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Friday, July 07, 2006


What is the origin of sovereignty (if the concept is legitimate at all)? It would seem to be the juridical expression of autarchy. Autarchy takes two forms: economic and military. If economic or military autarky dies then the concept of sovereignty becomes empty. One could render a city or a kingdom economically or militarily prostrate by burning its crops, poisoning its wells and slaying its army and depending on circumstances and intentions be praised or condemned. But what if one strips a city or kingdom of its autarky simply by discovering it? What if one crosses a hitherto un-navigated ocean or penetrates into an uncharted region and discovers a people so technologically or culturally (they are not necessarily convertible) distant from one's own people that they who were once proudly independent or even the rulers of other peoples are suddenly rendered helpless before gunpowder and horses, battleships and machineguns?

Let us for now ignore the question of the Gospel and the Natural Law. Let us suppose that these people are evangelised and exemplary in their conduct. Should one return to the jungle or set out once more upon the seas and restore to them their sovereignty by default, hoping that no less-scrupulous traveller of advanced resources comes upon them? Or, does one acquire the obligation to arm and instruct them? And, what if the necessary instruction could not possibly be carried out in a few months or years but is a generational undertaking? Has one not already taken on governmental duties and functions? Certainly defence is now your task and not that of the conventional rulers of the people. You must insure that weapons from your civilisation do not fall into the hands of the ordinary population and that the legitimate guardians of the civil peace are equipped to employ these means to bring their society to a position where it is autarchic again. The explorer is already, if not the King, then the Emperor or Proconsul of this new world.

The situation is immensely complicated if the Gospel has not been preached and there is the possibility that it will be received with violence or if there are grave violations of the natural law in the newly discovered society. So far I have imagined a situation in which the explorer and/or his own society is himself a faithful adherent of the Gospel and of the Natural Law. But of how many individuals and societies is that ever truly the case? The issues are therefore made more complex again. The explorer may fulfil these conditions but not his own society or its rulers or some other combination of the three. In most cases it is the technological and cartographical advances occurring in the explorer's society rather than an exceptional chance find which lie behind the encounter between the two peoples. In few cases will it be legitimate or plausible to flee and hope the newly discovered nation, city or tribe is not discovered by someone else very soon after.

Perhaps the only real choice on offer will be whether the explorer sails back to Charles V, Henry VIII or Francis I. The idea of a 'benign' Emperor who declares the new region a cultural quarantine zone and preserves its people from any contact with the 'outside world' is impractical and misplaced. The fundamental solidarity of mankind means that we have an obligation to share the fruits of our own knowledge and experiences with each other. The real consequence of such an experiment would be the reduction of an entire culture to a pastiche and the careless discarding of a potential opportunity for mutual enrichment. The preaching of the Gospel is just the most extreme instance of this duty.

We live in a fallen world and the usual consequences of such encounters are well known: enslavement and exploitation, corruption and contempt; but the issues are real. The fact that these considerations have been made the mask of hypocrisy again and again may poison the discussion but it does not render it invalid. Too often anti-colonial polemic implies the 'quarantine zone' non-solution without having the courage to assert it directly for fear of unmasking its absurdity. Too often these debates really have nothing to do with Cecil Rhodes or Hernando Cortés and the real agenda behind such polemic is a desire to establish the dictatorship of relativism in modern society by the misuse of collective western guilt for the crimes of the colonial era. In the past westerners betrayed the beliefs upon which their civilisation was built to exploit the other in the service of greed; now the greed and exploitation of the past is used as an instrument to uproot those beliefs and erect a new civilisation where exploitation is so structural that no coercion is required. We save up to buy our own chains.