Witchcraft, capitalism & colonialism

In her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, the historian Silvia Federici connects several phenomena which occurred more or less in the same period and which are, according to her, not to be seen as separate from one another: the witch hunts (including the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597, during which Malayney Melkzuur's ancestor Isobell Milc-an t-Saoir was burned at the stake), the enclosures of the commons (the privatisation of land which had been communal before and which was violently taken away from the communities who relied on it for grazing their animals or collecting firewood), the colonisation of America, and the transition from a feudal to a capitalist society.

'This, writes Federici, ‘is how we must read the attack against witchcraft and against that magical view of the world which, despite the efforts of the Church, had continued to prevail on a popular level through the Middle Ages. At the basis of magic was an animistic conception of nature that did not admit to any separation between matter and spirit, and thus imagined the cosmos as a living organism, populated by occult forces, where every element was in "sympathetic" relation with the rest. (…) Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. (…) Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided?’

The witch hunts were also a way of creating and maintaining an inexhaustible source of labour, an ever-expanding proletariat: so-called magical remedies (like herbs) were used by women to control their own fertility and reproduction, by peforming abortions or using contraception. People had less and less children - no more than they could feed, which usually weren't many. It was in the elites' interest, however, that have as many labourers being born as possible. The less labourers there were, the more those labourers could use their own scarcity as a lever to make demands and better their circumstances. For this reason, says Federici, female control over their own reproductive functions was demonised.

It is, according to her, no coincidence that the witch hunts in Europe began more or less at the same time when the elites began to enclose and privatise common grounds, and no coincidence, either, that during the same period America was in the process of being colonised, which meant that vast areas of land were privatised and free labour was squeezed from thousands of bodies.

And in the New World, too, there were witch hunts. Federici describes ‘the continuity between the subjugation of the populations of the New World and that of people in Europe, women in particular, in the transition to capitalism. In both cases we have the forcible removal of entire communities from their land, large-scale impoverishment, the launching of "Christianizing” campaigns destroying people’s autonomy and communal relations. We also have a constant cross-fertilization whereby forms of repression that had been developed in the Old World were transported to the New and then re-imported into Europe.’ One example of this cross-fertilisation is 'the extension of the witch-hunt to the American colonies.’ Original inhabitants of South America were persecuted for devil-worshipping. This was, of course, a way to legitimise the subjugation of these peoples, the attack on their culture and way of life.

Magic was, in the extremely patriarchal colonial society, used by women in attempts to improve their position and circumstances. Ruth Behar has written about the way women in colonial Mexica (which Alta California, the present-day California, formed part of until 1848) would make deals with the devil and perform rituals using menstruation blood in order to pacify their violent husbands or to punish men who had cheated on them. Women of every kind of origin and all social groups (indigenous women, mestiza women, lower-class Spanish women, African slave women,...) would secretly exchange spells and rituals. Isabella Lorenzana, a far ancestor of Bella Goth, was part of one such intersectional coven.