Terra Nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery
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The doctrine of discovery is the idea that merely by virtue of being the first Europeans to “discover” a territory, the sovereign represented by those Europeans gains rights of sovereignty and title over that territory. The doctrine holds that these rights apply as against both Indigenous peoples and other European sovereigns.
While the doctrine of discovery is closely related to the concept of terra nullius (land belonging to no one), it is a conceptual tool that has been used even for lands that clearly did belong to others, as discussed below.
The Discovery Doctrine was a recognized principle of international law, arising in large part out of the relationships between European countries (Akehurst at 7.4.1). It was accepted law in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Crawford, 211). Two of the most important sources of this principle of international law were the Papal Bulls of Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493).
These Bulls purported to give...
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