The Americas 61.2 (2004) 268-270
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This is a provocative book. American Pentimento is Patricia Seed's latest investigation into the diverse origins, experiences and legacies of European colonialism in the Americas. Readers of Ceremonies of Possession (1995) and Seed's many articles over the last decade will be familiar with her arguments concerning how the habits, practices and histories of the Iberian Peninsula and northern Europe resulted in distinctive patterns of conquest and colonization. American Pentimento builds on this earlier work by contending that this deep cultural history continues to influence the perceptions and actions that European colonizers and their descendents have imposed [End Page 268] upon indigenous peoples. For Seed, these largely unacknowledged patterns are made explicit and thrown into high relief when analyzed in a comparative framework.
The book focuses upon aspects of the colonial experience of England, Spain and Portugal. Seed demonstrates the lingering influence of the past in various "historical presents," beginning with diverse medieval antecedents through the colonial centuries and into contemporary times. While the broad chronological sweep of her argument will be disconcerting to some, at times it provides startling insights. The crux of her argument is that specific historical factors—the Islamic heritage of the Iberian peninsula, the relative scarcity of land in England (evident in timber shortages and the enclosure of the commons), the Portuguese preference for trading colonies, etc.—created different sets of expectations, beliefs and actions in new colonial settings. Moreover, these early interactions formed a "pentimento," that is, a rough draft the lines of which can still be seen in subsequent elaborations.
This approach allows Seed to note remarkable continuities over time in areas as diverse as land and labor, "moral" justifications for colonial and neo-colonial rule, and even contemporary political demands and sensitivities. Thus, the English tendency to value land leads to the definition of "improvement" through agricultural labor as a criterion for determining legitimate possession. This also explains why English settlers tended to consider the expropriation of land they defined as "waste," "empty" or even "virgin," to be morally uplifting. "Improvement" of land continues to be an important legal concept in Untied States courts, though not to the same extent as in the former Iberian colonies. Spanish efforts centered on controlling labor, rather than land per se. Seed argues that the early Iberian systems of labor organization (encomienda), tribute collection and even subsoil mineral rights can be traced to Islamic precedents. In the Iberian colonies, a different set of "moral" arguments was deployed to justify access to and control over indigenous labor. These justifications then influence the evolution of the law, social expectations and even the terms of political struggle in subsequent centuries, as the useful discussion of the politically loaded topic of "cannibalism" in colonial contexts reveals in Chapter 6. Possibly the most useful contribution of this book is to demonstrate the variety, relativity and lingering influence of European justifications for conquest and colonization. Making these assumptions explicit can stimulate discussion, debate and perhaps even new practices. At a minimum, Seed helps us understand the cultural politics involved in repressing "Latin-speaking Nahua clergymen," "Cherokee cotton growers and Appalachee orchard growers" (p. 134), all very real and poorly understood aspects of colonial experience.
Seed is no stranger to controversy. Many historians will be troubled by her more or less exclusive focus on the European dimensions of colonial cultures. In addition, her macro-level approach tends to span centuries and continents, with relatively little attention to local redefinitions and specific confrontations over meaning. While this allows Seed to make some interesting connections over time, it de-emphasizes the dynamic aspects of culture as a lived process. Though Seed is careful [End Page 269] to refer to cultural choices, the model of a "pentimento" seems somewhat static, at least in its application throughout the text. Nevertheless, American Pentimento succeeds on is own terms, raising...