One of the best-known myths in history is that a Dutch international trading company bought Manhattan Island in the 17th Century for $24 worth of beads. What a bargain, eh? It’s not quite true. What they actually bought was a right to use the land. Exclusively perhaps, and indefinitely perhaps, but the natives of that region had no concept of private property. Their representatives not only didn’t have the right to sell (alienate) any land, they wouldn’t have even thought of it.
When native Melanesian villagers in the South Pacific Islands that European invaders called New Hebrides and New Caledonia (and the French equivalents) solemnly agreed to sell their spare land in the 19th and 20th Centuries, they were pleased when the settlers planted long lines of coconut trees and gave the villagers some of the fruit. As the villagers increased in number, they naturally expanded their living space among the trees. To them, land-use was the same as land-ownership; unused land had no owner. They had no concept of private property.
Much argument ensued. Military might defined legal right – as it always does. The natives’ resentment was still strong in the New Hebrides in the 1970s when Linda and I lived in Vila, the main trading town. The resentment was assuaged in 1980, when the first government of the newly independent nation of Vanuatu confiscated all vacant land owned by non-natives. We lost our half-acre suburban plot in Vila, bought as a speculation. These forty years later, we still feel hardly done by, and we understand the old resentment of the villagers.
Centuries ago, all land in England was deemed to be owned by the monarchy. It had been appointed directly by God, and it claimed the “divine right” that King Charles lost his head over. Today, legal title to English land is in the names of individuals, and the monarch has no say in the matter.
That’s not quite true, either. The permission of the monarchy or its deputies (or its recognized legal successors in some former colonies) is an essential requirement for all transfers of land. A tax is payable, evidence that the State’s power is the power of an owner, never mind whose name is on the Title Deed. Death duties are a reminder. So is the doctrine of “eminent domain” – the right of the State to confiscate anybody’s land.
(The power of the State to conscript citizens for foreign wars is, equally, a reminder of its right to enslave its subjects, never mind what statutes have been passed banning slavery and indentured service, and never mind what international Human Rights Conventions have been solemnly signed. Military (paramilitary) might still defines legal right.)
When the British government began its conquest and occupation of Australia, in the years following the loss of its major North American colonies, it (the government) decided to experiment with an alternative to its American practices. This time, there would be no argument with native communities over the difference between land-ownership and land-use. There would be no moral dilemma over the theft of natives’ land.
This time – and what a brilliant notion it was – this time, the natives would simply not be recognized as human! Wow. British judges declared Australia an uninhabited continent. The nomadic sub-human natives were shoo’d out of the way, and were shot like outlaws if they baulked. Well, they were outlaws – creatures living outside the protection of the law. Let them play that on their didgeridoos and dance to it!
I have blogged [Grandfathers, January 2014] that my mother’s father used to negotiate with the local native community for the right to harvest trees in the forest and to establish sawmills to cut the felled trees into timber. It was prudent to negotiate those things in good faith, but by law he could have simply walked in and assumed the right – with the permission of the registered European owner of the forest, of course…