The Meaning of Christian ‘Discovery’
C K Raju
The claim that Vasco da
Gama "discovered" India or that
Columbus "discovered" America or that Cook "discovered" Australia is historically false for the obvious reason that people were staying in all those "discovered" lands from tens of thousands of years earlier. Nevertheless, a typical response today is to try to "save the story" by toning it down to say that what Vasco "discovered" was the sea route to India. This suggestion, that they performed some novel navigational feat, is equally false.
The claim of "discovery" is manifestly derogatory to the people who earlier inhabited those lands. The key point here is that the use of the derogatory term "discovery" was no accident of Eurocentric history, but an integral part of church politics. Christian triumphalist history, from the 5th c Orosius to the 20th c Toynbee, was expressly intended to denigrate non-Christians, and to glorify Christians as superior. That is the very essence of church propaganda, and the mainline Western story of the ultimate triumph of Christianity as the end of history.
The effectiveness of that church propaganda for the colonial state should be judged by its consequences. It "softened" the minds of the ruled. The colonised came to believe that they were intrinsically inferior, and that the only hope for them was to imitate the West. That feeling of inferiority persists even today, and is manifested in many ridiculous ways, from air hostesses speaking Hindi with a British accent, to the brouhaha that accompanies the conferment of a Western honour on some Indian who may have done nothing of any consequence for the Indian people.
To understand the real politics of the term "discovery", one needs to know its little-known but real meaning. The term "discovery", as used in connection with Vasco, Columbus etc., relates to a church doctrine of world power enunciated in certain papal bulls (fatwas). The bull Inter Caetera of 1493, shortly after Columbus' voyage, declared that the lands he "discovered" belonged to Spain, unless they already happened to be under Christian rule on 25 December 1492. The underlying religious principle is that of the "Doctrine of Christian Discovery" that the first Christian to sight any piece of land, became its "discoverer"—hence owner. The church taught that since non-Christians were inferior, they hence lost the right to land ownership on being "discovered" by Christians. It is in this sense of land ownership that Western historians stated that Vasco da Gama "discovered" India or Columbus "discovered" America. Encouraging such "discoveries" clearly enhanced church revenues.
This dogma of Christian "discovery" is also part of current law. Native Americans had no concept of ownership of land. However, in 1823, a native American tried out the Western justice system: he claimed that his ancestral lands were unjustly occupied and should be returned to him (Johnson v. Mclntosh, 8 Wheat., 543). However, the US Supreme Court rejected the claim on the legal grounds of Christian "discovery". (That is still the US law.)
The judge stated that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the Americas during the "Age of Discovery"—after having been "discovered" by Christians, the native "Indians" had "lost their rights to complete sovereignty". The judge argued that the US inherited its laws from Britain and had hence succeeded to that "right of discovery". And, while Britain was a Protestant country, it then fully accepted the dogma of Christian discovery, since it sent out people (Cabots) on its own missions of "discovery", and they were authorised to take possession of lands, "notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery." That is, the claims of "discovery" by Columbus etc. are not merely historical claims: they are, in reality, a legal claim of land ownership, deriving their "legitimacy" from a religious doctrine.
The church not only conferred land-ownership on Christian "discoverers", it preached Christian superiority to the point that it encouraged them to kill and enslave non-Christians. The 1452 bull Romanus Pontifex explicitly directed all Christians :
‘to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans...and other enemies of Christ [i.e., all non-Christians]...to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate...[their] possessions, and goods, and to convert them to...their use and profit.’
This papal incitement to mass murder was justified by quoting bloodthirsty passages4 from the Bible. "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery." [Psalm 2:8-9 N.I.V.] "May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackles of iron, to carry out the sentence written against them. This is the glory of all his saints. Praise the Lord." [Psalm 149:6-9 NIVJ]
The genocide which subsequently ensued in the Americas and Australia drew its inspiration from these murderous preachings. Here is a first hand account of that genocide by Las Casas, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage :
And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil .''...They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles....
The references to the Devil, the Apostles etc. clearly mark these genocides as religious hate crimes. However, those committing these religious hate crimes thought they were engaged in high moral acts, and that it was the innocent children they killed who would go to hell to be tortured eternally there for the crime of being non-Christian.
Las Casas' initial estimate of the number of people killed by the Christians in America was ten million: almost double the highest estimates of the number of Jews killed by Hitler. Many more were killed later on. The last Australian aboriginal speakers of some native languages are dead. So, if one goes by facts alone, church-Christianity far more than Nazism comes across as a doctrine of world power through genocide.
But the church has never been proportionately condemned. On the contrary, this genocide of non-Christians, on three continents, is regularly celebrated. Apart from celebrating Columbus' "discovery", or the bicentenary of Cook's discovery, as done in Americas and Australia, there is the vast mythology, developed through "Western" films, stories and "comics", which glorifies the killing of "Injuns" by cowboys, and makes every American child want to be a cowboy and go out and shoot "Injuns".
The remaining few native Americans protest since 1992 against the vile doctrine of Christian discovery. Each year, they burn copies of those papal bulls, and demand that they be withdrawn. But the church does not budge on grounds of papal infallibility and the sanctity of the Bible. Neither has the US law changed.
The practice of regarding the killing of non-Christians as great moral acts never really stopped at any time, though the propaganda has become more sophisticated. Napalm dropped on children in Vietnam was for the high moral reason of containing communism. Today, drones drop bombs on hapless children, for the high moral reason of combating Islamic terrorism. As Gallup polls have repeatedly shown, over 50% of Americans are still practising church- Christians who believe in the literal truth of church doctrines (50% is enough in a democracy). Without any doubt, the church guides their notions of morality, hence most of them are convinced that the continuous mass murders of non-Christians since Hiroshima are all moral acts!
This then is the real meaning of those claims of "discovery" by Vasco, Columbus and Cook: people are asked to glorify and celebrate the genocide of non-Christians on three continents. That sets the attitudes of a large mass of people today. Thus, deliberately false historical claims of "discovery" continue to assist the genocidal church politics of world power.
1. Johnson and Graham's Lessee V Mclntosh 21 US (8 Wheat) 543, 5 L.Ed. 681 (1823).
2. Since India too inherits its laws from Britain, on the judge's logic, the doctrine of Christian discovery is also part of Indian laws!
3. F G Davenport, European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, Vol 1, Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington, DC, 1917, pp. 20-26 Also, Robert Francis, "Two Kinds of Beings: The Doctrine of Discovery And Its Implications for Yesterday and Today," web article at http://www. manataka.org/page94.html.
4. There are numerous such passages in the Bible. See, e.g., Ruth H Green, "Mass killings ordered, committed, or approved by God", chp. 5 in The Born Again Skeptic's Guide to the Bible, Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1979.
5. Bartolome' de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, trans. N Griffin, Penguin, 1992.
5. html://http://www.manataka.org/page15 5. html.
7. Steve Newcomb, "Five Hundred Years of Injustice", Shaman's Drum, Fall 1992, pp. 18-20. See the website of the Indigenous Law Institute, http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.htmtional Alliance of People's Movements
Vol. 47, No. 29, Jan 25 - 31, 2015