Empire and settler empire: Allan Greer, ‘Settler Colonialism and Empire in Early America’, The William and Mary Quarterly, 76, 3, 2019, pp. 383-390


Excerpt: IN January 1788 the First Fleet dropped anchor in Botany Bay and began disgorging its cargo of convicts, marines, and officials to inaugurate the colonial history of Australia. It arrived in the middle of global revolutionary changes that were ushering in the modern world. Britain was industrializing, capitalism was beginning to conquer the world, and political upheavals flying the banner of popular sovereignty were bringing down established regimes across the Americas and Europe. Fundamental reconfigurations of space and power were central to these transformations. More than ever before, territorial states were taking shape with clear, hard outer boundaries and uniform internal sovereignty. And within these states, land was being reconfigured as private property. From Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia to Napoléon Bonaparte’s expanded France, the absolute rights of owners were proclaimed. Political and property boundaries were now construed as precise and measurable, with fuzzy and overlapping claims relegated to the past. When it came to Indigenous lands and the processes of colonization in the wake of the American Revolution, there was little room for ambiguity: once territory entered the settler sphere, it was supposed to be fully subject to American sovereignty and a settler property regime. Indigenous peoples were utterly excluded.

Unlike the Americas, Australia was settled entirely under the auspices of the modern, absolutist conception of political and economic space. Its history of colonizing was also marked by some further peculiarities: sponsorship by a global superpower, an absence of interimperial competition, and an indigenous population that was, under these circumstances, militarily weak and lacking in commodities that colonists might be willing to trade for. The expansion of settler control, by no means unopposed, advanced rapidly through massacres, forced migrations, and assimilation. Given this power imbalance, the invaders saw no need to negotiate treaties of land cession. Instead they treated the country as legally empty—terra nullius—a striking contrast with North and South America, where the centuries-long and highly competitive European invasion had spawned powerful coalescent societies such as the Mapuche, the Comanches, and the Lakotas, capable of keeping colonization at bay for a long time. Australia therefore appears as a kind of “ideal type” of modern settler colonialism, a place where Indigenous resistance was weak, where the complexities of pre-Enlightenment territoriality were absent, and where the brutal logic of appropriation could operate on what looked like (but was not) a clean slate. It was with this Australian history in mind that Patrick Wolfe first developed his theory of settler colonialism, largely as a response to a postcolonial scholarship focused on colonies of exploitation. An omnivorous reader with a probing mind, Wolfe also engaged deeply with the histories of India, the United States, and Israel, among other sites of colonization. But his thinking was strongly shaped by the Australian case as the prototypical instance of settler colonialism.

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