There has been a definite shift in recent years relating to studies of colonialism. Increasingly, scholars are asking what might seem like a regressive question—"what is colonialism?"—and encountering surprising answers. This shift has been sparked by a concept that, while part of the lexicon of "colonialism" for decades, was reinvigorated in the 1990s,1 and is now perceived as key to a critical and challenging new perspective on colonisation. That concept is "settler colonialism": a distinct method of colonising involving the creation and consumption of a whole array of spaces by settler collectives that claim and transform places through the exercise of their sovereign capacity.
Work on settler colonialism has exploded recently, especially in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, but also with respect to Canada, the United States of America, South Africa, Israel and other places primarily colonised by the post-Columbian European or Euro-American empires. The result has been a reopening and reinvigorating of debates over self-determination and Indigenous resistance that, while still vitally relevant, have become at times frustratingly fragmented. Despite this upsurge of interest and attention, though, the location of settler colonialism is difficult to determine. How does one identify exactly where and when settler colonisation happens given the pervasiveness of its structures and institutions, and normalisation of its associated and myriad lifestyles? Settler colonisation is, Lorenzo Veracini tells us, largely invisible.2
Understanding settler colonialism by definition requires piercing this invisibility, revealing that which colonial power would obscure for its own interests. A search for the location of settler colonialism—the source of the settler coloniser's collective power—is likely as conceptual as it is material. Yet it still implies geography, and as such a spatial form or dynamic that can be identified as distinct. So, it makes sense to begin a search for the location of settler colonialism with the work of geographers. In this, Robin A. Butlin's Geographies of Empire: European empires and colonies c.1880-1960 is an invaluable resource if not necessarily for the reasons one might expect. Butlin, in this culmination of decades spent studying imperial geographies, seeks to establish a spatial comparison of the empires of European colonial powers, hoping specifically to showcase some of the insights of historical and cultural geographers from 1980 onward. He also sets the sociopolitical goal, "to adjust, albeit slightly, the historiographical basis of broader writing on imperialism and colonialism about the period since c. 1880."3 This study implicates the "settlement colonies" through a variety of analyses: the importing of colonial architecture to burgeoning Australian cities;4 the differences among the agricultural planning of various European powers that founded settlement colonies;5 and the role of settlements in absorbing unwanted populations from metropolitan centres,6 to name a few.
Butlin's work is expansive, and despite his own self-effacing recognition that his topics are "eclectic,"7 this text is as near to comprehensive as a work of this ambition likely could be. One of the interesting points revealed by this massive comparison is how strongly the traditional imperial horizon runs through theories and perspectives on empire and colonies. Though this is discussed and portrayed in a variety of ways through different kinds of geography, there remains an unyielding belief in the separation of metropole and colony, core and periphery. This is the traditional colonial thinking that settler colonisation defies. For example, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and much of Africa are discussed as an extension of Britain—a strange extension, an extension that challenges ideas of states and societies, to be sure, but still British. But not all of these colonies interacted with the metropole in the same way. Australia, New Zealand and Canada all...