Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

Murder Incorporated Book One: Dreaming of Empire by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Stephen Vittoria.

“The Colony He Helped Found.”

The colony he helped create did not hesitate to execute Quakers or go medieval on those considered to be witches. Slavery was cool too. And according to the Puritan ethic of the time, slavery was condoned in the professed holy book and not perceived as a slight against God—just a few extra hands around the house, you know?

Sure, Africans were already enslaved in the neighborhood when Winthrop showed up, but he clearly supported the practice as governor, writing the very first law on the American continent sanctioning the enslavement of Africans. In fact, Winthrop enjoyed reeling and dealing in the slave trade, especially after the Pequot War, 1634-1638, when the Massachusetts Bay colony led by Winthrop enslaved many of the captured Pequot Indian.

But the captured warriors were still freaking out the good church folk, so Winthrop traded these insurgents for cotton and tobacco and Negroes. Now the Winthrops, who wanted to keep up with the Joneses, also needed some help around the house, so they kept three Pequot slaves for themselves: American exceptionalism and Christiandom its absolute best. Indeed, a shining city on the hill.

“Vacuum domicilium. No man’s land.”

Andrew Stevenson, professor of history at Columbia University and the author of a remarkable discourse on the foundation of American empire entitled Manifest destiny; American Expansion and the Empire of Right makes a powerful case regarding the molten core of Europe’s religious drive to conquer and colonize the Americas. For Europeans, land not occupied by recognized members of Christiandom was theoretically land free to be taken. When practically possible, they did so.

The Christian colonizers of the Americas, including the Spanish and the Portuguese, understood there’s a sacred enterprises, but only the new England Puritan conceive the territory itself as sacred. This, then, was the new Canaan, a land promise to be reconquered and reworked for the glory of God by his select forces, the saving remnant in the wilderness. Charged with the dominion of providence, the European settlers, read occupiers, engaged in a practice known as vacuum domicilium, also known by another Latin term, terra nullus, which is derived from Roman law and translates to land belonging to no one or no man’s land.

Initially many of the first colonists attempted to acquire the title to the land they occupied, but quickly abandoned that practice as it was considered an attempt to respect sovereignty and instead embrace the notion that law is politics by other means, embarking on an all out land grab via vacuum domicilium: if the property is not inactive use, then it’s simply free for the taking, so if the terrain was used seasonally by the indigenous population for farming, hunting, or fishing and appears barren, too bad!

The occupiers can simply claim the land. In fact, the colonizers made a straightforward God-inspired rule: the rights of civilized Christians superseded the rights of the hunter-gatherers, heathens, and savages. The Protestant Reformation of Christianity’s sixteenth century schism between the Roman Catholic Church and early Protestant Reformers led by John Calvin and Martin Luther laid the necessary foundation for biblical prophecy to be used as the spiritual motivation for the occupation of this new Israel—as well as the eventual removal as Jefferson and Franklin later defined them: savages.

Stevenson suggests the Book of Revelation in short made sense to English Protestants in general and Puritans in particular. It allowed the Reformation to be interpreted as either a moment on the way to armageddon or even as the battle itself. Surely it could not have been an accident either that God had unveiled this new world, this new continent hidden for so many ages, precisely at the moment when the process of purification had begun in the old world.

And this process of purification was happening everywhere in the Americas. Stevenson continues: every activity, personal and communal, was irreducibly part of a holy war against Satan and his infidels. The aristocracy of saints had to work ceaselessly at this critical moment to make the present world as solemnly and gloriously Christia  as it could be. The pure truth to their name placed tremendous weight on always defining who was inside and who was outside when it came to their communal existence.

The message to the heathens outside was, in this respect, as radical as St. Paul’s: see the light or perish in eternal damnation. In the Virginia colony at the tim, John Rolfe, when he wasn’t busy cultivating and exploring tobacco and then marrying Pocahontas, Christianizing her and changing her name to Rebecca, fortified the English occupiers of Virginia as a peculiar people, marked and chosen like a finger of God. From John Winthrop through Benjamin Franklin almost 200 years later, American exceptionalism went viral, providing the necessary pretext and justification to exterminate the indigenous population at will until every last uncivilized, bestial, non-literate, undomesticated, feral, vicious, and barbarous savage was roadkill.

First, let’s hear from Winthrop regarding a smallpox epidemic that had wiped out the area’s Indian population in the 1630s, something Winthrop viewed as divine intervention: God has consumed the negatives with a miraculous plague. Next, from the city of brotherly love, we hear from Ben Franklin regarding how rum was being utilized by God Almighty to help soften up the savages for the big kill: the appointed means by which the design of Providence to extrapate those savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth.

This escalating myth of being the chosen people, cultivators of a new promised land, a new Israel, became an integral premise in America’s bloated self-interpretation. Samuel Langdon, colonial American clergymen and president of Harvard University from 1774 until 1780, was a typical cheerleader for American exceptionalism during the twilight years of the eighteenth century when he preached at Concord, New Hampshire: we cannot but acknowledge that God graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care as he did his ancient covenant people.

These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.