THE SECOND COMING OF COLUMBUS
By Shiva Shankar email@example.com
April 5, 2004
Our struggle is against all forms of colonization.
On 17th APRIL, 1492, Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand granted Christopher
Columbus the privileges of "discovery and conquest". One year later, on
4th May, 1493, Pope Alexander VI through his "Bull of Donation" granted
all islands and mainlands "discovered and to be discovered, one hundred
leagues to the West and south of the Azores towards India" and already not
occupied or held by any Christian king or prince as of Christmas of 1492,
to the Catholic monarchs, Isabel of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon.
Walter Ullmann has stated in Medieval Papalism: "The Pope as the victor
of God commanded the world, as if it Were a tool in his hands; the Pope,
supported by the canonists, considered the world as his property to be
disposed according to his will."
Acts of piracy were thus transformed into divine will by charters and
patents. The peoples and nations which were colonized did not belong to
the Pope who "donated" them to the European monarchs. However, this
canonical jurisprudence made the Christian monarchs of Europe rulers of
all nations, "wherever they might be found and whatever creed they might
The Papal Bull, the Columbus charter and the charter-patents granted by
European monarchs laid the juridical and moral foundations for the
colonization and extermination of non-European peoples. The Native North
American population declined from 72 million in 1492 to less than 4
million in a few centuries.
The principle of "effective occupation" by Christian princes, the alleged
"vacancy" of the targeted lands, the "duty" to incorporate the "savages"
into civilization were components of the charter-patents.
Wherever they might be found, whatever knowledge they might embody,
patents and intellectual property rights (IPRs) today are no different
from the "patentes" and "charters" issued by European monarchs to
merchants of their era.
FIVE HUNDRED YEARS after Columbus, a more secular version of the same
project of colonization continues through patents. The Papal Bull has been
replaced by the GATT treaty. The principle of effective occupation by
Christian princes has been replaced by "effective occupation" by
modern-day rulers, the transnational corporations. The vacancy of targeted
lands" has been replaced by "the vacancy of targeted life-forms" and
species manipulated by the new biotechnologies. The duty to incorporate
savages into Christianity has been replaced by the duty to incorporate
local and national economies into the global marketplace, and to
incorporate non-Western systems of knowledge into the reductionism of
commercialized Western science and technology.
The creation of property through the piracy of others' wealth remains the
same as it was 500 years ago.
The freedom that transnational corporations are claiming through
intellectual property rights protection in the GATT agreement on Trade
Related Intellectual Property rights (TRIPs) is the freedom that European
colonizers have claimed since 1492 when Columbus set precedence in
treating the licence to conquer non-European peoples as a natural right of
European men. The land titles issued by the Pope through European kings
and queens were the first patents. The colonizer's freedom was built on
the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the
land. This violent takeover was rendered "natural" by defining the
colonized people as savages, thus denying them their humanity and freedom.
Locke's treatise on property effectually legitimized this same process of
theft and robbery during the enclosure movement in Europe. Locke clearly
articulates capitalism's freedom to build on the freedom to steal; he
states that property is created by removing resources from nature through
mixing with labour. But this "labour" is not physical labour but labour in
its spiritual" form as manifest in the control of capital.
According to Locke, only those who own capital have the right to own
natural resources; a right that supersedes the common rights of others
with prior claims. Capital is thus defined as a source of freedom, but
this freedom is based on the denial of freedom to the land, forests,
rivers and biodiversity that capital claims as its own and to others whose
rights are based on their labour. Peasants and tribals who demand the
return of their rights and access to resources are regarded as thieves.
THESE EUROCENTRIC notions of property and piracy are the bases on which
the Intellectual Property Right laws of GATT/WTO (World Trade
Organisation) have been framed. When Europeans first colonized the
non-European world, they felt it was their duty to "discover and conquer",
to "subdue, occupy and possess". It seems that the Western powers are
still driven by that colonizing impulse to discover, conquer, own and
possess everything, every society, every culture.
The colonies have now been extended to the interior spaces, the "genetic
codes" of life-forms from microbes and plants to animals, including
humans. John Moore, a cancer patient, had his cell lines patented by his
own doctor. A company, Myriad Pharmaceuticals, has patented the cancer
gene in women in order to get a monopoly on diagnostics and testing. The
cell lines of the Hagahai of Papua New Guinea and the Guami of Panama have
been patented by the US Commerce Secretary. The assumption of empty lands,
"terra nullus", is now expanded to "empty life" seeds and medicinal plants
emptied of the cultural and knowledge imprint of non-Western sciences and
The takeover of native resources during colonization was justified on the
ground that indigenous people do not "improve" their land.
"Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any
settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land by. So have
nor other but a Natural Right to those countries. So as if we leave them
sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest."
The same logic is now used to appropriate biodiversity wealth from the
original owners and innovators by defining their seeds, medicinal plants,
medical knowledge into nature, into non-science and treating the tools of
genetic engineering as the yardstick of "improvement". Defining
Christianity as the only religion, and all other beliefs and cosmologies
as primitive, finds its parallel in defining commercialized Western
science as the only science, and all other knowledge systems as primitive.
500 years ago it was enough to be a non-Christian culture to lose all
claims and rights. 500 years after Columbus and Vasco de Gama it is enough
to be a non-Western culture with a distinctive world-view and diverse
knowledge systems to lose all claims and rights. The humanity of others
was blanked out then and their intellect is being blanked out now.
Conquered territories were treated as peopleless in the patents of the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Today patents have a continuity with the patents issued to Columbus, Sir
John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh. The conflicts that
have been unleashed by the GATT treaty, by patents on life-forms, by the
patenting of indigenous knowledge and by genetic engineering are grounded
in processes that can be summarized as the second coming of Columbus and
Vasco da Gama.
At the heart of Columbus' "discovery" was the treatment of piracy as a
natural right of the colonizer and necessary for the deliverance of the
colonized. At the heart of the GATT treaty and its patent laws is the
treatment of biopiracy as a natural right of Western corporations and as
necessary for the "development" of Third World societies.
Biopiracy is the Columbian "discovery" 500 years after Columbus - patents
are still the means to protect this piracy of the wealth of non Western
peoples as a right of Western powers.
Through patents and genetic engineering, new colonies are being carved
out. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, the atmosphere have
all been colonized, eroded and polluted. Capital now has to look for new
colonies to invade and exploit for its further accumulation. These new
colonies are, in my view, the interior spaces of the bodies of women,
plants and animals. Resistance to biopiracy is a resistance to this
ultimate colonization of life itself - of the future of evolution as well
as the past and future of non-Western traditions of relating to nature and
knowing nature. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species
to evolve; it is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to
evolve; it is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological
diversity. It is a struggle against new and old forms of colonization.
About the author: Vandana Shiva is a physicist and philosopher.
Her books include “Monoculture of the Mind” and “Staying Alive”.