Back to the Future of Discovery

Carl McRoy January/February 2024

Fifteenth-century European geopolitics and a long-overdue conversation.

We were just boys doing boy stuff. We crossed the country highway to each other’s front yards. We rode bikes together. We ran around with our dogs through the fields and woods around our homes. We played with magical sticks that morphed into swords, spears, guns, and whatever else we could imagine. We explored the outskirts of our territory and discovered cows on the other side of a neighbor’s fence. Emboldened by our dogs and magic sticks, we raced around their pasture, yelling and laughing at the top of our lungs as we chased the cows. It was more exciting than anything we could’ve watched on TV.

We were just boys doing boy stuff, and our differences didn’t disturb our fun. While our skin was about the same degree of brownness, his hair was straight and mine was curly. Our family went to church, but his didn’t. Our family was vegetarian, but his hunted and ate pheasants and rabbits, deer and black bears, and who knows what else. I went to public school but had no idea where he went to school. Did he even go to school?

His parents visited our school, but just as I can’t remember his name, I don’t remember him being with them that day. I do remember that they, along with other Chippewas (as we called them and they called themselves in our company), came to demonstrate their traditional customs, clothes, and dances. I never saw my friend or his parents dressed like that at home and never asked why. We were just boys doing boy stuff until my family moved.

What brought us boys, an African American and a Native American, together in the Minnesota countryside about halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth?

Back to 50 B.C. (Before Columbus)

Our prequel begins 50 years before Christopher Columbus allegedly discovered America. That’s when Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull—an official proclamation written by the pope—called Dum Diversas on June 18, 1452. This bull authorized the Portuguese “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ” and to take their “possessions, and all movable and immovable goods . . . and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

Dum Diversas, along with Romanus Pontifex (January 5, 1455) and Inter Caetera (May 4, 1493), are commonly viewed as the founding documents of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” In oversimplified terms, the Doctrine of Discovery is a religious rationale for the conquest and enslavement of non-Christian peoples. Although initiated by fifteenth-century Roman Catholics, it wasn’t something Protestants sought to reform. Instead, they helped codify its principles into international law.

What does this have to do with my boyhood story? Beginning with Dum Diversas, the Doctrine of Discovery is the backdrop of how African Americans with Anglicized versions of Irish names like mine (McRoy) got here. Most conversations about the Doctrine of Discovery point to its impact upon the First Nations of what we now call North and South America and the Caribbean. While that subject demands further education and advocacy, we should be mindful that the first two bulls were aimed at the conquest, enslavement, and forced migration of the Indigenous peoples of Africa. The same doctrine that “blessed” the theft of lands from Indigenous peoples in America also blessed the theft of Indigenous peoples from their lands in Africa.

Back to the Future 365

After Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, Pope Alexander VI authorized him to steal all he could see in 1493, when he issued Inter Caetera:

“By the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ . . . [we] give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors . . . all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered.”

Not only did the pope “grant” the lives and lands of the “discovered” to the “discoverer,” but he pronounced a fire-and-brimstone warning to anyone getting in their way:

“Let no one, therefore, infringe, or with rash boldness contravene, this our . . . gift, grant,  wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.”

This bull was issued 365 years prior to Minnesota becoming the thirty-second state in 1858, but its shockwaves still ripple across the Atlantic through the St. Charles River to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

Fast-forward 20 Years

In 1513 Juan López de Palacios Rubios published El Requerimiento (“The Requirement”) for Spanish explorers to read to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Caribbean when entering their lands. It gave these “discovered” people a clear choice:

“Acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world,  and the high priest called Pope. . . . If you do so, . . . we . . . shall receive you in all love and charity.”

“But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall . . . take you and your wives and children, and shall make slaves of them . . .  and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the mischief and damage that we can . . . and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault.”

What if the inhabitants couldn’t speak, read, or understand Spanish? That must have been their fault too.

Fast-forward to Nouvelle France

France soon joined Portugal and Spain in the discovery game. In 1534 Jacques Cartier sailed through the St. Lawrence River and claimed the surrounding land for the glory of France. According to scholar and author Robert P. Jones, Cartier’s crew “caused a cross to be made thirty feet in height . . . on the crossbar of which we put a shield embossed with three fleurs-de-lis, and above where it was an inscription graven in wood in letters of large form, ‘VIVE LE ROY DE FRANCE’ [‘Long Live the King of France’].”1

Cartier’s prayers and magic sticks meant, in the minds of the French, that these lands now belonged to France for future exploits. These expanding discovery claims began with the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its connected bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, and reached toward the Mississippi River and down to its delta. That’s the short story of why France believed it had rights to sell the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. without consulting any First Nations.

Why Is This History Largely Unknown?

Fear and greed motivate some to bury or justify these actions. Tennessee Supreme Court Justice John Catron chose the latter in his 1835 opinion in State v Foreman:

“We maintain, that the principle declared in the fifteenth century as the law of Christendom, that discovery gave title to assume sovereignty over and to govern the unconverted natives of Africa, Asia and North and South America. . . . Our claim is based on the right to coerce obedience. . . . Without its assertion and vigorous execution, this continent never could have been inhabited by our ancestors. To abandon the principle now is to assert that they were unjust usurpers; and that we . . . should in honesty abandon it, return to Europe.”

Can Supaman Save the Day?

Native American rapper Supaman released a 2021 music video entitled “Alright.” The video’s theme is the Back to the Future movie series and ends with Supaman punching in the date to travel back to 1491. Where would he go? What would he do? How would things change? Would he lead his ancestors to enact Maimouna Youssef’s wish in the song “Miracle” to have met the pilgrims at the border and “with a travel ban, pushed them back into the water”?

Children Doing Children Stuff

Since life can’t be lived backwards and we’re already here, how do we move forward together? How can we have truth and conciliation if we’re dishonest with history? Can we acknowledge how the past has poisoned our present, so we can remedy our future? Should we seek help from Native American “healers,” who “done been killed,” “betrayed,” or “sent away,” as bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron sang long ago?2 Might we discover therapeutic properties in the seventh-generation thinking common to many First Nations’ cultures? Dare we ask ourselves how the next seven generations will be blessed or cursed by our actions today? Will our children’s children just be able to do children stuff with other children who are different because nobody sees being different as deficient? Wouldn’t that be a “miracle”? Won’t that be “alright”?

1 Robert P. Jones, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023), p. 119.

2 From the lyrics of “Winter in America,” by American vocalist Gil Scott-Heron.

Article Author: Carl McRoy

Carl McRoy is an ordained minister, a frequent contributor to Message magazine, and author of Black From the Past, Yell at God and Live! and Impediments to Power. He serves as director of Literature Ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.