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You’re good to go, Cortés; you too, John Winthrop

Viking raiders in the 8th and 9th centuries left no evidence that they ever bothered to rationalize pillaging the British Isles. Seven centuries later, something had changed.
You’re good to go, Cortés; you too, John Winthrop

Or, this all seemed simpler when the Vikings did it

Viking raiders in the 8th and 9th centuries left no evidence that they ever bothered to rationalize pillaging the British Isles. Monasteries, like the Monastery of St. Cuthbert at Lindisfarne, and English settlements had stuff the Vikings wanted, so they stole it. They killed whoever got in their way and enslaved those they did not kill. No need to bring religion or morality or the law into it. To what end?

Seven centuries later, something had changed.

The history of Spanish and English colonization of the New World is grim reading to the modern sensibility. No spoilers: you know how it ends, and though you're prepared it’s still grim.First there was genocide by microbe. Europeans introduced smallpox, bubonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, and typhus, and possibly chickenpox and tuberculosis (there is some evidence they were already in the New World). This was not on purpose, but the Europeans didn’t seem to mind. These diseases went through native populations like a scythe. Then, of course, Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries killed uncounted more by spear, sword, and firearm. They murdered, raped, and enslaved. They stole precious metals. They stole land. They stole whatever they could get their hands on.

Minus the diseases and the firearms, the Vikings behaved the same way. But there’s a fascinating difference.

Seven hundred years after the Norsemen, something in the violence and theft and carnage made the Europeans profoundly uneasy. One sees it in  the Old World 40 years before Columbus. King Afonso V of Portugal was at war with the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II. The Portuguese king seemed to feel the need to be square with God on the matter of enslaving captives from the war. So he sent a note to Pope Nicholas V, and the pope, V to V, obliged in 1504 with Dum Diversas, a papal bull that stated:

We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

That same year, Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain also went looking for justification and moral absolution for what they were about to do to the peoples of the New World. Jill Lapore, in her book These Truths, describes how the Spanish throne ordered scholars and lawyers to provide guidance for colonization of the Americas. One suspects that knowing well what the monarchs wanted to hear, the scholars came back with the verdict that because there was no evidence of any sort of government in the New World, there could be no indigenous dominion over property. If the natives didn’t own the land, the Spanish could not be accused of stealing it. Cool. Regarding sovereignty, the advisors turned to Aristotle, who had argued in Politics: “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Good enough for Aristotle, good enough for the fun couple on the Spanish throne. Good to go.

Spain went further in its quest to rationalize conquest in the New World. The Spaniards drew up a remarkable document in 1513 called Requerimiento, or The Spanish Requirement. The conquistadors were instructed to read it aloud (in Spanish, which the natives didn’t speak, but it’s the thought that counts) to any indigenous people unfortunate enough to live on land Spain coveted. Appalling in his condescension and presumption, the Requerimiento “explained” how God had created the earth, then had charged St. Peter as “Lord and Superior of all the men in the world…all should obey him…and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.” That was quite enough to foist on an uncomprehending native populace, but there was more. The pope, St. Peter’s descendant and living leader of the church, had granted Spain all rights to the New World and declared the need for the Indians to convert to Christianity. Submit and you will treated well. Resist? Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

The Puritans created their own justification for seizing Indian land in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop declared—this will sound familiar—that because the Indians had not “subdued” the land, they had no civil right to it, only a natural right, and thus did not have legal standing. Puritans also cited Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” The good Puritan minister Increase Mather saw disease as but one more example of God’s imprimatur: “[A]bout this time the Indians began to be quarrelsome touching the Bounds of the Land which they had sold to the English, but God ended the Controversy by sending the Smallpox amongst the Indians.” You, all you Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, Narragansett, Mohicans,  you have no standing under the law and no standing with God. You are shit out of luck.

Your typical conquistador or Puritan dirt farmer probably could care less, but the people who ordered, financed, and stood to profit from New World colonies felt the need to justify their depredations. The Vikings did not, Genghis Khan did not, but the Spanish monarchy did, and the Puritans did. Why? The true answer must be complex, and different for each individual. Some of these people surely had consciences that had to be assuaged. The Puritans as a group were thoughtful and devout; some of them must have questioned what they saw happening to the native population. The 16th-century Spanish bishop and historian Bartolomé de las Casas said that when he learned of the Requerimiento he didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Plus there were social and political implications. The English crown wanted to be seen chartering proper colonies, not criminal enterprises. The Spanish throne had good reason to stay on the right side of the Pope by consulting with him on its American incursions. The Spanish, English, Portuguese, and no doubt the French wanted to be able to wave legal paper in each other’s face as they stole as much of a hemisphere as they could.

One would like to think there was one more thing at work. One would like to think there was a stirring of moral conscience, the beginning of a very slow reckoning, a moral arc that has a long way to go but offers some hope by its continuance. One wonders. But one hopes.