The three discoveries of America

For thousands of years, the American continent remained undisturbed by the presence of humanity. It was isolated from the migration of human tribes, as proved by the lack of fossil remains previous to those of the Homo Sapiens. The first humans arrived in America probably from Asia across the Bering Strait between 25,000-40,000 years ago. This would constitute the very first discovery of the continent.  The human tribes from Mongolia spread throughout the continent in the course of thousands of years and several distinct ancient American civilizations, each one with their own idiosyncrasies, were born as a result.

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The next incursion of humans from other parts of the world took place in the 11th century AD. In the 9th century, Scandinavians from Norway occupied Iceland and in the 10th century, the Icelander Eric the Red discovered Greenland. Of course, he wasn´t the first human in Greenland, where he found a colony whose economy was based on livestock and the export of walrus ivory and falcons. Then, one of Eric the Red’s men called Biarni Heriulfson saw land to the West of Greenland around the year 986, and Eric the Red’s son Leif decided to explore it, reaching its coast in 1001. Leif spent a winter there, in Newfoundland, and then returned to Greenland. Around 1010-15, another Icelander, Thorfinn Karlsefni, together with a group of Eric the Red’s men, explored the coast of Newfoundland -known then as ‘Vinland the Good’- and attempted to settle there, spending two or three winters with the natives. But the natives proved to be quite hostile and the Norsemen returned to Greenland and made no further attempts. Again, the American coast remained undisturbed until 1492.

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Driven by social convention, people celebrate the discovery of America on the day Columbus reached the American coasts in 1492, but he didn´t really ‘discovered’ anything that hadn´t been discovered a long time ago. In the same celebratory mood, we could choose the fist option and establish a day 40,000 years ago to throw a commemorative party, or decide on Biarni Heriulfson’s sight of land in the year 986, or select Leif’s expedition in 1001 rather than Christopher Columbus’s arrival. The debate is open.

Source: A concise history of the American Republic, volume I.

Interpellation and otherness

Not only does colonialism embrace physical coercion, but also a set of beliefs to support it. It interpellates the colonial subjects by incorporating them in a system of representation by which the individual subjects come to internalise dominant values of the privileged part of society and think about their place in it in a particular disempowering way, which favours the colonisers. Interpellation, a term developed by Althusser, describes the way/s in which dominant ideas are made one’s own and how society determined views are expressed “spontaneously” by the colonised subjects. As colonial discourse also work through gratification (Althusser, Foucault), it makes the individual’s sense of worthiness depend on their representation of their assigned role with regards to the coloniser’s. We must bear in mind that discourses don’t reflect pre-given reality, but constitute and produce it.

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In colonised locations, natives are usually required to work on the coloniser’s behalf, thus the language of the metropolis must be learned by them. Teaching English in India was argued as necessary in order for the natives to take English opinions (Macaulay). The result is the so-called mimic-men (V.S. Naipaul): they learn English, doesn’t look English and aren’t accepted as such. They are anglicised natives. They are expected by the metropolis to identify themselves with the middle-class bourgeoisie of the coloniser rather than with the indigenous masses (Franz Fanon), and although it may seem to expected to happen that way during the first stages, this fact is usually reverted later on, once native intellectuals they gain perspective. It is the next step, when native intellectuals can be regarded as a threat for the metropolis and when they can rewrite history from a post-colonial point of view.

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The construction of otherness is significant for national representation, as identity is always defined in relation to something else. Borders are designed by people, and so are nations. They are fabrications, not natural phenomena. The myth of the nation serves the purpose of making people think of themselves as part of a greater collective, a sense of belonging that national symbols help to create. The invention and confection of history is central to the creation of nations and to colonialism. In reality there are so many versions of history as there are narrators.

Language and colonialism

The history of Europe, together with historiographical documents produced here, has been shaped by colonial interests. These colonial interests are the result of the ideology of imperialism, which assumes the right to settle, exploit the resources and attempt to rule the native inhabitants, mostly to fit Europe’s interests -and then to try and brush the consequences under the carpet by shunning the immigrants-.

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It was after the World War II that Britain lost interest in settlement, although the indigenous populations kept on being ruled by a European minority of small colonial elites, once the natives were dispossessed. India and Pakistan gained their independence from western rule in 1947, while the African colonies did in the 1960s. The process of recovering sovereignty and freedom from foreign rule is known as decolonisation, and was prompted to a large extent -in the case of the former British colonies- by the loss of power suffered by Britain after the disastrous WWII. After that, they pursued control without settlement.

The loose cultural and political denomination Commonwealth, which supposedly grouped together a number of countries with a common history of colonialism, and shared -imposed- history and language, is very well described by Shirley Chew: “a paradox sits at the heart of the Commonwealth -described as a free association of equal and mutually cooperating nations, it is drawn together by a shared history of colonial exploitation and dependence.”

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Furthermore, colonisation is perpetuated in the mind of people and in the tissue of society by the idea of the “lower rank” of the colonised, systematically implanted by the coloniser. Once they persuade a generation to internalise their imposed values, these assumptions get easily passed on to the next generation. Thus, language proves to be the most effective of weapons for the never-ending process of colonisation, as “it carries culture, values by which we perceive our place in the world” (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o). It does not passively reflect reality, but it builds its own. We can better see it in Brian Friel’s play “Translations”; in an Irish village there is a school were all the characters in the play share a common space and exchange their views. However, they are not allowed to speak Irish in this school. Some are even convinced that the old language is a barrier to progress, while others just want to learn English in order to flee to the USA. Two English men arrive with a mission; one is an arrogant and distant cartographer, the other, a worker of the toponymic department and an ortographer who seems friendly and is interested in learning the native language. Their mission is to Anglicise the place-names -and also to cunningly “redistribute” the land. The topographical names hide traditional stories which would be utterly lost after the original names are replaced and standardised.