Frederick Turner’s description of U.S. territorial expansion as a march to no man’s land (the so-called Turner frontier thesis) has been questioned and to a large degree discredited in recent decades. Among other things, historians have pointed out to the obvious: the land was never empty and most actors were aware of the presence of native peoples (and of other colonial subjects) whom they sought to dispossess.
Having studied the territorial expansion of Spain and Portugal in both Europe and the Americas, I cannot but agree.[i] Yet, dismissing Turner altogether is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As happened with the Tannenbaum Thesis (that compared slavery and race in South and North America), once completely discarded and now undergoing at least a partial rehabilitation, it is perhaps time we recalibrated our visions regarding how European actors (and their American descendants) sought to justify their activities.
The experience of Spain and Portugal can be useful in this regard. Although the Spanish and the Portuguese signed bilateral treaties and invoked rights by discovery, conquest, and, on occasions, papal bulls, they mostly based their claims on occupation. They disagreed about what occupation was, and they certainly conflicted over who had it, but they referenced a common framework according to which those who used the land “appropriately” would acquire rights to it. This vision permeated both what they did and what they said in both Europe and the Americas, vis-à-vis members of their own group as well as vis-à-vis outsiders, both natives and other colonial powers.
The linking of land rights to possession was of course anchored in European legal traditions. By the early modern period, these traditions instructed that, to obtain rights, one had to occupy the land for an extended period without suffering opposition. Most actors who invoked these ideas were not jurists and many among them were illiterate peasants living in remote communities that their contemporaries classified as uncivil. Yet, these individuals were convinced that if they acted on the territory, if they opposed the pretensions of their rivals (the best opposition being the most vocal and most violent because it best manifested their disaccord), they would acquire rights.
Contemporary actors never explained where this understanding came from and they were rarely cognizant that their discussions replicated erudite legal doctrines. Instead, they usually affirmed that this was the way things were, everywhere, always. They described having watched their parents and friends do the same or having heard stories about what happened when they did not. Faced with this reality, I constantly asked myself: did these ideas originate in customs that were then formalized by jurists (as many of us now view the contribution of ius commune jurists to European legal development), or did jurists succeed in disseminating their doctrines to the point that they permeated debates among contemporaries, even the most illiterate and the most peripherical? If they did, what instruments did they use? Who and what contributed to their success?
While contemporary documentation gave no answers, it nevertheless made clear that actors were aware of the existence of native peoples (and other colonists) and were cognizant of their entitlements. Nevertheless, almost none of them considered that this presence should hinder their penetration and occupation. Some justified penetration and occupation by the duty to convert or civilize but most based it on discrediting the use natives (or other colonists) made of the land, arguing that it was inappropriate and therefore bestowed no rights. In this respect, Turner was right. From the perspective of contemporary actors, the land was empty, if not of people, at least of rights. However, Turner was wrong because he failed to appreciate the degree by which debates on land were entangled in debates about people. Contemporaries knew that the best way to take possession of the land was either to discredit its inhabitants or by taking possession of them. Conversion was one common way to take possession of people (conversion being considered to have both religious and civic consequences), but alliance making, and conquest was another. Imagining natives, not territory, as the true no-man’s land, in Spain and Portugal, at least, actors suggested that before Europeans arrived and natives were subjected to them, natives belonged to no one and any European could take possession of them as a “vacant” property. Yet, these Spanish and Portuguese also asserted that after natives were “taken,” indeed possessed, they were occupied and could not be legitimately “taken over” by another group.
Because at stake was not only occupying land, but also (perhaps mainly) occupying people, Spanish and Portuguese presence in the Americas was much more unstable, tentative, and provisional than most colonial historians tend to describe. Ambiguity and chaos were more typical than certainty and clarity. The outcome was not the construction of an uninterrupted colonial territory, but instead the emergence of a fragmented space that constantly changed shapes alongside a struggle over the use of land, which was never detached from the struggle to control people.
[i] Tamar Herzog. Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2015 (also available as Fronteras de posesión: España y Portugal en Europa y las Américas. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018; Fronteiras da Posse. Portugal e Espanha na Europa e na América. Lisbon, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2018 ; a Brazilian translation is forthcoming).