I’m not sure where inspiration, creativity, or the bright and intermittent flashes of sudden insight come from but I am in the midst of an intellectual dry spell. So I’ve been going through all kinds of old papers, half-hearted story attempts, commentary, and random bits of written expression accumulated over the past 4-5 years. Here’s a paper I wrote in grad school, nothing fancy, cut and dry academic pretension, but I enjoy it for some reason. Its rare for me to approve of my old stuff.

Devin Howard History 722 2/10/10

New Worlds, Old Worlds: European Traditions and Territorial Claims in North America

“Discovery” of the New World is a broad and contentious subject of historical inquiry; made so not simply by definitional imprecision inherent to the words themselves, but because, as a process, the relationship between Europeans and North American populations and geographies has been a story of diverse motivations, local conditions, and preexisting cultural leitmotifs. Whether beginning at the first crossing of the Bering Strait or with Columbian landfall any examination of colonization in the New World, what became present day North America, is also necessarily a story about first encounters; whether with local biota or topography, or with pre-established populations of human beings. For Europeans, exploration and territorial claims in the New World invoked an assortment of ritualized, culturally embedded ceremonies by which authority over land and people residing therein was formally established. Exploration and conquest, synthesis of which created authority over colonies far from native shores, are an integral part in the history of European involvement in the New World and as such have themselves been featured in studies of this relationship.

Arguing that colonial rule of the New World was inaugurated by ritualized ceremonies founded on deeply embedded cultural practices and enforced later by coercive, predominantly militaristic, actions Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession: Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 examines the heterogeneous modes used by representatives from different European powers to stake claims in the New World; claims founded on a shared reliance not only on the symbolic importance, but on the legitimacy of a sovereign right to authority. A predecessor to Seed’s work, Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World shares an appreciation for the importance of language and ritual in European conquest of territory in North America but assigns a much greater degree of importance to the relationship between linguistic representations of exotic lands or peoples and the internalization of cognitive patterns justifying the assertion of ownership and political authority. Greenblatt devotes a great deal of his argument to establishing a relationship between cultural traditions in literature and speech, using textual examples to support an assertion that during the episodic process of New World discovery, interactions with natives were processed through a preconfigured psycho-social filter built upon notions of the ‘marvelous’ or ‘other’ by Europeans.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between the two works lies in the degree of premeditative, or deliberate, reliance on assumptions of universal communicative techniques by Europeans to uphold notions of indigenous cooperation and submission. While Seed does acknowledge that rituals of encounter and possession were primarily a vehicle of formalized claim staking and that these acts often disregarded or did not require explicit native approval, she ascribes a far greater degree of authenticity to European beliefs in the voluntary or logical character of native subordination to colonial intrusion.Greenblatt, in contrast to Seed, identifies a cognitively dissonant process whereby colonial explorers and settlers relied upon notions of universal systems of communication, but simultaneously held to convictions of ‘otherness’ which classified New World populations as irreducibly savage. Citing the existence of separate but entwined perceptive realms allowing colonial adventurers to both claim and disclaim indigenous territorial rights, Greenblatt points to idealized depictions of the ‘other’ or exotic non-European. Within the bounds of this fictionalized group identity, native peoples were expected, and indeed were believed, to possess the ability to understand transcultural communication; in a departure from Seed, however, Greenblatt argues also that these culturally derived expectations neglected realistic conditions in a quasi-deliberate fashion to assert possession. Calling this process ‘appropriative mimesis’, Greenblatt asserts, to a far greater degree than Seed, that European explorers invoked preconceived notions and expectations out of a desire to possess or acquire. Although both authors locate both the motivations and ceremonial actions themselves within regional cultural histories, Seed attributes greater importance to respective ceremonies while Greenblatt extrapolates on the underlying motivations of exploration and possessive impulse, discovering and in turn arguing that colonials were interested primarily in possession; within this analytical framework rituals and ceremonial acts conducted by Europeans become far more malleable cultural practices, with fluid and metamorphic ideational properties allowing for selective invocation and usage.

Beyond interpretative divergence regarding the internalized motivations of Europeans when asserting possession over New World territory, both works are strikingly similar. Each author draws from an enormous body of medieval and early modern literature, religious, secular, and governmental, to provide an evidential foundation for their arguments. Culture becomes for Greenblatt and Seed the primary creative mechanism by which European societies manufactured standardized and traditionalized actions of claiming possession. What appeared absent from both works was any real discussion of political forces operating on the European continent that may have given rise to the expansionist, imperial, and adventuristic journeys during which possession of territory in the New World was claimed. While the socio-cultural underpinnings of ritualized claim staking may provide insight about the nature of the ceremonies themselves, no alternative, or coincidental influences are given room to build a clearer picture. Proto-nationalistic motives, religious impulses, economic expansion, regional competition, a variety of forces may have been at work during the time period engaged by the authors but little of this international context is provided.

In pointing out this omission it must also be acknowledged that inclusion of wider contextual events may exceed the scope or intent of the two books; for despite the lack of continental history, both Greenblatt and Seed have in many ways provided a look at the genesis of distinct European policies regarding the New World. Developing an understanding of the culture and idealized preconceptions colonials brought to North America facilitates a more nuanced conception of initial conditions and interactions, upon which the future course of events throughout the new land would be built. Classifying initial contact and the actions taken to assert possession as a paradigmatic benchmark for further interaction between Europeans and natives may be a theoretical stretch, but it remains useful as a starting point, as a series of comparative events for examinations of the colonial process after discovery.


One comment

  1. aaron s

    interesting stuff mate. you really should start posting more of your old papers and commentary. it makes for much better late night reading material than The Economist

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