Critique of Keith Ellis’ “Decolonizing the Discovery”

Keith Ellis in the essay named “Decolonizing the Discovery” discussed the development of appreciation for the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere and the need for a full assessment of Columbus’ so called ‘Discovery of the New World’. In the essay he equated the term ‘Decolonization’ with the ability to understand that Columbus’ arrival in the New World was a positive event only for those Imperial nations who claimed the New World for themselves, despite meeting it already inhabited. This is an interesting point, since a Eurocentric view of the ‘Discovery’ would make it difficult to see the impact that the ‘Discovery’ had on the region from an objective perspective. Therefore, the consideration of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, in relation to who they were and what they accomplished and the impacts made upon them as a result of Europe’s colonization is important. If the people of the Caribbean are to understand their identity, an analysis of the region from the point of Columbus’ arrival is inadequate.


An understanding of the term ‘Decolonization’ must come after the term ‘Colonization’ is discussed. In “Decolonization in the English-Speaking Caribbean: Myth or Reality?” Trevor M. A. Farrell stated that the essence of the colonial condition is twofold. First, the organization of the resources of the colonized is effected in the interests of the alien, colonizing power, rather than in the interests of the colonized. He argued that while this is not necessarily a zero-sum game, the colonial condition implies that the net benefits are skewed toward the colonizer. There is then in his opinion the enforced subordination of the victim’s interests to those of the controlling power. Second, colonialism fundamentally implies the lack of control over the dynamic of one’s own movement or development (political, economic, or cultural). The classic colony is unable to make its own decisions, to choose how to adjust to a given configuration on the international scene. Its response is dictated or tightly circumscribed by the dominating power (Henry and Stone 3-12).

Conquest of Tenochtitlan

Decolonization usually goes hand in hand with political independence, but for Ellis’ essay, decolonization is used to discuss the independence of ‘thought’, in regards to an approach towards understanding the region as a whole. His attempts to turn the region’s  thoughts towards turning away from the perspective that views the beginning of the history of the western hemisphere as starting with Columbus’ arrival. In so doing he places the need for a lot more emphasis on understanding and appreciating pre-Columbian civilizations. In doing so the people of the western hemisphere can learn more about themselves and in reaching this point they become fit to govern their own affairs.

Ellis made a contrast between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking territories of the Americas in relation to the development of an anti-colonial sentiment. He commended its arrival in Latin America and denigrated the fact that it took a much longer time for the anti-colonial sentiment to appear in the Commonwealth territories. The blame for the prolonging euro-centrism is placed upon the educational system which “protected the past and present British practices and the ideas that underlie them” (Lamming 199). Further along in the essay Ellis lauded the efforts of English-speaking Caribbean writers of the 1950s who promoted anti-Eurocentric ideology.

As his argument develops, Ellis brings to the fore the work of Jan Carew’s writing as significant in relation to the challenge of the view of Christopher Columbus as a “laudable discoverer”. He stated that up to the 1940s little attention was given to the pre-Columbian era, and that within official circles the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere was not given much thought. Additionally, Ellis hails José Marti’s advocating of the whole history of the Americas-from indigenous civilizations to present-to be studied by those who wish to know how to govern the countries of Latin America and Alfonso Caso’s work on the early civilizations of  Mexico and its southern neighbours as praiseworthy endeavours. Ellis also discussed the hydraulic engineering, practices of fertilizing organically and the propagation of hundreds of varieties of potatoes and other crops suited to different altitude and other achievements of a pre-Inca civilization known as the Tiwanaku and claimed them to be greater than that which existed in a post-Columbian period. This is important since a Eurocentric conceptualization of the pre-Columbian societies describes them as primitive, so much so that the justification of enslaving the indigenous peoples included descriptions of them as naked, ungodly and primitive, so enslaving them was perceived as a benefit for both parties since they can be Christianised and be introduced to a civilized livelihood.


Ellis goes on to highlight the claim that “The resolution came when the revolution gave power to the workers and peasants.” (Lamming 199) and in his conclusion, Ellis claimed that Jan Carew’s Fulcrums of Change “represents an emphatic rejection of the spirit of the colonies” (199). He desired it to be available for both Latin America and the Commonwealth because it brings about a relevant process of rationalizing “a situation which, in a profound sense, was as old as the conquest” (199). because of the weight it gives to the indigenous presence he claims that it “…dares to specify what it takes to erase the colonial legacy in the Americas”

Ellis’ view seems quite Marxist in his take on the issue of defining the Caribbean. He pushed for the need to eradicate all of the influence, ideology and thoughts on who the people of the Western Hemisphere are. He latched on to José Marti’s ideology and pushed aside any notion of keeping the knowledge and concepts left behind by the imperial powers. The idea of workers gaining power to govern is discussed in Marx’s declaration that the alienated proletariat will rise and overthrow the bourgeoisie. His focus on community mirrors that of socialist and communist ideology. Every perspective has pros and cons attached to them. While re-defining how the people of the western hemisphere view themselves and how they want the world to view them is important. The drastic measures as discussed within Marxist circles are not necessary. Some go as far as wanting to change the term from discovery to re-discovery. This is not so important an issue since although the New World was already inhabited, Columbus did make a new discovery for Europe. The point really is, in defining and re-defining the identity of the Western Hemisphere, instead of becoming ‘thought police’ a focus is needed. Ellis provides the focus as beginning with an appreciating the indigenous peoples of the western Hemisphere.

The former colonies are in most respects independent politically, economically and socially from their former masters in relation to self-governance. However, one must be careful to consider if decolonization really occurred. Or if what happened was merely an exchange of European overseers for Caribbean overseers and a movement from direct to indirect colonization. Regardless of economic ties to the world market for example the role oil and gas industry which drives the economy of The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The focus of the essay is on how much of the thoughts on who the Caribbean are is still formulated from a colonized perspective. If it can truly be accepted that decolonization did occur then in the development of the identity of the western hemisphere and its people Keith Ellis’ approach in the “Decolonization of the Discovery” is most appropriate.

Works Cited:

Ellis, Keith. “Decolonizing the Discovery.” The Enterprise of the Indies.Ed. Lamming, George. Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies, 1999.198-199.Print.

Farrell, Trevor. “Decolonization in the English-speaking Caribbean: Myth or Reality.” Eds. Henry, Paget and Stone, Carl.  Institute for the Study of Human Issues. 1983. 3-12. Print.

Laughlin, J. Laurence.  Principles Of Political Economy By John Stuart Mill: Abridged, with Critical, Bibliographical,and Explanatory Notes, and a Sketch of the History of Political Economy. Harvard University. 1885.Print.


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