Jul 07, 2019 Countryman
By Dennis Nichols
Many people once felt, and still do today, that Earth’s primary ‘owner’ is a spiritual deity – God. As such, all lands (and the fullness thereof) are His. But more practically they are man’s, and man has bestowed upon himself the right to own and occupy; use and abuse them. Humans also arrogated unto themselves the right to decide that some among us had more compelling reasons to do so than others, and sometime in the past they came up with the notion of terra nullius meaning ‘land belonging to no one’. Guyana and the rest of the Americas were once deemed terra nullius. Ask 15th century Europeans.
But there’s a catch, and it has had huge implications for millions of people across the globe. It is linked to the idea of the superiority of so-called civilized nations over ‘primitive’ natives, colonization as fashioned by European countries, and the abomination of slavery. As I attempted to grasp the concept of inhabited no-man’s lands, I tried also to wrap my mind around how the continent of Africa came to be so massively occupied and divided up by Europeans in less than 50 years. And how in Guyana our ‘colonies’ swapped rulership so freely among the Dutch, Spanish, French, and British overlords.
The phrase terra nullius should be considered in the context of an historical era when lands could be claimed on the basis of first discovery and effective occupation. Then of course there was conquest.
According to Wikipedia, terra nullius stemmed from a Roman law whereby things without an owner such as ‘wild beasts, lost slaves, and abandoned buildings’ could be seized as property by anyone. But the concept eventually grew to include inhabited lands considered devoid of civilized society, in the eyes of the Europeans of course. That’s the catch.
Certain people and nations decided that, based on their way of life, they had the right to claim ‘empty’ lands as their own, never mind that other humans lived and made a living there, since in their opinion, those lands were not properly managed, and their inhabitants deemed unworthy of them. That’s exactly what happened when in 1492 Columbus landed on the island of Guanahani in The Bahamas, stuck a flag in the sand, renamed it San Salvador, and claimed it for the king of Spain while Lucayan/Arawak natives looked on in wonderment.
In similar fashion the Dutch claimed the Essequibo region of Guyana. (Funny that 400 years later, our Spanish-speaking neighbour wants to ‘reclaim’ that county)
Throughout recorded history, from nomadic times, humans have claimed, settled, and fought over land. As nations were established, the process continued and enlarged. From the 15th century, Europeans were in the forefront of this global grab, and by the first half of the 20th century almost every corner of the globe had become a colony, mandate, or protectorate of one of a handful of European countries led by Spain, Portugal, and Britain. The fact that people were already inhabiting most of those lands meant little to the Europeans.
The most notorious example of terra nullius is said to be Australia which the British explorer James Cook had claimed for England in the late 18th century. Soon a penal colony was set up there for British convicts shipped from the motherland, who were then urged to ‘live in amity and kindness’ with the native Aborigines whose occupation of the land dated back some 40,000 or more years. Evidently, they didn’t. There were ongoing hostilities between them, including racial and sexual exploitation during which many natives died, including those who perished from diseases brought by the Europeans.
Aborigine resentment continued well into the 20th century, but in 1992 a legal decision known as the Mabo Case, resulted in an overturning of the claim that Australia was terra nullius, thus birthing the Native Title Act which recognized Aboriginal ownership of the territory. It allowed Australia’s first people to file, via Federal Court, claims for the right to negotiate, for example, against government development of ancestral lands. And just three months ago, Australia’s High Court handed down a ruling that could see ‘billions of dollars in compensation’ paid to indigenous groups which, according to an Al Jazeera report, will make amends for the Aborigines’ loss of economic income and spiritual connection to the land.
So, what about here in Guyana, the Caribbean, and the rest of the Americas where, in addition to the dislocation of Indigenous peoples, the systemic dehumanization and exploitation of African slaves are presented as major grounds for reparations? Guyana’s indigenous communities have had some of their concerns over land titling, demarcation, and the continuing infringement on their lands and rights (by mining) addressed. But the descendants of slaves through representation by the Guyana Reparations Committee, are still in the process of agitating for reparations not only from the British government, but also internally from the state in the form of adequate land allocations.
Apart from Amerindians and Afro-Guyanese, there are some who are calling for similar compensation for the descendants of indentured servants, chiefly Indo-Guyanese, but also Portuguese and Chinese, who it is claimed also suffered degradation and exploitation in some ways comparable to slavery. Many see these calls as a ‘Hail Mary’ long shot, but reparations for the descendants of African slaves appear more likely to be an achievable goal, however far down the road. Already, it appears, the government may arrange for the distribution of ancestral lands in Queenstown, Essequibo Coast, following representation by residents and the findings of a Commission of Inquiry into the matter.
As for external, mostly financial, reparations, the tide could possibly be turning, albeit slowly, in favour of various reparation committees in the Americas, and those in the region lobbying under the umbrella of the Caribbean Reparation Commission (CRC). According to a recent CRC report, conversations and debates about reparations and reparatory justice have intensified across the world, and public opinion polls in the US have indicated a substantial increase in the percentage of African Americans and young white Americans who support the call for compensation.
‘Reparations’ have already been made with respect to some injustices; but in two cases ironically not what you would imagine – Haiti and England. Haiti gained its independence from France after defeating Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and establishing the world’s first black republic. Having lost its most profitable colony however, France demanded the island-nation pay as compensation, the sum of 150 million gold francs, (later reduced to 90m) which it was still paying off more than 100 years later. There is now a call for France to return the money (about $17 billion today) to Haiti. Any bets?
Then Great Britain, after passing an act to abolish slavery in its empire in 1833, decided two years later to compensate, not the slaves, but the slave owners for the loss of their ‘property’. A 20-million-pound loan was arranged and the monies were paid. British taxpayers only finished repaying that sum four years ago! The third is more balanced. Thousands of black South African families, victims of apartheid, have received compensatory packages from the government that include money, housing, health care and education, after the Truth and Reconciliation Committee recommended it 20 years ago. Thousands however are still waiting.
On the local scene, land giveaways and takeovers are in the news. Real, fake, or misconstrued, these revelations may remind whichever government takes charge next year to throw its weight behind local and regional reparation efforts, and land reform. It should tell Britain that terra nullius, slavery, and colonization are elements of a sordid history, which demand reparations. And to pay up!
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