Sexual Violence and The Doctrine of Discovery

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual violence and rape of women, youth and children.

This piece was written after a late night chatting with my dear relation Mereana Pitman who has been working in the prevention of family violence and sexual violence for over 40 years, and about the same period of time campaigning for, and educating on, Treaty justice. These are our combined reflections upon the role of the Doctrine of Discovery and sexual violence.

It is, perhaps, a mark of the year that 2020 has been that the creation of a new ministerial portfolio for the prevention of family and sexual violence sailed past the bluffs of the election media without barely a mention.  Aotearoa has some of the highest rates of family and sexual violence, and it is a cornerstone issue – it impacts upon multiple other spaces of mental health, the rights of women, youth and children, crime and incarceration to name just a few. It is a cornerstone issue in the social ecology – and while its impacts upon Māori communities are distinct it should not be understood as a Māori problem. It is, in no small measure, a colonization problem, and like all stories of colonization it requires a thorough understanding of the history of sexual violence in a colonial context. Here are just a few important considerations for us to keep in mind in considering the role of sexual violence within a colonial state:

América: James van der Straet
The Discovery of America, Jan van der Straet, 1575

Sexual violence is a tool of conquest and colonization.

We should, first, understand sexual violence as a primal act of domination that features across species, and certainly across cultures. It is used to punish, humiliate and destroy, and has been used as a tool of war, conquest and domination for as long as war, conquest and domination has existed. We then, must understand imperial expansion as acts of war, domination and conquest, and colonialism as the maintenance of domination. For nations that have undergone colonisation, sexual violence is one of the many tools that has been used to establish and maintain domination – and it has been an extremely effective one.

The Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery is an international legal and social concept which created sets of entitlements for European monarchs to expand their empires throughout the world. In the words of the papal laws, these entitlements included the right to:

invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens [Muslim] and pagans [Non-christians] and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

Dum Diversas

It’s important to note that even though these laws are ostensibly about the right to claim land, the first rights accorded are the rights to “invade, search out, capture and subjugate” Saracen and pagan people, followed by the right to then take their property, including their lands. This comes as no surprise within the context that these earliest of papal bulls were primarily aimed at establishing a slave trade.

However, within a very short period subsequent papal laws then expanded the entitlements both in scope of the geography (moving from the right to invade and claim West Africa, to the right to invade and claim the “New World”) and in provisions (increasing, and clarifying, what could be taken and done).

Under the likes of Christopher Columbus and Francisco Pizarro, the application of the Doctrine of Discovery utilised sexual violence from the very outset. One of the documents utilised in the process of applying the Doctrine of Discovery was called El Requierimiento. It was read out as a proclamation of discovery to the natives of the lands being claimed (of course it was never understood, and was in many cases read as a formality upon sighting the land, just before invading it and waging war upon the natives of that land). It reads as follows (emphasis added):

“… We shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”

El Requierimiento

Here we see, in the tools of the Doctrine, the explicit entitlement towards women and children, the intention to make war in all ways possible, to “do all the mischief and damage that we can”, and importantly, that all blame for this will be upon the victims themselves. Unsurprisingly, the mischief described consistently involved sexual assault. Franciscan monk Bartolome De Las Casas recorded the events in his journal regarding Columbus’s invasion of Haiti:

“This was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill use them…. And some of the Indians concealed their foods while others concealed their wives and children and still others fled to the mountains to avoid the terrible transactions of the Christians… They behaved with such temerity and shamelessness that the most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer.”

De Las Casas

Bartolomé de las Casas y su Brevísima Relación de las Destrucción de las  Indias | Ruma de papeles

Further accounts are provided by crew members of the orders given to rape women, and in the instances of crew such as Miguel Cuneo, where native women were “gifted” by Columbus and subsequently raped. Sexual trafficking and sexual violence against women, children and youth featured throughout what became known as the “Age of Discovery” (better termed the Age of Genocide). It featured in the voyages of Magellan, of Pizarro (and indeed all conquistadors), and of James Cook.

A chilling but important blog piece on colonial rape as a tool of colonial conquest. (TW)

In the case of the British colonization of India, not only was the colonial rape of Indian women widespread, but colonial laws were adopted which placed a heavy standard of evidence upon rape victims only for cases where the accused was a British officer.

AND SO – The history of colonization must include the employment of sexual violence and trafficking as a tool of domination and conquest, and conversely the history of sexual violence must include its specific use against Indigenous peoples as a part of the colonial project.

Sexual violence is intended to strip the sacred

Sexual violence is a form of consumption, and so, in consuming you, it attempts to desanctify you, making you not only property, but consumed, defiled and defecated property. In making you non-sacred this legitimizes the entitlement to take whatever is required of you, because you do not matter. It is the most powerful expression of you not mattering, along with extinguishing your life.

The whare tangata (womb) is seen as a sacred repository for Hine, in the form of Hineteiwaiwa, who oversees the female reproductive cycles. It is the space where the divine and human come together. It is a portal for souls to enter this world. The assault upon this aspect of our sacredness is one intended against not only the victim, but the line which continues through her. Sexual violation and commodification of Indigenous women is also associated to their hypersexualisation and subsequent cultural appropriation. The “Dusky Pacific Maiden”, and “Squaw” tropes are two examples of of how the Indigenous feminine is hypersexualised, commodified and consumed for colonial entertainment, through literature, through porn, and through costumes. Today, still, the true story of Pocahontas which obscures and erases colonial rape is made all the worse by the continued commodification and hypersexualising of her story and image, primarily through the likes of Disney, which then drives subsequent hypersexualised costuming every single Halloween.

Does Disney's Pocahontas Do More Harm Than Good? - The Atlantic

Furthermore, the rape of children in particular is a stripping of sacred innocence that feeds a colonial compulsion to acquire all that can possibly be acquired of a people. Nowhere is sacred when even the innocence of children can be taken. As we have seen in the cases of children taken and then abused through the state system both in Aotearoa, in Australia and on Great Turtle Island, the deep, psychological and spiritual damage that is done through sexual violence passes on intergenerationally, and after the first instance, the colonial perpetrator becomes the Indigenous vector.

AND SO – healing sexual violence necessitates spiritual healing.

Sexual violence is synonymous with environmental violence.

As outline above, sexual violence is a powerful tool to facilitate the taking of land. Making you insignificant is an important step in the legitimizing of the theft and abuse of your land and waters. In particular, the aforementioned assault upon the womb is one which, with its many associations to sacred land and waters, extends to the entitlement to own, and abuse, the natural Indigenous world. This is not only historical but also contemporary, and is further evidenced in the correlation between oil pipelines and missing and murdered Indigenous women on Great Turtle Island (insert maps).

As pointed out by Dr. Dawn Memee Harvard, Native Women’s Association of Canada in her United Nations submission:

A 2014 report by the ILO estimated that 21 million individuals are being trafficked for sex or labor globally per year and showed that sexual violence and trafficking is exponentially higher near points of extraction and worker camps, or “man camps” than it is in locales of similar population.    Destructive, resource-intensive, and often forced practices of mineral extraction are primary ways that colonialist conquest and genocide continue today, through simultaneous violence against the land and against indigenous peoples, disproportionately affecting women and girls.  

Dr. Dawn Memee Harvard

Indeed, at Standing Rock, at the Alberta Tar Sands, in Peru, parts of Africa and around the world, environmental exploitation is synonymous with gender based violence. In all of these places, historically and in a contemporary sense, Indigenous peoples are subjected to sexual and gender based violence as a response to their efforts to return and protect their Indigenous territories.

Map of major oil pipelines in the USA/Canada
Map of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in USA/Canada

AND SO – sexual violence and gender based violence must be further understood as a precursor and facilitator of environmental harm that disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples. Environmental colonialism must also be understood as an issue which increases the likelihood of sexual and gender based violence against Indigenous communities.

Sexual violence dispossesses/displaces us of our bodily, emotional, spiritual territories.

It is a commonly seen consequence of sexual violence that survivors disconnect themselves from their bodies/emotions/spiritual selves in order to survive. This displacement can remain lifelong, and can then lead to behaviour that is symptomatic of the heart, mind, soul, body and collective being displaced from each other. This is particularly true of children who are nowhere near equipped to be able to deal with the trauma of sexual violence.

Their pathological selves are disconnected from community, through the shame associated with sexual trauma. The shame of being defiled. The shame of sexual dysfunction. All of these things drive victims of intergenerational sexual trauma away from the community. In some cases, the community finds it easier to ignore what is happening, or attack the victim, than deal with the sexual violence itself, and in other cases it is the victim who perceives the shame and never raises it to the community.

Hurt people hurt people. Our patriarchal, heteronormative, Christian society does not allow for deep discourse on sexuality. Where all sex is seen as a sin, open intergenerational discussions about sex are limited and consequently our ability to differentiate between natural, healthy sex and sexual violence is also limited. It vilifies the intergenerational vectors of sexual violence, forcing them underground, away from healing, so that the harm continues in our communities. The depth and scale of trauma created by sexual violence, coupled with the lack of effective support, underpins the “state-care” to prison pipeline and is consequently linked to a wide range of harmful outcomes for individuals, whanau and communities.

AND SO – healing sexual trauma in Maori communities necessitates processes that reconnect us to our physical, emotional, spiritual and communal selves. It needs to be connected to our work on suicide and addiction, and understood as a major contributor to hyper-incarceration. It further requires a range of healing approaches both for victims and vectors of intergenerational sexual trauma, as well as their communities.

Sexual violence has promulgated through Maori communities at the hands of the Crown.

There are two significant sites of our colonial history that have contributed to sexual assault within Māori communities: warfare and “state care“. Over 100,000 children were placed into state care in just 40 years, with the rate of Māori being between 50% and 90% depending on the year, and the region. Abuse in state care is rife, and reports indicate the the vast majority of that abuse that has occurred also happens to Māori.

In consideration of these numbers, one simply cannot overstate the impact of what we can safely term the mass-rape of Māori children by the state. Moana Jackson says “you cannot take a young man in a prison cell and look at him separately from the experience of colonization”. The same can be said of sexual trauma in Māori communities. We simply cannot look at it in isolation of the experience of colonization and the utilization of sexual assault as a tool of colonization both to us, and through us.

Militarism and sexual assault goes hand in hand. It is a part of the oldest military strategies. If we understand the “Age of Discovery” as a series of war crimes, invasions of Indigenous nations – then we can see that the same tactics were employed as military strategies. It occurred in Africa under Dum Diversas. It occurred in Haiti under Columbus. It occurred in Aotearoa at the hands of Cook’s crew. It occurred in Aotearoa as a tool of the land wars, at Rangiaowhia, at Parihaka, at Maungapōhatu. Our tipuna were further exposed to wartime sexual violence in the battlefields of Europe and North Africa during World War 2, and in Vietnam. It occurs, still in Afghanistan. Sexual violence has occurred, and continues to occur, throughout the Pacific in and around the military bases. Sexual trafficking, forced prostitution, sexual assaults, all spike around military bases. Essentially, where there is war, there is sexual violence.

Our tipuna came back from war broken, and hurt men. Men who had been exposed to wartime sexual violence. Men who were offered little more than alcohol or drugs to numb the trauma of what they experienced. Addicted, traumatized, hurt, and then planted back into our communities where the hurt became intergenerational.

AND SO – sexual assault within Māori communities must be understood as a legacy of colonization.

Colonial Sexual Trauma is Capitalised Upon by the Colonialism Industrial Complex
Just as there is a poverty industrial complex and a nonprofit industrial complex – colonialism also exists, itself, as an industrial complex. Many billions of dollars is spent on the social fallout of sexual trauma, through Corrections, through counselling services, through social service providers, through Oranga Tamariki, through women’s refuge…. and the vast majority of the funding either cycles back through the State, or is paid out to pākeha social service providers. Numerous studies and experts have concluded that the subsequent services are not geared for Māori, and fail to provide the appropriate healing required for spiritual, physical, emotional, and communal wellness.

One doesn’t have to impugn the motives of the individuals and nonprofits working in this industry to observe that, in the aggregate, they consistently behave like other industries: working closely with elected officials and government agencies to preserve the government funding that supports their work. The result is ingrained inertia that makes it harder to shift resources to programs that could provide better outcomes and do so more efficiently.

Daniel Stid, Washington Post

When you look at how the complex is facilitated, through relationships of privilege and social opportunities that are built out of a background of education and qualifications that are also acquired through socio-economic privilege, it is easy to see how easily pākeha turn a profit from the colonial harm visited upon Māori. This is not uncommon within the framework of the Doctrine of Discovery, where the extraction from Indigenous peoples and their territories underwrites the global imperial economic complex.

AND SO – Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery within the sexual violence-social work sector means primarily resourcing Māori services to provide multi-level healing services from the colonial legacy of sexual violence.

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