Scholarly Source: Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 16-40.

Patricia Seed is Professor of History at the University of California at Irvine. Her research interests lie in colonial Spanish and Portuguese societies and early history of cartography and navigation.

Sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Englishmen usually constructed their right to occupy the New World on far more historically and culturally familiar grounds: building houses and fences and planting gardens. . . 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. Houses also established a legal right to the land upon which they were constructed. Erecting a fixed (not moveable) dwelling place upon a territory, under English law created a virtually unassailable right to own the place. . . .

. . . In addition to houses, another kind of fixed object also created similar rights of possession and ownership. By fixing a boundary, such as a hedge around fields, together with some kind of activity demonstrating use (or intent to use, i.e., clearing the land) anyone could establish a legal right to apparently unused land. . . . The ordinary object—house, fence, or other boundary marker—signified ownership. . . .

. . .While New World peoples most certainly cultivated crops, and their plots were sometimes described as “resembling” gardens, most native American agriculturalists did not wall or fence in their plots. The failure of most native Americans to use the fence to symbolize ownership convinced Englishmen that despite their resemblance to gardens, native plots did not create possession. . . .

. . . Replenishing and subduing [the land] were principally linked to techniques of English agriculture which Indians did not employ. Replenishing meant enriching the soil, either by planting grain or using a familiar English fertilizer [manure]. . . Indeed the verb “to manure” in sixteenth-century English meant “to own,”. . . subduing—the use of implements—appears to have meant the use of the Anglo-Saxon plough drawn by oxen. . . . Both words referred to characteristically European and sometimes distinctively English methods of working the soil.

The use of these two terms was not accidental. They originated in the book of Genesis. . . It was God’s express commandment to Adam Genesis 1:28 that he should fill the earth and subdue it. . . The scriptural rationale for expropriating native lands was also mentioned in well-regarded political writings and laws. . . As culturally specific as the understandings of these actions were, their absence was used to deny indigenous peoples of the New World possession of their lands. . .