chapter  6
26 Pages

License My Roving Hands

Spain, Portugal, Britain, and France developed different justifications for their New World empires. Spain and Portugal used medieval religious doc­ trines to wage “just wars” against heathen and infidel peoples so they could become part of the “congregation of the faithful.” Catholic France and Prot­ estant England, however, considered Spain’s global religious claims absurd and based their New World empires on the ancient Roman law principle of terra nullius [lands unoccupied by a sovereign state] or vacuum domicilium [vacant land]. Unoccupied territories, they argued, were the common prop­ erty of humanity until properly put to use. Indians had migrated into unin­ habited or uncultivated lands and could legitimately settle there because they were empty. But over the centuries, they had done little to improve their lands. Consequently, the New World was still unoccupied territory and open to European settlement. Although Britain and France rejected Spain’s reli­ gious claims to the New World, their imperial philosophies were honed in debates with Spanish diplomats and their intensive study of Spanish texts on colonization. Not surprisingly, they came to similar conclusions about their right of conquest.