Pluto Press Logo




On the Blog

In Settler Colonialism: An Introduction, Sai Englert explores how settler colonialism continues to shape our global economic and political order. In this excerpt, Englert highlights how settlers obscure dispossession through denial and depict Indigenous societies as primitive to justify violent expansion.

Explore the impact of Western imperialism on the Middle East and beyond through a discounted reading list examining the extensive consequences of expansionist capitalist nations, available at 50% off until March 10th.

Settlers have systematically tried to obscure the fact of dispossession in a number of different ways. Most prominent amongst the discursive strategies used has been the denial that they encountered Indigenous societies at all. Even when settlers recognised the presence of Indigenous peoples and societies, they argued that these were so primitive as to be virtually undifferentiated from the local fauna and flora, which in turn justified their subjugation, or even their elimination, by Europeans. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, the sixteenth-century Spanish theologian, in his famous defence of the Indigenous populations’ enslavement in the Americas, argued:

In wisdom, skill, virtue and humanity, these people are as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults and women to men; there is as great a difference between them as there is between savagery and forbearance, between violence and moderation, almost – I am inclined to say – as between monkeys and men.

This assertion was then used to justify unleashing great violence against the inhabitants of newly conquered lands, to kill them, subjugate them, and put them to work on the land and in the mines from which the empire grew rich. Sepúlveda was certainly not alone in this. He was, in many ways, simply restating the dominant doctrine that directed Spanish empire building and settlement.

The so-called ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, which would be so central to this process, emerged from a series of Papal Bulls from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. It granted the Catholic monarchies of Portugal and Spain the right to claim lands they ‘discovered’ – first in West Africa and later in the Americas. In doing so, the stage was set for the emergence of a key idea that underlies much of settler colonial expansion: that Europeans could claim to ‘discover’ lands, which were already inhabited, cultivated and/or home to existing societies. One hundred million people populated the Americas, living in its empires and city states. They built and travelled on its roads and canals, and agricultural production was key to their economies across the continents. Forests and grasslands were shaped and maintained by the peoples that inhabited them, in order to facilitate food production, travel and animal migration. None of this, however, stopped European settlers from claiming rights of ‘discovery’ – rather than invasion – or from describing the environments they encountered as pristine and untouched.

Nor were settlers in the Western Hemisphere alone in constructing such narratives, which are ubiquitous across the settler world – from Southern Africa where settlers claimed to have found empty lands that were later invaded by African populations, to Palestine where the Zionist movement talked about a ‘land without a people for a people without a land’. The so-called ‘Terra Nullius’ paradigm, which identified colonised lands as belonging to no one, formed a key justifying narrative for settler expansion around the globe. The claim of non-existing occupancy before ‘discovery’ was a central aspect when claiming ownership over land and removing the Indigenous peoples who inhabited it. The latter, turned into foreigners, migrants, or invaders, could then be fought ruthlessly by settlers in order to protect what was ‘rightfully’ theirs. In fact, this same principle remains central to denying Indigenous people the right to their land today. Settlers, of course, have always known these claims to be vacuous. This is clear given the energy they expounded in developing and imposing the necessary forms of violence and domination that made possible the conquest, displacement and/or exploitation of the same Indigenous people whom they claimed were absent.

While the Doctrine of Discovery remained important in these processes – the US Supreme Court still referred to it in its rulings regarding the relationship with Indigenous nations in the nineteenth century – it was complemented from the seventeenth century onwards by liberal thinkers who developed further justification for colonial conquest, settler violence and slavery. Chief amongst these thinkers was John Locke, himself an active political and financial supporter of settlement in the Carolina Colony. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke claimed that those who transgressed the law or those who were guilty of waging ‘unjust’ wars could be punished or killed. This theory gave ideological cover to settlers, who could justify their massacres of Indigenous people through the fact that the latter had ‘unjustly’ attacked them or transgressed their laws. The cycle, which would define so much of settler colonial history, would unravel as follows: settlers lay claim on Indigenous lands, resources and people. The latter rebel, after which more settler violence is unleashed to punish the ‘transgressors’. This, in turn, allows settlers to claim more Indigenous land, resources and/or labour.

The Jamestown settlers, in the early seventeenth century, for example, demanded that the Powhatan confederacy provide them with food, land and labour. When they refused, the settlers, led by John Smith (of later white-washed Disney fame) unleashed war on the confederacy. Yet, a year into the conflict, the settlers could still claim to be taking revenge on the Powhatan by mass-murdering their children. A decade later, when the Powhatan launched a new assault on the settlers to reclaim their lands, the settlers turned to the ‘systematic destruction of all Indigenous agricultural resources’. In the 1640s, settlers returned again, focusing on starving the Indigenous population into exile by destroying their food supplies. These confrontations, alongside the expansion of tobacco cultivation and the influx of more settlers, led to the colony’s further expansion. By the mid-1670s, this led to new confrontations, this time with the Susquehannock people whose lands the planters were encroaching on. And so, the process continued. Settler expansion is dependent on taking over Indigenous land, increasing in the process the existential pressure on the Indigenous population and leading to conflict and displacement. Conflict then results in further encroachment on Indigenous nations’ lands, whose existing social and economic systems have already been destabilised through settler influx and the displacement of other Indigenous peoples.

Locke’s second contribution to the ideological justification for settlement was his argument that private property was generated through improvement, by mixing labour and land. Once land was claimed to be pristine and untouched, all labour carried out on it by settlers was seen as extracting it from its ‘state of nature’, improving it through work, and in the same stroke, transforming it into settler property. Private property was the key through which this distinction could be made. To own land privately, in a way recognisable to European settlers, was synonymous to being civilised. A failure to recognise private property and the laws that enshrined it, such as holding land in common, or simultaneous and overlap-ping forms of property (see below), marked Indigenous people, unable to recognise the settlers’ laws, as savages who could then be targeted through Lockean ‘just war’. Discussing the 1831 US Supreme Court’s ruling, which designated Indigenous people as ‘wards’ of the federal government and their nations as ‘dependent’ on it, Jody A. Byrd points out how Lockean approaches merged with the Doctrine of Discovery:

… the Court facilitated continued removals, forced diasporas, colonization, and assimilation through the establishment of a paternal relation between the United States and those peoples it deemed were its ‘children’ or ‘wards’. The superior claim to land that [it] acknowl-edges … addresses the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’; which gave Europeans and by extension their agents in the new world a claim to native lands by the physical act of discovery. So long as Indigenous peoples lived peace-

fully on the land, the question of title would not be forced; the only ways to cede title were through either treaty negotiations or ‘just war’.

In order to make these claims of ownership a reality, a wide range of approaches were used by settler regimes. Across the globe and throughout the last five centuries, a number of key themes can be identified. These range from military conquest, ethnic cleansing and expulsion, to geographically confining Indigenous populations, forcefully assimilating them through the imposition of private property, and strengthening the rule of collaborating Indigenous elites. A key method in doing so was the imposition of the reservation. This technique of control and domination travelled from Ireland to North America, and then across the settler world. Reservations are a key mechanism of dispossession, which facilitates, depending on the local circumstances, either Indigenous exclusion from, or controlled integration into, the settler economy.

Dispossession is central to the functioning of settler colonialism. At the most basic level, in order to claim the land to settle on, settlers must first take control of it and declare it their own. Moreover, settlers undermine the existing social and economic structures of those Indigenous peoples that inhabit the land, which, in turn, both accelerates the settlers’ accumulation of land and the destruction of Indigenous societies. Dispossession is not, however, solely a settler colonial process. It is a central aspect of the development of capitalism and its transformation of pre-existing social relations. Dispossession is also ongoing, through which land continues to be conquered and turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold in search of profit. In doing so, Indigenous peoples are dispossessed, ecological breakdown is accelerated, and colonial accumulation continues apace.

Sai Englert is a lecturer at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. He works on settler colonialism, Zionism, labour movements, and antisemitism. He is a member of the editorial boards of Notes from Below and Historical Materialism.

Settler Colonialism: An Introduction is available to purchase here.