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  • Communications
  • Edward Cavanagh and Allan Greer

To the Editor:

I refer to Allan Greer's "Settler Colonialism and Empire in Early America" in the William and Mary Quarterly (vol. 76, no. 3, pp. 383–90).

Greer engages with a research article of mine, "Possession and Dispossession in Corporate New France, 1600–1663: Debunking a 'Juridical History' and Revisiting Terra Nullius."1 Its "results," he says, are "lamentable." I am, he claims, "emboldened by theory and unencumbered by substantial knowledge of the topic" (387). The article in question was the result of empirical research undertaken and examined at the Ph.D. level, workshopped and conferenced in Canada and France, and subjected to peer review and substantial revision before publication. It won the Peter Oliver Prize for Canadian Legal History.

Greer asserts that I seek "to reconceive New France's history on a settler colonial basis" (387). But my article is not framed in reference to any of the literature that he associates with "settler colonial theory" (386). Instead, it is framed in reference to a quirk in the historiography of seventeenth-century New France: a widespread readiness to emphasize the peacefulness of settler-native "coexistence" and to delay the onset of "thoroughgoing dispossession" (387) to a later period (typically, the British period after 1759).

My premise was simple. With evidence pointing to Iroquoian and Algonquian occupation of the Saint Lawrence Valley and surrounds, how was it that titles to land were consistently generated and regenerated for French settlers in this area without the need for any private purchases, public treaties, or constitutionally significant wars of conquest?

Greer is dismissive of my article's premise. "French settlers did indeed dispossess and displace Natives," he writes; "however, purchases and cessions are neither here nor there" (387). To this trivializing idiom is attached a comment about demography. Read together with his remark about "the tiniest enclaves" (388) of French settlement, he appears at risk of conflating the smallness in scale of indigenous dispossession with its smallness in significance for those removed from French settlements. [End Page 848]

"In fact, the French never maintained that North America was empty" (387), he qualifies. But I never said they did. I only sought to discredit a view held by several scholars that the Saint Lawrence region was "unoccupied" or "vacant."

Greer continues with his corrective by suggesting that "the practice of purchase and cession," as "an instrument," was characteristically "English" (387). This will puzzle anyone who shares my belief that contracts of sale and treaties of cession were (a) different instruments occasionally prone to procedural and substantive variations on questions of jurisdiction, justiciability, and legal personality, and (b) both used at different times in different places by different European powers in the early modern period.

Details of this kind may be insignificant in Greer's view of "the layered land tenures" (387) of a "fuzzy and overlapping" (383) frontier. But I am increasingly suspicious of historians who hang their major arguments upon obscuring adjectival metaphors. My own argument (that Iroquoian and Algonquian rights to land failed to endure residually or coterminously with settler titles because they were never recognized by a compagnie or the couronne) remains uncompromised.

Greer continues in his appraisal of my article by disparaging its anachronistic language. Because I detected similarities in both the historical record and the historiography of colonial New South Wales, I was obliged to engage with that made-up misnomer, "terra nullius." As a "doctrine," terra nullius was syncretic in foundation and malicious in application. Spun from the desks of lawyers in the late nineteenth century, it was then used throughout the twentieth to characterize the British crown's occupation of Aboriginal territory in the absence of any recognition of title. Acknowledging this baggage, I wondered if there still might be a way to follow the leads of some historians and use the expression to convey "a set of practices whereby rights to property in land were created for newcomers after the rights of prior inhabitants to property in land were disregarded."2 I thought at the time that such an approach would allow me to tackle Australian and French Canadian claims to exceptionalism simultaneously.

For all the care I...

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