Settler colonialism, in the traces

Settler colonialism, in the traces

Work on provisioning the new webpages for the HRI WWW website continues and so it isn’t sensible to try to change existing pages or to add substantial new ones other than the weekly blog until this is finished. Therefore as well as continuing to ‘hunt the Jpeg’ (see last week‘s blog), the pile of books waiting to be read has been dipped into. One in particular has been a very fruitful read – Patrick Wolfe’s (2016) The Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race.

The arrival on the academic scene of a body of work concerned with theorising settler colonialism as a distinctive social-economic-political formation has greatly enlivened the study of former colonies, their histories, their relationships with the imperial metropoles they were ‘of’, and how these continue playing out in such societies now. Some of this work is interesting while providing a conceptual edifice largely content-bereft, some asserts ‘detail’ but in sweeping (over)generalisations, some focuses down just on specific nitty-gritty in particular times and places, some positions indigenous peoples as victims without agency, while the best has combined conceptual sophistication with grounded detail and theorised from the specifics and recognised complexity and resistance. This best work is helping change the intellectual landscape, although in ways not always welcomed (eg. see Vimalassery, Pegues and Goldstein 2016 for a less than pleased response to the rather over-binary stance that some contributors take).

An important presence in this respect has been the work of historical anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, in joining together a coherent conceptual framework, astute commentary on specific settler colonies without becoming lost in specific detail, and a strong – and at points sweeping – moral stance regarding the extreme virulence and sometimes genocide that can be involved. The Traces of History is as thought-provoking as his earlier work, for even when disagreeing with various of his ideas these are provoking in the best sense and deserve careful consideration. In particular, the theorisation of the origins and dynamics of race in this book encourages thinking about comparisons between Wolfe’s approach and the WWW way of understanding how and in what ways race came onto the agenda of the burgeoning white colonial presence in southern Africa and then became endemic.

For Wolfe, the key components are that race as a classificatory system is a product of colonialism and did not exist before colonialism did, that imperialism spawned colonialism, that colonialism was predicated upon the expropriation of land and the subjugation of labour, and that this involved where possible the removal of indigenous peoples in a way that treated the land as ‘really’ empty. There is for him a logic built into this of subjugation and expropriation which coheres in times and places where ideas about race as a ‘fact’ comes to be seen as shaky by white groupings or collectivities, and it results in extreme violence including torture, murder and genocide. The other key component is his recognition that the dynamis (to use Derrida’s term) is that cheap compliant and thoroughly subjugated labour is desired, at the same time that sovereignty and territoriality are of the essence. This plays out differently in different contexts, Wolfe acknowledges, because both indigenous and settler communities will have distinct histories and accumulations of knowledge and other kinds of capital, and so the shape of resistances to colonial encroachments will correspondingly also differ.

These two aspects of Wolfe’s thinking come across as rather contradictory, or perhaps rather that he is attempting to work with incommensurabilities. On the one hand, colonialism is an ‘it’, albeit an it that is a process not a structure, for it has the features he identifies built in as ‘how it is’ and among other things they add up to a genocidal settler colonial impulse to clear land and create entitlement and sovereignty through removing people by permanent means. On the other hand, it is a process that always becomes articulated through the complicated meeting of what he calls the ‘preaccumulations’ of both indigenous and settler communities and also the specific characteristics of the land or territory concerned, such that ‘race‘ is not a matter of shared fixed characteristics and always a matter of specific circumstances. Relatedly, this second aspect favours a two-fold research approach in furthering it. This is, (i) always investigate from the beginning-point those complicated meetings of indigenous and settler communities and persons, and then (ii) consider how each of these specific ‘regimes of race’ (or racialisation processes) differentially contribute to what overall is racial oppression.

The first aspect leads Wolfe to make the kinds of generalisations that the second disavows. The title and sub-title of his book’s title when reversed – elementary structures of race, the traces of history – encapsulate the analytical issue here. It arises perhaps in part because of the particular examples Wolfe works with (Australia, Brazil, Palestine, North America) and that yield his elementary structures, with contrary or more taxing examples lying outside the framework. However, it is also in part because of the way in which the conceptual framework has been arrived at and that there are too few actual traces (evidential sources) for the history to be properly and substantially present. For instance, the argument that race existed only ‘after colonialism’ is closely tied to the forms that colonialism took in the settler states discussed, so that it becomes tautological. Before colonialism, there were racialisms and also forms of colonialism that lie outside the definitional approach taken by Wolfe. And similarly so with his argument that colonialism is only a European and white production. In fact elsewhere in the world than the settler states of attention, there are historical examples of indigenous imperialism and colonialism in which a constituent part was the reconstruction of cultural ethnicities into fixed racialisms. There are also examples of contemporary black-on-black, brown-on-brown and other racialisms and it is insufficient to portray these as solely the aftermath of colonialism, for although clearly its effects continue to mark contemporary situations, there is also more going on that relates to the present and this needs to be accounted for too.

Another troublesome aspect is connected and concerns what is seen as the in-built logic of removal associated with territorial expansion. This concerns genocide, deliberate mass murder with the intention of destroying an entire people. Indeed, this certainly happened in some and perhaps many colonial contexts. But not in all, and not in the same way or to the same degree, for in at least some of the literature genocide and massacres are treated as one and the same rather than recognising the important differences of scale and intent inhering in genocide. And, and it is an important and, in most times and places and circumstances the logic did not work in this way and instead the relations concerned became routine, quotidian, predictable and in a strange sense at least on the surface orderly. However, his 2016 book is certainly more nuanced that an earlier widely referenced article on this.

In so far as there can be any bottom-line in thinking about these complex matters, it seems to be that assigning such definitional characteristics to the conceptual structure almost inevitably runs up against the multifarious complexities of the different histories involved. As Wolfe states, giving one label to a phenomenon so shaped by contextual and historical specificities soon becomes misleading. Connected to this, it is important not to override historical differences and specificities by supposing that the theoretical structure as though it provides ‘actual descriptions’ of what there was on the ground in specific historical circumstances and particular settler colonial contexts, which danger of course Wolfe is aware of and counsels against.

It is useful to note some particularities regarding the important matter Wolfe discusses concerning what happens when peoples – indigenous people and outsider colonists – meet around emerging perceptions of superordinacy and subordinacy and attendant practices and where matters of labour and land are up for grabs. From complicated beginnings, he sees this moving in the direction of mass removals, expulsions or eruptions of extreme and virulent expressions of violence. A counter is to say that whenever putative established and outsider groups come in contact there is the potential for all these things but also from many more kinds of interrelationships, and that there is likely to be a wide diversity of occurrences involving different sub-groups who respond differently.

A case in point is clearly southern Africa, where the extreme responses that Wolfe mentions occurred, with for example genocide being a response to the San and Herero peoples, but with many other kinds of responses also occurring across an extreme diversity of local contexts. Yes, land and labour were both involved, but there were other factors too, and these cannot be reduced to the only other consideration for Wolfe, which is ‘racial ideology’. But no, there was not just one kind of outcome, instead different ones in different places and circumstances and involving different groups of people. And in addition, while the processes of state formation were involved in the over-time leavening out of such differences in South Africa itself, these cannot be reduced to ‘colonial’ as though this is inert through time with all else changing around it.

So what about comparisons between Wolfe’s approach and the WWW one regarding how race came onto the agenda of the expanding white colonial presence in southern Africa, then became rigidly instituted and enforced at state-level, and has more recently gone through a transition phase and is continuing to change in complicated ways? There is an area of agreement, including first contacts being very much to the person and occurring around ratios of power more evenly balanced or even favouring the indigenous end, changes occurring over time as migratory incursions occurred and labour and land became foregrounded in the colonial agenda, the large variations in colonialist responses, the also large variations in the resistances and capacities of the different indigenous groups involved.

Areas of disagreement include Wolfe’s treatment of colonialism as the founding source of race and as a solely European production. And it is the different circumstances of the South African context that give rise to the different approach WW has taken, that and wanting to pay careful detailed attention to the remaining traces. Indigenous groups were many and varied enormously in power and preaccumulative capacities and also their distance from white population concentrations and power bases. Some of these at points involved Indigenous imperialism and expansionism, and indigenous conversions of ethnicities et cetera to forms of racialisms. There was not just one kind of economy developed, but a number of different internal economic bases came to coexist. The relationship between the opposing pulls of labour and land played out differently because the enclave character of the industrialised part of the economy (initially around diamonds and gold, then the extractive and some other heavy industries particularly) meant that in some sectors cheap compliant and preferably short-term labour was deemed essential, while all other manner of work was done by licensing the supposed outsiders to be present within white enclaves in a highly regulated way by creating another kind of enclave, urban ‘locations’ whose populations were both external and internal in satisfying the labour needs of the white population. And surrounding these and other related features of the South African context, there was and continued to be a wide variety different kinds of responses and relationships between people of all ethnicities and skin colours at local levels, including people who were indigenous and those of settler stock, and these existed alongside the structural factors.

Much of what Wolfe writes about can of course be found in South Africa in some times, places, circumstances and involving some people. But there are always exceptions and there is always so much more as well, And these exceptions and variations matter. There can be no satisfactory explanation of the racial order in South Africa and its ‘regimes of race’ without also explaining these. This is the point at which the crucial matter of ‘the traces of history’, Wolfe’s title, need to be brought into the foreground. It is the traces of history that show the exceptions, variations, differences and divergences, as well as the regularities and trajectories, with the consequence that regimes and orders need to be understood as also fractured and contested, and with some people in some times and places bracketing their ‘instructions’ and treating other factors as more important in their relationships with others.

Patrick Wolfe (2016) The Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso.

Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein( 2016) ‘Introduction – On Colonial Unknowing’ Theory & Event 19, 4, special issue on ‘On Colonial Unknowing’.

Settler Colonial Studies – journal =

Settler Colonial Studies – blog =

Last updated: 20 January 2018