Columbus’s Legacy: Law as an Instrument of Racial Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples’ Rights of Self-Determination
26 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2009
Date Written: November 4, 2009
Williams’ article is written as the introductory piece to this volume’s symposium on Indigenous Peoples’ Claims to Self-Determination, published the year before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first landfall in the New World. The article shows how Columbus’s racism - evidenced by the belief that indigenous peoples should not be left to govern themselves - fits squarely on the historical continuum dating back to the Crusades and continuing to the present. The Crusades were the first systematic expression of the Catholic policy of denying “infidel” peoples rights of dominion and jurisdiction over their own territories. The Pope expressed his power even over the “infidels” by virtue of his position as head of the true catholic church, which gave him universal legal dominion. Continuing in the same vein, Columbus never doubted that he could claim for Spain the lands he touched, because of the “Natives’ divergence from Christian European cultural norms of religious belief and civilization.” And hundreds of years later this same theory, operating under a different name, is first formally written into an American legal decision - Johnson v. M’Intosh. There it is presented as the “doctrine of discovery”, in which Justice Marshall notes that the “Indians lacked the same sovereign rights in the lands they occupied which Christian European recognized as belonging to other civilized nations.” Thus, writes Williams, cultural racism is firmly embedded in American law and firmly stuck in a 1000-year old legal tradition first brought to the New World by Columbus.
Keywords: Doctrine of Discovery, cultural racism, Indigenous peoples, self-determination
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation