I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640

Patricia Seed

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

Patricia Seed is a professor of history at University of California, Irvine. In Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640, Seed argues that military might does not fully explain Europe’s takeover of the New World. The conquest of the New World also depended on support from the homeland and the demonstration of a right to rule. This right was asserted symbolically, she argues, through culturally unique, significant words and actions. In Ceremonies of Possession, Seed explores the different ceremonies and gestures that the five main European imperial powers—British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese—used to assert their right to rule in the New World.

Historians tend to combine the five major colonizing powers into one group labeled “Europe.” This tendency is insufficient in explaining the past, Seed argues, and by attempting to differentiate, instead of group together, these powers one begins to understand the differences and similarities in the ways in which these powers gained control of the New World and its populations. In Ceremonies of Possession, Seed seeks to “render explicit the often unstated yet distinct embedded histories and locally significant systems of meaning behind the symbolic actions and statements creating overseas authority.” (4) These symbolic actions and statements, she writes, were formed created and recognized by the particular nation’s citizenry because they were based on everyday life, a common colloquial language, and a shared legal code, all of which differed significantly from country to country. English colonialists asserted possession by way of the mundane or everyday. That is, by building homesteads, improving the land through agricultural activities, and creating boundaries and property lines, the English believed they demonstrated their right to the land. The French used ritualized rather than commonplace action, such as costumed processions, to show their newfound leadership. The French also tended to attempt to form alliances with the native inhabitants. The Spanish on the other hand declared war rather than cooperation when they encountered natives. The Spanish also relied on ritualized speech, rather than actions, specifically the Requirement, that was meant to demonstrate their authority. The Portuguese, influenced by their Islamic heritage, used science and the concept of discovery to assert their ownership of the New World, as did the Dutch. The Dutch also believed that control of commerce to and from the region also showed their right to control the land and its inhabitants.

Seed’s argument that historians tend to see the differences between the Europeans and natives, but not between the various European nationalities can also be used in regard to Native American portrayal in historical and other cultural accounts. Native Americans, in more traditional accounts, tend to be bunched together into a homogenous group, their own personal, cultural differences, alliances, and disputes not taken in to consideration. Additionally, Seed’s argument that the English colonists asserted their colonial power through everyday actions is supported by the pattern of American westward expansion, which was dominated by English settlers. Americans asserted their ownership of the land in the West over that of the Indians by founding farms, tilling the land, and extracting its natural wealth.

Feature Photo: Spanish Conquest of Mexico, meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma II, Thomas Townsend, Esq., London, December 31, 1723.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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