A history of terra nullius

People Involved

Dr Andrew Fitzmaurice

Project overview

The concept of terra nullius has been central to recent debates about indigenous rights in Australia in particular and in former colonies in general. These debates have been largely insensitive to the historical origin and use of the term terra nullius. Most recently, it has been observed that the term terra nullius was not used to justify colonisation in the nineteenth century, but little effort has been made to identify when terra nullius was first used.

This project excavates the history of the concept of terra nullius and of associated terms, including res nullius, in the history of European colonisation from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Project Details

Contrary to popular representation, the idea of res nullius, and to some degree that of terra nullius, was not used to justify the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Rather, it was employed negatively to argue that the lands of indigenous peoples were not res nullius and therefore could not be appropriated.

Res nullius was thus a branch of anti-colonial argument that was employed from Francesco de Vitoria through to the early twentieth century. This project now recounts the history of terra nullius within that larger history of anti-colonial legal argument.


Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant 2002-2004


Research on the project is now complete and the monograph is in preparation for the press.