Indigenous sovereignties

Nantes, 24th-26th March 2016, at the "Château des ducs de Bretagne".

For the historian, can the interest in indigenous sovereignty ever be anything other than desire for “the beauty of death,” to borrow Michel de Certeau’s phrase from 1970, referring to studies by nineteenth-century men and de Certeau’s contemporaries on popular culture and folklore? According to de Certeau, "popular culture presupposes a mechanism that cannot be admitted. It had to be censored in order to be studied. Thus, it can only become an object of interest because the danger [it represented] had been eliminated."

Indeed, indigenous sovereignty was perceived as a danger because, ultimately, it was an obstacle to the Atlantic European States’ policy of Conquest (the United Provinces and Sweden included). These policies lasted over five centuries, from the great opening scene on 12 October 1492 when with banners flying, Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards who had crossed the Ocean Sea landed dramatically on the island of Guanahani, the first island of the American continent. They took possession of the island in the name of Spain’s sovereigns, who had appointed them the previous March. The officers present forgot the frustrations involved with the crossing and swore allegiance to the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, who represented the Catholic Monarchs. The meeting with indigenous peoples took place as part of Columbus’ will to impose Spanish sovereignty, considering that it superseded any sovereignty that may have existed in these islands. From that moment on, the European States sought to justify their sovereignty over these lands by discovery or appropriation, which was done gradually over the centuries following the first contacts in America.

Indigenous sovereignty was also a threat whose elimination (or "usurpation" in the words of jurist Michel Morin in 1997) was to happen through combat using both arms and quills—such was the irresistible desire was to make these foreign lands into virgin territories, naked and empty. These terra nullius were presented as so deserted that even the beautifully lucid Michel de Montaigne fell into the trap when, in his essay "Of Cannibals" (Essays, I, 31), he took up the topoi of the time on nudity in the Americas – a topoi widely disseminated by the publication of Décades by Pierre Martyr d’Anghiera. A few years later, the iconology of Cesare Ripa depicted the four continents as variations around a Sovereign (Europe), admired in its triumphant aspect, then broken down into its progressive euphemizations – Asia then Africa – until its obvious completion with the Americas. In the famous allegory America, engraved in the 1580s by Theodor Galle based on a drawing by Jan van der Straet, Amerigo Vespucci is shown as waking sleeping America, whose poverty, nakedness, and passivity were dramatically staged in contrast to Europe, standing and characterized by movement only interrupted for take a breath or a moment of surprise.


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