though during the American Revolution he freed some of his slaves and later supported emancipation.
The Declaration was a rallying cry to gather troops for the Revolution, and foreign support for the new government of the United States. When the Framers wrote the Constitution, the radical nature of equality celebrated in the Declaration was weakened in favor of protecting economic stability associated with property rights, therefore perpetuating inequality in society.
The line from the Declaration of Independence that always sticks out to me is the one that includes "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." That line is probably one of the most romanticized pieces of American prose ever written, yet it's just a poetic façade that masked the true beliefs of its slave-owning authors.
The majority of the signers literally owned human beings as personal property at the moment they signed beneath those audacious words. Were "all men" truly equal in the eyes of the Founding Fathers? Of course not. After all, just 21 years earlier, the Phips Proclamation of 1755 offered bounties for the capture and killing of Wabanaki people in what is now Southern Maine.
—Michael-Corey F. Hinton (Passamaquoddy)
The Maine State Constitution took effect on March 15, 1820 when Maine separated from Massachusetts. Maine's Constitution extended to:
Every male citizen of the United States of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, excepting paupers, persons under guardianship, and Indians not taxed.
The Constitution of the State of Maine and that of the United States, Portland, 1825
Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society
While the constitution provided strong protections for religious freedom, extended voting rights to Black men, and had no property requirement to vote, it disenfranchised women, the poor, and "Indians not taxed," recognizing Tribal sovereignty but also tying representation to taxation.
The Maine Constitution prohibits altering the Articles of Separation without the consent of Massachusetts. For this reason, and to avoid changing the Maine Constitution, Maine legislators instead suggested redacting sections of the document. Since 1876, Sections 1, 2, and 5 of Article X of the Maine Constitution ceased to be printed, but retain their legal validity. The redacted sections include Maine's obligation to uphold and defend treaties made between Massachusetts and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Nations.
The Maine Constitution and Hope for our Future
When I look at the sweeping and inspiring declaration of rights in Maine's 1820 Constitution, I see that they do not include me, a Black woman. While the entire document is worth a coffee-cup read, I focus on Article I, §§ 1-4 which, in certain respects, parallel the United States’ Declaration of Independence.
Sections 1 and 3 recognize the "natural" and "unalienable" rights of "all men" to enjoy and defend life and worship God. Those who opine that the use of the word "men" in the Constitution refers to mankind in general ignore the literary reality of the document and the historical context in which it was drafted. Despite being established as a free state, slavery had been practiced in Maine and women—White women—had limited legal rights; Indigenous and Black women had fewer still.
I am most struck by Section 2 which recognizes that "all power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit." History makes plain that "the people'" who were the intended and actual beneficiaries of the free governments were wealthy White men who benefitted—and continue to benefit—from governmental norms, enacted legislation, and the court decisions that uphold an unjust system.
Yet, it is also in Section 2 that I find hope for our future. When we Mainers unite and begin to recognize and affirm each other’s humanity, Section 2 also affirms that we have the, unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government, and to alter, reform, or totally change the same, when [our] safety and happiness require it. Our power to shape the systems that govern our society is our path to a future that works for all Mainers.
The Doctrine of Discovery and the US Supreme Court
Johnson v. M'Intosh is a Supreme Court case in which two White men sought to determine who, between the two of them, had the right to claim ownership over a parcel of land that was Piankeshaw Nation Homelands. Johnson's forefathers 'purchased' the land directly from the Piankeshaw. M'intosh claimed he received the land under a grant from the United States. The Court relied heavily on the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery when determining that M'intosh was the rightful owner of the land. It was at this point in 1823 that the Doctrine of Discovery was officially incorporated into U.S. common law.
According to the Court, the Piankeshaw Nation did not have the legal right to sell land to Johnson, an individual, because, discovery gave [england, as the discoverer] an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest; and gave also [england] a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise. The sovereign right to the land "discovered" by England passed to the newly independent United States.
This case is a clear example of the court system upholding an oppressive, unjust power structure. The Court acknowledged "title by conquest is acquired and maintained by force. The conqueror prescribes its limits." These limits are, apparently, even beyond the power of the Court to moderate as evidenced by the Court's position that "conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny, whatever the private and speculative opinions of individuals may be."
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