Ceremonies of possession essay


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Over the course of several months, Razilly and his companions staged elaborately orchestrated religious processions, interspersed by long periods of waiting, trading, and conversing with the local Tupi inhabitants to assay the "sincerity and good affections of the Indians. In the history of cultural encounters in the New World, this sequence of ceremonies is unique for its level of theatricality and its attention to the responses of the native people involved.

In a subsequent section of this chapter, Seed sketches out the inherited traditions that undergirded such ceremonies and gave them special prominence among the French as mechanisms of possession. First, Seed establishes how the semantic field of the word "ceremony" in French--simultaneously connoting qualities of "complexity, seriousness, and order"--differed remarkably from its perjorative primary meaning of "affectation" in other European languages pp.

Second, she looks at the history of French coronation ceremonialism from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, noting that the scale and significance of French succession rituals was unrivaled in the rest of Europe pp. Citing French canon and legal theorists Hotman and Bodin, who held that France had a "'successive monarchy' Along with strategies of political alliance based on native consent, public ceremonialism served as a key mechanism for establishing and maintaining French political power in the New World.

In keeping with her overall purpose, Seed argues that a historically constructed cultural logic permeated both French symbolic modes of establishing authority ceremonies integrating the participation and feedback of subject communities as well as French strategic modes of maintaining power e. The requerimiento was a written statement that all Spanish adventurers and colonists were obligated to read aloud usually without benefit of translators before subjugating indigenous peoples. Composed in by the legal scholar Juan Lopez Palacios Rubios, the requirement has long been known to students of Spanish-American history not only for being a basic source on Spanish notions of conquest as "just war," but also for its abundance of textual inconsistencies, which occasionally border on the absurd.

To cite one example, the text of the requirement states: "[W]e will not compel you to turn Christians. But if you do not I will enter forcefully against you, and I will make war everywhere and however I can, and I will subject you to the yoke Thus, besides its status as a canonical historical source, the requirement is also one of history's enduring conundrums.

In this chapter, Seed seeks to provide a satisfactory solution. Notable for its etymological plumbs into key legal, martial, and political concepts, and for its rigorously cited synthesis of extant scholarship on Christian and Islamic Spain, Seed's "archaeological" inquiry into the the origins of the requirement concludes that the text was influenced by Islamic and Jewish intellectual traditions to a far greater extent than previously realized. The perplexing features of the document--which was regarded in its day by some Spaniards as "ludicrously and tragically naive Gibson, Spain in America , , utilized later by Protestant commentators as evidence of the depravity of the Spanish soul, and today recognized by us as idiosyncratic, if not paradoxical--are, in fact, the product of a hybridization of cultural logics alien to the main trunk-line of Western intellectual thought.

Furthermore, Seed effectively maps out several plausible pathways whereby these Islamic concepts--as well as important institutions like tribute-collecting jizya pp. Although the Muslim "core" of the requirement was seriously challenged by Las Casas in his debates with Sepulveda in , it was not until that significant changes of wording severed the document from its Moorish moorings p.

By that time, the major part of Spain's conquest of indigenous territories had been completed.

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

Thus, in Seed's calculus of comparative colonialism, the requirement was the most pervasive instrument for extending Spanish political power in the Americas. Whereas Spain incorporated certain legalistic-political traditions in framing its overseas colonial policies, Portugal inherited the lion's share of Iberian Arabic-Hebrew scientific traditions--a circumstance owing both to historical conditions and necessity.

Prior to the Christian reconquest of western Iberia in the mid-thirteenth century, Islamic traditions of religious toleration facilitated a climate of intellectual exchange between Muslim and Jewish scholars. One outcome of these collaborations was the production of a sizable body of Arabic scientific literature written with commentaries in Hebrew. Later under Christian rule, this corpus of knowledge and its Jewish caretakers would prove vital to Portuguese seafaring advances.

In the fifteenth century, the challenge of navigating the unfamiliar currents, winds and tides of the southern hemisphere as well as its unknown nighttime skies , led Portugal to be the first Christian kingdom of early modern Europe to make use of trigonometry and the astrolabe, both of which they inherited from the Muslim world.

Trigonometry, for instance, had been perfected for the purpose of orienting new constructions of mosques to face toward Mecca p. In the hands of Portuguese navigators, trigonometry became an indispensable tool for establishing the exact position of caravels as they tacked in and away from shore sometimes for weeks at a time --a new mode of sea-travel adopted by the Portuguese in lieu of "coasting" after they encountered strong head-winds beyond Cape Bojador pp.

Improvements to the astrolabe, notably its conversion from a nighttime to a daytime instrument for measuring the height of the sun and fixing one's latitudinal position at sea, represented an even more spectacular implementation of Islamic knowledge pp. Later, such breakthroughs at sea were replicated on land in the form of new surveying techniques for delineating property boundaries and the limits of political jurisdictions. Rather than being based on landscape features rivers, hills, trees as they were in English and Spanish colonies, Portuguese land boundaries comprised imaginary lines expressed in terms of degrees angles and leagues distance.

This assertion of space over place--that is, of measurements that could be independently verified by precision instruments as opposed to boundary traditions preserved by human and thus fallible caretakers of local knowledge--constituted one of the triumphs of Portuguese scientific imagination. Much of Seed's presentation in this section is narratively structured like other histories of science and technology, where multiple sub-plots of technical problems and solutions, ever fortuitously converging with prior information and designs, finally culminate in the "great" discovery or invention.

Here, however, Seed is less concerned with those Portuguese feats known to schoolboys Vasco da Gama's rounding of the Cape of Good Hope or Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe; or even the lesser-known discovery of Brazil or the first accurate astronomical description of the Southern Cross , but rather with how this legacy of scientific prowess translated into unique discourses of rightful possession.

At first the Portuguese held that the mere fact of "discovery" or "first sighting" conferred possession, since these feats were accomplished by means of instruments and knowledge which they alone had developed.


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Later, the Portuguese would legitimate possession by producing highly accurate measurements of boundaries disputed with other European powers i. Seed shows how this unique Portuguese legacy can be discerned from the Tordesillas Compromise of to present-day Brazilian property laws. In Chapter 5 "Sailing in the Wake of the Portuguese" , Seed looks at the epic rise of Dutch navigation and colonial adventurism in the seventeenth century as both a continuation and a rupture with Portuguese precedents.

The existence of strong commercial ties between Lisbon and Antwerp fostered the transfer of Portuguese nautical expertise, arriving either in the form of navigational treatises or as first-hand knowledge acquired by Dutch sailors serving on Portuguese vessels. Not surprisingly then, the Dutch initially adopted the Portuguese-inspired notion that "discovery" alone, in the absence of visible signs of previous inhabitation, conferred the legal right of possession. In the over-competitive seas of the seventeenth century, however, "discovery" or "first presence" arguments would prove insufficient, especially as England and France with their large home populations were actively promoting "settlement" as the yardstick of legitimate possession abroad.

Instead, the Dutch would eventually come to adopt the novel view that "commerce"--that is, constant sailing and trading in a specific area--was the basis for legitimating their possessions. As in her previous chapters, Seed again delves into the etymological sub-stratum and historical usages of key words with great success.

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After establishing the existence of a network of denotative relations between the Dutch words for "discovery," "discrimination" i. According to Seed, "description" was, in fact, more than a metaphor for the Dutch; it was a mechanism of possession. It was by "industries of description" that the Dutch broadcast their overseas claims and colonial aspirations to the rest of Europe, for the best maps bearing Dutch place-names and the most accurate written accounts of world geography were produced in Antwerp and Amsterdam in the seventeenth century pp.

Because of its ambitious scope, Ceremonies of Possession presented its author with overlapping challenges in the handling of sources, research design, and finished presentation. The task of comparatively exploring how national-cultural traditions influenced certain apparati of early modern colonialisms required sifting through an incredible amount of secondary historical scholarship produced in different national contexts and languages. Moreover, primary documents left by the agents and state bureaucracies of these colonial societies differed greatly in quantity and kind.

In addressing these obstacles, Seed shows herself to be resourceful and creative, crafting a vessel capable of holding a heady swirl of disparate documentation within a cohesive whole. In dealing with the almost prohibitive abundance of existing scholarship, Seed condensed her questions of inquiry to a manageable set of related themes: ceremonies of original possession acts of foundation, conquests, discoveries ; ceremonies for maintaining possession processions, boundary surveys ; legal and political arguments for legitimating possession; and the "technologies" used for claiming possession cartography, astronomy, nautical science, etc.

She often uses narrative modes to introduce these themes, drawing closely on her sources to recreate case scenarios that effectively sensitize modern readers to specific social realities in the historical past.

7 - Understanding slavery in possession rituals

Also, rather than apply identically controlled modes of analysis to the documentation available for each society, Seed let the uneven nature of her sources determine specific approaches for each chapter. Often Ceremonies of Possession seems more like a collection of similar but autonomous essays. The chapter on the Spanish requirement, for example, expends far more energy tracing the Islamic-Iberian genealogy of a single text; while the chapters on French processions and English "acts of possession" focus more on performances and constructions in New World contexts.

Complicating the symmetry of her analysis further, the requirement was mainly a relic of the first half of the sixteenth century, confined to first-encounter situations between Spaniards and Amerindians, while the aforesaid English and French practices were used to establish, consolidate, and maintain possession over longer periods.

To combat this idiosyncrasy, Seed devoted a few pages at the end of each chapter and in the case of chapter 4, creating a separate appendix for integrating her discussions and many excursions.


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Despite Seed's gift for innovative problem-solving, other challenges were not so easily resolved. Underlying Seed's stated purpose of treating the "rationales and legitimation In uncovering and plotting the "logics" of different variants of early modern European colonialism which, with some qualification, are portrayed as unitary , Seed posits the existence of collective national behaviors and inductively reduces these to a set of essential differences. Although Seed tenaciously endeavored to contextualize each country's legitimating discourses, possession ceremonies, and acquisitional technologies as historically unfolding phenomena, limitations of space and perhaps of time and energy prohibited her from realizing full serial analyses.

As it stands, Seed's convictions about the different "national logics" that informed the apparati of early modern colonialisms are stated more conclusively than her historical reconstructions of their genealogies necessarily permit. What distinguishes Cerermonies of Possession among works by historians of colonial Latin America is the weight placed on language, discourse, and culture as dynamic agents, not mere epiphenomena, in the articulation of colonial power. It is typical of rituals that people experience a sense of rightness when they are followed and wrongness when they are not.

Rituals act to align our values, our behaviour and our expectations of others. They are also notoriously tricky to define precisely, but usually involve acts that seem unnecessary or arbitrary from a practical point of view such as putting candles on a birthday cake , and are repeated according to an established pattern like wearing a white wedding dress. Their success is measured in their ability to impose order on a chaotic world.

Experimental psychology has recently provided some simple demonstrations of the power of ritual behaviour. In one study, a group of participants was asked to perform a ritual a sequence including table-rapping and deep breathing before eating three carrots. Other participants were asked to perform random gestures before eating their carrots. Those who performed the ritual rated their appreciation of the snack consistently higher than the others.

The carrots tasted better to them.

Demonic Possession

C hanging individual behaviour to be more ecologically responsible is remarkably difficult. Yet such behaviour change is ultimately in our own interest, so why should it be so elusive? Drawing on a wide range of studies, the report outlines the psychological impediments to green behaviour. In all, it lists 13 factors, ranging from denial to future discounting.

For the purposes of our ritual experiment we grouped these into three broad categories. The first is an increasing disconnection from place, which we see as part of a broader disconnection from nature. Second, there are emotional obstacles to taking environmental action. These include repression, feelings of anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of such a large and complex challenge. The third is perhaps most difficult of all: many of our behaviours are based on habits, and habits are notoriously hard to break. We are all accomplished at ignoring evidence that shows how harmful our habits are, and we are even better at grounding them in narrow self-interest — we drive the kids to school, for example, because it is quicker and we are too busy, or because it seems safer.

The question is which of these factors could be addressed through rituals. Certainly not all: ignorance, for example needs to be overcome with more information, better communicated. Or where people have little option to be green, say, because of their social-economic situation, then other kinds of intervention will be needed first.

Nonetheless, most of us do have options to be greener — especially those in wealthy countries with large ecological footprints. Here we are failing. Until recently, the idea that rites and ceremonies could help address this would have struck us both as eccentric at best, a dangerous distraction at worst — fiddling while Rome burns.

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W hich is what brought us to lying on the floor in a cavernous hall of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, with a shaman chanting over us and a thunderstorm cracking and splattering above. Totemism is a belief, found in many parts of the world, that people either individually or as a group have a sacred connection to some other kind of living being, often an animal.

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It therefore links humans to the non-human natural world, and can be found in belief systems, such as those of Native Americans, that seem to emphasise interdependence and sustainability. We wanted to know whether these beliefs could help contemporary Western city folk to better connect with nature.


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Simple experiences of nature do seem to encourage people to care, and to care actively. One recent study found, for example, that those who went hiking in nearby countryside were more likely to contribute money to environmental NGOs.

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