Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Law of Discovery

I had spaced out Columbus Day, even though there were plenty of reminders. In my "fixed" memory, Columbus Day is October 12 (which also happens to be the birthday of my brother, Pete). NOT the "second Monday in October." I was indeed, puzzled by the outpourings of rabid anti-Columbusism far in advance of the "actual" date. Finally, the light dawned when I went by the bank and it was closed.

In recent decades, Columbus Day has lost some of it's charm, its proto-patriotic luster dimmed somewhat by historical analyses which brought perspectives to bear OTHER than those of the conquering heroes of Spain and Europe. The victors write the histories, and Columbus' reputation prospered for many years. Eventually, though, the records of those expeditions became public and they do not flatter the Great Man. Those were primitive times, but what the Imperious Europeans did to the indigenous populations in "discovering" the "New World" reveals a barbarism in our most treasured and iconic events which is or should be disturbing for its latency in our own actions.

There was a placard on FBook today which proclaimed: "Act like Columbus, today: Go to a stranger's house, and tell 'em you're gonna live there from now on, Oh, and bring me your money and your women and children." 

Because the Europeans knew exactly what they were doing and they had had the foresight to lend the authority of "the Law" to their explorations and conquests. And they got THAT from the HIGHEST authority they had.

The Catholic Church/Holy Roman Empire, in 1453, decreed the "doctrine of discovery" to provide "legal" cover, retroactively upon the Portuguese who had sailed along the coast of Africa, plundering, conquering and enslaving native people, all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope by 1480. It essentially gave the imprimatur of Church authority to commissioned actions conducted by good Catholics to spread the Gospel and expand the domains of the Lord.

This doctrine was eventually expanded to cover the Spanish, French, and Italians who went conquering, returning vast revenues to the Kings and Churches, while "spreading the Gospel."

So successfully was the Gospel spread that, in 1555 (or so), at Valladolid, in Spain, there was a great debate, sponsored by the Emperor Philip, himself, to decide whether the off-spring which the Spaniards had fathered on indigenous women were in fact endowed with souls, and therefore human. 

This was an issue because, prior to that time, the Church and the Crown had regarded the Indigenous People as "inhumans," without souls; so it didn't matter HOW they were abused. And abused they were, with chattel slavery, rape, killing labor in mines and other enterprises, to say nothing of the charming practice of feeding unwanted newborns to their dogs.

Bartholomeo De las Casas, a Franciscan who'd accompanied Cortez, argued for the humanity of the "Indians" and won the academic point. The "souls" of the victims were saved. But I doubt it prevented the Spaniards in the colonies from enslaving their own children when it suited them. 

It didn't stop the much more enlightened Thomas Jefferson from keeping HIS own children begot on his slave women in shackles 250 years later...

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