Terra Nullius and Tabula Rasa

Sofia Batalha
5 min readJan 11, 2021

Terra Nullius and Tabula Rasa are two interdependent concepts that are part of the cultural lens surrounding us. The first speaks of empty land with no inhabitants, merely waiting for exploration. The second refers to being born as a blank sheet, ready to receive references and external categories.
Both are connected in the simplistic emptiness of things, in the objectification of places and peoples and children. Both ignore the complexity inherent in the interdependent ecosystems that we are and of which we are part. They forget that only mutuality sustains life.

Objectification helps emotional and relational detachment and cognitive separation, opening space for productive exploration and extraction of resources without ever linking to the deep correlation that inhabits us.

Terra Nullius

In 1095, Pope Urban II issued the Papal Bull Terra Nullius, a decree that positions the Catholic Church on supposedly empty lands. This decree gives European kings the right to “discover” and claim land in non-Christian areas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V extended this policy through the Papal Romanus Pontifex Bill that declares war against all non-Christians globally and authorizes the conquest of their nations and territories. These two decrees are based on two beliefs. The first that Christians were the only civilized people (morally and intellectually superior), so they had the right to treat non-Christians as uncivilized and sub-human who had no rights or no land or nation. Second, Christians had the God-given right to “capture, overcome and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ,” and to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and to “take all their goods and property. Subsequently, Portugal expanded its territory by making “discoveries” along the west coast of Africa and claiming these lands as Portuguese territory.

Thus, in 1492, when Columbus sailed to the “New World,” he did so with the clear understanding that he was authorized to “take possession” of any lands he “discovered” that were not “under the domain of any Christian ruler. When he returned to Spain, Spanish Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull on May 3, 1493, “granting” Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had found, as well as any lands that Spain might “discover” in the future. Pope Alexander also declared his desire that the people “discovered” be “subjugated and brought to their own faith.

When Christopher Columbus first stepped on the white sands of Guanahani Island, he held a ceremony to “take possession” of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christianity. Although the history of Columbus’ “discovery” has assumed mythological proportions in most of the Western world, few people are aware that his act of “possession” was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the Doctrine of Discovery. Even fewer people realize that today — five centuries later — the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo-Christian doctrine to deny Native American Indians’ rights.
The Vatican still validates the decree of Terra Nullius.
(text adapted from here and here)

Tabula Rasa

Tabula rasa, which in the West can be identified from this Aristotle, is the theory that individuals are born without embedded intellectual content, and all knowledge comes from experience or perception. We are born blank sheets, without references or margins, ready to be filled with information that comes from outside.


Both of these assumptions are invisible pillars on which Western culture rests. Both violently impose an external power on something or someone (beyond the human being), a control that shapes, categorizes, and extracts. Ignoring what it is — discarding the threads that weave what is already there. Being deaf to the nuclear melody of multifaceted reality. Being blind to the delicate subtleties that compose everything. Disregarding the potentialities that emerge at each moment. A limited and prejudiced vision based on a cosmovision of linear objectification of power.

These concepts, subliminally present in Western cultural foundations, violate and disrespect each being and each place’s sovereignty. They reject the vital context that weaves everything. They deny recognizing the power, competence, and authority of everything that is not linearly understandable.

They ignore abilities, talents, and rights, violating everything that calls into question the absolutism of the unique truth.
Being children, places, or peoples, they deny our existence as autonomous (always interdependent) beings when denying our inherent sovereignty. Places and people are normalized, waiting for them to fit within the limits of what culture allows.
The belief of Tabula Rasa and the Terra Nullius decree keep us in a state of deep immaturity, where guidelines, plans, and categories can only come from outside. Both are traces of fear in the face of the paradox of things because if we believe that there is only one truth, everything becomes simpler. By following only one truth, we blind ourselves to our own sovereignty. We silence our voices, those that disturb and revolutionize. We swallow and repeat the routine once again. Furthermore, we silence our soul to be accepted in society.

Just as “discovered” lands have never been empty of peoples, animals, plants, and their cultures, stories, myths, and memories, so children are not born devoid of themselves. All places and their inhabitants are immanently sacred.
Let us once again call for witnessing and critical participation on the web of things.

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[Disclaimer: all these words and weaved concepts are birthed through my lived, biased, and always limited perception of things, not supposing to bring any absolute truth.]

By Sofia Batalha
Mammal, author, woman-mother, question weaver and dismantling global-colonial-technological-capitalism one day at a time. Awkward prose-poet with no grammatical knowledge. Pilgrim through inner and outer landscapes, remembering ancient earth practices, in radical presence, active listening, ecopsychology, art, ecstasy, and writing. Author of seven books, editor of the free online magazine, Wind and Water, Re-member the Bones Podcast, and Beyond the Sea Conversations — all in Portuguese.
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Sofia Batalha

Journeying 🌿 between inner and outer landscapes, remembering ancient earth practices, radical presence, active listening, ecopsychology, art and writing.