Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Discovery - International Law Definition:

A form of acquisition of land in centuries past.

Related Terms: Conquest, Discovery - Civil Litigation

A Theory of international law developed in Europe in about the 1500s whereby on a first-come first-served basis, any European country (France, England, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands especially) that discover land not occupied by Christians, owns that land from the moment of discovery.
The European nations disagreed on definition of the word discovery. Some suggesting that it sufficed that the land was seen in person for example, from a ship, for it to be discovered. But others, such as the French, recognized ownership based on the first discovery only if it was followed by some form of habitation or occupation.
"At the very least," wrote one French legal expert, "there must be a real on location possession of the territory in order to confirm any right of ownership. The simple planting of a cross or some such other insigna, accompanied or not by the physical presence of one or othernationals of the claiming state, without any of those claimants actually attempting to inhabit the location, cannot confer ownership by discovery."1

References and citations

  • Lareau, Edmond, l'Histoire du Droit Français Depus les Origines de la Colonie jusqu'au'a Nos Jours (Montreal: A. Periard, Libraire-Éditeur, 1888), p. 4-5 quoting Royneval "Institution du droit de la nature et des gens", p. 154.


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