The image is an arresting one: Christopher Columbus on the beach at
Guanahani in October 1492, claiming a new world for his sovereigns. No
sooner did he go ashore with two of his captains than he ‘‘brought out the
royal banner and the captains two flags,’’ insignia they planted as part of a
ritualized toma de posesión, taking possession.∞
Next, according to the jour-
nal of the voyage, came a series of actions crucial to the performance of the
Genoese admiral’s claims. He had a notary put the relevant specifics in
writing. Thus the first thing Europeans made on American shores in 1492
was a notarial record:
The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others who had
jumped ashore and to Rodrigo Descobedo, the escrivano [notary] of the
whole fleet . . . and he said that they should be witnesses that, in the
presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the
said island for the king and for the queen his lords, making the declara-
tions that were required, and which at more length are contained in the
testimonials made there in writing.≤
Eager ‘‘discoverers’’ in the wake of Columbus went about extending
this paper trail of possession. Vicente Yáñez Pinzón in Paria ‘‘jumped from
the boat . . . [with] certain notaries,’’ taking possession of the land for his
sovereign by heaping up boundary markers and giving the site a Castilian
name. He also ‘‘cut o√ many branches from the trees, and in certain
principal places they drew crosses to signify possession and made other
crosses out of wood.’’≥
Bartolomé de Celada, in what is now Honduras,
had a notary record that his possession-taking acts involved moving about,
‘‘cutting branches from the trees and pulling up grass and digging into the
land with his hands.’’∂
Perhaps most memorably, in 1513, Vasco Núñez de
Balboa claimed for Castile not land but sea. On reaching the Pacific’s shore
Balboa and his party found that the tide was out and the timing wasn’t
right for a possession ceremony. So they sat on the beach and waited.
When the tide was high, Balboa waded in knee-deep, drew his sword,
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