Sir George Peckham: The Advantages of Colonization (1582). (03/06/2002)

At the end of the 16th Century (1582), England was just beginning to turn its attention to the possibility of establishing permanent settlements in the New World. Queen Elizabeth I, however, was not certainly convinced that such enterprises were in the best interests of the nation at the time. In order to counteract her reluctance to involve any of the crown's resources in colonization efforts, a significant number of pamphlets and advertisements extolling the advantages of colony building in the New World began to appear at the end of the century. Apart from the fact that colonization was perceived by some members of the landed gentry as a means of creating personal wealth, there was also a legitimate concern that England had already fallen well behind such efforts on the part of two of its traditional enemies, France and Spain, to stake out new territory in the Americas. Spain had been securing its foothold from Florida to California from its base in Mexico for nearly a hundred years, with France doing the same thing in Canada and along the water-course of the Mississippi River for almost as long, before Sir George Peckham wrote a treatise entitled The Advantages of Colonization (in 1582) that outlined for the Queen exactly what benefits could be reaped from seizing control of the relatively unclaimed territory south of Canada, north of Florida, that ran westward from the east coast to the Mississippi River. Peckham was not the only advocate of colonization, of course, where Sir Walter Raleigh also had the Queen's ear on the issue, but his treatise (probably written on behalf of Sir Humphrey Gilbert) states the case for the Advantages more thoroughly than most other documents of the kind. It also establishes terms of discourse about the nature of the enterprise that have stood as virtually unassailable from his day to our own.

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 undertaking the voyage 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. An early church Father, Tertullian, sketching out a kind of ground for Peckham, 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 those same 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 use. Tertullian also mentions the fact that the Greeks and Romans often employed colonization to relieve problems associated with overpopulation. Whether or not Peckham was personally aware of Tertullian's argument makes little difference, since the church hierarchy already had an orthodoxy in place in the Father's writing that fully justifies his argument. 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 homes. 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 and decay.

Peckham initially puts the best face possible on the issues surrounding how Europeans and natives should communicate with each other, there being no common language between them, by insisting that the intercourse always follow means and methods consistent with the "loving conversation" that occurs in the midst of a "league of friendship" of the kind found between and among Christians. Once this ideal conversation with the natives has been established, Christians should assure them that the native people of America will always be protected "with force of Arms . . . in their just quarrels, from all invasions, spoils and oppressions offered them by any Tryants, Adversaries, or their next borderers." The tyrants and adversaries, though Peckham does not say so directly, may mean to implicate the French and Spanish in efforts to disrupt the progress England hopes to make in settling the northeastern US. He concludes this aspect of his comments by noting that people who need the most help also benefit the most when it is bestowed upon them; that is, "a benefit is so much the more to be esteemed, by how much the person upon whom it is bestowed standeth in need thereof." Peckham goes on from there to explain precisely how much in need the natives are of help from the English:

"For it appeareth by a relation of a Countryman of ours, namely David Ingram, (who traveled in those countries [eleven] 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."

While this is not the first reference to the existence of cannibals in the Americas, where Columbus asked after them among the natives of Hispaniola in 1492, Peckham employs this fanciful reference to such tribes to dramatize the necessity he sees for the colonists to come fully armed as they enter America, since it will be necessary for Europeans to protect docile and compliant natives from their cruel, vicious, and cannibalistic neighbors. After making clear what the threats are, Peckham turns to a supplementary need for arms that might surface eventually:

"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."

In these two statements, of course, Peckham establishes the idea that the English have a legal right ("For it is allowable by all Laws") to travel without restriction to America and to defend themselves by resisting "violence with violence" in any case where the natives engage in attempts to repel the European invasion of their homeland. Pursuing "revenge with force," then, against any effort the natives take to defend themselves from the invasion, becomes the accepted standard of behavior for Europeans, a standard that was always perceived as perfectly legal and lawful from the invaders' point-of-view, where the natives themselves seemed to have had a different perception of the matter. One wonders, of course, precisely when and how the "loving conversation" of Christian discourse with the natives turned so quickly and absolutely into a need to build "Forts for avoiding the extremity of injurious dealing," how and why it got to that point in fact before any significant number of Englishmen even left Europe for the New World. Clearly, the idea that the "force of Arms" Peckham advocates for the purpose of defending defenseless natives from their cannibalistic neighbors, who in fact never existed except in the imaginations of the colonizers, was really meant as a necessary means of protecting the invaders from the violent rejection Peckham expected the natives to bring against his conscripts for colonization.

In a subsequent statement Peckham begins the long and torturous argument that became a standard justification for the right of Europeans to invade the New World and to suppress any and all native resistance to their presence by whatever means were necessary. Native Americans, of course, were heathens, non-believers pure and simple, and Peckham explains the "true" mission of the colonizers as being

"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."

In other words, Europeans justified their invasion of the New World by claiming that their benevolent presence among the natives would result in the conversion of the heathen masses to the "gladsome tidings of the most glorious Gospel" of Eurocentric Christianity. Peckham then justifies the taking of plunder from the wealth of the New World by claiming that "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." This is an idea all Christians can embrace, even to this day, because it seems so obvious that spending an eternity in heavenly bliss, which one can only get by professing the Faith, must justly and absolutely compensate any loss that may occur as a result of having your homeland invaded by a murderous hoard of greed-driven monsters who just happen to carry along with them the only available key to the kingdom of eternal life. If you have to watch while your children are burned to death as they sleep, or worse, watch as they are torn to pieces and eaten by war-dogs trained to do just that, nothing can stop you from gaining the benefit of being able to contemplate that atrocity for eternity in the bosom of the Savior who brought it to you in the first place.

Peckham endeavors, of course, to project future atrocities back against the natives themselves, even before any of them occur, when he argues that the benevolent presence of English churchmen will have certain inevitable effects on the lives of the heathens; that is, "the ignorant and barbarous idolaters [will be] taught to know Christ, the innocent [will be] defended from their bloody tyrannicale neighbours, [and] the diabolical custom of sacrificing human creatures [will be] abolished." The tone here, even some of the charges leveled against native people (that they practice human sacrifice, for instance), seem to spring fully empowered and formed from the rich and fertile ground of Peckham's imagination, since he has not mentioned most of this (except for the "bloody tyrannicale [cannibalistic] neighbours") prior to using these examples in his concluding summary of characterizations of what the colonists can expect to encounter once they reach the New World. While this list of brutish expectation does not paint a particularly attractive picture, one that would inspire any reasonable person to sign on to a colonial expedition, it is relatively meaningless anyway, since none of it will ever prove to be true, and no one will ever actually be threatened by its realization. Peckham uses this description of native life and character, most of which is pure fabrication, as a rhetorical devise to counterbalance the nearly infinite benefits that will flow homeward to the Queen from her colonies in the Americas. He says, for instance, 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."

So what if a few barbaric cannibals might make it somewhat risky to venture forth across the ocean to a land not our own, the benefits to England so far outweigh that risk, and any possible illegality it might entail, that to ignore the opportunity would be the height of imperialistic folly, especially with France and Spain already pressing down on the remaining territory from all sides. And so Peckham cobbles together a sturdy shoe that Europeans have been wearing ever since the first rumor of cannibalism reached the shores of the Old World from the New and uses it to encourage the colonization of a people and a land through the forced conversion of both to a religious tradition so exclusive of the other that the only way to accomplish the goal is to annihilate anyone who might object to its implementation. The policy, and the various lies that support it, were so powerfully forged that most are still believed to this day. The savage brutality of native Americans against their European invaders resulted in proper justice being done to them for daring to resist the inevitable achievement of a bountiful kingdom of God on earth. That the kingdom's richness has remained the exclusive property of white Europeans in virtually every corner of the Americas is to say nothing more than what the mythic identity of conqueror always says to the conquered. The only fly still left buzzing around in the closed crypt of Eurocentric perfidy is the fact that there has never been a statute of limitation on genocide.