Bartolomé de las Casas on the Doctrine of Discovery

Guest Commentary
Published May 15, 2018
Everybody has a theory about the inception of the Anthropocene, when it first came onto the scene, when it first reared its ugly head. The theories are indeed abundant.  Did it begin in medieval Europe, or with the transatlantic slave trade, or with the industrial revolution?  Despite all the possibilities considered, no one has claimed a Euro-centric Manifest Destiny, or Doctrine of Discovery, as the origin point for the Anthropocene.  I propose that the Anthropocene came into existence with the colonial Holocaust of the Native Americans, when European colonizers came onto the scene (Anthropo-Scene), with a torch-the-Earth-attitude.
In The Intimacies of Four Continents, feminist theorist Lisa Lowe refers to the first point of contact between the Europeans (Chronokos) and the nature-culture people of Las Americas (the Kariokas), as a “fateful one.” Quite true, indeed! However, to be more exact, the Europeans’ first encounter with the inhabitants of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) was nearly a fatal one, bringing the Tainos almost to the brink of their extinction, for a war was waged against a naturally kind, “rational, docile, humble, gentle and generous  people” (Bartolomé de las Casas, xvii).
As Bartolomé de las Casas describes it in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, the Spaniards “forced their way into the natives’ settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks” (de las Casas, 15). Those who survived were forcefully subdued and enslaved. Their rights and freedom were taken, and their land was appropriated. They were forced to mine the lands until their fingers bled and the skin on their backs fell off. They were forced to scrape the land in search of precious metals (gold and silver) and precious rocks (diamonds) to fill the treasure coffers of the Spanish monarchy.

Viviana de la Rosa

A war was waged not only on the inhabitants of the Quisqueya, the Tainos, a nature-cultured people (Kariokas), but also on their environment.  This war was called Colonialism and its campaign was the Doctrine of Discovery. Under the guise of civilizing and saving souls, “This legal principle was created and justified by religious and ethnocentric ideas of European and Caucasian superiority over the cultures, religions, and races of the world. The Doctrine provided, under established international law, that newly arrived Europeans immediately and automatically acquired property rights over native lands and gained governmental, political, and commercial rights over the inhabitants without knowledge nor the consent of the indigenous people” (Miller, 6). The legal principle of the Doctrine of Discovery helped to firmly establish the European Anthropocene for centuries onward.

The Anthropocene and Colonialism were melded together in the Doctrine of Discovery, a diseased institution based on rape, murder and the enslavement of Native Americans, propelling the transatlantic slave trade foward, normalizing human trafficking and commodifying Africans bodies to be bought and sold  as forced labor of production. Colonialism, slavery and European supremacy would become the norms of the Americas for centuries onward.
Citations:
Miller, Robert J.  Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and Manifest Destiny. Forward by Elizabeth Furse.  Green Publishing Group, 2006.
de las Casas, Bartolomé.  A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.  Edited and Translated by Nigel Griffin.  Introduction by Anthony Pagden.  Penguin Books, 1992.

Viviana de la Rosa (Taina) holds a B. A. in Spanish and French from Dillard University in New Orleans, La. Currently, she is a first year graduate student and a M. A. candidate in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s a self-taught fashion designer who made her debut in New Orleans Fashion Week in 2017.

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  1. richard smith 2 months ago