The Doctrine of Discovery in New Zealand: A Case of Historical Disinformation
The Human Rights Commission is the latest body to express its anxiety over the damage that the so-called Doctrine of Discovery has inflicted on the country, both culturally and constitutionally. The Doctrine is depicted as an especially pernicious manifesto of colonisation that emerged originally from the bowels of the Vatican, and that subsequently propelled Britain’s involvement in New Zealand from the eighteenth century. And according to some of its proponents, the Doctrine has become a source of ongoing racism and an impediment to indigenous rights in New Zealand.
And the Commission is not alone in this view. Margaret Mutu has alleged that ‘[t]he Doctrine of Discovery underpins our legal system and relies on the myth that White Christians are superior to all other peoples. It gives them permission to dispossess, enslave and exterminate other races, cultures and religions’. Mere Berryman asserts that ‘[w]ith the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Captain Cook, the Doctrines of Discovery became part of New Zealand’s legal framework’, while legal scholars Jacinta Ruru and Robert Miller have claimed that ‘[w]hen England set out to explore and exploit new lands, it justified its sovereign and property claims over newly found territories and the Indigenous inhabitants with the Discovery Doctrine’.
As a consequence of such vociferous advocacy, the idea that the Doctrine of Discovery is the First Cause of New Zealand’s colonisation has entered into the country’s historical bloodstream and begun to circulate. Even some schools now teach it as part of the new compulsory History curriculum.
Yet, for historians working in the field of New Zealand’s colonisation, arguments about the Doctrine come across as little more than a latter-day conspiracy-theory, coated in some areas with a thin patina of legal argument which for devout believers is all that is needed to certify its credibility.
What is the Doctrine of Discovery? Did it influence British Colonisation?
What, then, is the Doctrine of Discovery, and did it play any role at all in Britain’s colonisation of New Zealand? The ‘doctrine’ itself derives from a sentence contained in a Papal Bull issued in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI. The Bull’s purpose was to support Spain’s wish to assert exclusive rights over certain territories discovered by Christopher Columbus the previous year. The Bull set out the specific locations (one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands) that would be assigned solely to Spain, and imposed a prohibition on other Catholic states approaching those territories without Spanish approval. The Vatican’s view was that any territories outside of Europe that were not inhabited by Christians were open to claims of ‘discovery’ (and implicitly, some form of sovereignty) by whichever Catholic power reached these territories first. This is the essence and extent of what later became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.
However, the 1493 Papal Bull did not influence intervention in the New World by Catholic nations so much as respond to incursions that were already well underway. It was descriptive of what was already taking place, rather prescriptive in terms of colonial policy and ideology. Recent scholarship on the Bull confirms that the Vatican exercised very little authority over the foreign policy of Catholic states at this time. Indeed, so ineffective was this Bull that its provisions were superseded the following year by the Treaty of Tordesillas – an agreement that similarly aimed to determine exclusive areas of colonial activity, but that was signed directly by the colonial powers concerned, without any regard to the Vatican’s pronouncements. And if any suspicion remained that the Bull still retained some influence, this was eliminated in 1537, when Pope Paul III issued his Sublimis Deus – a Papal Bull which explicitly forbade Catholic nations engaging in wars of conquest in potential colonies, and which effectively superseded the 1493 Bull. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, along with this 1537 Papal Bull, ended any faint influence that the 1493 Bull may have exercised over European colonisation in this era.
How the Doctrine got Resuscitated
The matter should have ended there, but over the last few decades, a clutch of lawyers has resuscitated the idea that the Doctrine of Discovery somehow guided practically all European colonisation for the subsequent four centuries – a claim that is preposterous to anyone familiar with the way in which various European states – especially Britain – developed their colonial policy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Certainly, Britain’s intervention in New Zealand was never predicated on the two essential tenets of the Doctrine of Discovery: the arbitrary assertion of territorial sovereignty over a colony; and the subjugation of that territory’s indigenous population. However, proponents of the Doctrine cite two imperialist examples to support their allegations: James Cook in 1769; and William Hobson in 1840.
Cook has been demonised by advocates of the Doctrine as the embodiment of Britain’s alleged intention to claim New Zealand as its own possession, and to rule over Māori. In fact, the opposite is true. Britain knew about New Zealand’s location from the late 1640s, but only sent an expedition to the country in 1768. It was not until 1840 that Britain (only reluctantly) asserted sovereignty over its people living in the territory. This lethargy is hardly the behaviour of an avaricious colonial power, intent on devouring territory to rule over.
It is not just the timeline that confounds the notion that the Doctrine of Discovery propelled British intervention in New Zealand. In July 1768, shortly before Cook’s departure on his voyage to the South Pacific, he was given a set of secret instructions by the Admiralty. These encouraged him to claim any portions of lands he may come across. However, crucially, (and this is something the advocates of the Doctrine conveniently omit) he was only permitted to make such assertions ‘with the consent of the natives’, and that he could only claim territory by right of discovery ‘if you find the country uninhabited’ [my italics]. Moreover, Cook conceded in his confidential journal on 31 March 1770, as he was departing New Zealand, that it had never been British policy to establish New Zealand as a British settlement. Such evidence directly contradicts the suggestion that Britain was looking to seize land in New Zealand and subjugate its occupants.
The other alleged conspirator behind the Doctrine in New Zealand is Hobson. His May 1840 proclamation is held up by advocates of the Doctrine as documentary proof of their belief. The relevant segment from Hobson’s Proclamation reads ‘I…assert…on the grounds of Discovery, the Sovereign Rights of Her Majesty over the Southern Islands of New-Zealand’. On the face of it, this looks like the Doctrine of Discovery in action in New Zealand, and the Human Rights Commission has indeed cited this Proclamation as incontrovertible proof. However, such an assertion is only possible by ignoring the historical context in which the Proclamation was made.
By May 1840, Hobson was still unaware how many chiefs had signed the Treaty, and was becoming increasingly apprehensive about the threat that the New Zealand Company posed to his rule and the colony’s stability. This Proclamation was issued as a pre-emptive measure against the Company, and not part of any attempt to ‘claim’ the South Island by relying on the Doctrine of Discovery. Contemporaneous correspondence makes this indisputable, but as further evidence, Hobson explicitly continued to seek consent from South Island chiefs to the Treaty (which would have been redundant if he was applying the Doctrine of Discovery), and by June 1840, a total of 56 chiefs from the South Island had signed the Treaty. Moreover, the Treaty did not give (and Hobson’s administration never claimed) control either over any Māori land in the South Island or over its indigenous inhabitants. So by every measure, the Doctrine of Discovery did not apply to Britain’s colonisation of New Zealand through this Proclamation.
Further Evidence of Fabrication
And there are other reasons which expose the claims about the Doctrine of Discovery affecting New Zealand’s colonisation as being entirely fabricated. For the sake of brevity, these are summarised as follows:
- By the time that Britain commenced colonising New Zealand, it had severed any ties with the Catholic Church for centuries, and any Catholic influence was actively repudiated.
- Britain’s imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lacked adherence to any doctrine. The Empire was acquired ‘in a fit of absence of mind’, as John Seeley famously observed in 1883. Moreover, the motives behind the Doctrine of Discovery were religious and territorial. British colonisation, on the other hand, was largely secular, and focussed primarily on trade instead of territory.
- The Doctrine was devised for a specific region, of which New Zealand was not a part, for a colonising power which never had any territorial claim to New Zealand, and at a time when New Zealand’s existence was unknown to Europe.
- Even for Catholic nations in Europe, the 1493 Bull had carried little authority at the time, and by the eighteenth century was no longer adhered to at all.
- There is no mention of the Doctrine of Discovery in any British Government document relating to New Zealand’s colonisation – neither directly nor implicitly – and neither did its precepts form part of British policy in this period.
- In the approximately two years leading up to New Zealand’s cession of sovereignty in 1840 via the Treaty, British policy on the territory was developed on principles that contravene the central tenets of the Doctrine of Discovery. This is especially important because it negates the argument that somehow, the general sentiment of the Doctrine embedded itself in British colonial policy in the nineteenth century as a precursor to New Zealand’s colonisation.
The persistent assertion that the Doctrine of Discovery applied to New Zealand’s colonisation is falsifiable on numerous evidentiary bases, and betrays among its advocates an extraordinarily uncritical and impoverished understanding of history. (It is understandable why so many historians of this period find their patience being tested by such claims). But when branches of the state and academia seem unwilling to relinquish their fixation on this myth, the evasions of evidence in favour of ideology (however vapid) ought to be of concern.
Cover image: Portrait of Pope Alexander VI Borgia (Vatican Museums – Musei Vaticani, Vatican). Attributed to Pedro Berruguete – gallerix.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100409618
A version of this post first appeared at Plain Sight on 11 April 2023.