Genesis 1:28: Justification for Colonialism

January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I assigned William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England this semester in American History.  I read this the first a long, long time ago at the University of British Columbia during my undergrad.  I read it again at Simon Fraser University during my MA studies.  The book itself is 31 years old this year, but it was re-issued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2003.  It is still a fantastic book, in my opinion.

But one thing struck me as I was reading.  Cronon writes, concerning the English Crown’s attempts at taking possession of the land of New England:

The Crown derived its own claim to the region from several sources: Cabot’s “discovery” of New England in 1479-98; the failure of the Indians to adequately subdue the soil as Geneis 1.28 required; and from the King’s status — initially a decidedly speculative one — as the first Christian monarch to establish colonies there.

These are all points I am familiar with, obviously, after all those years of schooling and my teaching career.  But sometimes, when I see the justification for early imperialism laid so bare as this, I am astounded.  I won’t even get into the logical fallacies of relying on the Bible to justify the Crown’s claim to the land, possessed by non-Christians.

It gets better though, Cronon notes:

…by the late seventeenth century, Indian lands were regarded as being entirely within English colonial jurisdiction; indeed, the logic of the situation seemed to indicate that, for Indians to own land at all, it had first to be granted them by the English Crown.

Oy vey.

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