By Tony Seed
On June 24, 1497, the Venetian navigator Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), commissioned by Henry VII of England, landed in Newfoundland. Believing it to be an island off the coast of Asia, he named it New Found Land. Under the commission of this king to “conquer, occupy, and possess” the lands of “heathens and infidels,” Caboto reconnoitred the Newfoundland coast and landed on the northern shore of what is today known as Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
Caboto came armed with assumptions similar to those of the Spanish colonialists further south. Thus, the Letters Patent issued to Cabot by King Henry VII gave the explorer instructions to seize the lands and population centres of the territories “newely founde” in order to prevent other, competing European nations from doing the same:
“And that the aforesaid John and his sonnes … may conquer, occupie, and possesse, all such townes, cities, castles, and yles, of them founde, which they can subdue, occupie and possesse, as our vassailes and lieutenantes, getting vnto vs the rule, title, and iurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castles and firme lands so founde…”
While the King gave Cabot the “full and free authority, faculty and power” to “find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels,” there was an important caveat. Cabot’s licence only applied to lands that “were unknown to all Christians.”
With this imperial licence to wage an unending, plunderous war against non-Christians, Cabot and “his sons or their heirs and deputies” gained the exclusive right to rule as the King’s “vassals and governors, lieutenants and deputies.” In exchange, they were “bounden and under obligation” to pay King Henry “either in goods or money, the fifth part [20 per cent] of the whole capital gained.” The “capital” was defined as “all the fruits, profits, emoluments [earnings], commodities, gains and revenues.”
When Cabot returned to England on August 6 he took three Mi’kmaq with him, thereby introducing slavery into North America. This may have been responsible for his disappearance when he returned to Newfoundland with five ships in 1498. When his ships arrived in northern Cape Breton Island, the Mí’kmaq attacked. Only one ship returned to England, the other four, with Caboto as captain, never returned.
The royal charter stipulated that King Henry VII would acquire “dominion, title and jurisdiction” over all lands “discovered” by Cabot. It is the foundation upon which the “Dominion of Canada,” as a supposed legal entity, is based. Caboto, sailing from Bristol, a strategic port in the Atlantic slave trade, represented the trading, commercial and shipping houses, such as Lloyds of London and Barclays Bank, which amassed fabulous wealth from the kidnapping of Africans and later financed the neo-colonial confederation of Canada created in 1867 and its railroads from their booty. Caboto returned with stories of the sea teeming with fish. European colonial fishing fleets began making trips to the Grand Banks every summer.
Initially the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk, however reluctantly at times, treated the visitors as political equals in most important respects and were willing to trade and allow the Europeans to briefly land and dry the cod.
In 1500, Caspar de Corte-Real, a slave trader financed by Portugal, captured several Mi’kmaq. He reconnoitred the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, kidnapping 57 “man slaves” (Beothuks) to be sold to finance the cost of the expedition. His belief that Nitassinan was teeming with potential captives led to it being called Labrador, “the source of labour material.” The ship he was on was lost at sea, although two of his other ships did return to Portugal.
By 1504 French Bretons were fishing off the coast of Míkmáki country. In 1507 Norman fishermen took another seven Beothuk prisoners to France. This affected all future relations between the Beothuk and the fishermen.
The development of the Atlantic fisheries, a seemingly inexhaustible source of cheap protein, is inextricably linked to the Atlantic Slave Trade which fertilized the development of the capitalist system and consolidation of national states in Europe. It later formed the basis of the wealth of leading families in colonial Nova Scotia and New England, as well as of leading politicians such as John A. Macdonald, the “father of Confederation” who married the daughter of a slave owner in Jamaica.
On June 11, 1578, Sir Humphrey Gylberte (Sir Humphrey Gilbert) received Letters Patent for Newfoundland. He was a big colonizer through English colonial plantations of Gaelic Ireland with his half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh. On August 5, 1583, Gilbert received a grant from Queen Elizabeth I and attempted to settle a colony in Newfoundland. He failed due to the lack of resources to withstand the cold and starvation. He nonetheless laid formal claim to Newfoundland and the Maritimes. France, citing Jacques Cartier’s voyage and the “doctrine of discovery,”opposed the claim. Gilbert drowned in a storm on September 9, 1583 off Sable Island in Canada’s first recorded “marine disaster.”
On July 27, 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh first attempted to settle a plantation colony in Roanoke, which is part of the land named Virginia, in honour of Queen Elizabeth, who was referred to as the Virgin Queen. Roanoke is actually an island off the coast of current-day North Carolina. The first English colony in the “New World” was not successful, and the colonists withdrew in June 1586.
By 1586, back in Newfoundland, typhus was spread among the already weakened Mí’kmaq population, which yielded yet more lives to the deadly epidemic brought to the Maritimes by the Europeans.
Doctrine of Discovery and Royal Charters based on it
The Doctrine of Discovery emanates from a series of Papal Bulls (formal statements from the Pope which set policy) originating in the 1400s. This doctrine was used as a justification for the colonial dispossession of sovereign Indigenous nations in the Americas of their lands and the subjugation of their people during the European “Age of Discovery.”
The main tenet of this outlook was that Indigenous peoples had no souls and therefore were not human, and that the lands that were “discovered” were terra nullius, empty of human habitation.
This outlook was the foundation of Indigenous policy in Canada that has repercussions to this day. The call for Canada to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery is number 47 of the 94 Calls to Action of the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2015.
Royal Charters, issued by authority of Royal Prerogative, are legal documents that decree grants, particularly land grants, by the sovereign to his or her subjects. The power and authority of the King and Queen are almost absolute, as the following commentary by British jurist William Blackstone shows:
“And, first, the law ascribes to the king the attribute of sovereignty, or pre-eminence… He is said to have imperial dignity, and in charters before the conquest is frequently styled basileus and imperator, the titles respectively assumed by the emperors of the east and west.” By many acts of parliament, his “realm” is declared to be an empire, and his crown imperial. Particularly the statutes 24 Hen. VIII. c. 12. and 25 Hen. VIII. c. 28 at the same time declare the king to be “the supreme head of the realm in matters both civil and ecclesiastical, and of consequence inferior to no man upon earth, dependent on no man, accountable to no man.”
In 1997, on the quincentennial anniversary of Caboto’s landfall, Queen Elizabeth II, sovereign of Canada, toured the country in an official celebration sponsored by the Canadian and British governments. A joint commission officially decided that Caboto had in fact first landed in Newfoundland. New monuments to Caboto were unveiled and a spate of books published.
According to the Queen, Caboto’s landfall “represented the geographical and intellectual beginning of modern North America.” It is an example of how the eurocentric Doctrine of Discovery is used to falsify history.
As is well known, in Newfoundland the genocide of the Beothuk Indigenous people occurred. Queen Elizabeth II was right — the pattern was set there. So far as the Indigenous peoples are concerned, of course, the pattern set was genocide.
When Queen Elizabeth II visited Labrador, the reception was “mixed” as “protestors waved placards denouncing her visit.”
As Queen Elizabeth II’s motorcade drives by, an Innu woman holds up a sign protesting Canada’s claim to their lands in Sheshatshiu, Newfoundland | CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP via Getty Images
In Sheshatshiu, Innu community leaders on June 26, 1997 presented the Queen with a dignified letter that read in part:
“The history of colonization here has been lamentable and has severely demoralized our People. They turn now to drink and self-destruction. We have the highest rate of suicide in North America. Children as young as 12 have taken their own life recently. We feel powerless to prevent the massive mining projects now planned and many of us are driven into discussing mere financial compensation, even though we know that the mines and hydro-electric dams will destroy our land and our culture and that money will not save us.
“The Labrador part of Nitassinan was claimed as British soil until very recently (1949), when without consulting us, your government ceded it to Canada. We have never, however, signed any treaty with either Great Britain or Canada. Nor have we ever given up our right to self-determination.
“The fact that we have become financially dependent on the state which violates our rights is a reflection of our desperate circumstances. It does not mean that we acquiesce in those violations.
“We have been treated as non-People, with no more rights than the caribou on which we depend and which are now themselves being threatened by NATO war exercises and other so-called development. In spite of this, we remain a People in the fullest sense of the word. We have not given up, and we are now looking to rebuild our pride and self esteem.”
On June 30, 2004 the late Keptin Saqamow Reginald Maloney opened the Halifax International Symposium on Media and Disinformation held at Dalhousie University by delivering the fraternal welcome of his people to the participants from North America, Europe and Asia. “The greatest disinformation we have faced is that of the ‘discovery doctrine’ of the Spanish, Portuguese and British colonial powers, which still ravages us today,” he declared in his welcoming address.
On October 12, 2013 the Mi’kmaq Warriors Society and Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, who were blockading a Texas monopoly’s fracking operation, demanded as was their right that the government “produce documents proving Cabot’s Doctrine of Discovery.”
In marking the “discovery” of Canada and what took place on June 24, 1497, front and centre must be the just demands of the Indigenous peoples for the recognition of their rights. It is an issue facing the entire polity which can only be resolved through modern arrangements that uphold rights on the basis that they are inviolable and belong to people by virtue of their being.
1. The Letters Patents of King Henry the Seventh Granted unto John Cabot and his Three Sonnes, Lewis, Sebastian and Sancius for the the Discouerie of New and Unknowen Lands; March 5, 1498. An excerpt:
“Henry, by the grace of God, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all to whom these presents shall come, Greeting. Be it knowen that we haue giuen and granted, and by these presents do giue and grant for vs and our heiress to our welbeloued Iohn Cabot citizen of Venice, to Lewis, Sebastian, and Santius, sonnes of the sayd Iohn, and to the heires of them, and euery of them, and their deputies, full and free authority, leaue, and power to saile to all parts, countreys, and seas of the East, of the West, and of the North, vnder our banners and ensignes, with fine ships of what burthen or quantity soeuer they be, and as many mariners or men as they will haue with them in the sayd ships, vpon their owne proper costs and charges, to seeke out, discouer, and finde whatsoever isles, countreys, regions or prouinces of the heathen and infidels whatsoeuer they be, and in what part of the world soeuer they be, which before this time haue bene vnknowen to all Christians; we haue granted to them, and also to euery of them, the heires of them, and euery of them, and their deputies, and haue giuen them licence to set vp our banners and ensignes in euery village, towns, castle, isle, or maine land of them newly found. And’that the aforesayd Iohn and his sonnes, or their heires and assignee may subdue, occupy and possesse all such townes, cities, castles and isles of them found, which they can subdue, occupy and possesse, as our vassals, and lieutenants, getting vnto vs the rule, title, and jurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castles, & firme land so found. Witnesse our selfe at Westminister, the fifth day of March, In the eleventh yeere of our reigne.”
(From material originally published in Shunpiking Magazine.)