Why the English? Nancy Shoemaker, ‘Settler Colonialism: Universal Theory or English Heritage?’ The William and Mary Quarterly, 76, 3, 2019, pp. 369-374


Excerpt: THOSE who see explanatory power in settler colonialism as a concept cast it as a theory, as a “global and genuinely transnational phenomenon” pitting settlers against indigenes. Yet the vast majority of studies employing settler colonialism as their vantage point concentrate on the former British colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and South Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If settler colonialism is a theory, then presumably people of any racial, ethnic, or national heritage could appear in the role of settler. Why, then, have the English outpaced all others as the archetypical settlers, and why has the historiography on settler colonialism dealt almost entirely with the modern period when migration and conquest are age-old phenomena in human history? The scholarly emphasis on the recent past makes settler colonial narratives appear to be a retrospective cover-up of a Native dispossession that began mainly in the nineteenth century and continues up to the present day. But we can envision an alternate approach: scholars could conceptualize settler colonialism as a forward-looking ideology devised to motivate English imperial expansion in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If settler colonial ideology did indeed crystalize in early modern England, the early American period is more important than advocates of settler colonial theory realize. By shifting attention away from settler colonialism’s consequences to query its origins, scholars could test the theory’s applicability in a wider variety of settings and refine it. And by contextualizing settler colonialism in a longer durée, theorists could nuance the presentist mindset that privileges the latest wave of settler invasion as the only settler colonialism worth remembering.

So why the English? A curious aspect of English history from an outsider’s perspective is how fundamental invasion is to that history’s telling.

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