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  • Settler Colonial Prehistories in Seventeenth-Century North America
  • Susanah Shaw Romney (bio)

In 1655, the Dutch residents of Manhattan discussed how they could best attack their Lenape-Munsee neighbors. What they really wanted, according to an initial draft of a petition they wrote to the West India Company directors in the Netherlands, was "the assistance of 3 to 400 good soldiers, who would be willing to settle down in this country after matters have been concluded," with whose help they could "subdue the aforesaid barbarian nation."1 They evidently knew the company would hesitate to finance this request, and so they did not even bother including it in their final draft. As they debated among themselves whether they could or should engage in war without that help, the desire for blood among settler leaders is clear. Why even trouble dissecting whose fault the current conflict was, wondered Johannes La Montagne, "seeing that they have given a just and sufficient, indeed more than sufficient cause, before the conflict"?2 Cornelis van Tienhoven thought it "just and necessary . . . to punish and subject the [savages], by the grace of God, through force of arms," following the example of nearby English colonies, which had proven that "they would never be able to live securely before and until the Indian nation had been subjugated and forced into submission."3 Violence and war, soldiers and [End Page 375] settlers, framed these burghers' arguments over the path forward for New Netherland. Are these colonists' words and actions in the 1650s best understood as an expression of "settler colonialism"? What do we gain, analytically, by interpreting the debate through this rubric?

The term settler colonialism is suddenly everywhere.4 Despite the articulation of complex theories about it, the phrase also has an appeal on a commonsense level. After all, the men discussing whether or not to undertake Lenape-Munsee annihilation were settlers by any definition of the term. And by every measure, what the Dutch were undertaking at Manhattan was colonization. Yet the meaning of words lies not just in their dictionary definitions but also in their use. Before applying the term, early Americanists would be wise to take heed of how scholars in fields distant from our own are using settler colonialism. Doing so suggests both that using it without caution might import unintended anachronistic implications and that studying the seventeenth-century Dutch might be better conceived of as a process of searching out the genealogy and prehistory of settler colonialism. Finding the roots of the settler colonial process, in turn, may suggest the need for theorists to think more historically themselves and to ponder more broadly the when, who, and where of settler colonialism.

First, the "when" question. The term settler colonialism was theorized, and remains most widely used, by scholars working primarily on the post-1800 Anglophone world. Central to the theory is the idea of settler colonialism as a structure that requires Native erasure, both ideologically and in the real world, a structure that continues under multiple states into the present. That observation about the continuity of settler colonial structures across time despite regime changes represents the most important lesson that the theory has to offer early Americanists and Atlanticists. Whether or not we use the term to describe the particular historical actors we study, it is crucial that we not become part of the ongoing process of Native erasure ourselves by failing to recognize the central role played by Native nations both in the past and today. The field of early American history has been transformed over the last thirty years by scholars who have reinterpreted the balance of power on the American continent during and after the colonial period. Nonetheless, new syntheses of American history still "disappear" Native people from the story.5 Yet the challenge of settler [End Page 376] colonialist theory goes beyond recognizing the past power of Native groups. Given that settler colonialism remains an ongoing process, interpretations of Native peoples in the past need to be set alongside the continuing struggle of those same tribal nations today. Joshua L. Reid and Nancy Shoemaker provide excellent models for how scholars writing primarily about periods long ago can connect...

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pp. 375-382
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