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Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640

by Patricia Seed

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Introduction: Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640
Patricia Seed's book is about political power and how it is legitimated by Europeans in the New World. Her discussion of differing rituals of possession amongst European colonial powers is both fascinating and gratifying as a way of understanding how these powers justified to themselves and their subjects at home claims to ownership of new territory in the Americas.

In arguing for the primacy of cultural factors in the exercise of power, she has taken us far from the place where we can talk of a "Capitalist World System." With Seed, we have Europeans who many be capitalists but we have no world system. In a contemporary world where large homogenizing "systems" like the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc have recently tumbled to the ground, her explanation based in the primacy of culture seems relevant. Coming out from behind the "Iron Curtain," we increasingly remember how very different Latvians and Lithuanians really are.

Seed's work does for the monolithic "Europeans" what recent scholarship has done for the monolithic "Indians". She restores an appreciation for the diversity and rich cultural context in which European encounters with native peoples too place. Least we forget, she reminds us how shaped by their unique cultural inheritances the European "inventions" of America were. As we recover the distinctive histories of myriads of subject, destroyed or marginalized peoples we do indeed risk slipping into a homogeneous and bland portrait of European exploiters.

Seed sees sources of meaning in everyday life, language and law. English "turf and twig" ceremony's roots in "gardening rhetoric, land ownership practices and agricultural fertility rituals" (p. 5). Because of their strong rooted-ness in everyday life, these ceremonies resonated with European populations at home. Using the idiom of colloquial speech and repeating ritualized claims, they became "natural". Taking the law as a cultural construction as well, Seed historicizes the discussion of right and wrong, just and unjust, etc.

Whether dictated by formal authority or carried out on the basis of an implicit consensus, all Europeans relied upon implied cultural understandings of how legitimate political ought to be initiated. In so doing they based themselves upon familiar language and culture, as well as upon what they understood their own legal and cultural traditions to have established as legitimate (p. 7).

Contact led to linguistic codification of national languages. The self-referential quality of vernacular languages created encapsulated linguistic universes in which everything in the language was intelligible only with reference to something else in the language.

Diplomacy between European colonizers was impaired by differing understandings, as each power viewed what constituted possession differently. Colonialism and national identity development also went hand in hand, as the display of national possession oversees helped differentiate the nascent European nationalities. These emerging national traditions had their critics (ex. Roger Williams and Las Casas), but they never chose another nation's framework preferring to operate within their own nation's framework to urge reform. This amounted to criticism within "the system"

Audience not native peoples, rather colonial powers directed their ceremonies toward home audiences in Europe. Conflict between Europeans resulted from the mutual incompressibility of their individual ceremonies of possession. Seed argues for an amazing lack of cultural understanding, indeed even a lack of curiosity. "The Other" was not just native peoples, it was also other Europeans.

Why did different groups think and behave as they did? Seed believes that their behaviors were historically conditioned. What Seed brings is a subtlety and difference, nuance and complexity. The well known deficiencies of "High Culture", having produced an narrative of Homogeneous Struggle, are set right by her narrative.

Houses, Gardens and Fences: Signs of English Possession in the New World

The English colonists focused on architecture. The first thing British colonists did was build a house. This resonates with the significance of the village in British life. Indeed, "to build a house in the New World was for an Englishman a clear and unmistakable sign of an intent to remain - perhaps for a millennium." (p. 18) Houses, fences and boundaries signified possession.

Based in the agricultural and architectural tradition, since the 14th C Enclosure Movement private property was delineated by fences. Legal significance of fences built on the Anglo-Saxon tradition of paling, by which sharp sticks were thrust into the ground to protect hunting parks from intruders. These sticks are the precursors of the modern "picket fence." By planting hedges and erecting fences, the settlers were Improving the Land.

In addition to fencing off property, the British were also "Planting the Garden" in the new world. Gardening metaphors held powerful sway with the British, as they had long cast "Savage vs. Civilized" as a contest over "cultivation". In the rugged new land, English Gardens served as symbol of possession. Even the Origins of Plantations comes from the idea that the English were planting people in the soil. By planting their gardens (and their people) the English took possession of the New World.

Unlike the native peoples, the English sought to replenish and subdue the land. Starting with the biblical injunction to exercise dominion over the land, the British saw the "unimproved" land of the natives as a mark both of their paganism and their barbarism. Improving the land was also linked to Anglo-Saxon folk culture as well as to the Common Law.

The concepts of improvement, replenishment, and subduing signified a variety of actions: building fixed permanent residences on a piece of land, erecting fences, growing hedges, introducing domesticated animals, using the English fertilizer (manure) and ploughs. Sometimes these actions resulted in the creation of fixed architectural symbols, other times they did not ... They all had in common the expression of colonial authority not through written texts of documents but through actions. (p. 38)

How could the native populations have understood the English?

Ceremonies: The Theatrical Rituals of French Possession

The French believed that elaborate ritual and native buy-in were necessary to take possession of the Amazon region in South America. D'Abbeville and La Ravadiere believed that the Tupis greeted his planting of the Cross at the mouth of the Amazon with assent, even joy. Uniqueness of French ceremony in the inclusion of native peoples and the giving of gifts comes from French historical development and is linked to the meaning of the word ceremony.

Seed points to the multiple meanings of Ceremony in French, including one that signified order. French Kingship, legitimated by Coronation Rituals, formed the basis for containing popular culture. Elaborately choreographed events, they served the purpose of containing popular enthusiasm and giving it an officially sanctioned form of expression. The context of public jubilation, so familiar from the European context, signified popular consent to the French colonial mind.

By seeking native consent, the French were performing a "Conquest by Love." Looking for signs of assent from the natives, they often read them into the behavior of the indigenous peoples -- seeing expressions of joy were there was at best incomprehension. Seeing the natives as their own peasants, it was clear to the colonial powers that they would be welcomed by the natives as by peasants at home.

Seeking consent, the French also entered into what they cast as an alliance with native peoples. Interpreting the gift giving of the natives as willingness to enter into a perpetual alliance, the French reciprocated with gifts of their own. Royal Directives sought peaceable conquest through just such alliances. As home of the Ballet, the French court set the proverbial stage for the primacy of body language as signifier of consent. This unique approach serves as a stark contrast with the English who took a much more confrontational approach. Fencing in and "improving" native lands.

The Requirement: A Protocol for Conquest

The unique protocol of the Spanish was a requirement that was read aloud to the native people warning them to submit to Spanish authority or be made war upon. Seed believes that this Requirement was based upon the principles of Jihad, absorbed by the Spanish in the re-conquest from the Moors. Dominican criticism pointed to the absurdity of the process, putting unbelievers on notice in a language that they did not even understand.

Yet this Catholic summons to God was a call for submission not conversion,

The central idea of the Requirement - summoning people to accept a superior religion or be attacked - is [thus] the same as the core of the summons as understood in the Islamic legal tradition of the Iberian Peninsula. (p. 78)

The Moslems sought payment of Head Tax from subject peoples. Tribute, not conversion, was the main objective. Indians' tribute tax fell into the same pattern. Muslim treatment of submissive non-Muslims thus stood as a model for native treatment, for the treatment of subject peoples

Islamic Roots incomprehensible to Christian Just War Tradition, and have therefore been overlooked. However, these Islamic origins commented on by Las Casas, who condemned the wars of conquest as the result of hated Islamic elements sneaking into Spanish practice.

"A New Sky and New Stars": Arabic and Hebrew Science, Portuguese Seamanship, and the Discovery of America

For the Portuguese, the most important pursuit was that of astronomical knowledge. Navigational skill and discovery were linked by the Portuguese through the process of describing a territory's precise location. Through technological advances that allowed them to locate new territories, they claimed possession.

Discovery of "new" stars compounded their claims.

Master John reported the exact latitude of the discovery, relying not on the land below, but the heavens above; the position of the sun and the stars. But he made an additional contribution. On the coast of Brazil, Master John made the first accurate European depiction of the most famous constellation in all of the skies, the Southern Cross. (p. 104)

Relying first upon Islamic and then Hebrew Mathematics and Astronomy, the Portuguese crown underwrote the pursuit of scientific knowledge in support of their imperial claims.

The Unfolding of Portuguese Nautical Science centered on learning to navigate the South Atlantic. At first they used the art of "dead reckoning" to navigate with a compass. With the invention of the Caravel-style ship they perfected the art of tacking through use of tacking tables. As time progressed they mastered the lunar cycles in order to understand the tides. By the 1440s, the unreliability of magnetic north vs. true north, the Portuguese turned to astronomical observation. South of the Equator

Pogroms in Castile, Andalusia, Aragon, Valencia in which Jews fled to Portugal enhanced the scientific community in Portugal. Muslim science and math had always been open to members of other faiths and the Jews had participated in the dialogue, learning and contributing throughout. Learning trigonometry from the Muslims, who had originally developed mathematical functions to determine the direction in which to turn in prayer toward Mecca, the Hebrew scientists added a number of important scientific instruments for measuring the stars.

Amongst the tools which the Iberian Jews perfected was the Astrolabe. Using the astrolabe, the Portuguese mariners could fix precise latitude and thereby claim possession of the New World they had discovered.

Fixing the latitude of this new landmass, Master John performed the central act of "discovery" of new territories. Establishing the latitude, as in all science, constituted a repeatable result that could be verified by anyone using accurate instruments. (p/ 126)

When other powers contested possession, the Portuguese resorted to a very modern claim. Techniques were the mark of possession. With clear parallels in today's corporate laboratories, the Portuguese claimed that they controlled the lands that they discovered.

The Portuguese used pillars as navigational aides, to mark specific locations on the earth's surface. Portuguese distinctiveness consisted in the "astronomical ritual." By plotting the location of the sun in the sky the Portuguese fixed their claim to the new world.

Portugal not strongly clerical, hence the ability for Iberian Jews to find a refuge there. Clerics in Portugal not as powerful as elsewhere and science-based discovery flourished there. Persecution of Jews began under the pressure of the Spanish king in the late 15th C and in 1506 Portugal saw its first pogrom in Lisbon. Expulsion of Jews and anti-Semitism ended Portuguese innovation in navigation. In the 1560s leadership passed to the Dutch after the Jews fled to Antwerp.

Sailing in the Wake of the Portuguese

There was a strong Portuguese context for Dutch possession in that many Dutch navigators learned their navigational skills from the Portuguese. Beyond this, the Dutch also approach possession in much the same way as the Portuguese. With prototypical Dutch precision, "the Dutch claimed discovery upon having revealed, scrutinized, or precisely described previously unknown coastlines, harbors, rivers and channels." (p. 152). Wishing to keep their discoveries secret, when challenged and brought into the open the Dutch pointed to the high cost of discovery to establish ownership.

Through commerce, the Dutch sought to establish claims to maintain possession. Fortified by precise mapping. Discovery for the Dutch meant mapping is possession, naming geographical location, and eventually establishing City charters as they had done in Europe. In the Dutch revolt against Spain, the role of the States General had moved to center stage for the Dutch. In the States General, the merchants held sway. Hence it was natural for the ceremonies of possession to assume distinctly commercial tones. Written texts, City Charters along with precise maps became the basis for Dutch claims. Dutch ceremonies were done in writing rather than wrought upon the land as by the English. The Dutch were horrified by English traders who had no trading papers or "permits" to enter into commerce with the native peoples.

Conclusion: The Habits of History

"At the heart of European colonialisms were distinctive sets of expressive acts - planting hedges, marching in ceremonial processions, measuring the stars - using cultural signs to establish what European societies considered to be legitimate domination over the New World. Englishmen held that they acquired rights to the New World by physical objects, Frenchmen by gestures, Spaniards by speech, Portuguese by numbers, Dutch by description." (p. 179)

All of the European colonial powers saw themselves operating the wake of the Roman Empire. The Portuguese and the French measured their accomplishments by the fact that their empires were more vast than the Roman Empire had been. The French contrasted their kinder gentler colonialism with the brutality of Rome. The British use of Rome was primary as a linguistic affinity in the language of legal discourse. The Spanish saw themselves as heirs of the Catholic Roman Empire. The Dutch in their turn saw their struggle in opposition to the tyranny of Rome.

Despite these fantasies of Rome, however, it was the national traditions of these countries that shaped their ceremonies of possession. In light of those particular histories, categorizations as Catholic vs. Protestant appear less useful. These ceremonies reveal "Heteroglot cultural constructions" in which Seed sees the roots of nationalism and nationalist conflicts in the modern period.
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521497574, Paperback)

This work of comparative history explores the array of ceremonies that the English, the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese and the Dutch performed to enact their taking possession of the New World. The book develops the historic cultural contexts of these ceremonies, and tackles the implications of these histories for contemporary nation-states of the post-colonial era.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:11 -0400)

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