Ceremonies of Possession by Patricia Seed

In Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession in the Europe’s Conquest of the New World: 1492-1640, several different “possession methods” were displayed from the different groups that conquered the new world. Ranging from artwork, to astrological maps, to a reading of submission, each group devised their own technique when claiming a new land.

Physical demarkation was the main practice the English used to symbolize the ownership of new land. The methods they used to mark such territory were the building of houses, gardens, and constructing fences. Houses created a legal right to the land. As declared by Seed, “ building the first house was critical to the initial stages of English settlement in the first place because of their cultural significance as registers of stability , historically carrying a significance of pertinence missing even elsewhere in continental Europe.”. In chapter one Seed maintains that “to build a house in the New World was for an Englishman a clear and unmistakable sign of intent to remain.” Another known English symbol of possession was to erect fences.

This was the second most common boundary marker . Fences specifically symbolized private ownership of land. This process was called the “enclosure movement”. It stated that “collective owners were to exchange their shared rights in a large piece of land for private rights in a smaller piece.” This movement gained momentum in establishing individual ownership of land. Fences ultimately signified constrictive ownership of land and property. Land could also be rightfully possessed by planting a garden or using land for other agriculture. Seed believed, “ownership of land could be secured by simply using it, engaging in agricultural or pastoral activities.” The planting of gardens quickly became an “art form” for the English.

The reasoning behind possession of gardening was signified as “a critical difference between savage (uncontrolled) and civilized.” Since many natives did not fence their plots, Englishman perceived the land to be free and un-owned. The action of “constructing a dwelling place” was the main right of possession.

The French controlled possession by procession, cross planting, and theatrical performances. They required “elaborately staged theatrical ritual in which indigenous people participated as well.” These performances usually were to introduce French culture and customs to the natives. They presented their king to be the ruler over the land. They tried to make the right of possession as friendly as possible to create a platonic relationship to them, later which would lead to an alliance.

The ceremonies were usually done at the city entrance and contained “the central elements of theatrical rituals were united: color, music, stages, costumes, props, and processional order.” The French also seized this opportunity to engage the natives in their religious customs. As said in Chapter 2, “Priests marched in the entrance procession wearing vestments customary on those occasions. Many of these objects displayed were religious-incense, censers, candlesticks, as well as the cross. Exhibiting religious paraphernalia visually dramatized ecclesiastical or even divine sanctioning of the political process.”

The French came in peace to the natives by respecting their land and even giving gifts to express their honor towards the land. The emblem of French colonization was the cross. The cross was placed to signify the compliance of Catholic rule and regulation. It served as a witness to natives that they would agree and ultimately have the desire to become and take on Christian customs. By planting a cross, engaging in a theatrical play, and a leading ceremony all were part of the process in peacefully conquering the New World.

The English and French conquered their new territories on the basis of making peace with the inhabitants and simply converting them to their customs, the Spanish used a different approach. The Spanish used a speech called the Requirement. This was a formal document that explained Spanish authority and dominion over a new land. It had very specific instructions and everything had to be done by protocol. It had to be read aloud and acknowledged by the natives.

The Requirement stated that if rules were not followed and the natives would not yield to the Spanish authority then they would be warred upon. As said in Chapter 3, “It set the aims of warfare not as mere surrender, but as submission to the Catholicism and its legitimate representative, the Spaniards.”

Thus, the spoken speech was focal point in Spanish conquest. “It “requires” that the indigenous peoples of the new world acknowledge the church as superior of the world and therefore consent to have priests preach to them.” The speech then goes on to give a written disclaimer that if anyone were to not follow these guidelines they were subject to death that they themselves brought upon them.

The Spanish also used taxes as a form of submission and humiliation to conquer new worlds. This came from the influences of “jizya-inspired Moslem and Jewish tribute payments to Christian rulers.” Under Christian rule the wealthy communities paid in cash while the poorer communities paid in hard labor. Although, eventually, natives would merge into Spanish society they were never thought of as actual Spanish citizens they were thought of as subjects living under Spanish rule. Most of the Spanish Requirements were influenced by the Islam’s concepts of beliefs on conquering and taking over new people. The Spanish used adversarial force to take over the people and the land of the New World.

Unlike the Spanish or the English, the Portuguese used astronomy to mark their discoveries, “The Portuguese, the first Europeans to regularly observe these southern skies, were the first to mathematically track its apparent movement through the skies in order to use it for celestial navigation.” They would use the position of the stars to make a map of where their discovered land was. Although, this wasn’t accepted as proper claim of land the Portuguese saw it as fit.

This, like the Spanish, was influenced again by the Islamic people. “While Islamic astronomers had virtually disappeared from Portugal by the fifteenth century, the traditions remained still vibrant in the hands of Jewish astronomers and mathematicians who had been their traditional collaborators and peers.

They in turn used their scientific knowledge of astronomy and trigonometry to solve the practical problems of navigations, and application never developed by its Islamic counterpart.” The Portuguese also used nautical mapping to claim new territory. Seed’s states, “they initially relied upon a compass developed by the Chinese and brought to the West by Moslems...” While discovering all of these new lands the Portuguese created charts “to keep track of the new regions they encountered…” To properly mark the locations of their discoveries the Portuguese used numbers.

They created a system of numbers that would tell the exact location of what they discovered and what seemed to be rightfully theirs. This is systems of numbers, which we call today longitude and latitude points were created by Master John on the coast of Brazil in April 1500. Not only did the Portuguese use astronomy and numbers to mark territories they “noted their discoveries by an object on land- a stone pillar or a cross.”

They placed these giant markers to show that the land was undiscovered and unclaimed before their coming. Along with a map that showed the exact points of their land they now had almost like a thumb pin stuck in the earth to show was theirs. As said in Chapter 4, “Physical markers or natural objects themselves created neither possession nor presumption of possessions by Portuguese law. A written description of the plot’s geometric shape or its measurements delimited the extent of ownership.”

The Dutch used many different ways in possessing new land. Like the Portuguese the Dutch also used maps and geography to plot their discoveries as well as the “construction of fortified trading posts” pg 150. Many Dutch discoveries were not actually a uncovering of a new nation, following behind the Portuguese, they rarely ever made the initial approach.

“Dutch discoveries occurred most notably in nautically accessible areas of the world that were relatively unknown in the early years of the seventeenth century,namely, Australia and the northeastern coast of what is presently the United States.”pg 150 Unlike the other cultures that presumed the land was unclaimed, Dutch would look for notable signs that Christians had been there before.

Finding physical markings meant the land was theirs. “Dutch law also supported the contention that the first nautical voyage to an undiscovered region created a valid legal claim.” pg 151. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch would use the system of numbers (longitude and latitude degrees) to mark the “previously unknown coastlines, harbors, rivers, and channels”pg152.

But instead of ussing pillars or other phsyical markings they would “describe their findings using charts and highly detailed writings.”pg 160 These writings were extremely detailed and consisted of verbal and visual images. pg 160 After conquering a new land Dutch would maintain their possession by engaging in commerce and trade pg 154. In taking over the tribes that lived in the newly claimed Dutch land would come through and understanding with the natives.

Each European theory of possession was unique, and it’s intriguing to notice the different techniques they all practiced. The English, who claimed a new land found simply using it garunteed their possession, while the Spanish used a written formal document to show that the land was "rightfully" theirs. The Portuguese and Dutch resembled eachother's ceremonies in possessing new land, but differed in small ways. European expansion was the discovery of the New World, of which people call home today. Although, some possession was savage, the people have propered since that time. All found that their system of possesion was justifed and claimed the land as their own

Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 18. Seed, 28. Seed, 53. Seed, 70. Seed, 105. Seed, 107. Seed, 113. Seed, 150 Seed, 151 Seed, 152 Seed, 154 Seed, 160