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  • Settler Colonialism:Universal Theory or English Heritage?
  • Nancy Shoemaker (bio)

Those who see explanatory power in settler colonialism as a concept cast it as a theory, as a "global and genuinely transnational phenomenon" pitting settlers against indigenes. Yet the vast majority of studies employing settler colonialism as their vantage point concentrate on the former British colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and South Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.1 If settler colonialism is a theory, then presumably people of any racial, ethnic, or national heritage could appear in the role of settler. Why, then, have the English outpaced all others as the archetypical settlers, and why has the historiography on settler colonialism dealt almost entirely with the modern period when migration and conquest are age-old phenomena in human history? The scholarly emphasis on the recent past makes settler colonial narratives appear to be a retrospective cover-up of a Native dispossession that began mainly in the nineteenth century and continues up to the present day. But we can envision an alternate approach: scholars could conceptualize settler colonialism as a forward-looking ideology devised to motivate English imperial expansion in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If settler colonial ideology did indeed crystalize in early modern England, the early American period is more important than advocates of settler colonial theory realize. By shifting attention away from settler colonialism's consequences to query its origins, scholars could test the theory's applicability in a wider variety of settings and refine it. And by contextualizing settler colonialism in a longer durée, theorists could nuance the presentist mindset that privileges the latest wave of settler invasion as the only settler colonialism worth remembering.

So why the English? A curious aspect of English history from an outsider's perspective is how fundamental invasion is to that history's [End Page 369] telling.2 Over a thousand years, from the Roman Conquest in the year 43 to the Norman Conquest of 1066, a succession of foreigners arrived from across the sea: Romans; Germanic Angles, Jutes, and Saxons; Vikings; and Normans. A prime example of early English history told as a series of foreign invasions is John Speed's The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans of 1611. The illustration representing "Britannia" on Speed's title page gives pride of place to England's original inhabitants but credits five distinct peoples as the collective forebears of the English nation (Figure I). In Speed's history, the various newcomers subdued, displaced, and usually assimilated whoever was in England before them, though sometimes it was the invaders, and not those they conquered, who did the assimilating. From this mélange of cultures, the English people, political system, and language emerged. As Daniel Defoe put it in The True-Born Englishman, England had "to ev'ry Nation been a Prey. . . . Who conquer her as oft as they Invade her," and "Thus from a Mixture of all Kinds began, That Het'rogeneous Thing, An Englishman."3 In the early modern period, English invasions continued but now reached outward. By the early eighteenth century, England had consolidated its control over Ireland, Wales, and Scotland via various political arrangements achieved through outright force or heavy-handed negotiation and at the same time populated a host of more distant colonies. In these endeavors, the English identity as a people that had evolved through a series of invasions made colonization seem a natural and virtuous pursuit informed by a progressive, multicultural history.

Precisely how English ruminations on their history intersected with their overseas ambitions is obscured by a chicken-and-egg causality, however. The timing certainly seems auspicious for assuming a connection, since a fascination for history surged in England simultaneously with that country's expansion. Scholars who have documented the early modern rise in English antiquarianism typically begin their narratives with William Camden's Britannia, which first appeared in Latin in 1586, a year after English settlers landed at Roanoke, and which was republished in an enlarged English translation in 1610, three years after Jamestown's founding. Based on research in the documentary record, Camden highlighted the Roman...

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