Terra nullius

Suriname’s policy toward Indigenous Peoples did not originate in this small region. It is based on the principles defined by terra nullius, a Latin phrase meaning “empty land,” a theological and legal doctrine that gave land title to Christian European states who would assume sovereignty over “discovered lands.” Under terra nullius, “discovered” lands were considered devoid of human beings if the original people who had lived there – defined as “heathens, pagans, and infidels” – were not ruled by a “Christian prince.” The terra nullius doctrine became the cornerstone of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” does not refer to just one church doctrine, nor are its impacts confined to theological issues. The Doctrine of Discovery is a theological, philosophical, and legal framework dating to the fifteenth century that gave Christian governments moral and legal right to invade and seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous Peoples. This pattern of oppression began with papal bulls, or decrees. One of the most infamous is Romanus Pontifex, issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455. This bull granted the Portuguese king, the right to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed,” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and to “apply and appropriate to himself and his successors” all of these peoples’ sovereign lands, possessions, and goods. In other words, Romanus Pontifex justified enslaving and seizing the land and possessions of anyone who was not a Christian, setting the stage for colonization as well as the enslavement of African people by Europeans. Christopher Columbus, under the direction of the Spanish Crown, was similarly instructed to “discover and conquer,” “subdue.” and “acquire” distant lands, and John Cabot was given similar direction by the British Crown. North and South America were colonized according to this pattern, as were Australia and New Zealand.

From “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine