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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 period and found much to admire in how Roman occupation changed England for the better. In his eyes, the people in situ at the time of the Roman invasion, the Britons, [End Page 370] were a brutish people; the Romans introduced them to civility and eventually to Christianity as well. From the perspective of settler colonial theory, Britannia seems intent on eliminating the Native, for Camden's England has no Native people. He speculated that the Britons were themselves invaders who had come across the sea from Gaul.4

Figure I. Title page of John Speed's The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans (London, 1611). ©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.
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Figure I.

Title page of John Speed's The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans (London, 1611). ©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

[End Page 371]

Of course, the early modern English were not the only Europeans with a newfound interest in history. The antiquarian boom spearheaded by Camden owed much to the spread of Renaissance humanism, which made the past a parable for illuminating human nature in the present. At the same time, new knowledge about the Americas and ethnographic observations on the customs and manners of its Native people—Roanoke colonist John White's drawings, for instance—inspired English and continental European intellectuals to think they understood their Stone Age ancestors better through analogies to American Indians.5 Hence, as the Spanish and French colonized the Americas, they too, like the English, wanted to know more about ancient peoples and their nations' legacies as Roman provinces. Yet neither of these rival empires looked so fondly upon historic invasions as a source of national pride. Indeed, the opposite might be said of the Spanish, for whom the expulsion of Muslim invaders gave narrative coherence to Spain in its era of imperial expansion. Nor would the Spanish and French embrace what we now recognize as the settler colonial model in the Americas as fully as the English.6

To further obscure the ties between English antiquarianism and imperial expansion, English commentators used history to pursue a host of rhetorical objectives, with the result that no unitary explanation for the significance and meaning of the nation's complicated settler history emerged. Writers privileged one former invader over another for idiosyncratic reasons. References to Romans, Saxons, or Normans could be deployed to uphold or undermine monarchical or parliamentary power; promote a religious cause; vilify the Spanish or French; articulate England's relationship to Scotland, Wales, or Ireland; or fulfill some other contingent, analogical purpose. In sum, the English invoked historical antecedents in various ways to explain England's internal politics, internecine British relations, or English foreign relations with continental Europe, in addition to infusing new colonial initiatives at Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and elsewhere with a historical perspective.7 [End Page 372]

Among early Americanists, Karen Ordahl Kupperman has done the most to point out the correlations between English understandings of history and English designs for colonizing North America. In Indians and English, Kupperman documents the many affinities explorers, settlers, and colony promoters observed between Indians and England's ancestral people, particularly the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, all of whom were depicted as naked or fur-cloaked, painted and tattooed, warlike, hardy, courageous, hut-bound people. More often than not, Kupperman contends, the English assessed Indigenous Americans positively for having healthful bodies, quick-witted intellectual capacities, and civil political systems, and they spoke optimistically about incorporating these Natives into the English body politic, though naturally as subordinates under English rule. Through the lens of a history that characterized Britons and Saxons as stages in their nation's development, English commentators on colonial projects in the Americas envisioned the savage state as malleable and transitory. The salutary history of the Roman conquest and its role in bringing civility and later Christianity to England demonstrated that primitive peoples could become civil and thereby enrich and strengthen the English nation. This historical framework helped English settlers to imagine conquest of new territory as the means to elevate an innately virtuous people in a raw social state to a higher plane, as the Romans had done with the Britons in England.8

At first glance, this early modern form of settler colonialism that emerges out of Kupperman's sources seems to contradict the theory of settler colonialism as sketched out by Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini, and other scholars focused on the modern period. Sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English expectations look more like a peaceable kingdom than the ruthless extermination of the Native emphasized in settler colonial studies. Settler colonial theory posits that Native dispossession breeds settler insecurities, shame, and a willfulness to make Natives disappear in all but nostalgia, whereas Kupperman's research found that English nostalgia for a primitive past was brewing in England before the majority of English settlers arrived on American [End Page 373] shores. There is, however, an equivalence between the forward-looking early modern plan for settlement and the backward-looking modern justification of expropriation in the love-hate relationship settlers expressed toward Natives: what Wolfe referred to as "the contradictory tension involved in simultaneously desiring and rejecting the Native" captures seventeenth-century English ambivalence as much as it does that of modern Euro-America.9

If Anglo-American attitudes toward North American Indians were not post-settlement inventions but rather a marshaling of ideas deriving from an English cultural inheritance, then the history of English settler colonialism before 1492 might shed light on settler colonialism after 1492. A long history of English settler colonialism could reveal whether the ideology persisted or transformed over time and whether different contexts created variants—that is, discrete manifestations—of settler colonialism. Such a history would have to begin in 43 C.E. and examine each layered invasion on its own terms, starting with the Romans, moving on to the Germanic invaders, Vikings, and Normans, followed by English expansion throughout the British Isles and into the Americas, Asia, Australasia, and Africa. Did settler colonial ideology originate not in 1580s and 1590s England but even earlier with the Roman Empire? After all, it was Roman sources recounting victories over a primitive people from which early modern English antiquarians took their historical facts. And how did Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans compare as settlers? The Normans, being French, posed an especially provocative problem for English nationalism, which could be why many English histories say that it was the Norman invaders who adapted to English ways rather than vice versa.10 Since settler colonial studies conceptualizes assimilation as a logic that settlers employed to eliminate the Native, the Norman invasion and later accounts of it would be an intriguing angle from which to test the fundamentals of settler colonial theory.

This heretofore untold history of English settler colonialism going back two thousand years would add depth and nuance to settler colonial theory. The comparative aspect of settler colonial studies has been its most valuable characteristic because it encourages scholars to reach across nation-states despite the historical profession's customary use of geopolitical borders as the basis for defining fields of specialization. The same comparative impulse could help us vault the barriers imposed by periodization. Only then will we know if the emphasis on the British experience in settler colonial studies is a fluke, a random effect resulting from the particular interests of the historians embracing settler colonial theory, or if, as I have proposed, settler colonialism was a localized ideology that emerged from English expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [End Page 374]

Nancy Shoemaker

Nancy Shoemaker is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. She thanks David A. Lupher for his reading recommendations and Karen Kupperman for putting her in touch with him.


1. Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York, 2010), 2 (quotation); see also Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York, 2013), 7–9, 29.

2. Grahame Clark, "The Invasion Hypothesis in British Archaeology," Antiquity 40, no. 159 (September 1966): 172–89; Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge, 2003), chaps. 3–4; Robert J. C. Young, The Idea of English Ethnicity (Malden, Mass., 2008), chap. 1. Wikipedia even has an entry dedicated to "Invasions of the British Isles," accessed Jan. 11, 2019,

3. [Daniel Defoe], The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr ([London], 1701), 10 ("ev'ry Nation"), 20 ("Thus"); [J]ohn Speed, The History of Great Britaine Under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans. . . . (London, 1611).

4. William Camden, Britain, Or a Chorographicall Description of the Most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands adioyning, out of the depth of Antiquitie. . .., trans. Philémon Holland (London, 1610), 11–12; Graham Parry, The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century (New York, 1995); Richard Hingley, The Recovery of Roman Britain, 1586–1906: A Colony So Fertile (New York, 2008).

5. Stuart Piggott, Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination: Ideas from the Renaissance to the Regency ([London], 1989), 73–88; Anthony Grafton, with April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi, New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), chap. 3.

6. David A. Lupher, Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2003); Anthony Pagden, The Burdens of Empire, 1539 to the Present (New York, 2015), chaps. 2–4; Lupher, "Romans in Spain and Britain as Models and Anti-Models for New World Encounters," in Classics in the Early Americas, ed. Matthew Duques, Adam Goldwyn, and Maya Feile Tomes (Leiden, 2019). For seventeenth-century Dutch efforts to establish settler colonies, foiled by the more successful English, see Susanah Shaw Romney, "'With & alongside his housewife': Claiming Ground in New Netherland and the Early Modern Dutch Empire," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 73, no. 2 (April 2016): 187–224.

7. For humanism as a source of ambivalence in English attitudes toward colonization, see Andrew Fitzmaurice, Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500–1625 (New York, 2003); for anti-Catholicism expressed through references to the past, see John E. Curran Jr., Roman Invasions: The British History, Protestant Anti-Romanism, and the Historical Imagination in England, 1530–1660 (Newark, Del., 2002); for internal politics, see Malcolm Smuts, "Court-Centred Politics and the Uses of Roman Historians, c.1590–1630," in Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Peter Lake (Stanford, Calif., 1993), 21–43; for inter-European relations, see Paulina Kewes, "Henry Savile's Tacitus and the Politics of Roman History in Late Elizabethan England," Huntington Library Quarterly 74, no. 4 (December 2011): 515–51; for inter-European relations and monarchical power—and gender—see Samantha Frénée-Hutchins, Boudica's Odyssey in Early Modern England (Burlington, Vt., 2014); for Plymouth, see David A. Lupher, Greeks, Romans, and Pilgrims: Classical Receptions in Early New England (Leiden, 2017); for Virginia, see Alan S. Rome, The English Embrace of the American Indians: Ideas of Humanity in Early America (Cham, Switzerland, 2017), chap. 3.

8. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca, N.Y., 2000); see also Kupperman, "Angells in America," in Writing Race across the Atlantic World: Medieval to Modern, ed. Philip D. Beidler and Gary Taylor (New York, 2005), 27–50.

9. Patrick Wolfe, "The Settler Complex: An Introduction," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37, no. 2 (2013): 1–22 (quotation, 8).

10. Hugh M. Thomas, The English and the Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation, and Identity, 1066–c.1220 (New York, 2003), 7, 56–57.

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