At the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in May this year the 'special theme' was 'The Doctrine of Discovery', a legal and political concept which can be traced back to the 15th century and, in the name of Christianity, permits and justifies the theft of indigenous peoples' land and horrors committed against them.
'Legal and political justification for the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, their disenfranchisement and the abrogation of their rights such as the doctrine of discovery, the doctrine of domination, 'conquest', 'discovery', terra nullius or the Regalian doctrine were adopted by colonizers throughout the world,' states this year's Forum's official report. 'While these nefarious doctrines were promoted as the authority for the acquisition of the lands and territories of indigenous peoples, there were broader assumptions implicit in the doctrines, which became the basis for the assertion of authority and control over the lives of indigenous peoples and their lands, territories and resources. Indigenous peoples were constructed as 'savages', 'barbarians', 'backward' and 'inferior and uncivilized' by the colonizers who used such constructs to subjugate, dominate and exploit indigenous peoples. . .'
You might wonder why a legal and political concept going back so many years is still worth talking about. But as the Forum's report argues, its 'ongoing manifestations' are evident in many indigenous communities today, so much so that the Forum officially urges states to 'repudiate such doctrines as the basis for denying indigenous peoples' human rights.'
Earlier this year, in February, the World Council of Churches (WCC), representing over 560 million Christians worldwide, did just that.
'The ways of life, identities, well-being and very existence of Indigenous People are threatened by the continuing effects of colonization and national policies, regulations and laws that attempt to force them to assimilate into the cultures of majoritarian societies,' said the WCC in its 'Statement on the doctrine of discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples', which made special mention of Christopher Columbus. 'A fundamental historical basis and legal precedent for these policies and laws is the 'Doctrine of Discovery', the idea that Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples. . . The current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a linear programme of 'legal' precedent, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and codified in contemporary national laws and policies. The Doctrine mandated Christian European countries to attack, enslave and kill the Indigenous Peoples they encountered and to acquire all of their assets. The Doctrine remains the law in various ways in almost all settler societies around the world today.'
Laws and policies aren't the only ways this 'discovery' concept - as if Europeans could lay claim to people or places, or even products, because some other European said so, as if such things didn't exist until then - lives on. Take a trip to Waitrose. You'll see packs of red chillies selling for 69 pence, or two packs for a £1, with the packaging claiming, in capital letters, as is Waitrose's wont, 'DISCOVERED BY COLUMBUS.'
What nonsense. Columbus didn't 'discover' chillies any more than he 'discovered' the Americas. By the time he so famously turned up in 1492 millions and millions of people were already living there, as countless scholars have now shown, and they had been cultivating chillies, among plenty of other things, for 1000s of years.
Any chance Waitrose might issue its own 'repudiation' of discovery and tell the truth about its chillies? Until it does so, it is distorting the past and misleading its customers - to say nothing of reinforcing a blinkered, arrogant view of the world that has had, and continues to have, appalling consequences for indigenous peoples all around the world.