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Why Settler Colonialism?

John Hinkson’s introduction to Issue 37/38 (2012): Stolen Lands, Broken Cultures: The Settler-Colonial Present

Introduction: John Hinkson

For some readers the theme of settler colonialism may suggest a preoccupation with the past. After all, they might say, with exceptions like South Africa, which has more recently discarded many remnants of colonial cruelty, the colonial period ended after the Second World War. Apart from the historical record, what is the point of a focus on the legacy of settler societies? Such a view is mistaken in more ways than one: certainly this is so in view of the Palestine question, where we encounter a grave example of settler colonialism that has become, in stages, a threat to the whole world. As well as that crucial matter, we find an even more insidious legacy, for settler colonialism is a practice that relies upon assumptions about other cultures that are alive and well in the most powerful societies in the contemporary world.

There is little evidence that Western societies have learnt from the colonial experience that formed empires on a vast scale. It could be argued that the West has grudgingly accepted that a range of political practices is no longer defensible (after the Suez debacle, for example), but this is a behavioural reorientation, a far cry from really learning from an experience. Concealing the wounds of these historical relations by a focus on global institutions may seem to be a positive response. But old attitudes easily find expression in new institutions. Cultural learning is not an easy process and can only proceed if we can first engage the devastating trauma that lies at the heart of settler-colonial practices, then come to terms with why they took the form they did, and understand how such practices can re-emerge in new circumstances.

In his recent book, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia(1), James Boyce argues that settlers who arrived in Melbourne emerged from a context in Van Dieman’s Land where practical methods for the cleansing and elimination of Indigenous populations were perfected. As such these methods became a basis for an approach to settlement and development more generally. After a tentative and controversial arrival at Port Phillip Bay in 1835, within fifteen years the settlers had crushed, supplanted and largely eliminated the Indigenous population — not just around the Melbourne region but throughout much of Victoria, while also triggering a larger transformation throughout Australia.

Cruelty and savagery towards Indigenous people in colonial Australia has often been attributed to the limited sensibilities of the lower classes, linked to the practices of former convicts. These acts were viewed as unfortunate examples of aberrant behaviour arising from a form of personal cultural underdevelopment or lack of the ‘civilizing influence’ of the broader society. James Boyce is highly critical of this view, and places responsibility for the cultural devastation firmly in the court of the ‘evangelising social orders’ and their defence of the mainstream liberal order. At one level this is quite counter-intuitive given that these orders had just emerged triumphantly from the struggle against slavery within the British Empire. But, it seems, slavery was one thing, colonization and the treatment of Indigenous peoples another. For the colonizers, ‘commerce and colonisation were seen to be the primary means of achieving Aboriginal protection and progress’.(2) This was ultimately grounded in the commitment to Civilization and Christianity and within those a ‘faith in enterprise, order and the virtues of respectability’:(3)

… the assimilation of native peoples into the liberal economic and social order was not only good in itself, but was the primary means of ensuring that Aborigines were not degraded or killed by the lower order of Europeans.(4)

It was this ‘liberal economic and social order’ that was perfected in Van Dieman’s land. There, the commercial sector (significantly com- posed of speculators and investors) was far larger than that of most societies in the early nineteenth century. This was the basis for unleashing the ‘unrestricted private conquest’ first of Van Dieman’s Land, then Melbourne, then Australia, in the process sweeping aside residual administrative constraints against universal settlement. The observation made by Charles Darwin that ‘Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population’(5) illustrates the way cultural ignorance and blindness works in a moral orientation that insists the liberal order is the best means to nurture Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, the culture of individual entrepreneurs and investors created a tsunami of rampant cultural savagery towards those inhabitants whom they largely regarded as less than human.

There are, of course, many arguments about whether cultural savagery takes the form of physical violence. For Boyce it is cultural savagery, not the gun, that really matters. And while this may take many forms, predominantly it is the denial of basic rights of sustenance — the removal of the means of existence of Indigenous peoples — and their core cultural practices that are inextricable from the means of existence, that left them profoundly vulnerable to disease. James Boyce concludes:

Not thirty years after the founding of Melbourne, only about two hundred people remained from all five of the clans that made up the once populous Kulin nation, and the population decline across Victoria as a whole was at least 80 per cent. It is now almost universally accepted that the suffering of the Aborigines and the rate of their demise were proportionate to the speed of the land grab. Given this, why is the unrestricted opening of the grasslands to white settlement still not understood to have been a disastrous mistake? How can it be that 175 years after this defining decision in Australian history was taken, it is yet to be condemned?(6)

These themes and judgements taken from Boyce’s recent study of the history of Melbourne are highly pertinent to the emergence of the field of settler colonialism, the theme of this issue of Arena Journal. 1835 is pertinent because its arguments are not predominantly about contingent mistakes made by individuals. Nor does it focus upon intentional acts. Rather it turns to the underlying cultures that are the ground of ‘mistakes’ and intentions.

However, while 1835 begins the process of identifying these grounds in the liberal and broader social order, it does not go on to illuminate how they work to produce their effects. It is to the nature of opposing cultures and their ongoing interrelations that we must turn if the field of settler colonialism is to illuminate both history and social possibility. The question of how the self-understanding of the liberal social order that promotes individual emancipation and choice can issue in both cultural subordination (often in the form of cultural assimilation) and cultural obliteration, entering a process Patrick Wolfe calls ‘the logic of elimination’,(7) must be a core preoccupation of settler-colonial studies.

Settler colonialism as a practice is a subset of colonial history, one where the colonial relationship converts into a very specific cultural practice. It is where the ‘settler culture’ seeks a permanent place in the colonial setting and, as such, enters an unrelenting cultural logic of misrecognition and blindness towards the cultural other, issuing in acts of objective cruelty and cultural destruction. Because this relationship is based in cultures, which are prior to the individual (while simultaneously forming the individual), it is a relationship that is especially difficult to put aside. Empirically speaking, there are many such examples in history, many arising in the period of Western Empire associated with modernity and expansionism in the New World. Settler colonialism as a field illuminates the history of these myriad examples while bridging into accounts of contemporary expressions of the settler phenomenon, from the continued cultural suppression arising out of nineteenth-century Empire (in Africa, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, for example) to twentieth-century expressions in Palestine.

If settler colonialism is to develop as a field of critical study it needs to include but go far beyond empirical accounts simply framed by an ethic of cultural justice. To do this it is necessary to develop a theory and account of how settler colonialism as a practice is based culturally. And this will require a broader frame of reference than the specific localities of settler-colonial practice, a broader frame that shows how this phenomenon is an effect of power based in attitudes to other cultures more generally. For it is arguable that the settler-colonial attitude derives from a widespread cultural politics set within a larger frame, one which the world today assumes, rather than reflexively knows or seeks to reform. This is to speak of a continuing imperialist attitude expressed in a view of other cultures that has little respect for those cultures’ core assumptions. There are crude expressions of this lack of cultural empathy, but there are also ‘high’ expressions, such as those embodied in the universalist philosophy of the West. For high universalism, the emancipatory principle is argued to be beyond all specific cultures and, as such, superior to all of them. Recent US adventures in the Middle East come to mind, where the invocation of ‘freedom’ has become a sign of disrespect for the complex cultures of the region. Imposed ‘freedom’ has devastating effects. Common to these expressions is a deep cultural blindness associated with modernity that is unable to view other cultures empathically or engage them in informed, reciprocal cultural interchange. Rather, knowledge of such cultures has predominantly developed instrumentally as a means to domination.

These relations of cultural power at a more general level both generate the settler colonial relationship and reflexively feed off its effects. As John Gray remarks in his Black Mass, the Enlightenment is responsible for many racist policies, especially towards colonized peoples. Enlightenment philosophers have a special responsibility, as is seen in the case of Locke:

John Locke was a Christian committed to the idea that humans are created equal, but he devoted a good deal of intellectual energy to justifying the seizure of the lands of indigenous people in America.(8)

Other philosophers, including Kant, are mired in much the same logic. The goal of equality within a universal civilization was the prospect, but this could only be achieved by the peoples of the colonies ‘giving up their own ways of life and adopting European ways’.(9) If they did not willingly give up their ways of life, extermination, an idea that was widespread, might be entertained. This was not merely a Nazi policy. When H. G. Wells asked himself about the fate of ‘swarms of black and yellow and brown people who do not come into the needs of efficiency’, he replied: ‘Well, the world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go’.(10) John Gray goes on:

Nazi policies of extermination … drew on powerful currents in the Enlightenment and used as models policies in operation in many countries, including the world’s leading liberal democracy. Programmes aiming to sterilize the unfit were under way in the United States. Hitler admired these programmes and also admired America’s genocidal treatment of indigenous peoples: he ‘often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination — by starvation and uneven combat — of the “Red Savages” who could not be tamed by captivity’.(11)

If there is any doubt about the crucial role of settler colonialism in the power effects of the West one should turn to the recent book by Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands.(12) Here the author confirms that the various plans constructed by Hitler and the Nazi regime for the mass starvation of the Slavs and the Final Solution of the Jews of Eastern Europe were based on settler-colonial assumptions, in particular as expressed in the example of the United States and the conquest of the Native American peoples. Hitler’s plan (the Generalplan Ost) to colonize the Ukraine breadbasket was one that sought to turn back the clock of industrialization in the Soviet Union, deliberately starve unwanted millions of people, introduce German settlers up to the Urals, enslave Slavs where they were deemed to be essential for economic production and push the Jews of Eastern Europe beyond the Urals into Asia. While the plan was quickly frustrated in its detail by the resistance of the Soviets, Hitler’s plan is nevertheless illustrative of crucial background assumptions and elaborations of notions of ‘development’. For Hitler,

Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor. The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, ‘in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America’. As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.(13)

As suggestive as this material may be, the point is not that of equating the United States with the Nazis. Rather it is to make the more important ethical point about Western powers and Western culture: they are interwoven with practices that take settler colonialism for granted, practices that arguably define the underside of modernity.


1 J. Boyce, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia,Melbourne, Black Inc., 2011.2 Boyce, 1835, p. 38.

3 Boyce, 1835, p. 39.

4 Boyce, 1835, p. 40.

5 Quoted by Boyce, 1835, p. 18.

6 Boyce, 1835, p. 191.

7 P. Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, London, Continuum, 1999, p. 167.

8 J. Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, London, Penguin, 2008, p. 84.

9 Gray, Black Mass, p. 86.

10 Gray, Black Mass, p. 87.

11 Gray, Black Mass, p. 87.

12 T. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York, Basic Books, 2010.

13 Snyder, Bloodlands, p. 160.

14 J. Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age, London, Routledge, 1995, p. 102.

15 See the following selected articles and books: G. Sharp, ‘Extended Forms of the Social’, Arena Journal, second series, no. 1, 1993, pp. 221–37; P. James, Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community, London, Sage Publications, 1996; S. Cooper, Technoculture and Critical Theory: In the Service of the Machine?, London, Routledge, 2002; A. Caddick, ‘Feminist and Postmodern: Donna Haraway’s Cyborg’, Arena, no. 99/100, 1992, pp. 112–28; J. Hinkson, ‘Post-Lyotard: A Critique of the Information Society’, Arena, no. 80, 1987, 123–55; and S. Cooper, J. Hinkson and G. Sharp, Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis, Melbourne, Arena Publications, 2002.

16 Benedict Anderson captures some of this process in his analysis of the social abstraction at the centre of print capitalism. See Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983. However, it will become clear that the argument in this introduction disagrees with any emphasis on this process being viewed as primarily a process of imagined social construction. Rather, it is akin to Paul James’ arguments in Nation Formation where levels of social abstraction are regarded as different levels of the social real. It is these levels, in combination, which are primary, with the nation-state being constructed out of them, as the global city is today.

17 In this introduction I am drawing on the work of George Herbert Mead on the internalization of the other in the formation of the self — what he sometimes refers to as the formation of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. However, a distinction is being introduced into his work between others who are ‘present’ and those who are ‘absent’. See Mind, Self & Society Vol. I, edited and with an introduction by C. W. Morris, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1934.

18 ‘Intuits’ in the sense that his account is not adequately fleshed out in terms of socially generated structural differences. In other words, he does not give a social account of the changes he observes and criticizes.

19 This view goes decidedly against the intervention of Jacques Derrida in ‘Signature Event Context’, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982. Here he seeks to invert what he sees as the historical diminishing of intellectual practices by the long- standing prioritizing of local community and relations of presence. He argues all such practices to be versions of ‘writing’, thus giving no special significance to social presence. What may well be arguable from the standpoint of communication nevertheless brushes aside any suggestion that intellectual practices are quite validly secondary to a primary reference in community life. It is as though ethics do not arise primarily from community relations aided by intellectual practices that give shape to the everyday. Thus his position can be argued to help lay the ground for the domination of social reality by intellectual practices, and any such argument has no way of resisting a post-human prospect.

20 A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, London, Faber and Faber, 1991, pp. 460–4. I am referring to the underlying social structure rather than any particular power expressions of particular societies.

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