Utopian Dreams

Note 3: Sir George Peckham: The Advantages of Colonization (1582). 2/24/99

Native America was never so fortunate in its paltry state of savagery than on the day Sir George Peckham took it upon himself to explain to all of England, and most of the other civilized nations of Europe at the same time, how colonization of the Americas would benefit both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously. His discourse recapitulates concepts and ideals that were first offered as early as the third century by the Church Father and theologian Tertullian in his Treatise on the Soul with respect to the need for empire expansion to bleed off the burdensome excess of overpopulation that already plagued Europe at that early date. Peckham argues that a primary benefit of colonizing America would be to reduce the "great numbers [of people] which live in such penurie and want, as they could be contented to hazard their lives" by relocating themselves to the dangerous world of America in order to improve their estate. He also notes that England has grown to its current state of overpopulation because "it hath pleased God of his great goodness, of long time to hold his merciful hand over this realm, in preserving the people of the same, both from slaughter by the sword, and great death by plague [and] pestilence." Like much of God's bounty, blessings of a certain kind can also turn out to be burdensome.

Tertullian argued in the third century that "pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race." In Peckham's view, of course, since God has mercifully withheld the pruning shears from the realm, another means of disposing of the idle masses of England's overcrowded cities must be found. Peckham implies that God has sent a different kind of remedy to solve the problems of overpopulation by allowing Europeans to "discover" America and by granting them permission to appropriate it for their own needs. There is one problem with this Christian interpretation of God's intent, however, which Peckham must address and resolve before the free movement of England's indigent and undesirable masses can set out on their voyages of conquest and appropriation to America; namely, that America is already populated by a race of people, savages of course, who do not seem to be particularly inclined to accept gladly Europe's endless mass of undesirable miscreants and criminals into their land. There may, in fact, be signs of considerable resistance on the part of the natives to the role they have been assigned in God's plan to save Europe from its own interminable excess.

Peckham, taking note of certain difficulties already encountered in communicating clearly with the natives, establishes the first of a series of reasonable grounds upon which friendly and just relations between the two "nations" can be achieved:

" it shall be requisite either by speech, if it be possible, or by some other certain means, to signify unto them, that once league of friendship with all loving conversation being admitted between the Christians and them: that then the Christians from thenceforth will always be ready with force of Arms to assist and defend them in their just quarrels, from all invasions, spoils and oppressions offered them by any Tryants, Adversaries, or their next borderers: and a benefit is so much the more to be esteemed, by how much the person upon whom it is bestowed standeth in need thereof."

The irony here, of course, is that the "loving conversation" promised by Peckham to native America has not quite materialized to this day and one must wonder how many more hundreds of years it will take before Eurocentric discourse gets down to the business of fulfilling that particular aspect of its appearance on our shores. No one I know among the tribes is holding their breath. The most compelling aspect of this rhetorical bombast is Peckham's allusion to the fact that "Christians . . . will always be ready with force of Arms to assist and defend them in their just quarrels, from all invasions, spoils and oppressions offered them by any Tryants, Adversaries, or their next borderers": a promise like any other made by Europeans, then or now, which was unnecessary, on the one hand, since native Americans at the time were threatened only by the appearance of their Christian benefactors, who were then, and still are, the only tyrants and adversaries in sight, and meaningless, on the other, because the only use to which Europeans ever applied their "force of Arms" was against the natives themselves when they refused to accept every demand made on them by their European protectors. Peckham's explanation for why this protection was necessary is ludicrous at best and a factual distortion of reality, if not an outright lie, at the worst:

"For it appeareth by a relation of a Countryman of ours, namely David Ingram, (who traveled in those countries xi. Months and more) That the Savages generally for the most part, are at continual war with their next adjoining neighbours, and especially the Cannibals, being a cruel kind of people whose food is mans flesh, and have teeth like dogs, and do pursue them with ravenous minds to eat their flesh, and devour them."

One could have a good laugh over this kind of balderdash if it were not so insidious in its source and intent. Peckham uses this incredible nonsense, which is nothing more than a projection of Christian guilt, repressed to a condition of pathological insanity, over the fact that only they among all the people of the world have made a religious ritual (Mass or Communion) out of the consumption of the blood and the flesh of another human being, the one they call their Savior, to justify the use of armed violence against the indigenous people of America. The only cannibals on the scene were the Europeans bent on stealing everything the New World possessed for the sole sake of enriching themselves at the expense of those who always already occupied the land they coveted. How many of their own sins do Europeans conceal within the stress of their own collective pathology in being the only race of cannibals ever to inhabit the earth? Peckham notes that the existence in America of man-eating monsters, with "teeth like dogs," makes it necessary for all good Christians and true to "aid the Savages against the Cannibals," and that such action is both just and lawful. Native America's only regret is that the cannibals did not murder themselves before they began to murder us.

After his discourse on cannibalism, Peckham acknowledges the fact that the natives were not completely grateful for all the benefits that were raining down on them from the kindness and "loving conversations" provided by their protectors. He provides the following qualifications to his avowal of a Christian dispensation of Grace:

"But if after these good and fair means used, the Savages nevertheless will not be herewithall satisfied, but barbarously will go about to practise violence either in repelling the Christians from their Ports and safelandings, or in withstanding them afterwards to enjoy the rights for which both painfully and lawfully they have adventured themselves thither:

Then in such a case I hold it no breach of equitie for the Christians to defend themselves, to pursue revenge with force, and to do whatsoever is necessary for the attaining of their safety: For it is allowable by all Laws in such distresses, to resist violence with violence: And for their more security to increase their strength by building of Forts for avoiding the extremity of injurious dealing."

Are words really necessary here to point to the sudden turn in sentiment from loving Christian kindness to building forts to protect themselves from the terrible threat posed by the ungrateful recipients of European beneficence? My favorite part of this passage is the idea that the pain and suffering Europeans were forced to endure in crossing the Atlantic to the land of plunder and pillage that America represented to them was all the justification that was "lawfully" required for their acts of violence and revenge against a people who did not butcher them on the beach the first day any of them appeared on our shores. That is precisely what we should have done to protect ourselves from the ravenous Christian beasts that unleashed their fury against the fact that we did not share in their cannibalistic religion. Peckham goes on to explain what sort of exchange is suitable for the commodities Europeans were going to extract from the plunder of America:

"in respect of the most happy and gladsome tidings of the most glorious Gospel of our Saviour Jesus Christ, whereby they may be brought from falsehood to truth, from darkness to light, from the highway of death, to the path of life, from superstitious idolatrie to sincere Christianity, from the devil to Christ, from hell to heaven. And if in respect of all the commodities they can yield us (were they many more) that they should but receive this only benefit of Christianity, they were more then fully recompensed."

Amazing arrogance. In return for the loss of an entire continent that native Americans had occupied for 10,000 years, we get to join in "the most happy and gladsome tidings," carried forward by "force of Arms," that will condemn us to participation in the only religion that ritualizes cannibalist practices, one that will gladly burn us at the stake if we refuse to be other than another meal meant to gratify Eurocentric greed, that has ever appeared on the face of the earth. How could anyone, much less an entire continent of people, refuse such a "gladsome" offer of so fair and equitable a rate of exchange?

Peckham's conclusion fairly reflects the priorities of his vision of creating a Utopian perfection at home on the basis of a total, if not annihilating, exploitation of natural resources abroad, which is, of course, the ultimate goal and rationale of all Utopian enterprises. He says that

"Then shall her Majesties dominions be enlarged, her highness ancient titles justly confirmed, all odious idleness from this our Realm utterly banished, divers decayed towns repaired, and many poore and needy persons relived, and estates of such as now live in want shall be embettered."

If all this can be achieved with little more than a few minor conflicts against insignificant bands of savages on the other side of the Atlantic, if Elizabeth's dominion over her realm can be enhanced, not to mention enlarged more even than Peckham, or anyone else, imagined at the time, an act which will, apparently, "justly confirm" and solidify the Queen's claim to legitimate ancient title, if all idleness can be driven from the land (Peckham even suggests that idle women and very young children can be put to work manufacturing trifles with which to appease the natives in America, since savages have such an overwhelming desire for any "civilized" good that trifles alone are enough to satisfy them), if whole towns can be rebuilt, and everyone's estate improved, then how can anyone resist the impulse to impose a God-ordained perfection on England? To do otherwise would be senseless, even an act of disobedience against God's commandment. The benefits to the Savages are also outlined clearly when Peckham states that

"the ignorant and barbarous idolaters [will be] taught to know Christ, the innocent defended from their bloody tyrannicale neighbours, the diabolical custom of sacrificing human creatures abolished."

All in all, then, everyone benefits from Peckham's perception of the creation of Utopian bliss out of the fortuitous circumstance of Europe's "discovery" of America. The fact that nothing worked out quite as well as Peckham envisioned is nothing more than what anyone should expect to have happen when (wo)man attempts to create a return to the paradise that never existed but was so surely lost when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden by a vengeful God. Returning to no-where and to no-thing that (wo)man never possessed in the first place always already exacts a price on the Other that everyone ought to recognize by now. This is just the stuff that Utopian dreams are made of. The annihilation of an entire race of human beings after all is a small price to pay for the betterment of England, for making England so much a better place for Christians to practice their cannibalistic rituals.

As for the cannibals that the colonizers never found in America, if any Europeans are still looking for them, might I suggest you avail yourself of proximity to the nearest mirror. The face you see there, if you look closely enough, will have teeth like a dog's and will remind you of someone you have seen before, someone who inhabits your worst nightmare probably, you know who I mean, that image you carry around with you of the Savior who demands that you eat human flesh and drink human blood so you can be absolved of your sins, so you can achieve salvation. How sick is that anyway? My only fear is that I will discover for myself someday what Christians do that is so much worse than that that they are required to make a weekly trip to the altar to participate in the enactment of ritual and symbolic cannibalism in order to be forgiven for having done it.

What a formula: eat human flesh, drink human blood, feel better about yourself afterwards. No wonder Christians find genocide comforting.

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