How to Claim a Continent

Claiming sovereignty over an unoccupied territory, on behalf of an unknown nation, is a modern farce. It's also a centuries-old tradition.
Lamont M. Butler-El (left) was not as successful at claiming his territory as famed explorers Vasco Núñez de Balboa (center) and Vasco da Gama (right). (Prince Georges County Police, Wikimedia Commons)

Conspiracy to commit burglary, burglary, and attempted theft.

Those charges hardly seem to do justice to the inventiveness of claiming sovereignty over an unoccupied Bethesda mansion on behalf of the Moorish American nation. Yet these are some of the criminal acts of which Lamont M. Butler-El, also known as Lamont Maurice Butler, was convicted last month in Montgomery Circuit Court.

Since it was first reported in The Washington Post, Butler-El’s case has drawn a mix of outrage and amusement with most commentators emphasizing the outlandish nature of his actions and the even more peculiar quality of his legal rationale. One news outlet summed up the more general response when it named this the “weirdest defense strategy of the year—or possibly the century.” 

Butler-El’s actions—claiming huge swathes of territory based on precarious judicial logic—are certainly strange and were understandably ruled illegal. Yet in staking out his rights to these 35,000 square feet of Moorish American territory in the way he did, Butler-El drew directly from a playbook for sovereignty claims that was used by Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and a host of lesser known explorers, adventurers and settlers.

Butler-El didn’t attempt to seize the property in question, a $6 million 12-bedroom, 17-bathroom estate, by slipping through a hole in the fence. Instead, on December 17 last year, he presented himself before the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation to demand that the records be altered to reflect the fact that he was assuming ownership as a representative of the so-called Moorish Nation of Northwest Amexem, North America, an imagined community that supposedly predated both the modern United States and European colonization of the Americas. Some weeks later on January 3, he employed a similarly bold strategy when questioned by his new neighbors, who had noticed unexpected activity on the property. His response was a detailed “history lesson” that was repeated to police officers arriving on the scene two days later.  

Butler-El, it appears, was not intent on the act of burglary but rather on claiming. In his own words, he had simply “claimed the land and everything on the land.” What is a claim? “A claim is neither a request nor a demand,” writes Stanford historian James Sheehan. “To make a claim is to appeal to some standard of justice, some sort of right, but it is also to assert a willingness to back up this appeal with some sort of action.”

The particular standard of justice that Butler-El had in mind was expansive, allowing him not simply to take possession of the estate but also, if carried through to its logical extremes, to large swathes of the country. As summed up by the judge in his trial, “under your set of rules, every house is fair game, you own the entire United States, you own the oceans, you own anything you want.” It was also a standard that, as made clear at each stage of the case, no-one on the ground, whether it was officials in the Maryland state government, the neighbors, the police, the judge or the jurors, could readily make sense of.

Identical qualities stand at the heart of the European sovereignty playbook as it was deployed in diverse spots across the world during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  The primary characteristic of sovereignty claims in this period was their almost unfathomable ambition. Again and again, tiny contingents of Europeans, always outnumbered and often in terrible shape after long voyages in cramped vessels or disastrous treks across harsh interiors, proceeded to lay claim to huge tracts of land or even vaster expanses of maritime space.   

One example comes from exactly five hundred years before Butler-El claimed his Bethesda mansion when Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a Spanish adventurer, crossed the Panamanian isthmus with a small party in search of the mysterious ‘other sea.’ Arriving at the shores of the Pacific Ocean, he paused for a moment, waiting on the beach for the tide to come in before staging an act of possession of such audacity that it still retains the power, even centuries later, to stun. Wading into the warm waters up his knees, he proceeded to claim the ocean itself “now and for all time so long as the world shall last, until the final universal judgment of all mortals.” The unlimited ambition of such moments, and here again there is a parallel with what happened in Bethesda, meant that they frequently crossed the line into farce. If they came off, acts of possession could radically reshape the political and legal landscape. Yet for every moment of consequence there was another that was nothing more than an empty gesture, all flourish with no substance, that no more troubled the extant order than Butler-El’s short-lived intervention. Sailing down the coast of Africa, for example, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, erected a huge cross marking possession only to witness local inhabitants dismantle it as he soon as he weighed anchor, leaving no trace of his claim left on the land.      

But acts of possession could also be deathly serious. Unless it applied to a truly deserted land—something that was in short supply even in a much earlier period—someone’s act of possession was invariably someone else’s act of dispossession. The particular innovation introduced by Europeans was a recourse not simply to force, although force was invariably present, but to the language of law to justify even the most aggressive of incursions. Hence European claims always commenced by invoking a standard of justice, although it was invariably a standard that could not be accessed or indeed understood by precisely the people to whom it was being applied.

This was the case with the famous Spanish Requirement, which was read out across the American continents in order to provide a basis for occupation. The document laid out a set of rules, that newly discovered lands belonged first to God and then to his earthly representative, the Pope, who had in turn handed them over to the Spanish monarchs to do with as they willed. Given this chain of custody, indigenous leaders had one chance and one chance only to properly submit or face the harshest possible consequences—Spanish troops would “powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can … we shall take you and your wives and your children and shall make slaves of them.”

The result was a standard that reconstituted aggressive military action as an act of rightful repossession, simply taking back something that already belonged to you. It was also one that was fundamentally unintelligible to those most affected by it. The Requirement was frequently delivered at great speed, in front of empty villages or on the deck of a ship out of earshot of anyone on land. Even more amazingly no-one on the Spanish side seems to have thought of translating it, prompting one observer to note that he did not know “whether to laugh or cry” when he heard of the practice, which imposed a sweeping set of rules without allowing any possibility for local comprehension. A different but equally accurate summary might be taken from one of the jurors in Butler-El’s case who, commenting on the actions of the defendant, noted that it “seemed like they were making up their own laws” and then applying them without regard for existing norms or systems. 

Butler-El’s actions have no place in 2013 and the court has left no doubt as to their legality. But it is only their timing and not their form that sets them apart. In reality, most sovereignty claims, even the ones that ultimately gave birth to new nations, started off, to cite the charge sheet in this case, as conspiracy to commit burglary, burglary and attempted theft. The only difference was of course that Europeans never submitted their claims to a local tribunal to rule on their essential legality. Had they done so, and faced the kind of verdict delivered in the Butler-El case, the political map of the modern world would look very different. 

Presented by

Adam Clulow is a Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University's Institute for International and Regional Studies. He teaches East Asian history at Monash University in Australia and is writing a book on European land claims in early modern Asia.

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