nomadism as colonialism without a metropole: special issue of ab imperio


TOC, Ab Imperio, 2 (2012).

The editors introduction, is I. Gerasimov, S. Glebov, A. Kaplunovski, M. Mogilner, A. Semyonov ‘Structures and Cultures of Diversity: Nomadism as Colonialism without a Metropole’.

extract in lieu of abstract:

The editors of Ab Imperio invited authors and readers to discuss varieties of colonialism in this issue of the journal. Seemingly, “colonialism” is an obvious category in studies of empire. It is exactly the ability to expand and incorporate new territories and peoples that is commonly held to be a characteristic of empire. Moreover, the modern interpretation of colonialism has brought together the political power of the West European nation-state and the production of knowledge about human diversity. And yet, are all aspects of colonialism so obvious?

The textbook definition of “colony” usually starts (in chronological order) with mentioning settlements on foreign shores by natives of Greek poleis and Roman Italy, then focusing on the modern understanding of colony as an element of geopolitical expansion of the “West” (the developed countries). It is tacitly implied that Greeks spreading to Asia Minor and the Black Sea littoral cannot be discussed in terms of modern Western colonialism: colonies are present, while colonialism is not, inasmuch as there are no conventional characteristics of it. There is no attempt to impose political domination upon overseas territories by Corinth or even Sparta, no economic exploitation of the colonized lands. The word “Metropole” exists, but the relations of “the core and periphery” do not. Hence, no colonialism.

The history of antiquity is sufficiently far from the themes explored by Ab Imperio (“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba …?”). However, in an issue dedicated to the role of colonialism in the production of structures and cultures of imperial and postimperial diversity, it is impossible to ignore the obvious “West-centrism” of today’s understanding of colonialism. Is it just modern capitalist overseas empires that conducted colonial policies, and are these policies the only, and exemplary, form of colonialism?

The first part of this question is answered negatively in the article that opens the issue: the Russian translation of the Introduction to Pekka Hämäläinen’s pioneering study The Comanche Empire, characteristically titled “Reversed Colonialism.” Hämäläinen shows how, over a hundred years (from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries), the Comanche tribal confederation took control over enormous swathes of territory in the southern part of today’s United States. In fact, the Comanche empire estab­lished colonial relations of domination and exploitation with the outposts of Euro-American colonists. The formal colonial empires of Spain, France, and Britain turned out to be, in effect, in tributary relations with “savages.” The example of the Comanches clearly illustrates that imperialism and colonialism was not a privilege of modern European societies and of the political forms they created.

In Hämäläinen’s work, we see how giving agency to historical actors who had so far been viewed solely as victims and objects of European coloniza­tion fundamentally changes the picture of the peopling of North America by Europeans. This is not to say that this colonization was not accompanied by the extermination of native Americans. Rather, the history that we access by changing perspective and giving agency to historical actors is much more rich and complex, with a multidimensional moral and ideological subtext.

This also answers the second part of the question about the exclusively Western forms and meanings of colonialism. Getting back to the ancient Greeks and their colonization of Ionian islands, Italy, and the Black Sea Coast, we can recall that historians usually employ the categories of cul­tural transfer and economic exchanges, although without forgetting about violence and military engagements. Taking the logic of dictionary defini­tions seriously, we presume that colonialism can play an important role in population migrations, in the circulation of ideas and technology, and in the transformation of social structures and political cultures of the societies of the metropole and the colonies (as was the case in antiquity).

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