Allan Greer reflects on his experience publishing his piece “Settler Colonialism and Empire in Early America” in the July 2019 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. The July edition includes the forum “Settler Colonialism in Early American History,” edited by Jeffrey Ostler and Nancy Shoemaker.
by Allan Greer, McGill University
For authors, one of the great attractions of a WMQ Forum is the way it forces you to confront an issue that may have hovered over your research and to organize your thoughts on the subject. That’s the way it worked for me at any rate. For a decade, I had been examining colonial property formation and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in Mexico, New England and Canada during the early modern centuries (16th to 18th); some might say that the topic was all about settler colonialism, and yet I never invoked that theoretical framework. Whenever I read Patrick Wolfe and other settler-colonial theorists, I felt I was entering an alien universe, one where modernity and an English legal tradition were taken for granted. The thrust of my book, Property and Dispossession, was to differentiate and make distinctions: between the pre- and post-revolutionary eras, between English, French and Spanish legal traditions and approaches to colonization, between various Indigenous practices of territoriality and their changing responses to colonialism. Settler colonial scholarship, it always seemed to me, tended in the opposite direction: homogenizing, essentializing and universalizing on the basis of a limited selection of cases.
When Nancy Shoemaker and Jeff Ostler asked me to contribute a piece to this forum, I jumped at the opportunity to read up on the subject and see if I had perhaps missed something about the settler colonial analytic. Sampling the burgeoning literature in the field, I found my initial, somewhat uninformed, expectations challenged by the diversity in subject matter and approach. I also found a valuable critical perspective on settler-national historiography and public memory—an aspect that I did not find room to develop in my Forum article. And yet, at the end of the day, it still seemed to me that the settler-colonial framework did indeed come with built-in limitations at the level of historical description when applied to a continent of borderlands, shatter zones and empire effects. Other Forum contributors made this point more eloquently than I.
Since submitting my piece to the Quarterly, I have been continuing to ponder the settler-colonial question; after giving a talk on the subject this summer at the Canadian Historical Association, I’m now preparing a longer article. The latter tries to situate settler-colonial practices in the context of other forms that the invasion of Indigenous North America has taken over the course of 500 years, notably “Imperial/Commercial Penetration” and “Extractivism.” The last of these, I’ll argue, has come to the fore in recent decades, especially in the North and the West; as an on-the-ground phenomenon, I’d say it’s now much more significant than settler colonialism. Of course, some advocates of the structure-not-an-event, transhistorical approach may not be impressed with empirical evidence that there have been many times and places where intruders did not come to eliminate and replace Indigenous peoples. And I’m actually willing to concede that they have a point in one important respect. If we look at settler colonialism, not as a social and geographical process of replacement, but as a politico-juridical phenomenon, as a logic of elimination that underpins the emergence and consolidation of territorial states claiming sovereignty over colonized Indigenous lands, then it does look like a basic structural fact. In this sense, the United States, Canada, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, etc. can be characterized as thoroughly settler-colonial entities from the beginning of their respective histories to the present. The spaces over which they purport to exercise sovereignty may have been the scene of colonialisms of various sorts, but it was the settler variety that put its stamp on the formation of territorial states.
These are the hypotheses I’m currently working with, but as you can see the argument is not yet fully formed. Reading the insightful essays gathered together in the Quarterly’s Forum is helping me give shape to my thoughts. I’m therefore grateful to my fellow-contributors and I’m doubly grateful to Nancy and Jeff for being such effective catalyzers and for getting me started on a path of reading, reflection and writing that I never would have pursued without their friendly prod.