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Discovery or cover-up?

  • 11 August 2022
Much has recently written about the doctrine of discovery and its bearing on the treatment of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the United States where it grounded an early legal decision. Its relevance to Australia was also the subject of an excellent article  in Eureka Street. The doctrine enshrined in law claims that the discovery of underpopulated and cultivated lands conferred on the discoverers the right to ownership. The argument was used to justify colonial occupation of territory in the Americas, Asia and Africa.

Doctrine is a serious word, encouraging pursed lips, and serious study of the documents in which it is mentioned and developed. Although its study is helpful in pointing to reasons given by invaders for occupying lands and mistreating their inhabitants, focusing narrowly on it can obscure the circumstances in which it was used and the interests that it served. Beneath the legal surface lies a deeper human reality of the relative status of different groups, of the desire to preserve that status, and the recourse to any arguments that could be drawn upon to justify it.

The proper starting point of discussion lies in the recognition that those who have status in society derived from power or wealth will generally resist all efforts to deprive them of that status. This is true of most people regardless of their faith or philosophical convictions. Where they have obtained their power and wealth by subjugating and marginalising previous occupants of the land, they will naturally offer reasons why this imbalance of power and wealth is justified. They will adjust their faith and philosophical positions to accommodate the defense of their status and its demands. They will not necessarily be in bad faith in doing so — many will believe strongly in the arguments they make or simply assume that they are self-evident. Should any one reason be disproved or become fashionable, however, they will not abandon their claims to status, but will find other reasons to justify it. Arguments are disposable; interests are non-negotiable.

'Refuting the long list of reasons found to justify taking away people’s land and freedom will be important but change of mind will need to be more deeply grounded in a change of heart.' 

The overriding power of self-interest suggests that any change in the status of Indigenous people will demand a change of attitude from seeing them as inferior to seeing them as equal in humanity and the rights intrinsic to