Doctrine of Discovery, The


  • The doctrine of discovery refers to a principle in public international law under which, when a nation “discovers” land, it directly acquires rights on that land.
  • More broadly, the doctrine of discovery can be described as an international law doctrine giving authorization to explorers to claim terra nullius – i.e. said inhabited land – in the name of their sovereign when the land was not populated by Christians.
  • This doctrine arose when white European nations discovered black and brown non-European lands, and therefore created, out of thin air, special rights, such as property and sovereignty rights, on those lands.
  • In fact, this doctrine was used in order to legitimize the colonization of lands outside of Europe.
  • Of course, this predatory principle disregards the fact that the land oftentimes is already inhabited by another nation or society.