The Doctrine of Discovery is an international legal principle which justifies property rights over new-found territories. The doctrine is still very much alive today. Russia evoked it when it placed its flag on the Arctic Ocean floor in 2007 to claim the potential oil and gas reserves there.
Robert J. Miller, of Lewis & Clark, and Jacinta Ruru, of the University of Otago, have posted a new comparative law working paper on SSRN, An Indigenous Lens into Comparative Law: The Doctrine of Discovery in the United States and New Zealand.
Here’s the abstract:
North America and New Zealand were colonized by England under an international legal principle that is known today as the Doctrine of Discovery. When Europeans set out to explore and exploit new lands in the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries, they justified their sovereign and property claims over these territories and the Indigenous people with the Discovery Doctrine. This legal principle was justified by religious and ethnocentric ideas of European and Christian superiority over the other cultures, religions, and races of the world. The Doctrine provided that newly-arrived Europeans automatically acquired property rights in the lands of Native people and gained political and commercial rights over the inhabitants. England was an avid supporter of the Doctrine and used it around the world. The English colonial governments and colonists in New Zealand and America, and later the American state and federal governments and New Zealand governments, all utilized Discovery and still use it today to exercise legal rights to Native lands and to control their Indigenous people. In this article, the authors, an American Indian and a New Zealand Maori, use a comparative law methodology to trace and compare the legal and historical application of Discovery in both countries. The evidence uncovered helps to explain the current state of United States Indian law and the New Zealand law relating to Maoris. While the countries did not apply the elements of Discovery in the exact same manner, and at the same time periods, the similarities of their use of Discovery are striking and not the least bit surprising since the Doctrine was English law. Viewing American and New Zealand history in light of the international law Doctrine of Discovery helps to expand one’s knowledge of both countries and their Indigenous peoples.
It’s a great read, and the doctrine of discovery has a lot to do with the difficulty cultural policy makes had in formulating a cohesive national and international legal regime to handle, regulate, and restrict the trade in cultural objects. Much of the very restrictive cultural patrimony laws in many nations of origin can be directly attributed I think to the massive cultural and economic drain which took place when European colonists discovered new lands.