Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Colonialism is in the air

It's 20 years since the High Court made its historic Mabo decision, granting (some) land rights to the indigenous peoples of Australia.
I'm currently reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", a novel which deals with the ways in which Colonisers rationalise and ideologically justify colonisation, an act that is fundamentally greedy, violent and exploitative.
So these two factors made me starry-eyed and nostalgic about my own forays into anti-colonial angst.
Below is an essay I wrote about a year ago, expressing my thoughts on the European colonisation of the Americas. It's not overly exhaustive (there was a word limit), but you get the gist. It's a really simple introduction to anti-colonial thought.
And don't worry - the irony/ridiclousness of an Australian student's railings about the evils of his own race's colonisation of a completely foreign continent is not lost on me.
I am here leading a cushy life and doing very little to cauese change, while the oppressed are there, suffering.
Europe’s Arrival in the Americas: Divergent Perspectives

In the lead up to October of 1992, an enormous landlocked lighthouse in the shape of the Cross was built in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic (RCC, 1992). It was erected to commemorate and celebrate Columbus’ arrival in the Americas five hundred years earlier; however, there was a darker side to this construction (RCC, 1992). The surrounding shantytowns were demolished to create space for lavish parklands, displacing thousands of Dominicans, while a wall was erected to block the remaining barrios from view (RCC, 1992). This is a poignant reminder that every historical “fact” has multiple interpretations; it is a summary, an echo, of the treatment of the Americas throughout the past five centuries. The glorious monument was constructed - Europeans “discovered” the New World and its riches; the residents were displaced – Indigenous peoples were murdered and marginalized. The only undisputable fact is that Europeans arrived, having a huge effect on this landmass and inhabitants. However, this essay will argue that the European invasion of the Americas was necessarily framed as a discovery, in order to justify and execute the subsequent exploitation of the indigenous peoples living on this continent.
Before the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, the Americas did not exist to Europe, that is, it was ‘covered’ from European eyes (Dussel, 1988). When the Spaniards, the Portuguese, French, English and Dutch arrived, they revealed that which had been covered, that is, they ‘dis-covered’ it (Dussel, 1988). And when they ‘dis-covered’ the Americas, there was nothing present that resembled Europe’s cities, nothing to which the discoverers had an emotional attachment (R. Esposto, LTCS2026 lecture, April 12, 2011). So, lacking any resemblance of European habitation, it could also have been framed as ‘uninhabited’. There was one problem with this perspective; there were human beings present in the Americas who had spent thousands of years developing sophisticated cultures, ways of life and even civilizations. The Americas were certainly not ‘covered’ to these people; this continent had been dis-covered when their ancestors had crossed the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years before, and they had inhabited  it ever since. This reveals that the supposed ‘fact’ that the Americas were discovered by Columbus and the European colonizers who followed is in reality a highly-Eurocentric interpretation of his arrival.
If this event; Europe’s arrival in the Americas; is interpreted from the perspective of a Westerner in the year 2011, a different reality is apparent. The UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (1974) considers invasion to be an act of aggression, where aggression is “is the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State”. As an example, the actions of the first Europeans who attempted to settle in the Americas, the conquistadores, will be analyzed. These men were certainly armed; in fact, their main advantage in battle (that is, the use of force) against, in the case of Cortés and his troops, the Aztecs was that they possessed firearms (Miller, 2001). War was waged in order to claim their territory, and the conquest ultimately led to Spanish control and suppression of the Aztec people, that is, a removal of their political independence. The Aztec Empire, as one example of an Indigenous civilization, was politically organized by the time the Spanish had arrived; it consisted of an alliance of city states which paid tribute to Tenochtitlan (Merrill and Miró, 1996). There was a rigid social structure which governed Aztec life, with the emperor selected from the nobility comprised of military officials, priests and political leaders; who ruled over the merchant class, the commoners (artisans and farmers) and the slaves (Merrill and Miró, 1996). Furthermore, the Aztecs clearly occupied a definite territory; the Valley of Mexico and its surrounding areas (Merrill and Miró, 1996). With the fulfillment of these two elements; political organization and occupation of a territory; it becomes clear that the Aztec Empire was a state when evaluated against the current Western legal definition of this term (State, N.D.). Therefore, the actions of the conquistadores against the indigenous inhabitants of the Mesoamerica meet the UN’s definition of an act of aggression, or more specifically, an invasion. The European conquests of other sections of the Americas, for example, Pizarro’s defeat of the Inca State in Peru, involved similar circumstances as discussed above (TUOC, 1997). As such, when analyzed from a perspective situated in the West in the year 2011, the European conquest of the Americas was an invasion.
However, this perspective has the advantage of a vast body of scientific knowledge negating racial differences previously constructed as concrete, for instance, many are now aware of the fact that 99.9% of the DNA of each human is identical to that of all others (JS, 2001). In the sixteenth century, there was no such scientific evidence of the similarity of all ‘races’ and as such, minor differences could be manipulated to serve the intentions of, in this case, the invaders. Thus, the obvious question arises: what led to, and what was, the European construction of indigenous peoples in the Americas?
Anibal Quijano (2000) believes that the classification of races began with the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, which led to the establishment of the ‘certificate of purity of blood’. This, coupled with the invasion of the Americas, led to the Eurocentric concentration of power, allowing the subjects (Europeans) to classify the objects of expulsion, invasion, and domination (Jews, Moors, and Indians) as inferior, thereby legitimizing their exploitation (Quijano, 2000). This also explains the homogenization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; despite the fact that there was huge cultural diversity across the continent, they were all classified as Indians, because they were all objects (Quijano, 2000).
Mignolo (2009), on the other hand, believes that racism was an essential epistemic hierarchy, constructed for the purpose of legitimizing the supremacy of Christianity, and later, the supremacy of Science and Philosophy.
Whatever the relationship of cause and effect, the structure was certainly self-perpetuating; it resulted in the development of an apparently objective, scientific scale of humanity, with Europeans at the pinnacle, and all other ‘races’ ranked according to their likeness to Europeans (Mignolo, 2009). For example, the Aztecs had developed a sophisticated written language which used logograms to convey meaning (Rojas-Lizana, 2011), but because it did not include characters resembling those used in the European languages, they were considered to be illiterate (Mignolo, 2009).The Aztec religion, with its plumed serpent God Quetzalcoatl, was considered as demonic, when compared to Christian symbols, thereby increasing the Europeans’ sense of righteousness in dominating and destroying these people (Mignolo, 2009). Moreover, the Aztec practice of human sacrifice was in total disagreement with the increasingly anthropocentric view of the world adopted by Europeans, thereby justifying their subsequent “sacrifice…to the God of capital in the [next] five hundred years (Giese, 1992:1)”. This is the example of just one indigenous culture; Fernandez de Oveido believed that the autochthonous peoples of the Americas had “become irrational and bestial because of their idolatries, sacrifices and devilish ceremonies (as quoted in Dussel, 1988)”. From this, it is visible that the indigenous ‘objects’ were constructed as intellectually, morally and philosophically inferior to the Europeans. Because of this inferiority, it was impossible for indigenous groups/civilizations to be regarded as ‘states’ in the European sense of the term, meaning that any encroachment upon their territorial integrity or political and religious independence would not be regarded as an invasion, but as a discovery and an enlightenment (Dussel, 1988).
This was a sort of Eurocentric self-righteousness, and had devastating consequences for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. What followed Columbus’ arrival in 1492 was the largest genocide in human history; in 400 years 100 million indigenous people had died, and in the areas which the Europeans had populated, typically 95% of the indigenous population was eliminated (OUP, 1993). The remaining people were enslaved or, later, forced into labour through the Encomienda system, and evangelized, for the material gain of Europe (Proach, 2009); that is, they were exploited.
From all this, it is now apparent that the European invasion of the Americas was necessarily framed as a discovery, in order to justify and execute the subsequent exploitation of the indigenous peoples living on this continent. These people are yet to regain their complete territorial integrity and political independence, although many claim that the situation is improving (Stocks, 2005), with the coming to power of many left-leaning presidents across Latin America, many of whom emphasise social justice (BBC News, 2005).
In a different reality, the monument erected in Santo Domingo in October 1992 would have depicted a European and an indigenous person embracing, and would have been covered in the symbols of all of the indigenous groups of the Americas. Instead of surrounding parklands, there would be housing built for the residents of the shantytowns. This would be symbolic of the events of the past five hundred years; the European arrival and the subsequent intercultural, mutually beneficial encounter between the peoples of Europe and the Americas. The past cannot be changed, but in the future lies the possibility that indigenous people in the Americas will be restored their epistemic rights and their capacity for self-determination.

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