Society for Pastoral Theology
San Juan, Puerto Rico
June 14, 2007.
Doing Pastoral Theology in a Post-Colonial Context:Some observations from the Caribbean
Luis N. Rivera-Pagán
The letter proceeds to “describe” the lands and the people. Those descriptions would be their first inscriptions in European literature and would forge their initial construct in Western Christian imagination. Columbus’s text becomes euphoric – the islands are a paradise: their beauty, splendor, and magnificence are unsurpassed. The possessed lands, the letter continues, also enjoy incomparable wealth. They contain immense resources of great value – cotton, spices, gum mastic, rhubarb, cinnamon, aloe wood, and “a thousand other things of value.” Above all, the lands have incredible amounts of gold, or thus asserts writes Columbus, “their Highnesses can see that I shall give them as much gold as they want . . .” [225/14]. Gold abounds everywhere in the possessed islands, according, at least, to the alchemist’s eyes of Columbus.
Gold in this epistle is a symbol of material wealth. It would soon acquire, in other Columbus’s texts, spiritual and transcendent value. American gold becomes, in his last writings, the means to wage the final and decisive crusade to repossess the Holy Land, which would be triumphant if he, the divinely elected Christopherens, leads it. In his feverish 1503 letter from Jamaica, after reiterating to the Crown that he has discovered King Solomon’s mines, the richest possible source of gold, he even confers redeeming efficacy to gold: “Gold is most excellent . . . it is even able to put souls into heaven.”
My hope for the twenty-first [century] is that it will see the first fruits . . . of the process of “re-storying” peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession.
Postcolonial theory in a colonial situation
The main theme of this annual study conference of the Society for Pastoral Theology is “Doing Pastoral Theology in a Post-Colonial Context: Intercultural Models of Pastoral Care and Theology.” I find it highly ironic to converse about postcolonial perspectives in, of all places, Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that has been aptly described by one of our foremost juridical scholars as “the oldest colony of the world.” Christopher Columbus claimed possession of the island for the crown of Castile in November of 1493 and it remained part of the Spanish empire till 1898, when it was conquered by the United States.
The transfer of sovereignty, from Madrid to Washington, was accomplished through the two classical ways of solving conflicts among powerful nations: war and diplomacy. War in tropical Caribbean and the Philippines; diplomacy later in elegant Paris. No need to consult the Natives. Washington, Madrid, and Paris: these were the sites of privileged historical agency. Early 1898 Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony; at the end of that fateful year, it had become a colony of the United States. These were the initial stages of imperial pax americana. From the Philippines and Guam, in the Pacific, to Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean, the American ideology of manifest destiny, with its strong religious undertones, was transgressing national boundaries.
We have learnt much from Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatry Spivak, and Walter Mignolo about colonial discourse. And even before these four distinguished émigrés, there were the critical analyses of colonial ideology and mentality drafted by Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi. The colonized subjects providing theoretical paradigms to their colonizers? Dislocated, “out of place” Third World intellectuals giving lessons to the masters of the world? Quite a paradox of these postcolonial times!
Colonial discourse is the mystification of imperial dominion. It crafts by persuasion what the mechanisms of coercion are unable to achieve: fine-tunes the consent and admiration of the colonized subjects. It diffuses and affirms imperial ideological hegemony. Its greatest creation is what V. S. Naipaul has called mimic men. When the U. S. troops invaded Puerto Rico, their commanding general, Nelson Appleton Miles, of notorious reputation due to his participation in the Wounded Knee massacre, made the following proclamation “to the Inhabitants of Porto Rico”:
“In the prosecution of the war against the Kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Porto Rico. They come bearing the banner of Freedom . . .
We have come to promote your prosperity and bestow upon you the . . . blessings of the liberal institutions of our government . . . the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.”
In 1493, and more firmly in 1508, the Spaniards came to Puerto Rico with the proclaimed purpose of converting their idolatrous inhabitants to the one and only true religion, Christianity, and to teach them how to live according to the European norms of a civil and ordered society. In 1898, the Americans came to impart upon us, poor tropical barbarians, the blessings of liberty, justice, humanity, and enlightened civilization. To crown its generosity, in 1917, without consulting “the Inhabitants of Porto Rico,” (again, who cares about the views and feelings of colonized subjects?) Washington bestowed upon us the gift of American citizenship. That citizenship has allowed our people to participate in the military adventures of Washington to extend its “empire of freedom,” from the First World War trenches to the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah. And, as a bonus, we do not need to mess with any of the crucial decisions regarding our political condition and fate. We can rest assured that those decisions, usually important dimensions of democratic sovereignty, are well taken care by the wisdom and benevolence of the powers that be in Washington. How fortunately colonial we Puerto Ricans have been!
If we are going to converse seriously about postcolonial perspectives for pastoral theology, let us first be aware of our specific actual site of enunciation: a place where colonial discourses are not merely a matter of historical memory, but where the coloniality of power still prevails and shapes the lives and subjectivities of Puerto Ricans. A place where the empire is not nameless or incognito: You happen to be its citizens.
It is important to identify with specificity the site where this study conference takes place for two main reasons: 1) To be aware of the dissonance between the main theme of the event - “Doing Pastoral Theology in a Post-Colonial Context” – and its location, a colonial context whose residents are still deprived of the political rights basic to any democratic sovereign state. 2) As there can be no doubt about the identity of the empire exercising hegemony over this island, for its signs and traces are everywhere, this Society for Pastoral Theology, therefore, cannot evade the challenge recently raised in its journal by Ryan La Mothe, whether the American ecclesiastical profession of pastoral theology will collude or collide with the ways and goals of its national empire.
I am not trying to suggest that your Society selected the wrong place to discuss postcolonialism. If the connotations of the so much in vogue and debated prefix “post” (as in postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-Christendom), are not restricted to a temporal sequence, that which comes after, but rather signify the geopolitical mechanisms of dominion and control, and, dialectically, the counter processes of resistance and defiance, curiously enough a modern colonial situation like Puerto Rico might be the best place to analyze postcoloniality. Here classical structures of colonial subjection, neocolonial processes of economic and financial control, the mimicry and mockery of colonized mentality, and the different patterns of national self-affirmation, resistance and disobedience, converge in peculiarly promiscuous ways.
Still, what a curious and delightful irony that I, a colonized subject, has been invited to talk about pastoral theology in a post-colonial context to citizens of the empire that rules over my people! Maybe this is another occasion to reiterate Gayatri Spivak’s famous question, “can the subaltern speak?”
Coloniality and diaspora
To the ambivalence of a postcolonial colony, whose residents as citizens of the empire can claim in the courts the civil liberties of their citizenship but not its political rights, we should add the crucial fact that approximately half of the Puerto Rican population resides in mainland United States. Legally, those Puerto Ricans are not migrants. Psychologically and culturally, they are. They belong to the history of modern diasporas. And diasporas are the source of the bewildering multiculturalism of the postmodern mega cities.
Migration and diaspora are crucial dimensions of Puerto Rico’s modern history. It is a experience shared by colonial peoples all over the world, which nowadays has also become an important theme in postcolonial cultural studies. But, as Homi Bhabha has stressed, diaspora is an important object of critical analysis because it is the sociohistorical existential context of many displaced Third World peoples: “For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora . . . the poetics of exile . . .”
Diaspora entails dislocation, displacement, but also a painful and complex process of forging new strategies to articulate cultural differences and identifications. In the Western cosmopolis, with its heterogeneous and frequently conflicting ethnocultural minorities that belie the mythical e pluribus unum, the émigré exists in ambivalent tension. The diasporic person frequently feels, alas, “like a man without a passport who is turned away from every harbour,” the anguished dread that haunts the persecuted priest of Graham Greene’s magnificent novel, The Power and the Glory.
Often, nostalgia grips his or her soul, in the beautiful words of a biblical lamentation:
“By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
. . .
How could we sing the Lord’s
in a foreign land?”
Psalm 137: 1, 4 (NRSV)
Frequently, however, and sometimes simultaneously, the displacement of migration creates a new a space of liberation from the atavistic constraints and bondages of the native cultural community and opens new vistas, perspectives, and horizons. To repressed persons, exile in a metropolis like London, Paris, or New York could convey an expansion of individual autonomy, even if its sinister hidden side might turn out to be despair or death. Diasporic existence, as Bhabha has so forcefully reiterated, questions fixed and static notions of cultural and communal identity. In the diaspora, identity is not conceived as a pure essence to be nostalgically preserved, but as an emancipatory project to be fashioned, in an alien territory, in a foreign language, as a polyphonic process of creative imagination. In many instances, “the restoration of a collective sense of identity and historical agency in home country may well be mediated through the diaspora.”
As Walter Mignolo has so provocatively asserted, diaspora, as a site of critical enunciation, compels the rethinking of the geopolitical distinction, so dear to many Third World thinkers, between center and periphery, and elicits a border thinking that changes not only the content, but also the terms of intellectual global dialogue. The émigré’s cultural differences engender subaltern significations that resist the cultural cannibalism of the metropolitan melting pot. Diasporic communities are, to quote once more Bhabha, “wandering peoples who will not be contained within the Heim of the national culture and its unisonant discourse, but are themselves the marks of a shifting boundary that alienates the frontiers of the modern nation.”
The existential dislocation of diaspora, its cultural hybridity, recreates the polymorphous ethnic and racial sources of many migrant communities. Asked to whom does she owe allegiance, Clare, the Jamaican protagonist of Michelle Cliff’s novel No Telephone to Heaven, replies: “I have African, English, Carib in me.” She is a mestiza moving between Kingston, New York, and London, searching for a place to call home, torn between the quest for solidarity in the forging of a common identity and the lure of solitude in a strange land. To be part of a pilgrim diaspora is a difficult and complex challenge, which, to avoid utopian illusions, must be faced having in mind the superb irony of that master of twentieth century skepticism, himself a displaced wanderer, James Joyce: “We were always loyal to lost causes . . . Success is for us the death of the intellect and of the imagination.”
From the margins of empires and metropolitan centers of powers, in the crossroads of borders and frontiers, in the proximity of heterogeneous and frequently conflictive cultural worlds, in the maelstroms of the global mega cities and the virtual imagined communities of the internet, arise constantly new challenges to the structures of international structures of power and control. There colonial discourses meet their nemesis: postcolonial defiance. In the ecumenicity of diaspora, to quote again Bhabha, “we must not change merely the narratives of our histories, but transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and different places, both human and historical.”
It is usually there, in the counter invasion of the others, the colonized barbarians, into the realms of the lords of the world, that the silenced peoples find the sonority of their voices and reconfigure their historical sagas into meaningful human stories. The savage shadows of Heart of Darkness dare to disrupt the imperial monologue. They hybridize the language of the colonizers to reshape and narrate their own histories. As Chinua Achebe, engaged in a critical dialogue with the specter of Joseph Conrad, so eloquently has written in a text significantly titled Home and Exile, “My hope for the twenty-first [century] is that it will see the first fruits . . . of the process of ‘re-storying’ peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession.”
For the early Christian communities, diaspora was a constant perspective in their way of living and understanding their faith, as expressed in a letter written by an anonymous Christian author of the second or third century: “They [Christians] take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home, and every home a foreign land.” The Bible itself, as a canonic sacred text, is a literary creature of the diaspora, for the Old Testament was born from the sufferings of the dispersed Hebrew nation and the New Testament was written in the koine Greek, the lingua franca of many diasporic peoples of the Hellenistic age. The New Testament faith is, in many ways, a devout endless wandering to the unreachable ends of the world and ends of times, in search of God and human solidarity. The concept of diaspora could thus be a significant crossroad of encounter, a dialectical hinge, between postcolonial cultural studies and theological hermeneutics.
Puerto Ricans constitute an important part of the US Latino/Hispanic population, that sector of the American society whose growth, in the view of many, enriches multicultural diversity, but has also led Samuel P. Huntington to warn that it constitutes a “major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States.” How interesting that the former prophet of the “clash of civilizations,” beyond the frontiers of the American colossus, has now become the apostle of the “clash of cultures,” within its borders. According to this eminent Harvard professor, the main problem of Latino/Hispanics is not the illegality in which many of them incur to reside in the US, but the threat they represent to the American national identity and its traditional “Anglo-Protestant” culture.
In that clash of cultures, Puerto Ricans have displayed quite an impressive array of survival techniques, what James C. Scott has aptly called “weapons of the weak.” We excel in the “double consciousness,” the transculturation, and the border thinking that Walter Mignolo has so suggestively rescued from the African American W. E. B. Dubois, the Cuban Fernando Ortiz, and the Chicana Gloria Anzaldúa. In Puerto Rico, we take delight in our Spanish language, in the mainland we share the linguistic fate of the diaspora and experience “the pain and perverse pleasure of writing in a second language,” in the words of that exceptional Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The experience of heteroglossia, of thinking, speaking, and writing in a different language, opens unexpected spaces for a heterodox understanding of the hybridizing encounters of peoples and cultures.
The colonial situation, encompassing its ensuing cultural symbiosis, its political and juridical dissolution, and the persisting socioeconomics inequities, constitute the mediate historical matrix of many modern diasporas and, thus, the source of the multicultural collisions in the imperial metropolitan centers. In the words of William Schweiker, University of Chicago professor of theological ethics,
“International cities are a ‘place’ in which people’s identities, sense of self, others, and the wider world, as well as values and desires, are locally situated but altered by global dynamics . . . The compression of the world found in massive cities is thus a boon for the formation of new self-understandings, especially for dislocated peoples . . . This is especially pointed when those ‘others’ are implicated in histories of suffering. The compression of the world confronts us with the problem of how to live amid others, even enemies.”
In the borderlands a new poetic of political resistance is developed, as the late Gloria Anzaldúa so hauntingly perceived:
“In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger . . .
To survive in the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.”
Herein can be found the roots of one of the main themes of this study conference: how to develop intercultural models of pastoral care and theology. The postmodern and postcolonial mega cities compress times and spaces into borderlands of cultures, religiosities, traditions, and values. There it is impossible to evade the gaze of the others and the crucial biblical question - “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10: 29) - acquires new connotations. A new sensitivity has to be forged to the rendering ambivalences, the sorrows and joys, of the diasporic existence of peoples who live day and night with the uncanny feeling of being gentile aliens within the gates of holy Jerusalem.
Theology and postcolonial studies: a critical observation
It is not surprising that Bible scholars – Fernando Segovia, R. S. Sugistharajah, Stephen D. Moore, Musa Dube, Roland Boer, Tat-Siong Benny Liew, and Richard Horsley, among others - have been first and foremost among the theological disciplines to pay close attention to postcolonial theories. After all, it is impossible to evade the pervasive ubiquity of empires, imperial conquests, and anti-colonial resistances in the Jewish-Christian sacred Scriptures. The geopolitical expansions or contractions of the Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyrian, Persian, and Roman empires constitute the main historical substratum of the entire biblical corpus.
From the Exodus saga to the anti-Roman apocalyptic visions of Revelation only a fruitless strategy of hermeneutical evasion could suppress the importance of imperial hegemony in the configuration of human existence and religious faith in the Bible. Even a comprehensive study of gender and sex in the Bible has to take into consideration the different ways in which Esther and Judith use their female sexuality in historical instances in which the fate of the children of Abraham is dangerously at the stake of a powerful empire. How to forget that Jesus was executed in a Roman cross as a political subversive? Any theory of atonement that elides the intense political drama of the last days of Jesus transforms it in an abstract unhistorical dogma, or in a display of tasteless masochism à la Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Thus, it was to be expected that biblical scholars would be the first in the academic fields of religious studies to incorporate the emphases on geopolitical hegemony and resistance provided by postcolonial theories to the array of other contemporary hermeneutical perspectives. The question raised by R. S. Sugirtharajah, however, is poignant indeed:
“One of the weighty contributions of postcolonial criticism has been to put issues relating to colonialism and imperialism at the center of critical and intellectual inquiry . . . What is striking about systematic theology is the reluctance of its practitioners to address the relation between European colonialism and the field. There has been a marked hesitancy to critically evaluate the impact of the empire among systematic theologians.”
To be fair, some theologians are beginning to give serious consideration to crucial issues of geopolitical power. Creative theologians, like Catherine Keller, Mark Lewis Taylor, Kwok Pui-lan, Wonhee Anne Joh, and Joerg Rieger have begun to face with intellectual rigor and rhetorical elegance the challenges raised by postcolonial studies. Though I do not have the expertise to assess the situation in the disciplines of practical and pastoral theology, this study conference seems to be a clear indication that a meaningful, fruitful, and critical dialogue is beginning to emerge between its practitioners and postcolonial theories. For that dialogue, the Caribbean, just where you are meeting right now, might be the best place to start.
Let me explain this last statement that might sound rather perplexing. Fernando Segovia has written a precise and concise exposition of the convergence between biblical scholarship and postcolonial studies. Never an uncritical reader, Segovia raises several poignant critiques to the latter. Two of them are particularly relevant to the argument I want to develop. First, the lack of attention, by most postcolonial intellectuals, to the Latin American and Caribbean Iberian imperial formations as they developed between the end of the fifteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth. Second, the scarcity of analysis of religion as a crucial dimension of the imperial-colonial ideological frameworks. To quote Segovia on this second issue:
“It is almost as if religious texts and expressions did not form part of the cultural production and as if religious institutions and practices did not belong to the social matrix of imperial-colonial frameworks. I would argue . . . that religion is to be acknowledged and theorized as a constitutive component of such frameworks, and a most important one . . .”
The existential relevance of both issues for Segovia, a Cuban-born person who describes himself as “a student of religion in general and of the Christian religion in particular,” seems obvious. I, as another Caribbean-born student of religion in general and of the Christian religion in particular, share both concerns. It is hard to deny that Segovia is partially right, for he is referring to the postcolonial cultural studies as they emerged from the twilight of the European empires that developed in the wake of the Enlightenment. What has been named by some historians the classic age of Empire is the basic matrix whence the critical texts of Said, Bhabha, and Spivak emerge.
In many postcolonial texts we learn a lot about the multifarious resonances of the notorious 1835 Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, but almost nothing about the intense theological, juridical debates and philosophical debates (Francisco de Vitoria, Bartolomé de las Casas, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, José de Acosta) during the sixteenth Spanish conquest of the Americas, despite the fact that they anticipate most of the latter colonial and anti-colonial discourses. The discussion by Vitoria about the justice of the wars against the Native Americans foreshadows all posterior arguments on the legitimacy of imperial wars. The dispute between Las Casas and Sepúlveda about the rationality of the Native Americans and the adequacy of conversion by conquest inaugurates a long series of similar latter debates. The lengthy treatise of Acosta on the Christianization and civilization of the American “barbarians” is paragon of subsequent analogous imperial justifications. In these texts and debates, Aristotle’s concept of “barbarian” is resurrected and transmogrified to denote peoples who assessed as uncivilized and heathen by Christian Europeans can be thus subject to conquest and dominion.
Even a very useful introductory text in the field, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, edited by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, proceeds as if the sixteenth century Iberian empires never existed or as if religious discourses have never been used as motivation for conquest and colonization. The end result of those analytical occlusions is the homogenization of imperial experiences and, therefore, also of colonial defiance.
Segovia is therefore right in his critique to the mainstream postcolonial studies. Yet, his critique reiterates that same mistake. He also excludes from the rather porous and vague boundaries of postcolonial studies authors that do in fact give serious attention to both the Iberian sixteenth century imperial formations and to the role of religious discourses in those geopolitical structures of control and dominion. The initial shaping of European imperial expansion in Latin America and the Caribbean during the sixteenth century, in conjunction with the emergence of early modernity, capitalist accumulation, transatlantic slave trade, the proclamation of the Christian gospel as imperial ideology, and the othering of non European peoples have been topics of rigorous academic publications by two Argentinean émigrés, Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel. Lewis Hanke and Anthony Pagden have also dealt extensively with that complex configuration of themes, engaging frequently in a comparative critical analysis with more recent empires. To expand the analytical horizon of the postcolonial discussion, let us briefly do a “contrapuntal reading” (Edward Said) of one of the first documents in which the European eyes gaze lustfully at the place in which this annual study conference takes place: the Caribbean.
Columbus and the rhetorics of possession
The last decades of the fifteenth century and the entire sixteenth were times of adventurous European overseas explorations. Ships from Portugal and Castile were constantly encountering exotic lands and peoples. The European elite desired to know. Designing strategic plans for political dominion, economic enrichment, and religious mission required information. Cupidity for knowledge, gold, spices, and souls to redeem was the order of the day. Letters frequently provided that knowledge. They conveyed expeditiously to the European ruling sectors the wondrous impressions of travelers, explorers, and conquerors. The epistle was the door by which many of those recently found lands and communities were registered in European literary historiography. Paradoxically, that historical inscription was the source of the historical annihilation of many of those communities.
Many of those letters became the substratum of subsequent historical works, as was the case with Peter Martyr of Anghiera’s Decades of the New World, which was built upon his correspondence to several highly placed Renaissance dignitaries. One of Amerigo Vespucci’s epistles, the famed “novus mundus” text, was the peculiar source for the general name of the lands that we inhabit, the Americas. Hernán Cortés epistolary is still a model of the literary construction of colonial conquest. The dawn of modernity was accompanied by territorial expansion and a new literary passion.
A letter written by Christopher Columbus, on February 15, 1493, was the first window of perception regarding the islands and peoples encountered during his first exploration of what is now called, thanks to one of his many linguistic confusions, the Caribbean. This brief epistle forged the first images of those lands and communities in the European Christian mentality. It is a founding text; a primal document that initiates a literature of imperialism. Columbus’s letter shrewdly constructs a lasting vision of lands and peoples; it is one of the first instances of colonial discourse and imperial gaze.
Samuel Eliot Morison titled it “The letter of Columbus announcing the discovery of America.” A careful reading of the text, however, disturbs the certainty of that traditional title. First, the epistle never refers to “America” – Columbus simply writes that he had “reached the Indies” [219/7]. His “triumph,” in his mind, is opening a new and profitable route of navigation to the “Indies,” not discovering a new continent. But, more importantly, Columbus never uses the term “discovery” or the verb “discover.” The concept of the “discovery of America” was a later invention, as Edmundo O’Gorman exhaustively demonstrated in lengthy monographs. The event has been named “discovery of America” as a way of beautifying its image and silencing its tragic dimensions. Naming it “discovery” is nothing but a semantic asepsis of the event.
What does, therefore, Columbus want to narrate? “Sir . . . I reached the Indies . . . And there I found very many islands filled with people without number, and of them all, I have taken possession . . . of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses . . .” [219, 223/7, 12]. The letter does not narrate a discovery, but an event of taking possession. This, for Columbus, is the core of his enterprise: the act of taking possession of the lands and peoples he encounters.
Stephen Greenblatt rightly terms Columbus’s performance of taking possession a linguistic act, a discursive, scriptural operation. “For Columbus, taking possession is principally the performance of a set of linguistic acts: declaring, witnessing, recording.” But, we need to be more precise: It is a linguistic act that is not merely inscribed in a literary text – the epistle. It is also registered in the appropriate legal archive. It is a juridical linguistic act by means of which a formal declaration of legal appropriation is rendered. Columbus carefully registers the data he believes to encounter (much of it are monumental confusions) in a protocol with juridical fateful consequences. As a juridical inscription, he is scrupulous inscribing that the proper ceremony of taking possession has been performed – “by proclamation and with the royal standard displayed” –registering that nobody contradicted it - “and nobody objected” [219/7].
The literary act of taking possession is thus also a juridical linguistic act and a liturgical enactment, a ceremony, in which royal banners are displayed and some kind of religious ritual is performed (prayer, invocation of the divine name, erecting a cross) for it is in the name of God, and not only of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand that the event takes place. Thus, at the beginning and the end of his epistle, Columbus expresses gratitude to “the eternal God, Our Lord,” the author of “the great victory which has crowned” his expedition. The text in which the possession of the encountered lands and peoples is narrated has a juridical dimension and a theological justification.
The Spanish scholar Francisco Morales Padrón has studied meticulously this issue. His main conclusion is valid: “Discovery was always followed by the act of taking possession,” therefore, “discovery and conquest are part of one and the same process.” Morales Padrón, however, disregards an important dimension: every act of possessing is also an act of dispossessing. Yet, he correctly emphasizes that Columbus’s acts of taking possession, as would be reaffirmed by Pope Alexander VI in his 1493 decrees regarding Iberian expansion overseas, have a religious background. The lands have heathen princes, but such authorities do not posses authentic authority of sovereignty, thus the first Christian nation to encounter them has the theologico-juridical right to claim them. This principle will be disputed, in Vitoria’s 1539 lecture on the wars against the “Indians” and in the 1551 Valladolid debate between Las Casas and Sepúlveda. But, obviously, those later disputes could not resonate in Columbus’s possessing paroxysm.
If heathen lands are taken possession of, they have to be baptized. Christian baptism, let us not forget, traditionally implies the act of renaming. That is exactly what Columbus does. He baptizes and renames the lands he finds, for it would not be proper to register them with their infidel names. Christening the lands, Columbus exercises the power of naming and confers to them new Christian names. Thus they are inscribed in the European chronicles and archives with their Christian names, following both church dogma and royal sycophancy: “El Salvador,” “Santa María de la Concepción,” “Fernandina,” “Isabela,” “Juana.” Greenblatt affirms that this “act [of naming] . . . is a cancellation of an existing name.” What truly is erased is the faculty of the native inhabitants to name their place, as their authority to name their culture and deities will also soon be denied. The sacrament of baptism traditionally contained a rite of exorcism: the protection of the baptized from the dominion of the demons. Demons will soon be called the native deities.
Textos y documentos completos, 497.
Columbus’s observation about the nakedness of the Caribbean natives raised an interesting initial theological question: is their nakedness representation of innocence or of savagery? The enigma is slightly suggested in Pope Alexander’s 1493 Inter caetera bull that mentions both the nakedness and the vegetarian diet of the natives. This seems an implicit allusion to Adam and Eve before original sin. When the Spaniards discovered that the natives were willing and able to fight and kill for their lands and freedom, the theological controversy ceased: nakedness became a sign of savagery. Queen Isabella ordered that they be clothed and prohibited their daily baths in the rivers. Obviously, a deadly decree.
W. Arens, The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology & Anthropophagy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Jalil Sued Badillo, "Christopher Columbus and the Enslavement of Amerindians in the Caribbean," Monthly Review, vol. 44, no. 3, July-August, 1992, 71-102.
Cortés’s Tlaxcala military ordinances invoke idolatry as the main cause for the war against the Aztec kingdom: “In as much . . . the natives of these regions have a culture and veneration of idols, which is a great disservice to God Our Lord, and the devil blinds and deceives them . . . Let us go to uproot the natives of these regions from those idolatries . . . so that they will come to the knowledge of God and of His Holy Catholic faith . . . I affirm that my principal motive in undertaking this war . . . is to bring the natives to the knowledge of our Holy Catholic faith.” Hernán Cortés, Documentos cortesianos, 1518-1528 (ed. José Luis Martínez) (México, D. F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México - Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990), 165.
Pierre Duviols, La lutte contre les religions autochtones dans le Pérou colonial: l'extirpation de l'idolatrie entre 1532 et 1660 (París-Lima: Institut Français d'Études Andines, 1971).