- Irish and Scottish Encounters with Indigenous Peoples: Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia ed. by Graeme Morton, David A. Wilson
Irish and Scots had a complex relationship with empire. Both Ireland and Scotland had an internal early modern history of colonization of Celtic by non-Celtic peoples. Yet as the British Empire evolved, many Irish and Scottish migrants participated fully in settler colonization, while others took more specialized roles as – among others – merchants, factors, missionaries, officials of the colonial and imperial state, artists, and intellectuals. This ambivalent past has given rise to an ambivalent historiography, with a substantial literature debating the shades of commitment or skepticism that characterized Irish and Scottish imperial activity. Relatively little studied, however, has been a theme that would seem to have self-evident importance: Irish and Scottish encounters with Indigenous inhabitants of those areas of the world that the British Empire touched and frequently transformed. As David A. Wilson’s excellent introduction to this book points out, some recent historians such as Colin Calloway have addressed the issue, but substantial questions remain. Many of them concern, in one way or another, the degree to which Gaelic Scots and Celtic (and Catholic) Irish may have perceived themselves and been perceived by others to have distinctive affinities with Indigenous populations based on a common history with colonization and stereotypes of tribalism – and the extent to which Lowland Scots and Protestant Irish may have represented the reverse side of the same coin. The fine collection that Wilson and Graeme Morton have edited provides many and varied insights in these areas.
Collections of historical essays fall, generally speaking, into two categories. For tight explorations of a specific theme, collections that are either small or have a limited number of authors reap clear advantages in focusing inward to coordinate interpretive perspectives. Large, multi-authored collections, on the other hand, draw strength from pushing outward in varying directions, restrained only by the editors’ [End Page 600] need to maintain a framework of coherence. Morton and Wilson’s volume is, in the best sense, a large collection. It is replete with insights but never overflows chaotically. Two contributions, to mix the metaphor, anchor it securely. One is the introduction, while the other is Donald Harman Akenson’s chapter on Scottish and Irish participation in the “Great European Migration” of 1815 to 1914, in which Akenson points out that the seizure of Indigenous territory and resources meant that “both the Scots and the Irish migrants to the various New Worlds did very well for themselves,” through “a system that, at best, was gargantuan theft – and, at worst, genocide” (36). Whatever the hardships of settlement, there is no room here for comfortable acceptance of colonization as a historical norm. As the introduction points out, however, tenable ground remains on which “to consider the extent to which the condition of being Irish or Scottish produced a sense of identification or empathy with Indigenous peoples” (18). The collection as a whole, approaching this and related questions from diverse disciplinary viewpoints – and focusing most of all on Canada, though also on Australia, New Zealand, and the United States – shows, in Wilson’s overall analysis, that Irish or Scottish origins did matter but that historical and localized circumstances mattered even more.
A principal strength of the volume lies in the quality of the individual contributions. For example, Ann McGrath’s subtle portrayal of “Shamrock Aborigines” – Aboriginal Australians of Irish descent – resists casting Australian Irish as “the good colonizers” (127) but shows the importance of shared ancestry allied to shared historical memories of resisting colonization. Mark McGowan’s elegant essay on Bishop Michael Power’s role in the evangelization of Indigenous peoples of Western Upper Canada during the 1840s is not only set effectively in the longer-term historiography of missions but also finds Power’s motivations in the advancing of Catholicism and loyalty to the Crown rather than any “génie irlandaise” (212). Anne Lederman...