The Doctrine of Discovery: How the Catholic Church Authorized Colonial Powers to Seize Lands and Subjugate People in Africa

The Doctrine of Discovery is a historical concept that played a significant role in the colonization and subjugation of indigenous peoples across the globe. While it is often associated with the colonization of the Americas, its influence extended far beyond, reaching the shores of Africa.

The Doctrine of Discovery: How the Catholic Church Authorized Colonial Powers to Seize Lands and Subjugate People in Africa
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Doctrine of Discovery has its roots in the papal bulls issued by the Catholic Church in the 15th century. One of the most significant of these bulls was the “Dum Diversas” issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, which authorized colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal to seize lands and subjugate people in Africa and the “New World,” as long as people on the lands were not Christians. The document effectively provided a religious sanction for colonization.

Another significant papal bull was “Romanus Pontifex” issued in 1455, which extended Portugal’s authority to conquer the lands of infidels and pagans for “the salvation of all” in order to “pardon … their souls”. The document also granted Portugal a specific right to conquest in West Africa. These papal bulls laid the foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, which essentially allowed European powers to claim lands inhabited by non-Christians as their own.

The Doctrine of Discovery was instrumental in legitimizing European colonialism in Africa. As European powers embarked on voyages of exploration and expansion, they carried with them the papal bulls that provided divine sanction for their actions. The belief that non-Christian lands were terra nullius, or “nobody’s land,” allowed these powers to claim vast territories in Africa without regard for the indigenous populations already living there.

This doctrine not only justified the seizure of land but also served as a pretext for the subjugation and enslavement of African peoples. The dehumanization of Africans was facilitated by the notion that they were heathens or pagans in need of Christian salvation, further justifying the brutal treatment they endured.

The Doctrine also led to the establishment of European colonies throughout Africa, with a focus on resource extraction and economic exploitation. Nations like Britain, France, Portugal, and Belgium laid claim to vast territories, dividing the continent among themselves at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. This partitioning disregarded existing ethnic, cultural, and political boundaries, setting the stage for conflicts and power struggles that continue to impact the continent today.

The consequences of European colonization in Africa were devastating. Indigenous populations faced forced labor, land dispossession, violence, and the destruction of their cultural heritage. The exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, including minerals, rubber, and ivory, enriched European nations while impoverishing the African continent.

The Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery

In the late 1970s through 2005, during the papacy of Saint John Paul II, significant steps were taken to address the historical injustices inflicted by colonizing Christians. Pope John Paul II made a series of apologies and appeals for forgiveness for the role of Christians in slavery and the injustices perpetrated during the era of colonization.

However, it wasn’t until 2023 that the Vatican made a historic statement, unequivocally repudiating the papal decrees that formed the basis of the Doctrine of Discovery. The Vatican declared that the doctrine, used to justify the eradication of Indigenous cultures and livelihoods, was not a part of the Catholic faith. This acknowledgment marks a significant departure from centuries of institutional support for the doctrine.

Postcolonial Africa: Lingering Effects

While the Vatican has apologized and also repudiated the doctrine of discovery, the legacy of the Doctrine and European colonialism continues to reverberate in Africa today. Many African nations grapple with the enduring effects of colonial borders and power structures, often resulting in internal conflicts and political instability. Furthermore, the economic disparities between former colonial powers and their African colonies persist, exacerbating ongoing challenges related to development and poverty.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.


  1. The Vatican did some clever PR here but it did not fool everyone. They were asked to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, which would have meant taking responsibility for it. Instead that acted as though it was never Catholic in nature or origin, which it was. Protestant denominations have “repudiated” it because it was not their own, though they have also denied that it came from biblical origins. The Christian churches have not fully come clean on this, and it is important that they do so. The Catholic church globally is the major beneficiary of land taken from indigenous peoples.


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