Analysis

What is the Relationship Between Colonialism and Human Rights?

Simbarashe Nyatsanza

On Saturday Cape Town based community action group Pathways To Free Education hosted a discussion of Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres’ groundbreaking paper On the Coloniality of Human Rights. The discussion was held at the Salt River Community House and Maldonado-Torres himself was in attendance.

The discussion’s main objective was to arrive at an understanding of the relationship between human rights and decolonization, as well as to expose the coloniality of human rights.

Speaking at the event, the Puerto Rican born scholar, philosopher and decolonialist gave a broad overview of his paper, highlighting three central points of discussion. These points will be summarized below.

From Human Rights to Rehumanizing

Prof Maldonado-Torres described the origins of Human Rights as having been made necessary by the separation of Church and State. He spoke of Human Rights as a derivation of 15th century Europe’s deviation from Theocentricism. The distinguishing between the Human and the Divine, as Maldonado-Torres put it, “brought about a shift in the centrality of power amongst the Nobility and the Church,” towards a secular class, leading to the rise in secularism and consequently the emergence of Human Rights.

To substantiate this point, Maldonado-Torres cited the works of the late 15th century painter Sandro Botticelli who, in his 1476 painting Adoration of the Magi, shows the presence of that era’s prominent humanists at a very poignant moment in Christian history. That gesture, “a gesture of open communication”, essentially hijacked the overly sanctified Christian narrative of that time in order to put more focus on the dignity of Man.

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Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man (1508 – 1512) went further by casting Man and God on the same plane with Adam’s full human body expressed in its full glory in proximity to a human-looking representation of the Divine, that is God.

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The Creation of Man by Michelangelo 

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of the human body and Michaelangelo’s David, (1501- 1504) can also be seen in the same light, in that they put emphasis on Man through the human body as a complete entity in its entirety as opposed to being an expandable appendage that assumed its form and fully only when in relation and subjugation to the Divine.

This period of artistic expression through these examples of art, according to Nelson Maldados-Torres, illustrated the early separation of the State and the Church, of Man and the Divine, of Human and God, and paved way for the formulation of Human Rights.

Christopher Columbus and the New World Order

The rise of secularism and the general expansion of what then was commonly in Europe beginning to be accepted as Human Rights created space for a new kind of revolution. This was a revolution that sort to redefine the human (read: European) body with respect to the non-European native, the ‘other’ body. It was a revolution that would find its maturity in acts of colonialism and imperialism.

As Maldonado-Torres explained, world ‘explorers’, sailors and travellers like Christopher Columbus became tools through which this neo-revolution could be expanded. The general objective was by then the imparting or the transferring of ‘Human Rights’ to the the indigenous non-humans, the interior alternatives, the eternal subalterns, the ‘others’ who occupied the vast and uncharted rest of the world. But before the process of colonialism could assume full throttle, before the fundamental of coloniality through the gift of Human Rights could be prescribed onto the native, a distinction needed to be made between who essentially was and who wasn’t human.

Maldonado-Torres again illustrated this phenomenon by citing the works of 18th century artists such as Frederick Kemmelmeyer whose, The First Landing of Columbus (1800 – 1805), showed the Christian European missionary at a higher plane than his unchristened inferior and ‘animalistic’ counterpart. The differences are explicit and non flatteringly astounding when a clear juxtaposition of this painting and The Creation of Man are made. In the former, it is clear that the concept of the New World was that people would be classified more in terms of their ontological as opposed to their epistemological differences, while in the latter the emphasis was purely on the epistemological misunderstanding. The former was the justification colonialism needed and prescribing Human Rights onto the conquered natives was seen as not just the achievement of the objective of colonialism, but as a furtherance of God’s role on earth.

Other artists of this period whose works show a similar thematic approach include William Shakespeare whose 17th century work The Tempest highlights the importance of characterizing the Native as not Man and Man as not the Native in the tensions between Prospero & Miranda and Sycorax & Caliban.

During Columbus’ era therefore, the process of being Man assumed the description of being the act of participating in the constant ontological demotion of the Other.

Frantz Fanon

The quest for Human Rights finds its ultimate culmination in the works of Frantz Fanon, according to Maldonado-Torres. The pattern that was began in the 15th century by Pico della Micandolla was achieved through Fanon’s realizations in Black Skin, White Masks.

Fanon’s work essentially characterizes the colonised Native, the one who now accepted the gift of Human Rights, as an entity that perpetually inhabited two areas of being; one that projected on him the appearance of a Native and the other that demanded a sense of colonial civility out of him.

Fanon arrives at the understanding that the basic tenet of decolonialism is critique; a critique of self, a critique of the terms used to define coloniality, a critique of coloniality itself. These are all interrogations of what is assumed to be knowledge and are at the very center of decolonialism. He captures this perfectly in his final prayer, ‘O my body, make me always a man who questions’.

The quest for Human Rights which began in the early separation between Church and State found its growth and maturity through the period of colonialism and ultimately led to the appearance of decolonial discourse in the works of the colonised. At the very center of decolonialism is critique and that itself is not the end, but rather the beginning of the next phase of awareness and action towards rectifying past injustice. Theorists such as Biko, Fanon and Cesaire provide a broad background through which the problem of Human Rights or lack thereof in the Third World can be understood and critiqued.

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