Terra nullius is a Latin expression that means "land belonging to no one." This term regained popularity during the late 1800s when white settlers began to take over land in various parts of the world, including North and South America, South Africa, Siberia, central Asia, and central Australia. The extermination of indigenous populations created a vacuum in which the land was considered "no man's land," giving white settlers the right to occupy it under the doctrine of terra nullius.
At the time, most white settlers believed in the superiority of the white race, considering non-white populations as inferior and destined for annihilation. They used the concept of social Darwinism to justify their actions, claiming that the extermination of indigenous populations was a natural part of the evolutionary process. Charles Darwin's book, "The Descent of Man" (1871), provided support for this view. In Chapter 5 and 6, Darwin argued that the extermination of indigenous peoples was a natural consequence of the evolutionary process. Animal species have always exterminated one another, and so have savage races, he claimed. Therefore, "civilized" people were simply continuing this process by exterminating the savage races.
The doctrine of terra nullius is closely linked to colonialism, a system in which a dominant power takes control of foreign territories and exploits them for their own benefit. Colonial powers often use a combination of military force and economic coercion to gain control of foreign territories, then use the concept of terra nullius to justify their actions. In doing so, they often ignore the rights of the indigenous populations who have lived on the land for generations.
The concept of terra nullius has had a profound impact on the world, particularly on indigenous populations who have been displaced, dispossessed, and exploited. Even today, the legacy of terra nullius is felt in many parts of the world, where indigenous people continue to struggle for recognition of their rights and protection of their lands. It is a stark reminder of the damage that can be caused when people believe in their own superiority and use it to justify exploitation and oppression.
“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”
- Charles Darwin, The descent of Man, 1871