Stories from the Rainforest: Nature intended it that way 1

As a part of ArtEZ studium generale research on Land: on climate, ownership and coexistence, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s contribution offers a rich reflection on how materials speak to them in and through their artistic practice. By tracing material flows and goods within the global economy, they show the rifts and new relations between human and their environment. Nature intended it that way is the second essay in the series Stories from Rainforest.

That other ancestor

When the Maroons spoke to us about their past, they used both the Dutch word geschiedenis (history) and the word fesiten (first time).1 The first concept seemed to place events at a greater distance, emphasizing that these were occurrences one had not observed oneself. The latter was reserved for the traditions handed down by those ancestors who had freed themselves from slavery and built new lives in the unknown forests. It was the fesiten stories that explained the origin of customs that linked the present to the past. Such stories told, for example, of the experiences that had taught the community to be cautious in sharing its knowledge. Or they recounted the circumstances in which ancestors concluded agreements with the other entities, agreements that were still observed, even if the community was no longer always able to abide by them owing to advancing “development.” The ancestors of these early days were still invoked when the community was in need.

During a conversation about Maroon history (Nieuw Lombe, November 6, 2015) Elmond Finisi showed us his copy of Fesiten. This book on the traditions of the Saamaka was a special reissue of First Time (Richard Price, 1983), translated into the language of the Maroon people. For the reissue, published in 2013, an orthography was developed of their oral language in collaboration with Maroon language specialist Vinije Haabo.

Could we, inheritors of the Dutch colonial legacy, also invoke a progenitor from our first time to figure out how our predecessors had arrived at their assumptions that led to that unrelenting production system? Perhaps we can consult that one Dutch ancestor who was a lawyer and also a poet: Hugo de Groot, better known by his Latinized name Grotius. Legal scholars worldwide seem to regard him as the spiritual father of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the peace talks that would put an end to the protracted civil wars and religious strife in Europe. During these negotiations, in which more than a hundred European delegations participated, the foundation of so-called Westphalian sovereignty was allegedly laid. It was agreed, the historians tell us, that every state had the right to territorial self-determination and was part of an international community of states that determined when the use of force was justified. Post-colonial critics often regard Westphalian sovereignty as the legal basis for Europe’s imperial expansion. As a result, international law, according to these critics, became above all an ideological tool to justify the dispossession and marginalization of those who did not conform to the standards established by European states. Or as Kwame Nimako and Glenn Willemsen expressed it in The Dutch Atlantic:

“For the ‘outside world’, the importance of the Peace of Westphalia lay not in the reciprocal recognition of the sovereignty of the signatories, but rather in the non-recognition of the sovereignty of ‘others’.”2

If Grotius’s ideas had been at the basis of this peace, could we perhaps find in him some of the assumptions on which Western epistomology was founded?

From the time of its founding in 1602, Grotius had been the lawyer for the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Dutch colonial trading company whose monopoly over the European spice market was often maintained through violence.3 This company was followed in 1621 by the West India Company (WIC). The WIC was established on the same model, engaging in the triangular trade between Europe, West Africa and the Americas, including the slave trade to Suriname.4 Grotius was one of the foremost thinkers who provided the rhetoric to justify these companies’ invasions into foreign lands, markets and seas.

Even so, the opening lines of his Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Seas, 1609) read like an anti-colonial pamphlet. In the first sentence, he denounces “the mighty and rich of the earth” who think they have the right to “suppress the rebellion of persons born in subordinate positions by invoking law and justice.”5 A little later, he even appeals to “the court of conscience” and “the court of reputation,” informal tribunals which are typically a refuge only for the marginalized. He writes:

“These two courts are wide open to those who have knocked on all others in vain. It is to these courts that the powerless can appeal. Here the mighty stand powerless, those whose arbitrariness is limitless, who find anything cheap that is paid for with blood, who justify one wrong with another, whose obvious crimes are unanimously condemned, those who have no mercy even in their own hearts.”

Which powerless are referred to in these words by an advocate of a colonial company? Are we directly confronted here with misleading rhetoric that turns everything on its head? Let’s delve a little deeper into the circumstances in which Grotius developed his ideas.

Grotius’ thinking is said to have been shaped by a maritime incident occurring less than a year after the VOC was founded. The company had obtained a monopoly on trade in the East Indies from the States-General, but its fleet had encountered violent Portuguese resistance in the area. A few decades earlier, a papal decree had divided the world map into Portuguese and Spanish territory, these countries being the most powerful colonial empires of that moment, awarding the East Indies to Portugal. It was in this context that a Dutch captain near Singapore captured a Portuguese merchant ship discovered to be loaded with china, silk, spices, sugar and gold bars. The booty would increase the VOC’s capital by half, but was the seizure legitimate? The Dutch captain could not produce a so-called letter of marque in which the monarch declared the robbery of an enemy ship a legitimate act of war, for the Dutch were then in revolt against their rightful monarch, the king of Spain. Portugal demanded return of the cargo, and other European countries, fearful of the precedent this might set, threatened to become involved. The VOC hired the then 20-year-old Grotius to justify the conquest in the European political arena of his day.6

To show that the robbery was just and lawful, Grotius appealed to natural law, a law that “would be valid even if we were to suppose that there is no God.”7 It was the principle “planted in us, not by an opinion but by an innate force.” He also described it as “that which all nations have a consensus on” and a “divine light” which is “superior to human law.” On behalf of the VOC, he then attempted to prove that appropriation, trading, and travel at sea should all be considered natural rights.

According to Grotius, God (or Jupiter, or nature, entities he seems to consider interchangeable) had not willed that every region was supplied with all the necessities of life. He cites phrases of unnamed poets to provide the evidence for this, such as: “Not each plant grows in every soil.” And also: “Others will mold the seething bronze more fair.” Because nature did not make all crops and products available everywhere, it had, according to Grotius, given all peoples the right to exchange things with one another. As further proof of the right to trade, he invokes the oceans and the winds:

“Consider the ocean, with which God has encircled the different lands, and which is navigable from boundary to boundary; consider the breath of the winds in their regular courses and in their special deviations, blowing not always from one and the same region but from every region at one time or another: are these things not sufficient indications that nature has granted every nation access to every other nation?”

He concludes his argument with: “Trade comes to the rescue where nature falls short.”

It takes some getting used to poems being invoked here as legal arguments. For a moment, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the images of wind-swollen sails coursing across oceans. We envision sovereign plants choosing their own soil. But when we read that trade comes to the rescue of nature, we begin to suspect that this could be another rhetorical reversal. For do not the sovereign plants, powerful winds and connecting oceans featured here primarily serve those men driven by the urge to trade? Are the natural actors not reduced here to subservient means of production?

We, who read Grotius in the Anthropocene, experience the revolt of the means of production.8 The earth has proven to be an unstable background for the form of human activities that his poetic argumentations depict. In an era of trade propelled by the massive consumption of fossil fuels, even the winds and the ocean rebel. Grotius, however, does not seem to foresee such implications, for he is primarily concerned with ensuring the freedom of trade. For him, whoever denies to another the freedom to trade: “disconnects the highly prized fellowship in which humanity is united, destroying the opportunities for mutual benefactions.”

So, for Grotius, non-human things seem to serve human fellowship. His man-oriented view of nature becomes even clearer in a later formulation:

“He who bestowed upon living creatures their very existence, bestowed also the things necessary for existence. . . . Inferior things were given for use by their superiors. Plants and herbs, for example, were given to the beasts, and beasts—as well as all things in general—to man. . . . God bestowed these gifts upon the human race, not upon individual men.”

Could we identify here, in the representation of a nature given to man as a species “superior” to “inferior things,” the emergence of the colonial matrix?

After this speculative initial state in which according to Grotius all things belonged to the entire human community, individuals began to appropriate things from this common property. He seems to regard “nature” as the architect of its own annexation when he explains: “Nature intended it so that some things remain common, but others can be appropriated by diligent work.” “Things” can be appropriated by “seizing” them, which he explains by reference to the picking of fruit or catching of fish. Immobile assets can be appropriated by “occupying” them, for example by fencing off a piece of land, building a fort on it, or by working the soil. Only the acts of seizing or occupying can, for Grotius, change the status of a thing from something that belongs to everyone into something that belongs to a particular person, who may then defend this thing as his property. In this way he declares the specific acts of seizing and occupying as legitimizing procedures for appropriation, procedures that—because “nature intended it that way”—for him apply to everyone. But whose standard is being construed here? For although he suggests that he is speaking for humanity as a whole, he seems to take no account of those peoples who neither erect fences nor build fortresses.

Grotius also has to admit that acquiring property is like stealing. “In occupation the crime is implicit,” he quotes from the Stoic philosopher Seneca. However, an appropriator’s wrongdoing could be compensated for by his persistence, for, Grotius says, quoting Quintilian: “Things that are available to all sometimes become the reward of the one who is industrious.” Is it a coincidence that the argument that irons out “crime” is provided by a Roman pioneer of the art of rhetoric?

Film still Dee Sitonu A Weti, 2018. Where Grotius regarded “persistence” as a quality that could balance the crime of appropriation, a Maroon points to the ruthlessness of Western perserverance: “Our experience with Westerners is that if they want something, they persist, even if people die. Take that trip to the moon. It failed a few times, but they persisted until they landed on the moon. And compared to the moon, that dam is an ant.” Performance: Adjoeba Alida, Lebidoti.
​Lebidot’s children reappropriate the film set after the shoot.

What cannot be appropriated by seizure or occupation is, according to Grotius, exempt from possession.9 The sky is once such elusive thing, and so too the ocean:

“The Ocean, which is immense, infinite, the parent of all things, bounded only by heaven; whose never-failing waters, according to the ancient belief, feed not only the springs, rivers and seas, but also the clouds, and even the stars; in closing, the ocean which encompasses the terrestrial home of mankind with the ebb and flow of its tides, and which cannot be held nor enclosed, being itself the possessor rather than the possessed.”

But also this poetic reflection on “the parent of all things” serves a legal purpose, for our lawyer needs an almighty ocean to trump human rulers. Appealing to the non-human ancestor who could not be possessed, he sought to demonstrate that his Iberian opponents had falsely claimed the ocean for themselves. For ought not an ocean that was no one’s property be freely navigable by all nations?10 This allowed Grotius to argue that by denying Dutch ships access to the East Indies, Portugal had violated the natural right of all peoples to travel and trade. The capture of the Portuguese merchant ship would be mere “compensation” for this breach, and for that reason it was “just”.

On the basis of the principles Grotius developed to justify a contested looting, anything that was no one’s property was available to be rampantly exploited.

Jurists after him, invoking this standard, qualified land inhabited or worked in other ways as “wilderness.”11 They considered territories that were not appropriated by the “correct” procedure as terra nullius, or no man’s land, and thus free to be legitimately taken and colonized. The scheme of placing “cultivated” land higher up the scale than “wilderness” (“inferior” because not fenced) would also be projected onto the inhabitants of these areas, with their own local knowledge systems and associated practices viewed as inferior by those imposing this scheme.12 This in turn would justify extending the logic of extraction to colonized people, utilizing them as enslaved or subjugated wage laborers to exploit the land more efficiently.

The sky, the ocean, the rivers, unfenced land, even the bottom of the sea and the planets were reduced to externalities, things that do not have to be budgeted for, but could be used free of charge. The freedom of the seas (also called the freedom of navigation) would lead many to believe that exhaust fumes from ships and aircraft do not need to be included in emissions calculations. The seas that, according to Grotius, were no one’s to own, would eventually acidify, heat up, and become polluted and depleted.

Let’s imagine we were able to give this ancestor a glimpse into the future (our present day) to point out to him the far-reaching consequences of his legacy. Would he reconsider the “procedures” of seizure and occupation that legitimize appropriation and extraction? After all, that immense water body that “encompasses the terrestrial home of mankind” has the avenging power, with its sea levels rising, to claim back the land from nation-states.13

Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan

Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan work together as collaborating artists since 2002, producing film installations, sculpture and collages that explore cultural and geopolitical landscapes such as Europe’s borders (Grossraum, 2005), sites of resource production and global trade (Monument of Sugar – how to use artistic means to elude trade barriers, 2007; Episode of the Sea, 2014, Stones Have Laws, 2018), and the (non) sites of cultural heritage (Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland, 2008, View from the Acropolis, 2012 and subi dura a rudibus, 2010). Most of our projects involve extensive fieldwork and long term collaborations. As part of our artistic practice, we express formal and informal research trajectories and the contingency of fieldwork in textual supplements.



  • Cubit, Sean, Finite Media, Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Escobar, Arturo, “Latin America at a Crossroads”, Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no.1. (2010): p.39.
  • Eyffinger, Arthur and Grotius, Hugo de Groot: De Vrije Zee, Mare Liberum. The Hague: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2009. Originally published as Hugo Grotius, Mare Liberum. Leiden, 1609.
  • Latour, Bruno, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univeristy Press, 2004.
  • Mancilla, Alejandra, “What we own Before Property: Hugo Grotius and the Suum”, Grotania, vol. 36, no.1 (2015): pp. 63–77.
  • McGee, Kyle, “For a Juridical Ecology of Ligatures” in A Book of the Body Politic edited by Bruno Latour, Simon Schaffer and Pasquale Gagliardi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Nimako, Kwame and Glenn Willemsen, “Transatlantic Slavery and the Rise of the European World Order,” in The Dutch Atlantic edited by Kwame Nimako, pp. 20–24. London: Pluto Press, 2011.
  • Prislan, Vid and Nico Schrijver, “From Mare Liberum to the Global Commons: Building on the Grotian Heritage” in Grotiania, vol. 30, no.1 (2009): pp. 168–206.
↑ 1

Fesiten is the word in Saamakatongo. The Okanisi use the word fositen.

↑ 2

Kwame Nimako and Glenn Willemsen, “Transatlantic Slavery and the Rise of the European World Order,” The Dutch Atlantic (London, 2011), pp. 20, 24.

↑ 3

For example, the VOC committed genocide against the population of the Banda Islands in order to gain control over nutmeg and mace production. In its pursuit of greater profits, the company destroyed almost all of the clove trees growing on the Moluccan islands.

↑ 4

Together with the city of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam merchant Van Aerssen van Sommelsdyck, the WIC was the controlling shareholder of the so called Sociëteit van Suriname (Society of Surinam), a Dutch private company which held a monopoly on the trade with this colony. The Society was founded in 1683 and formally dissolved in 1795, resulting in the nationalization of its assets.

↑ 5

Grotius and Arthur Eyffinger, Hugo de Groot: De Vrije Zee, Mare Liberum (The Hague, 2009). Originally published as Hugo Grotius, Mare Liberum (Leiden, 1609).

↑ 6

In De Iure Praedae (On the Law of Prize and Booty, 1868), which was not published until long after Grotius’ death, we found the full legal reasoning by which he would attempt to justify the seizure of the merchant ship. A chapter from this was already published during his lifetime: the previously quoted Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Seas, 1609). In this, Grotius would formulate the legal basis for what we now know as the ‘international waters’, that is, the oceans and seas beyond territorial waters that can be navigated freely by vessels of all countries. Grotius would elaborate on his arguments about the right to booty and the just grounds for war in De Iure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace, 1625). It was this last book in particular that would have a major influence on the Peace of Westphalia and the European peace that resulted from it.

↑ 7

Hugo de Groot, Van ‘t regt des oorlogs- en vredes, voorreden van den schryver aan den lezer, item 11, Dutch transl. from Latin by Jan van Gaveren (Amsterdam, 1732). Originally published as Hugo Grotius, De Iure Belli ac Pacis (Paris, 1625). Source for English translation: Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, edited and with an Introduction by Richard Tuck, from the Edition by Jean Barbeyrac (Indianapolis, 2005), introduction, p. xi, The Preliminary Discourse, p. 87.

↑ 8

Bruno Latour speaks of “generalized revolts of all the means” in Politics of Nature (2004). He describes this as: “No entity—whale, river, climate, earthworm, tree, calf, cow, pig, brood—agrees any longer to be treated ‘simply as a means’ but insists on being treated ‘always also as an end’.” Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (2004), pp. 155–156. Originally published as Politique de la Nature (Paris, 1999).

↑ 9

It is because of his reflections that the sea and the sky belong collectively to all humans that Grotius is quoted in contemporary debates about human rights and the commons: those resources that need to be accessible to all members of a society such as knowledge, water or genetic material. For dicussions about the commons in relation to Grotius see, for example, Sean Cubit, Finite Media, Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (Durham and London, 2017), pp. 7–9; Vid Prislan and Nico Schrijver, “From Mare Liberum to the Global Commons: Building on the Grotian Heritage”, Grotiana 30 (Leiden, 2009), pp. 168–206; and Alejandra Mancilla, “What we own Before Property: Hugo Grotius and the Suum,” Grotiana 36 (Leiden, 2015), pp. 63–77.

↑ 10

Of course, not all peoples had merchant fleets of sea-going ships with cannons and therefore not all could enjoy equally the freedom of the sea.

↑ 11

It was the utilitarian thinker John Locke who, ninety years after Grotius and building on his legitimizing procedures for appropriation, argued in Two Treatises of Government (1690) that God’s command to man was to subdue “the earth, and all inferior or irrational creatures.” He would argue that land may be withdrawn from communal property because it would yield “ten times more” through human labor than if “the wasteland remained in the hands of the community.” Underused, built-up land would fall back into “waste land” and be taken over by someone else. This argument was often used to expropriate indigenous peoples. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (see note 14), pp. 24–25, 216–218

↑ 12

For how the ranking system that places culture above nature influences other dualisms, see also Arturo Escobar, “Latin America at a Crossroads,” Cultural Studies, vol. 24, No. 1 (Abingdon, 2010), p. 39.

↑ 13

The imagery of a sea engulfing nation states is derived from Kyle McGee in A Book of the Body Politic, ed. Bruno Latour, Simon Schaffer, Pasquale Gagliardi (San Giorgio, 2017), p. 207. Kyle McGee refers for his imagery to Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaia (2017).