Colonial ambivalence, American settler colonialism and counterinsurgency

Colonial ambivalence, American settler colonialism and counterinsurgency

The next book on settler colonialism to be discussed in these blogs is Walter Hixson’s (2013) American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan). It starts with ‘colonial ambivalence’ and the wide range of possible relationships in colonial borderlands including “adoption, accommodation, and tolerance as opposed to violent conflicts”, and which in America lasted for some centuries, providing “a vast tableau of intercultural exchange, competing desires, diplomacy, accommodation, and resistance” (vii). As part of this and at the same time, he writes that “The colonial encounter brought sweeping changes that affected Indians everywhere. Having no choice but to adapt and adjust to the newcomers, they did so in a variety of ways” (vii). The newcomers too responded in a variety of ways, he writes, including “fear and admiration, revulsion and desire, for indigenous people”, and over time “Newly arrived colonists often expressed shock at the extent to which their “civilized” European brethren had come to resemble the indigenes” (vii).

Hixson’s argument is that, despite this, the ideas-structure or mentality of the newcomers was antithetical to accepting indigenous people as their full equals. Enormous cultural differences existed regarding personhood, being civilised, labour, social hierarchy, the relationship with space and place, and particularly land and competing notions of its use and ownership. Over time, the settler colonial horde and its world-view or mentality “ultimately overwhelmed ambivalence and ambiguity… The Euro-Americans… were on a mission to take command over colonial space, a process that entailed demarcation and control, boundaries, maps, surveys, treaties, seizures, and the commodification of the land” (viii). The later circumstances also brought with them extreme reactions such as wholesale and often cold-blooded massacres, in turn giving rise to blood revenge and indiscriminate violence from the indigenous population, with the colonists remembering only this and not what had brought it about.

Hixson is concerned with providing a comprehensive approach to American settler colonialism in relation to indigenous people and countering what he calls a “simple narrative of massacres and conquest” (ix). So he takes a long view of the history of removals and connects these with the wider context in order to “illuminate patterns of counterinsurgency and indiscriminate warfare deeply rooted in colonial history, carrying through the nineteenth century, and indeed to the present day… to forge connections with other subfields of American history, to reach across disciplines”, not surprisingly finding the ‘Balkalisation’ encouraged by disciplinarity unhelpful in terms of the project he is engaged in (ix-x). This is to incorporate indigenous agency, colonial ambivalence, anticolonial resistance and sustained violence as all part of the American process of colonial ‘development’, which necessitates intellectual border-crossings by the author and also his attention to historical borderlands. And a brief PS on this is that he references across the different literatures concerned with secular colonialism, to produce work that is both substantively rigorous and detailed and also theoretically informed and interpretationally sophisticated.

At no point does Hickson lose sight of the moral and political magnitude of the events and processes concerned, emphasising that, despite these ambivalences and borderlands, “American settler colonialism ultimately drove an ethnic cleansing of the continent” with regard to indigenous people (1). There were many frontiers, many borderlands and many different kinds of encounters, but ultimately there was a boomeranging of violence which produced “powerful continuities over space and time. American history is the most sweeping, most violent, and most significant example of settler colonialism in world history” (1). At the basis was a process of ‘thingification’ (a term drawn from Cesaire), whereby indigenous people became not persons but things which could be summed up in negativising ways using racialised terms.

The colonists arrived with the intention to occupy the land permanently, they had come to stay, and he draws on James Belich’s (2009) argument about ‘explosive colonization’ here, that it was the vast numbers of migrants which produced the speed and intensity of expansion that overwhelmed the ability of indigenous people to carve out spaces and places within it. The temporal pattern is also a moral one: first contacts and mutual accommodations gave way to explosive arrivals produced dispossession produced resistances produced thingification and more violence from both sides (and what he calls the boomerang of savagery), and so it went on. Seven of the book’s chapters acts as interlocking case studies of the dynamics at work during pivotal periods in the history of Indian subjugation and also regarding Hawai’i, Alaska and the Philippines.

This is not to suggest that resistance and struggle did not continue and Hixson’s eighth and final chapter before the conclusion emphasises that “The postcolonial history of settler colonialism does not come to an end with the dispossession and demographic swamping of indigenous people. Indigenous people survived, many cultures remain intact, and they have continued to struggle variously for land, control of resources, compensation, civil rights, autonomy, and sovereignty” (185). It then interestingly – and tantalising, given the weight of the seven previous chapters – explores this in relation to Indians, Hawaiians and Alaskans in the postcolonial period.

In spite of this final chapter, Hixson’s conclusion summarises American settler colonialism as “a winner-takes-all proposition that demanded the removal of indigenous peoples and the destruction of their cultures… Indians participated at every level of the colonial encounter and, contrary to settler fantasies, the indigenes did not ‘vanish’. Nonetheless, they overwhelmingly were dispossessed, their cultures and way of life assaulted, and the consequences of this postcolonial history remain apparent in indigenous communities today” (197).

Yes, this was certainly so. But it was also certainly so that there were resistances and some successes as well as many failures, as the final chapter indicates. As a result, the thought that lingers is, could another book have been written which focused on resistances and the ongoing struggles? The counterinsurgency that Hixson comments on earlier in the book gets lost rather, but if it had been foregrounded and provided the context for all the chapters, a different kind of book would have resulted. This would have raised very different theoretical issues and interpretational problems – and perhaps more importantly, it would have helped explain ‘why the indigenes did not vanish’, to use Hixson’s phrase, for as it stands this is perplexing, unaccountable, as there appear to be no grounds for this to happen, just assault and dispossession.

Hixson’s book is excellent as it is, even though this shadow of another book is an attractive proposition. However, readers of this blog may be wondering what it has to do with South Africa. Two thoughts on this.

The first is the firm reminder it provides, that settler colonialism in America, but also elsewhere, was and is a process and not a thing and that its parameters change over time. Unlike the impression given in some of the literature, any ‘always already evil’ assumption should be resisted in favour of exploring the dynamics over time and shifts and changes in them.

The second is that, yes, both North America and South Africa experienced settler colonialism, but its shape as well as its character in the South African context was very different in some important regards. There was no explosion in numbers of white migrants, who were at the start and remained reluctant to migrate there compared with numbers going to the other settler colonies; the white population was always a minority one and became more so over time; the black population was never under threat; land might have been dispossessed but labour was prized, albeit appallingly treated: resistance was ongoing throughout and included wars and counterinsurgency as well as, at the other end of the spectrum, shading into more quotidian forms of dissent.

A lesson to learn from this is that Hixson’s book is, as he comments at a number of points, concerned with the distinctive American form of settler colonialism. The corollary is that one size does not fit all when it comes to settler colonialism, for the differences that exist are important and should not be forgotten.

Last updated:  8 February 2018


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