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Doctrine of Discovery: How a papal teaching subjugated Australia’s First Nations people

  • 07 July 2022
In his July 2021 article titled, ‘The Uncomfortable Legacy: Colonisation and the Church,’ Brian McCoy argues for the need for the Church to have a serious conversation to redress causes of the uncomfortable legacy of colonisation. I argue that, while the Church is deeply implicated in the practice of colonisation, the problem that McCoy highlights extends beyond the Church.

In the past, domineering Australian governments have maintained, and often continue to maintain, a false Christian front to justify their wealth and power acquired through the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations people and the theft of our lands and waterways. But colonial atrocities did not occur in a vacuum, but were instead informed by past Christian ideology and doctrine fortified and enforced by the Catholic Church.

The subjugation of the world’s First Nations people was enshrined in the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal decrees made by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 where any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be ‘discovered,’ claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers. The Doctrine of Discovery legitimised Christian explorers’ claims to land uninhabited by Christians, promoting and fortifying Christian domination, and forcing original inhabitants into Christianity. The Doctrine of Discovery fed into more modern Christian claims to lands, through the process of colonisation and via the illegal fiction of terra nullius.

These lies, formulated in 15th century Europe, were echoed in 1778 to legitimise British claims to Indigenous land in Australia. I believe these fabrications, having originated out of medieval Christian doctrine are perpetuated by contemporary governments to maintain their hold on First Nations’ lands.

  'A treaty embodying Christ’s teachings will end Aboriginal enslavement and repair the enduring effects of past wrongs.' 

The country we now know as Australia was invaded by a supposedly Christian nation under the guidance of a medieval Christian doctrine. To fulfil the requirements of this doctrine, the invading nation had to be Christian in order to bring ‘Christ’s civilizing light’ to the ‘dark corners’ of the globe populated by allegedly primitive peoples. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, occupation as a Christian nation must take place to legitimise ownership over claimed lands and control over its people.

I believe any claim to Christianity by the Australian Government is a facade to continue fulfil the requirements of the Doctrine of Discovery. Australian governments simultaneously say they are doing all they can to help, whilst they are doing all they can to stifle Aboriginal wellbeing. Similarly,