Legitimization of Conquest

Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 by Patricia Seed

By Steven Knorr

As European powers expanded into the Americas, they used ceremony and ritual to cement their control over newly conquered lands. Perception of colonial ownership differed between the Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.

Ceremonies of Possession by Patricia Seed is a book that explains the rituals and ceremonies European colonizers performed when laying foundation for political authority over the New World between 1492 and 1640. Seed demonstrates that the Europeans did not behave as a monolith, but that each had their own customs and practices when establishing their overseas empires. According to Seed, the symbolic acts taken by the Europeans were based upon familiar gestures, actions, movements or speeches that they already understood[1]. Throughout the book she demonstrates how European legal codes can differentiate how legal possession can be interpreted differently.

Seed begins this discussion with the Portuguese claiming dominion over places they discovered.[2] To the Portuguese, simply discovering land meant they held dominion over it[3]. To the English however, to hold dominion over a territory meant there had to be an intent to stay by establishing houses and boundaries. Queen Elizabeth of England believed that the Portuguese had no dominion over places they simply had found[4]. The English established boundaries by putting up fences and hedges and building gardens. Full-time use of land was an important indicator of property to the English. For this reason, they were able to more easily disregard land usage by the Native Americans, as Native Americans only used theirs on a semi-permanent basis, according to the English laws.

Seed further demonstrates how Nations carried out acts of possession to show formal signs of legitimacy of their colonial possessions. Seed uses examples such as the English building impromptu building of gardens during negations with Spanish to show signs of legitimacy of their claims[5]. The French however, had a more theatrical approach to claiming possession. The French would hold processions or cross-planting ceremonies.[6]Seed points out that these observances were distinctly unique to the French as the word ceremony holds different connotations within French culture[7]. A ceremony in French culture, as Seed puts it, implied a parade, certain garments in carrying out the parade, and signified order[8].

While the French were building alliances with the indigenous peoples and the English were building houses, the Spanish on the other hand created their right to the New World through conquest. The Spanish acted upon a speech called Reuirimiento (Requirement) which required all indigenous peoples in the New World to recognize the superiority of Christianity or be warred upon[9]. This speech was required to be read to all natives before subjugating them[10]. Seed argues that this forced subjugation of peoples is similar to Islamic Jihad and that centuries of being under Islamic rule was imitated the Spanish authority. She compares the Spanish to those of the Arab conquests after the death Mohammed who found themselves in control of a vast amount of territory though ill-equipped to defend it[11].

Finally, we have the Dutch, who inherited nautical pioneering from the Portuguese. Seed argues that to the Dutch, “possession was not sustained by landing or settling but by sailing and trading”[12]. Unlike the English or the Spanish where the means of controlling their domains was through people, the Dutch incorporated the Portuguese practice by controlling their possession through commerce. Both the Dutch and the Portuguese practiced a Market Economy. The act of carrying out trade with natives was conducted by private citizens and was vital to sustaining dominion over their possessions[13]. Unlike the Portuguese however, the Dutch actively collaborated with the native peoples.[14] However, unlike the French, the Dutch never argued that the native people consented to their presence, but rather their unfamiliarity with European peoples gave them entitlement to their discovery[15].


Those interested in further research can purchase Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640, here.  

[1] Seed, Patricia., Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World 1492-1640., Cambridge University Press, New York, (1995), 3

[2] Ibid, 130

[3] Ibid, 130

[4] Ibid, 130

[5] Ibid, 36

[6] Ibid, 48

[7] Ibid, 48-56

[8] Ibid, 48-56

[9] Ibid, 70

[10] Ibid, 72

[11] Ibid, 72-73

[12] Ibid, 155

[13] Ibid, 156

[14] Ibid, 159

[15] Ibid, 160


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