How to Claim a Continent

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Vasco de Gama



Adam Clulow is a Fung Global Fellow at the 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 possession in early modern Asia.

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....





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