History of Aboriginal America 5: Isabella’s Loophole & the Mind-Tricks of the Colonizer

Posted on October 7, 2010


7.  Isabella’s Loophole and the Birth of Colonial Ideology

Colonialism in the Americas was launched in 1492.  And along with colonialism came colonial ideology, the justifications for colonialism and for colonial relationships.

Human beings are moral animals, which is simply a function of our being social animals.  Thus when we do something which is clearly immoral according to all the standard definitions, when we rape, pillage and enslave other humans – especially humans who are not our enemies, who have done us no harm and who are in no position to endanger our homes and families – then we must exercise special care to justify our actions.

Colonial ideology fulfills such a function.

Historian Barbara Tuchman discusses the question of a ‘just war’ in 14th century Europe:

While desirable in any epoch, a “just war’ in the 14th century was virtually a legal necessity as the basis for requisitioning feudal aids in men and money.  It was equally essential for securing God on one’s side, for war was considered fundamentally an appeal to the arbitrament of God.  A “just war” had to be one of public policy declared by the sovereign, and it had to be in a “just” cause – that is, directed against some “injustice” in the form of crime or fault on the part of the enemy.  As formulated by the inescapable Thomas Aquinas, it required a third criterion:  right intention on the part of the participants, but how this could be tested, the great expounder did not say.  Even more convenient than the help of God was the “right of spoil” – in practice, pillage – that accompanied a just war.  It rested on the theory that the enemy, being “unjust,” had no right to property, and that booty was the due reward for risk of life in a just cause. [1]

There you go, colonial justification in its rawest form:  if you can find fault with your enemy – or those whom you would make your enemies – it entitles you to rob and steal, and, if your enemies have nothing to steal, to enslave.

Columbus, the first European to come to the Americas to rob and steal, also began the process of justifying his right to do so.  By 1493, when Columbus returned to America with 17 ships and somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 colonists,[2] Columbus’ demonizing of Aboriginal people was already in action.  It was reflected in the diary account of one of his passengers, Guillermo Coma of Aragon, who wrote upon the sighting of Dominica, November 3, 1493:

These islands are inhabited by Canabilli, a wild, unconquered race which feeds on human flesh.  I would be right to call them anthropophagi.  They wage unceasing wars against gentle and timid Indians to supply flesh; this is their booty and what they hunt.  They ravage, despoil, and terrorize the Indians ruthlessly.[3]

The Canabilli (at that time merely the name of a people, having nothing to do with dining preferences) were also known as Canibales, Canibas, Caribas, and Caribs, and gave their name to the Caribbean Sea, and to cannibals.

Despite the mythologizing that had already begun, they were actually completely unknown to Columbus.  What he said about them and their people-eating and warlike ways he simply invented.  He never set foot on a single Carib island, never met a Carib until two and half years after that first sighting of Dominica (and didn’t interact with them then), and he never found evidence of anyone anywhere eating anyone else, although he surely looked for it.

But Columbus little foray into mythmaking has persisted, from Shakespeare’s ugly beastlike Caliban in The Tempest, through the cannibals who Friday escapes in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and to the present day, with Johnny Depp escaping (by implication) a Carib stewpot in Disney’s second ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie.

(Ah yes, racism suitable for children, in the grand Disney manner.)

Very little is actually known about the Caribs, since they were mostly destroyed quite early on, but what is certainly known is that they were not warlike, and they did not eat people.  However, it is obvious why it would be convenient to think of them – and other peoples of the Americas – as cannibals, since eating people can be considered a character flaw, and character flaws in your enemy transformed wars against them into ‘just wars,’ and, as pointed out above, a ‘just war’ entitled the winner to booty and slaves.

In 1503, Queen Isabella decreed that her native subjects of the New World were not to be hurt or captured, with the exception of cannibals, “who were said not only to eat her subjects but to resist their Christian teaching,”[4] in the words of Atlantic slave trade historian Hugh Thomas.

The loophole thus provided by Queen Isabella no doubt proved useful to slave traders in the New World, both to ease a twitching conscience and as a way around the law.   Slave trading was technically illegal in respect of Aboriginal people, although that did not in any way stop it from flourishing in the New World beyond the law and reach of Castile and Aragon[5], (and within the law under Columbus’ encomienda system.)  Yet a simple designation of ‘cannibal’ made it possible to bring back captive slaves for sale even to Spain itself.

It should not be a surprise then, that there were so many Spanish reports of cannibals, especially by Spanish slavers.  If your enemy is no more than a beast, why then it is justified, according to this way of thinking, to make them into a beast of burden for the use of ‘civilized’ Christian folk.

8.  Cognitive Dissonance: Inventing Racism in the New World

When Columbus arrived on the shores of the West Indies and met the people there, it was clear that he was enchanted by them.  The first reports that he brought back to Ferdinand and Isabella spoke positively about them. Kirkpatrick Sale describes Columbus’ Santangel Letter of 1493.

Here the subcontinent [of Europe] for the first time had a firsthand, face-to-face description of people actually living in that Paradise, or Arcadia, or Elysian Fields, envisioned by the ancients:  they “all go naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them”; they do not have weapons “nor are they capable of using them”; they are “well-built people of handsome stature” and “of a very keen intelligence” but “wondrous timid”; they have no religion and “know neither sect nor idolatry”; “they are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it,” and “whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.”[6]

Yet Columbus soon changed his mind, and as his intentions toward the people changed from that of discoverer to that of exploiter, the people changed too, from handsome to ugly, from keenly intelligent to stupid.

The process of altering your perceptions to suit your actions and intentions is called cognitive dissonance[7].  Conscience would not permit Columbus to mutilate, murder and enslave the timid, artless, generous and intelligent Tainos, so he reinvented them in his mind as the bestial, people-eating Caribs – and afterwards, in a similar process, the distinction between Tainos and Caribs became lost as well.  Columbus became a racist in order to more easily function as a colonialist.

Racism, in fact, is one of the fundamental doctrines of colonialism, since it justifies uneven colonial relationships, the relationship between the colonists and the colonized.

The Greeks, during their era of imperial expansion, when the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea were all Greek colonies, referred to all foreigners as barbarians.  This is not a coincidence.

The Japanese, when expanding into Korea and China, promoted similar ideas about the Koreans and the Chinese.  This is also not a coincidence.

Racism serves a social function; it justifies exploitation.  Sometimes it justifies murder.  And historically, if not in individual cases, the development of racist thought follows the intention of the colonialist, it does not precede it.  That is, intention comes first, and the psychological and social process of racism follows in order to justify and license the intention.

And once racism is established in a given social situation, it permits the continuance of colonial relationships, ensuring that those who are indoctrinated to be racists do not question the status quo of exploiter and exploited.  And the indoctrination process, it should be explained, applies to both the exploiter and the exploited.  Not only must the social group of the exploiter accept racist doctrine as truth, the social group of the exploited must as well.  Thus colonial relationships advantageous to the colonizer are permitted to flourish largely unquestioned.

Historically (and in my opinion, even today) much of the education of Aboriginal children in Canada has followed this pattern, that of justifying Aboriginal people’s low social position in the Canadian state.  And I suggest that much of the education of Euro-Canadian children, whether explicitly admitted as such or not, is dedicated to the complementary goal of allowing Euro-Canadian children to accept, as adults, the superior social and economic position of Euro-Canadians, and people of European descent, in Canada and the world.

And it all began with Columbus.

Let us raise up statues and monuments to him.

Let us celebrate holidays in his honour.

[1] Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, 1978, Ballantine, NY, page 73.

[2] Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, 1990,  Alfred A. Knoff, NY, p. 128.

[3] Sale, 129.

[4] Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870, 1997, Picador, London, 90.  Thomas himself seems to believe that the Caribs were cannibals, and that it was actually Caribs and not Tainos which Columbus sent back to Spain after his first voyages, an impossibility since Columbus did not visit any Carib islands up to that time.  Cultural propaganda has a long lease, and even contemporary historians are not immune.

[5] Castile and Aragon, which together make up modern Spain, were ruled respectively by Isabella and Ferdinand, and even these were subdivided.  The three provinces of Aragon, for instance, were wholly autonomous, with their own laws, taxes and parliaments.  According to historian, Henry Kamen in Empire: How Spain Became a World Power 1492-1763, 2003, Perennial, NY, pp. 36-37, “The peninsular territories known collectively as ‘Spain` did not begin to develop as a nation before the eighteenth century.”  I use the term Spain loosely, where, for instance, Castile might be more accurate in a given case.  My excuse is that these kinds of niceties would tend to be confusing for the non-specialist reader, and they have nothing to do with the main thrust of my arguments.

[6] Sale, 197.

[7] “cognitive dissonance:  an uncomfortable psychological state in which the individual experiences two incompatible beliefs or cognitions.  Cognitive dissonance theory holds that the individual is motivated by the attendant discomfort to act in such a manner as to reduce dissonance.”  J.P. Chaplin, Dictionary of Psychology, 1975, Dell, NY.



colonial ideology — that set of beliefs and arguments which justify the rights, privileges and actions of the colonizer in respect of the colonized, and those they would colonize or exploit.

racism — prejudice plus power, as stated in its simplist definition.  The doctrine of racism is intended to justify unequal social, and sometimes unequal legal, relationships between one social class and another.