Affirming the Sovereignty of First Peoples: undoing the Doctrine of Discovery

When the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church decided to recognise the sovereignty of the First Peoples, it invited its members to start to undo the Doctrine of Discovery and all the imperialist, colonising influences that it set off.

For the past eighteen months I have been living in the Perth suburb of Wembley, not far from a beautiful lake known as Lake Monger. It was named after John Henry Monger, a merchant from York who was one of the group of British who settled in the Swan River area in 1829. Monger was granted 200 acres abutting the lake.

To the Noongar peoples who had lived here for thousands of years before British settlement, this piece of water was known as Galup. It was a gathering place, where fishing, meeting, cooking, and yarning took place, century after century.

I also regularly drive through the suburb of Leederville, named after William Henry Leeder, who was born in Bury St Edmunds, England, emigrated to the colonies, and was granted land in the adjacent area in the 1830s. On 7 January 1835 a group of Noongar people were expelled from their Lake Monger campsite, as it was considered a threat to the nearby Leeder Farm.

One month later, a settler named John McKail (another of the original British settlers in the Swan River Colony) shot an adolescent Noongar boy, Gogalee, and another Noongar man, Narrail, was also clubbed to death.

These deaths occurred because the white settlers were growing food on the land they had been allocated; they believed they owned the land. On the other hand, the indigenous people had lived on this land for millennia and they believed that the food which was appearing on their land, was theirs.

The British believed that they were doing the right and Christian thing, by establishing a colony on the Swan River, and by seeking to bring the European way of life, and the Christian Gospel, to the people already living in that area.

In sending convicts to the Great Southern Land, and in appointing Governors and sending soldiers to maintain peace within the colony, and indeed by sending Chaplains to serve as Ministers in the new colony, and to bring Christianity to the indigenous people, the British believed that they were following the will of God.

In fact, like colonising powers through century after century, the British were following what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery, a principal of international law that dates back many centuries and which provided the justification for the invasion of Australia.

In 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict – the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (meaning empty land). It gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to “discover” or claim land in non-Christian areas.

This policy was extended in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories.

These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and to justify wars of conquest, colonization, and slavery.

By 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. As Columbus reached the Americas, he performed a ceremony to “take possession” of all the lands that he “discovered,” meaning all territory not occupied by Christians.

Just a few years after Columbus landed in America, the British King, Henry VII, adopted the Doctrine of Discovery, granting his explorers the right to assert dominion and title over all non-Christian lands with the Church’s blessing.

The British who came to the Great Southern Land to settle, in 1788 at Sydney, in 1825 in Tasmania, in 1827 at Albany, in 1829 beside the Swan River, and at other locations, all believed that they were travelling to the Great South Land and establishing a new colony, in accordance with the will of God.

However, the actions of the British failed, at many points, to exemplify the Gospel which they proclaimed, and which they so dearly desired that Aboriginal people would follow. The Gospel of sacrificial submission, of welcoming inclusion, was missing at many points.

In the early years of the Swan River Colony, the Governor, James Stirling, became increasingly concerned about the difficult relationships between black and white, and the inability of his troops to ensure the safety of the people of his colony. In 1834, trouble was brewing in the region of Pinjarra, to the south of the Colony, as settlers clashed with local Noongars of that region, from the clan group Pindjarub.

Governor Stirling organised a mounted force of 25 men, and they set out to protect the settlers, to safeguard Aboriginal mail-carriers and to confront the Pindjarub on the river. They came across an encampment of about 60-80 Pindjarub people, on 28 October 1834. The Pindjarub fled into the bush and were later encircled near a crossing on the Murray River at Pinjarra. A short but damaging battle took place.

One of the white settlers died in the encounter. We know his name: Captain Ellis. Later, Noongar people claimed that up to 80 people had been killed. The British troops had guns, which could be fired from a distance, and which could wound and kill. Indigenous weapons were not as powerful.

Stirling referred to this incident as the Battle of Pinjarra. It set the parameters of white-indigenous relationships in the Colony for decades to come.

Governor Stirling never recognised the prior ownership of the land by the Noongar. In this, he was not unlike all other governors and officials of the colonising British invaders. In their mind, the Doctrine of Discovery validated their seizing possession of the land and the notion that the continent was terra nullius was evident in the words and actions of countless colonising officials.

Stirling wanted the peoples to live side by side in co-operation. But this was not to be a reality. More massacres followed. The history of relationships is one of severe deterioration, fed by increasing distrust, fear, and even paranoia.

Through these actions, the invading British forces overrode any sense of sovereignty which the indigenous people had about their land. They assumed, through the long history of development of the Doctrine of Discovery, that they had a right to claim the land on which they had landed. They ignored the fact that the First Peoples who were living on the land had long cared for the land, over millennia. They denied their sovereignty.

The 14th Assembly of the Uniting Church (2015) resolved “to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and its theological foundations as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases that have no place in the treatment of First Peoples; and to affirm the World Council of Churches Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery Impact on Indigenous Peoples, and encourage its consideration in the Church”.

The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church (2018) has now determined that it would affirm the sovereignty of the First Peoples of the many nations across Australia, recognising this as the “way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians” of the land.

The Assembly also drew on the understanding of sovereignty that was expressed in the Statement from the Heart which was drawn up at Uluru in 2017: “a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples.”

Recognising the sovereignty of the First Peoples is an important statement. It invites us to start to undo the Doctrine of Discovery and all the imperialist, colonising influences that it set off.

It invites Second Peoples to work with our indigenous sisters and brothers, seeking reconciliation and working towards the destiny together that we so desire.

It invites us to seek ways to support and strengthen the communities of First Peoples that we might relate to locally. May we all be committed to that task!

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

24 thoughts on “Affirming the Sovereignty of First Peoples: undoing the Doctrine of Discovery”

  1. If one wants to acknowledge sovereignty of the land of the first people then you must also recognise the other aspects that pertain to Indigenous Culture. Traditional culture is such that the tribe must be of “pure” bloodlines. Not to be mixed with other tribes nor other cultures.
    Unless you are or “pure,” blood you have no rights to the land or the culture. That is why indigenous tribes killed half castes born into the tribe and did not allow half castes of either the tribal women or men to enter the tribe. Today they are accepted but do not have the rights of the tribe..white mans law says otherwise.
    The Land Title issue is based on white mans law not Tribal Law. Unless you are of “pure” blood of that tribe this recognition has not tribal significance. The ” pure” bloods in tribal lands even today do not recognise the half caste as having rights to the land.

    1. Joanne, I have never heard a claim like this. What is the basis for your comments about “pure blood”? That seems to me to be a Western enlightenment concept, influenced no doubt by the now discredited late 19th century theories about ethnicity and “pure” race. It sounds like a racist perspective to me.

      1. Well obviously you are not familiar with Traditional Indigenous culture but very knowlegable of whites. The Native Title position today is white mans position…the heritance from lineage by blood that can be mixed. Tradional Indigenous Tribal Laws did not permit mixed blood unions.
        Get a hold of the book “I the Aboriginal” as that will be a start.

        Not only did I read about it but was also told about it by indigenous back in the 1970’s who where half caste and could not see their tribal family. The full blood Father would visit where they liked. Usually on a cattle station with the mother or the full blood mother would visit the tribe without her partner or children.

    1. Narelle, this is the language that the UCA used when it adopted a revised Preamble to its Constitution in 2009.
      It says, amongst other things:
      “Through this land God had nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples, who continue to understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians (meaning ‘sovereign’ in the languages of the First Peoples) of these lands and waters since time immemorial.”
      “The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.”
      “Many in the uniting churches, however, shared the values and relationships of the emerging colonial society including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples. They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land.”

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