Historiography of settler-colonialism

In the 1960s, historians and scholars in related disciplines began to analyze the recent decolonization happening across the globe. Because decolonization was such a recent political issue, the study of colonialism, decolonization, and post-colonialism easily extended into other fields beyond historical study. Scholars across these fields began to formulate terms, methodologies, and categories for understanding the process of decolonization. This became problematic as fields, even within the social sciences or humanities, do not necessarily speak to each other very easily. Differences in terminology, coupled with the roughly five hundred year time span making up the colonial period, resulted in a variety of fascinating studies of colonialism and decolonization but also the creation of a very broad field riddled with fractures and limitations.
Frederick Cooper speaks to exactly these issues in his 2005 book Colonialism in Question. He asks, “How can one study colonial societies, keeping in mind—but not being paralyzed by—the fact that the tools of analysis we use emerged from the history we are trying to examine?” (Cooper, 4) While he finds value in the work on colonialism published between 1970 and 2005, the field was too tightly bounded as the “colonial” period, cut off from surrounding time periods. He argues that future historians should reconsider colonialism’s place in history, keeping in mind the possible dangers of un-bounding the period and its legacy on the way history is written. Cooper criticizes how the field of history has limited the study of colonialism in particular. Because historians have certain standards they must live up to, like publishing in certain journals, historians are limited in how far they are willing to go with their analysis. He also finds the “turns” in history problematic because historians find one aspect of the history most important at a particular moment, something he refers to as the “bandwagon effect.” (Cooper, 5)
By focusing on specific conceptual and methodological issues, Cooper believes he and future historians can avoid the problems that have previously plagued the field. Rather than a series of turns, he sees colonial histories as “overlapping and often conflicting perspectives, all in relation to the shifting politics of decolonization.” (Cooper, 7) His book reads as a historiography of colonialism and a guide for future work in the field. He focuses on “identity, globalization, and modernity.” While these terms are frequently used in the field, he believes historians need to explore the contexts in which they are being used so as to avoid analytic categories that obscure what they meant to historical actors. Cooper specifically explores the issues surrounding “globalization” because it “distorts the history of empires and colonization in order to fit into a story with a predetermined end.” (Cooper, 10) Mindful of the limitations of the concepts he criticizes, he reimagines colonialism over a longer period of time. Rather than seeing empires as nation-states projecting power outside their borders, he sees them as powers who were all concerned with incorporating people and territories. This allows him to analyze both European and non-European empires over the long-term. (Cooper, 11)
Cooper briefly discusses the United States as an empire and the problems it poses to the study of colonialism. He argues that while the nation-state has only been seen as the main form of sovereignty since the 1960s when the last empires collapsed, historians project this form of government onto the past as the only place where sovereignty can stem from. This obscures the differences between imperial and national empires and the different ways their subjects resisted them. (Cooper, 24) Cooper argues that the United States was especially unique, because even though its form of empire was not static and the power of the U.S. changed over time, “the United States may well have become a nation-state because it pretended to be one.” (Cooper, 195) The ways in which the United States incorporated new territories as equal parts allowed them to marginalize Native Americans from the nation in much the same ways other European powers did. Because theirs was a continental empire, the United States could carry on imperial activities by another name.
Joanne Barker analyzes exactly this issue that Cooper points to regarding the power of the United States. While sovereignty is an ancient term, colonists used it to negate “indigenous territorial rights and humanity which justified the right of conquest by claims to national superiority.” (Barker, 5) Because of this, only nations could possess sovereignty and the United States used this reasoning to dispossess indigenous peoples and justify the idea of Manifest Destiny. Constitutions and treaties were the primary ways sovereign nations articulated their sovereignty internationally. The strategies used by colonial powers to establish their sovereignty and have it recognized internationally bring up questions of the place of indigenous sovereignty. If the U.S. and other powers sign treaties with indigenous groups, is indigenous sovereignty recognized under international law? Why, then, have indigenous rights been disrupted through treaty making? She argues colonial powers see treaties with indigenous groups as part of their domestic policy. Rather than attributing the same rights to indigenous groups as to other sovereign nations under international law, colonial powers “defined sovereignty through the attributes of territorial integrity and jurisdiction.” (Barker, 5)Clearly, there is a contradiction in U.S. colonial actions that specifically targets indigenous peoples for marginalization.
Barker’s analysis of sovereignty and treaty making brings up broader questions about the use of European etymologies for indigenous groups. Why would sovereignty matter to indigenous people if it is not a concept that fully captures their understandings of law, territory, and government? After World War II, in what Cooper calls the post-colonial period, indigenous people also began to articulate their rights through the use of “sovereignty.” While the term was not new to them, in this period it allowed them to forward their political agendas and social movements to reclaim territory and resources. In the U.S., it allowed them indigenous groups to claim a special status as “peoples” rather than simply another minority group living within U.S. borders. (Barker, 19) Barker argues “…to understand how it matters and for whom, sovereignty must be situated within the historical and cultural relationships in which it is articulated.”(Barker, 26)
The connection between territory and sovereignty is a common thread running through all histories of colonial studies, but especially histories of settler-colonialism. In Mark Rifkin’s 2009 book Manifesting America, Rifkin engages Barker’s arguments about sovereignty to explain how and why the modern United States came into being. He points to the same territorial inclusion and indigenous exclusion, arguing that the United States reimagined “land formerly beyond the purview of U.S. governance as intimately embedded in national space; and produc[ed] subjectivities for involuntary interiorized peoples that are designed to testify to their non-coerced acceptance of their place in national life.” (Rifkin, 6) Unlike Barker, Rifkin is more concerned with the physical space of the nation than the sovereignty claimed based on that space. Rifkin also points to the way the United States envisioned itself as a nation-state, asserting that “the insistence…on the inherent coherence and contiguity of national geography suggests that political pressure coalesced around the image of unbroken unity within American borders.” (Rifkin, 5) The assertion by the United States that it was and always has been a united nation denies its role as an imperial power, justifying territorial inclusion and indigenous exclusion. The existence of a nation flattens conflicting claims over territory and jurisdiction, making the existence and power of the United States “incontestable.” Because of this, Indian policy is seen as outside of the norm rather than as the crux of U.S. power. Rifkin argues that there does not need to be a “categorical distinction between imperialism and republicanism” because in the case of the United States they are one in the same. (Rifkin, 13) This reality makes it even more difficult for indigenous people within the territory claimed by the United States to assert their rights and sovereignty.
Historian Lauren Benton is also concerned with the mapping of physical spaces as a tool of empire. While focusing more broadly on European empires, like Rifkin, Benton points to the difference between colonial aspiration and the reality of control on the ground. Rather than mirroring the monochrome shading of imperial maps, imperial possessions were often “uneven, disaggregated, and oddly shaped.” (Benton, 2) Not only did imperial territories have varying levels of actual imperial control, Benton argues there were variations in the agents of empire, from pirates to travelers, who brought with them varying degrees of imperial loyalty and authority adding to the patchwork nature of these territories. (Benton, 3)
Previously, historians have read the unevenness of territorial rule as a temporary stage on the way to a solidified imperial rule. But Benton argues that this is to project backward the idea that territory was the defining element of sovereignty. As Cooper and Barker also argue, the marriage of sovereignty to territory is a post-nineteenth century ideal. While throughout the colonial period territory was a part of colonial control, Benton argues that other “spheres of influence” also played a significant role in how empires envisioned their power. (Benton, 3)Even with the creation of modern nation-states, territorial power was still uneven especially, as Rifkin points out, in the United States. While historians may find the use of imperial mapping Eurocentric, Benton finds that cartography was in no way limited to European powers, as both Muslim and Asian empires influenced and were influenced by European cartography. Also, indigenous understandings of space shaped the ways European cartographers imagined physical space. Because indigenous ideas of territoriality were not all that different from European ideas, historians can see “the ways that Europeans invoked existing geographic categories in imagining ‘new’ worlds.” (Benton, 14)
Each of these books ties together geography, law, and sovereignty together in unique yet intersecting ways. Together they reveal the similarities across imperial powers. Each empire found ways to express sovereignty through bounding physical spaces (whether on maps or in power on the ground), extending legal jurisdiction (often in uneven ways) over these spaces, and organizing and marginalizing the indigenous peoples they encountered. The historians who study this process, while approaching it from very different backgrounds, have created a coherent study which now more frequently includes indigenous peoples as prominent historical actors. While in 2005, Cooper was frustrated with the boundaries and limitations on the field as a whole, in analyzing works on colonialism and settler-colonialism since then, the long-term continuity Cooper was calling for seems to have been realized. “We know sovereignty when we see it…Yet we also know that sovereignty is often more myth than reality, more a story that polities tell about their own power than a definite quality they possess.” (Benton, 279) This idea is now recognized by all historians working in the field of colonial studies. There are many, many long-term studies of European colonial powers. Now, these methodologies and categories of analyses would be best suited for a broader study of the U.S. as an imperial power. While historians like Rifkin and Barker have begun this process, the unique character of the United States as an imperial power requires further exploration to place Native American action and resistance into a larger, global context.


Barker, Joanne, ed. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-      Determination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Benton, Lauren. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge   University Press, 2009.

Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Rifkin, Mark. Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space. Oxford; New York: Oxford University    Press, 2009.

One thought on “Historiography of settler-colonialism

  • March 7, 2016 at 3:38 am

    First, remember that conventions of print writing like italicizing titles are used in web writing also.

    With the historiographyception thing you’ve got going on with Cooper’s historiography of decolonization studies and your own analysis of him, you need to be doubly careful about differentiating your voice. You’re mostly very careful about this, but there are occasional moments where your voice completely disappears, e.g. the bottom of paragraph 2 and most of paragraph 4. This disappearance of your voice is especially an issue when you end each section without a hook back to your main thesis about the fragmentation of the field; how is each author exemplary (or not) of this problem you see in the field?

    Barker especially connects to both the problem Cooper points to of “master’s tools to destroy the master’s house” and the problem you point to of a fractured vocabulary—from your presentation of Barker, it seems that one of her explicit goals is to further fragment the language of sovereignty claims, so what’s the utility in that, and if there’s utility in that, why does it then get us to this fractured state of the field? You start to hint at this at the end of the Barker section, but more connection back to your own thesis and to the other works will help push this further.

    Why the connection between territory and sovereignty? Don’t take these things as given, because they’re coming out of particular historical moments themselves. Histories of US sovereignty which don’t focus on indigenous issues don’t have this connection between territory and sovereignty, so why do these works have that connection? You start to get at this with Rifkin’s inclusion/exclusion.

    I know you’re frustrated with Rifkin, but the end of that paragraph is very, very good. Think about why Rifkin puts more emphasis on space rather than rhetorical/legal sovereignties, and what that construction vs Barker’s might mean for your project this semester/the dissertation.

    “Uneven, disaggregated and oddly shaped” sounds like the subtitle for your maps project. 🙂 Your project seems to be at a transition point in the historiography you have here, being sort of a state building project and sort of this pre-19th c uneven agents of empire thing. What might Benton have to say about your maps, or what might your maps have to say about the unevenness of the US sphere of influence in NY even into the 1830s?

    Why do studies of US empire seem to be resistant to the kind of long-term studies of European colonialism you point to? What is it about Native studies, or the consideration of indigenous sovereignties, that makes this particularly difficult?

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