Empire and Indigeneity

In: Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2022

Empire and Indigeneity: Histories and Legacies By Richard Price. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

What was distinct about the early nineteenth-century British settler empire and what were its legacies? These are the two lead questions in Richard Price’s new book, Empire and Indigeneity: Histories and Legacies. Despite the rather theoretical title, it is very much a historian’s book—it is by and for historians interested in the nuanced lived experience of one of the most powerful and influential structures of the modern world. A more utilitarian or plodding historian might have titled it Settler Empire and its Stumbling Blocks: The Early Nineteenth-Century Experience and its Legacies.

It is a little curious why Price opted for a more theoretical title, when theories of empire and indeed of Indigeneity are precisely what are most criticised in the work. The extent to which Price mounts his critique is my main quibble with it. Degrees of resistance to theoretical explanation aside, though, this is a clear, valuable, well-written and salient book. It aims to offer a “resonant” history of all British settler colonies in the nineteenth century but focuses on Australian and New Zealand examples (1). The work is organised in a neat and accessible fashion. Ten chapters, each with concise and helpful summaries, take the reader through the general nature of social relations in settler colonies, the accompanying dominant discourse of humanitarianism, the chief attempts at distilling this discourse into policy, the resultant violence and attempts at legal clarification, the way this all shaped later imperial politics, and finally the legacies of such a nineteenth-century roller coaster on today’s Indigenous and British cultures. Readers always know where they are and where they are going.

The chapters on the translation of humanitarian discourse into settler policy are the most original and useful to students of modern empire. They trace, first of all, the policy of conciliating Indigenous peoples, best embodied by George Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land and largely regarded, especially by Arthur, to have been a failure. Second, these chapters delve into the policy of protecting Indigenous peoples, as it passed from Arthur’s later attempts to those of George Augustus Robinson in Victoria. This policy was also, ultimately, lost to settler manipulations. Finally, the mid-chapters analyse the policy of “racial amalgamation” or racial co-existence, especially as practised by George Grey in New Zealand. (So. Many. Georges.) This policy too fell by the wayside, when the limits of co-existence were tested by an undeniable and increasing sense of a priori racial hierarchy (where the British race was, lo and behold, at the top).

In chapters six through to eight, Price explores the resultant violence, legal ramifications, and political settlements from these policy experiments. Always, he is careful to detail the messy and uneven ways in which they unfolded between imperialists and Indigenous people, infusing a convincing sense of suspense and human pity into the darkening decades of the latter nineteenth century. This skill is, I suggest, a chief virtue of all good historical practice – one exercised particularly well by Price. I do not, however, think it undermines or shows up more theoretical explanations of the same phenomena. This is where my quibble with Price’s self-description of his work comes in. In the Introduction, Price is at pains to emphasise the deep complexity and various entanglements of imperial forces with Indigenous forces rather than their hegemonic roughshod. He wants to bring out Indigenous “autonomy and agency” (3) and “survival and adaptation” (10) over any sense of inevitable imperial victory. He argues that such aims are at odds with the scholarly paradigms of both Foucauldian governmentality and Wolfean settler-colonial studies. Their associated approaches offer totalising frameworks, he suggests, overly concerned with the “instruments of control” (7), and thereby producing in the end only narratives of loss and elimination.

Price’s characterisations of both frameworks seem reductive. I can think of few scholars more interested in the nature of resistance to power than Foucault. Equally, settler-colonial studies, in Wolfe’s incarnation anyway, has done more to remind scholars that the chief effect of territorial empire is and always has been on Indigenous people than has any other mainstream branch of investigation into Australian or New Zealand history. That said, though, because governmentality tries chiefly to account for the distinction of modernity over pre-modernity, it may not be the most useful tool with which to prise open the specifics of just one century. Settler-colonial studies, on the other hand, is designed to better illuminate a peculiar distinction within modernity, which was the way settler colonialism diverged from other types of colonialism. It seems more than appropriate for Price’s task.

Patrick Wolfe’s “original question” was not “whether the category of genocide could be applied to the Australian case” (9). It was how empire existed differently— with unique processes and effects—when imperialists came to stay instead of when they only visited. All of Price’s examples are of imperialists who aided or abetted the indefinite presence of empire on Indigenous lands. It is not “scholarly group think” (7) to deploy a theory that can help explain the engine behind all the different nuances on the ground of settler intrusion. The strangest part of Price’s denunciation of settler colonial studies is in the way his text confirms its value over and over and over again. If we didn’t have a sense of the “logic of elimination”—emphasis on logic rather than reality—we would have no way of understanding why all the policies that Price describes eventually died or why violence and legal inequality eventually led to deep settler amnesia about Indigenous people. The fact of this logic does nothing to diminish the subtlety of Indigenous engagement with, and persistence despite, colonialism. Surely it only underscores these achievements more.

Price’s hostility to settler-colonial studies has many friends in scholarship today, particularly in Australian scholarship. My frustration with what I perceive to be the bad-faith handling of the framework in Empire and Indigeneity is no doubt coloured by my disappointment in this hostility more broadly. Whole cadres of historians now like to point out, with Price, that despite the so-called structure of settler colonialism “Indigenous people have not been eliminated in any sense of the term” (10). A long-practising historian of modern British society like Price would presumably be the first to refute any question about whether liberal thinking existed if no one actually turned out to be free. Was capitalism also mythical if not every last thing was reduced to profit?

Happily, the quibble can easily be put aside because Price is, in the end, too good a historian, with too much excellent data, to distract readers from seeing for themselves how Indigenous constraints on empire in the nineteenth century only enrich our sense of the overriding structure that shaped today’s Australia and New Zealand. We learn that Indigenous engagements influenced the way that law, culture, politics, and memory emerged in these places even while settler logics pressed ever harder against them.

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