|Arthur Boyd, "Persecuted Lovers" (1957). Australia.|
Historians have written about settler colonies for decades. The existence of large-scale settlement in some colonies and its absence in others is a basic distinction historians could not fail to notice. And yet the full significance and coherence of these settler projects—on a global scale and across time—has not been appreciated. Only in recent years have historians begun to build a specific theoretical framework for a field of settler colonial studies distinct from other forms of colonialism. Key figures in this project are the Australian historians Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini. In the past decade, some prominent historians have adopted their framework, including the American historian Margaret Jacobs for her Bancroft-Prize-winning book White Mother to a Dark Race, and the Pullitzer-Prize-winning historian Caroline Elkins. Numerous edited collections have appeared, and the field now has its own journal. Settler colonial studies’ most prominent impact has been felt in indigenous studies around the world. Nancy Shoemaker recently complained that it has rapidly become “dogma” in her field of Native American studies. When she failed to use a settler colonial framework at a conference one of her colleagues was “astonished.” It would appear that settler colonial studies has enjoyed a rapid ascent and is earning wide influence. Yet there are few areas of the historical academy more isolated than indigenous studies. Settler colonial studies has barely made a ripple in many areas of historical inquiry to which it might meaningfully contribute. Among American historians in particular, narratives of implicit exceptionalism continue to be influential. Even more, preoccupations with the United States’ history of White supremacy and African Americans’ quest for inclusion have actually drawn attention away from the conquest that made the American state possible and have hidden the specifically settler colonial form that characterized American White supremacy.
I argue that settler colonial studies can help us reimagine not only the history of indigenous peoples, but American, African, and global histories across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What follows is an attempt to sketch out what that history might look like from a settler colonial framework. I begin by defining the key features of settler colonialism in contrast to other forms of colonialism. After outlining these characteristics, I offer very brief examples of how such a framework reorients our understanding of national and global histories.
Defining Settler ColonialismThe defining purpose of settler colonialism is the acquisition of land. Settler is not a synonym for farmer or pioneer. It suggests invasion, war, theft, and conquest. In contrast to colonies founded on resource extraction, geopolitical rivalry, or military usefulness, settler colonies emerge when an outsider population invades the land and attempts to construct a permanent homeland, often modeled on the metropole (imperial center) they left behind. This basic difference has far-reaching implications. In extraction-based colonies, the defining problem is a labor problem: how does the colonizer coerce the indigenous population into extracting resources for the metropole? In contrast, in settler colonies the defining problem is a land problem: how does the settler population gain access to, and control over, land formerly held by indigenous people? And just as importantly, how does it achieve ideological legitimacy for this theft? These questions imply dramatically different treatment toward indigenous populations. Extractive colonies rule; settler colonies exclude.
At a glance, this might appear far too simple. How can we bring, say, nineteenth century U.S. Indian policy and twentieth century apartheid South Africa within the same analytical frame? Did not the former involve a mixture of murderous conquest and assimilation with the ultimate goal of dissolving Native American identity into the settler project? And did not the latter obsessively work to define difference precisely so that no such assimilation would take place? But if we look to the land question while taking account of demographic balance and disease environments, the question becomes clearer. In both places, the settler government appropriated the overwhelming majority of arable land. The United States had its Indian reservations and South Africa had its native reserves. In the United States, the large settler population and comparatively small indigenous population made genocide—through both war and assimilation—a viable strategy. In South Africa, where the settler population remained a minority throughout, assimilation would have worked against the settler project. Minority settler regimes controlled the land by creating difference, while majority settler regimes controlled the land by assimilating difference. In both cases, the point of the settler project was seizure of the land itself.
Once in possession of the land, settler states were endlessly inventive and diverse in the ways they solved other problems—especially labor problems—specific to unique demographic contexts. While American and Australian settlers imported much of their labor (slaves and convicts), settler colonies in Africa tended to rely more heavily on indigenous labor. This reliance can obscure the core functions of power in such settler colonies. It might appear that settler colonies in Africa ruled indigenous populations with the same purposes as other colonial formations on the continent. But this was not so. The metropolitan administration of an extractive colony could imagine economic development and native “uplift” leading to some sort new political arrangement in a distant future. Profits and prestige to the metropole—not the creation of a specific sort of society on the ground—were the focus of extractive colonies. Settler projects, in contrast, envisioned the creation of homelands with carefully ordered societies that left no room—spatially or ideologically—for the native.
It is important to point out that this exclusionary settler vision was contested, with settlers on the ground often taking a harder line than metropolitan authorities. Most settler projects began as colonies of an imperial metropole whose interests were often at cross-purposes with settlers. The consequence was that governance of settler colonies was often not in the hands of those most invested in the creation of a new homeland. The complex contest for power and governance between settlers, the metropole, and the indigenous population is thus an important characteristic of settler colonialism. Attempts by settler populations to achieve de facto or de jure independence emerge as key turning points in a global settler colonial narrative. Settlers often chafed against metropolitan policies that treated settler and native alike as subjects. Their attempts to throw off metropolitan authority were often simultaneously efforts to gain greater freedom of maneuver to subjugate and exclude indigenous peoples.
To be sure, there was always slippage between the exclusionary settler colonial imagination and the lived reality of intermixture and mutual influence. All settler colonies utilized indigenous labor, and some were fully dependent on such labor for the duration of their existence. Yet the ideological underpinnings of the settler colonial project were nonetheless fundamentally exclusionary. This can be seen most clearly in settler regimes that did not achieve demographic dominance. While White South Africans depended on Black African labor, they constructed elaborate myths of the South African past to assert that Europeans had settled the land first. In effect, they denied Black Africans’ indigeneity. This allowed the settler regime to deploy African labor as migrant labor rather than indigenous labor. The oppressive system of reserves, passes, and migrant labor was all too real, but it was more than just material. African laborers’ physical movement made concrete their imagined status as a migrant rather than indigenous population.
Though indigeneity was not always so carefully denied, settler colonial regimes around the world embraced common myths centering on pristine and empty wilderness and improvement of the land. In the settler colonial imagination, settlers were the first real possessors of the land. Even if indigenous peoples occupied the land—or rather, in the settler imagination, wandered it—they had failed to make good use of it. Settlers did not see themselves as invaders. Instead, they saw themselves as pioneers, farmers, bearers of civilization. Such was the power of the land in the settler colonial imagination that some even saw themselves as conservationists! The land could be at once forbidding, a howling and dangerous wilderness, and, especially in the receding afterglow of failed settler projects like those in Kenya and Rhodesia, a fount of nostalgia and romance.
Such selective memories aside, the reality of settler colonialism is anything but romantic. Patrick Wolfe and others have argued that the logic of the settler colonial state is inherently eliminationist. Because settlers want the land, indigenous people become not just superfluous but, as people possessing alternative claim to the same land, deeply threatening. This is not to say that all settler colonial projects inevitably resulted in genocide. It is to suggest, rather, that the voracious hunger for land inherent in a settler colonial project produces a propensity for genocide. It is highly significant (though ironic) that the Rwandan genocide occurred in a context in which the Hutu saw themselves as indigenous and cast the Tutsi as settlers. In settler colonial contexts, participants readily perceive the contest for power as zero-sum.
This contest rarely features a simple binary between powerful settlers and oppressed natives. Indigenous groups ultimately defeated many twentieth century settler projects. In others, such as the United States, it took the better part of two centuries for settlers to establish a decisive ascendancy. Indigenous military and economic power decisively shaped these histories. Moreover, other outside groups occupying spaces between the poles of settler and native complicated settler colonial projects. Lorenzo Veracini has theorized a model in which settler colonial states tend to have a “triangular relationship” between settlers, indigenous, and “exogenous others.” Jews in French Algeria, Indians in South Africa, and Black Americans in the United States are examples of these exogenous groups. In many cases, such groups roughly correspond to Mahmood Mamdani’s notion of “subject races” in African colonies. Veracini argues that while settler states often exclude these groups in various ways, they may also selectively include them over time, allowing them to become, in effect, “probationary settlers.” Precisely because they are imagined as having no prior claim to land, such groups can potentially be incorporated into the settler colonial polity.
Sketching a Settler Colonial HistorySome historians have made a sharp distinction between twentieth-century settler colonial projects in Africa, Korea, and Palestine as compared to nineteenth-century settler colonial forms in the Americas and the Pacific. They emphasize that twentieth-century settler colonies usually featured much larger indigenous populations and stronger metropolitan authorities, both of which worked against decisive settler domination. Ultimately, almost all the twentieth-century settler states failed. These are important distinctions to make. As with any historical framework, there is a danger of glossing over difference, flattening distinctions, and losing our eye for specificity in the rush to find commonality, continuity, and the new insights that a novel framing of an old story can bring. But it is well to remember that danger lurks on the other side of the spectrum as well. National or local histories full of texture and nuance often miss global connections and transnational realities in their determination to locate the specific. And studies limited to a single century may miss important antecedents and consequences.
There are compelling reasons to understand settler colonialism as a cohesive phenomenon across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries even as we acknowledge difference in local contexts. Twentieth-century settler populations did not see themselves as alone. They forged solidarities with other contemporary settler colonies and looked to earlier successful settler states for ideological inspiration and practical advice. Nineteenth and twentieth-century settler states should be studied together because the links they established were as tangible as the people traveling between them. The challenges they faced in securing self-government were often similar, their ideological justifications embraced related myths, and their land policies had a remarkable degree of overlap.
A global history of the last two centuries told from this perspective would render as text what is often—inexcusably—only subtext. We live in a world underwritten by the conquest of indigenous peoples. It is difficult to imagine the rise of global capitalism apart from the killing of indigenous people around the world and the seizure of their land. All over the world, large European-descended populations on indigenous land are at the epicenter of capital creation and are sites of the most voracious (and unsustainable) consumer markets. The rise of the last three empires—Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States—is inexplicable apart from their settler-fueled expansion across multiple continents.
In a world where capital is hyper-mobile and able to adapt faster than any individual or community can hope to match, land—immovable, constant—can appear downright old-fashioned. But a settler colonial framework would put land back in the center of the historical narrative, showing how settler colonial states, from the failed ones to our current lone global superpower, made the accumulation of land for settlers the organizing principle of the state. A settler colonial framework would remind historians that it is not enough to make breezy references to racism or White supremacy, especially if we treat such forces as constants across time. We must recognize White supremacy in its specifically settler colonial forms. Race, as Patrick Wolfe has argued, “is colonialism speaking.” By attending to the logic of the settler colonial state in disparate contexts, we can begin to make sense of racial regimes that appear to have little in common with each other at first glance. Why is one population subject to a “one-drop” rule while another’s identity is diluted through assimilation? Such varying regimes work in different contexts to protect the privileges of the settler population.
A settler colonial history would frame settler colonies’ independence struggles as key turning points. One way to think about change across time in settler colonies and states is to examine when and under what conditions (if ever) the settler population gained the de facto ability to impose its will on the indigenous population. The metropole often had a different set of priorities than the settler population. This became obvious in North America in the 1770s, in Kenya in the 1950s, and in Algeria and Rhodesia in the 1960s. Those settler colonies that achieved de jure or de facto independence at a relatively early date (the United States, Australia, Canada) gained more freedom of maneuver to solve their “native problem” on their own terms, usually with more brutality and comprehensiveness than the metropole would have tolerated. Settler populations that made their moves for de facto control at a much later date (Rhodesia and Algeria in the 1960s) found that they had acted too late. Changing international norms of human rights and self-determination meant that even success would earn them pariah status.
A settler colonial history would also emphasize the similar global practices used to deny indigenous land rights and preserve the best lands for settler populations. Often settler regimes pursued the subjugation of indigenous groups through contrasting yet complementary policies. In Rhodesia, the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 evicted Black Africans to clear space for yet-to-arrive White settlers. Yet the 1951 Native Land Husbandry Act declared the settler government’s intent to create “yeoman farmers” out of individual Black Africans. As individuals, Africans could eke out an existence on marginal land; such cases of ostensible inclusion worked to dilute group claims to land. This phenomenon of eviction followed by individual allotment was also exemplified by the Dawes Act in the United States. Similarly, in French Algeria new laws in the 1860s and 1870s converted huge tracts of land from communal to individual control, enabling settlers to leverage their economic advantage to buy up prime lands. In other cases, failure to appear to at a French-convened hearing at a specific time could result in indigenous forfeiture of supposedly “unclaimed” land. Meanwhile in Australia, a series of Selection Acts, much like the Homestead Act in the United States, increased settlement on indigenous land and spurred further violence. When we take a global view of these practices, a picture emerges of settler populations on multiple continents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries moving decisively to create the physical, legal, and ideological conditions necessary for controlling indigenous land.
A settler colonial framework would take care to explain how the policies of settler states changed after control of the land became relatively secure. Rather than seeing assimilationist policies as a disavowal of earlier violence or as of a piece with the so-called civilizing mission of colonialism, a settler colonial history better explains the fundamental continuities in settler states. As Margaret Jacobs has argued, practices such as indigenous child removal and education in Australia and the United States should not be seen as more benign practices representing a break from earlier and more brutal forms of colonization. Instead, so-called native uplift in settler states had as a deliberate goal the erasure of indigenous group identity, and with it, any claim to the land.
A settler colonial framework also provides a useful antidote to exceptionalist thinking. Exploring and explaining difference is part of the historian’s stock in trade. But notions of exceptionalism tend not so much to explain difference as assume it. Instead of the hard work of clarifying historical processes, exceptionalism often offers ahistorical moral claims of the innate goodness or villainy of a people or nation. There are two great exceptionalisms in contemporary historiography. The United States is the exceptional nation, and Africa is the exceptional continent. In the popular imagination, the former is the place where liberty was born in the modern world; the latter the place where chaos reigns and primordial conflicts erupt with confounding regularity. The pull of these tropes, though reduced, still lingers in the historical profession. A settler colonial framework has the potential to mitigate both exceptionalisms. As Mahmood Mamdani has provocatively argued, “America appears less as exceptional and more as a pioneer in the history and technology of settler colonialism. All the defining institutions of settler colonialism were produced as technologies of native control in North America.” More work is needed to explore how well such a claim can hold up to scrutiny, but it is abundantly clear that a settler colonial framework does offer new possibilities for American history.
A settler colonial narrative of American history reframes the American Revolution as a settler attempt to secure the power to solve the “native problem” on the settlers’ own terms. Though historians are well-aware of American settlers’ frustration with the 1763 British Proclamation Line, it is still often treated as peripheral to the “real” issues animating the rebellion. A settler colonial history highlights this quest for indigenous land as a central concern of the conflict. In such a history, the near-constant processes of Indian removal and warfare in the nineteenth century are read not as hypocrisies in the American experiment but as an organic expression of the logic of the settler colonial state. Nor should removal be read simply as a symptom of White supremacy or as precondition for the expansion of racial slavery. Instead, the voracious drive for land is better understood as a cross-sectional project uniting most pro- and anti-slavery White Americans. The Civil War era Republican Party emerges, then, not only as an anti-slavery party, but as a distinctly settler colonial one whose vision of White yeoman farmers implied continued indigenous dispossession. The policies pursued by the Lincoln and Grant administrations, from the Homestead Act to aggressive wars of conquest in the West, bore out those implications.
An obvious question is where African Americans and other minority groups in the United States fit in to this picture. Veracini’s notion of probationary settlers is helpful here. From an indigenous and settler colonial perspective, the African American struggle for inclusion from emancipation to the present is the struggle to cast off this probationary status and be recognized as full settlers. The North’s inability to imagine serious land reform after the Civil War reflected the priorities of settler colonial state. African Americans were outsiders valued for their labor on settler land. Redistributing land to the formerly enslaved would upset these relations. To the present day, the bundle of individual rights and privileges the settler colonial state promises remains intimately tied to land. The American Dream—that vaguely defined and overworked phrase—is if nothing else a dream about individual property. The promise of individual rights and property ownership offers hope to African Americans. For the indigenous, the same promise has a sharp edge, raising the specter of lost sovereignty and group identity.
In Africa, a settler colonial history helps us to better see that taking seriously the legacies of colonialism and settler colonialism is not special pleading to absolve African countries of responsibility for their contemporary difficulties. In fact, these legacies are quite concrete in the political categories and governing strategies pursued by supposedly post-colonial states. If extractive colonialism had pernicious effects, settler colonialism had all the more so. Indeed, the effects of settler colonial ventures live on even where they were defeated. In Kenya, veterans of the Mau Mau struggle continue to demand land redistribution—land that was originally taken from the Kikuyu to benefit White settlers. In Zimbabwe, White settler control of huge portions of arable land continued after independence. Chaotic and violent land reform at the turn of the century removed most White control but solved few problems. South Africa continues to be splintered by a grossly unequal distribution of land and resources. In Africa and around the world, to tell the history of settler colonialism is to narrate a significant story of our own time.
A settler colonial framework reorients our comparative lens to see that the problems of post-independence Africa involve not so much questions of race as of indigeneity. These are not exceptional African problems, but global problems in a world shaped by settler colonialism. From a settler colonial perspective, the point of reference for Zimbabweans and Kenyans is not African Americans but Native Americans. In successful settler colonial states such as Australia and the United States, indigenous people face extreme poverty, cultural alienation, and loss of sovereignty. Post-settler colonial African states offer powerful counterexamples of more hopeful possibilities. The history of the modern world is a history of settler invasion and indigenous dispossession. Indigenous peoples resisted everywhere; only in Africa did they achieve widespread success.
Imagining Alternative FuturesIn conclusion, I return to my own country. Historians are not immune from the trap of subtly ahistorical thinking. Caught up in telling the story of the American nation, it becomes very easy for us to assume that the status of the United States is settled, that when it comes to the construction of the American nation-state, we’ve reached the end of history. Such a posture (usually unconscious) disallows the possibility of a future devolution of the American settler colonial project. As Audra Simpson has written in her exceptional book, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, indigenous people are still here. They have resisted, and do resist, the assimilationist sovereignty claims of settler nation-states. They claim their own sovereignty, their own nationhood. In short, perhaps the most striking claim is the most obvious: we do not know what the map of North America will look like a century from now.
 Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (New York: Cassell, 1999), 2.
 See Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Veracini, The Settler Colonial Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (New York: Verso, 2016).
 See the journal Settler Colonial Studies. Some recent edited collections include Caroline Elkins and Susan Pederson, Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies (New York: Routledge, 2005); Annie E. Coombes, Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, Aoteario New Zealand, and South Africa (New York: Manchester University Press, 2006); Fiona Bateman and Lionel Pilkington, Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
 Nancy Shoemaker, “A Typology of Colonialism,” Perspectives on History, October 2015.
 Mahmood Mamdani recently made this argument. See “Settler Colonialism: Then and Now,” Critical Inquiry 41 (2015): 596-614.
 Elkins and Pederson theorize a quadrangle made up of the imperial metropole, the local colonial administration, the settler population, and the indigenous population.
 David McDermott Hughes. Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belong (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
 Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (2006): 387-409.
 Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
 Veracini, Settler Colonialism, 16-52.
 Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
 Veracini, Settler Colonialism, 16-52.
 Elkins and Pederson insist on this distinction.
 In Luise White’s excellent new book on UDI Rhodesia, she writes that she has deliberately avoided a settler colonial framework because she believed it was inadequate to the specificity of her questions. Just a few pages later, however, she emphasizes that White Rhodesians possessed a “national imaginary” of themselves as “pioneers.” Rather than being unique, this reflects a typical settler colonial imagination. White’s insistence on specificity causes her to obscure this broader context. Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 28.
 See for example, Zine Magubane, “The American Construction of the Poor White Problem in South Africa,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107 (2008): 691-713; Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Dane Kennedy, Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987; Mamdani, “Settler Colonialism: Then and Now.”
 Wolfe, Traces of History, 5
 White, Unpopular Sovereignty.
 Sung-Eun Choi, Decolonization and the French of Algeria: Bringing the Settler Colony Home (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 18-20.
 Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 20.
 Jacobs, White Mother, xxx.
 Mamdani, “Settler Colonialism: Then and Now,” 608.
 Some other examples of what it could look like to teach American history with a settler colonial framework are found in Miktal Brotnov Eckstrom and Margaret Jacobs, “Teaching American History as Settler Colonialism” in Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians, edited by Sleeper-Smith et al (Chapel Hill: Univerity of North Carolina Press, 2015), 259-272.
 Mamdani, Citizen and Subject.