In part one of a two-part interview, Sai Englert, author of Settler Colonialism: An Introduction (Pluto, 2022), speaks to rs21 editor Jonny Jones about the history of settler colonialism and its central role in the development of global capitalism.
Jonny Jones: Could you start by explaining what settler colonialism is and how it differs from colonialism more generally?
Sai Englert: Settler colonialism doesn’t only aim to control a conquered territory, but also aims to develop there a society modelled on its own. By exporting and developing a new, loyal, population, the colonisers developed effective control over the conquered land and an opposition to the resistance of Indigenous populations.
It also allowed colonial societies to deal with their internal social problems. Often the colonial metropolis sent populations to settler colonies that they were trying to get rid of: religious minorities, political opponents, the urban poor that couldn’t be integrated into production. In an instinctive way, people in Britain know this. People think about Australia as a prison where the poor were sent for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. The Pilgrims that settled in North America were descendants of the Puritans in Britain, who faced repression at home, then in the Netherlands, and then decided to build their ideal society in North America, kickstarting its colonization.
So settler colonialism weakens social contradictions at home, and strengthens colonial rule abroad.
Settler colonies also play important strategic roles as nodal points in the world economy. So it’s not only about the direct accumulation of land resources and labour in the colonies, but also the establishment of global networks, of trade, control and power, that settler colonies play an important role in. If you think about the Cape, the colony that became South Africa, it was important to have a population there to maintain the ports at a central point in the trading route with Asia. The British Empire developed Palestine as a “loyal little Jewish Ulster” at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Falklands were important for Southern American trading routes.
So while settler colonialism is different from franchise colonialism because it aims to develop a colonial society and thereby creates ongoing conflict with existing Indigenous societies, it is also connected to the wider colonial project. The franchise colonialism which we might associate with places like the British in India or the Dutch in Indonesia is one in which colonial powers establish their power militarily, but then also depend on the participation and collaboration of local elites that were integrated into the stabilization of Empire.
It is a temporal question to some extent. British control of India is difficult to imagine in the 15th or 16th centuries, as Europe was much weaker than East and South Asia.
So, when Marx debates with Edward Gibbons in the late 19th century, they talk of settler colonialism as classic colonialism and franchise colonialism is seen as new, this ability to control extremely large societies and territories without having to establish a European society to maintain it in the long term.
JJ: Something that comes out clearly in your book is the historic relationship between settler colonialism and the development of capitalism. Could you tell us a little more about that history.
SE: There is a big debate in Marxist historiography over how the transition between feudalism and capitalism takes place and why does it happen in Europe rather than in places that were much more advanced economically than Europe, certainly until the late-16th or 17th century, and in some cases even later. Perhaps the most influential theory today sees capitalism as emerging primarily out of struggles between peasants and landlords, largely in Britain.
However, the transition needs to be considered in relation to Europe’s colonial expansion around the world. This allows us to think about European capitalist development as the outcome of its backwardness, rather than of some internal, special nature. Europe was forced by its inability to break the Ottoman Empire’s control over trade routes to Asia to develop new forms of trade, travel and technologies, most importantly by sea, to reach the markets of East and South Asia. In that process it develops what will become important centres for industrial development, which are maritime and military industries. Many people are moved from the countryside into urban centres, to work in these industries that become more and more important, both in terms of trade and the wars that accompany it.
This process leads to Europeans developing settlements outside the continent. Most important is Columbus’s journey to what he thought was Asia. He thought that the world was much smaller than it was, so that he could get to Japan. The Catholic Church argued against his journey on the basis that Japan was way further than he thought, and that he would die well before arriving there, which he would have had he not discovered a gigantic continent that nobody in Europe was aware of. He went on to start a process of conquest, genocide, and exploitation that would fundamentally transform the economic realities in Europe.
The conquest of the Americas made absolutely huge resources of gold and silver available to Europe, which transformed the relationship between Europe and East and South Asia by allowing European traders to engage in the markets of China, India, and Indonesia. In that process, the circulation of money and capital becomes an increasingly central economic process, superseding the control of landlords and of the old aristocracy.
So there is a social shift in which people who control the money flow become more important, and also a geographic one, in which the power centre of Europe shifts from the feudal empires of Southern Europe towards the new merchants and financial powers of the Netherlands and Britain.
In his chapter on so-called ‘primitive accumulation’ in Capital, Marx challenges the liberal narrative of capitalism in which good Protestant merchants and bankers who don’t enjoy life too much invest their money into the development of industrial centres, and instead puts the question of violence, conquest, mass murder, exploitation, slavery at the centre of the accumulation of wealth that makes the transition from feudalism to capitalism possible. So, the question of settler colonialism, the displacement, imprisonment and murder of Indigenous populations, their enslavement in silver and gold mines of Latin America, and the slave plantations of both North and South America, is really the origin story of the huge economic transformation that happens in Europe.
This interplay between colonial expansion and economic transformation continues to play out for centuries. So, European attempts to deal with internal social contradictions by expelling populations that become settlers elsewhere become more and more intense as capitalism develops in the West. Peasants are kicked off the land, they move into the cities to work, but when there are too many of them, the poor are rounded up and sent to the Americas, Australia, or other colonies, which strengthens the process of colonization, because the settler population expands, so they conquer new lands, expel or subjugate new populations, extract new resources, facilitating further accumulation of wealth in the Imperial centres, which further develops industrial production.
JJ: You argue against the dominant academic interpretation of settler colonialism, one that emphasizes that settler colonialism is premised on the elimination of the native societies. How does this shift help us to understand contemporary settler colonialism?
SE: The characteristic often used to separate off colonialism and settler colonialism is this question of elimination. The argument goes that because settlers settle, because they stay, they have to eliminate the populations that were already there, and so an eliminatory logic plays out. That elimination can take lots of forms – genocide, expulsion, forced integration – all of which attempt to disappear the collective political claim that Indigenous populations have over the land, so that the settler society can replace that collective claim with its own.
There is lots of ‘race science’ in the nineteenth century that calculates the blood quotas of Indigenous populations, analysing at which point the Indigenous stops being Indigenous – and therefore loses their claim to the land – because it’s been mixed in with sufficient white blood.
So the definition becomes that settler colonialism is about elimination, while franchise colonialism is about exploitation.
I think the problem with that is that it generalizes from some of the most striking examples, let’s say, of settler colonialism: largely North America and Oceania. They’re important of course. They’re very big places. There are a lot of Indigenous people there, and huge genocides take place to make those settler colonies a reality.
The problem is that this hides much wider processes of settler colonisation and resistance against it, which is the crucial political question. If you look at South America and Africa, the settler colonies in those continents are often based on challenging the collective Indigenous claim on the land, but also on transforming Indigenous populations into a massive, cheap hyper-exploitable workforce. Think of South Africa, Mexico, Peru, Algeria, Kenya, lots of others, in which minority settler populations put majority Indigenous populations to work in mines, agriculture, some forms of industry. So exploitation is central to the imposition and the reproduction of settler colonialism in many places. And elimination is also much more general in colonial history. Slavery is massively eliminatory of course, as are the organised famines on the Indian subcontinent.
That’s also important because it makes settler colonialism suddenly look much less stable. All the settler colonies in Africa were defeated by massive, exploited populations that rebelled and revolted. You get a very different history of settler colonialism if you consider modern Latin America, where massive Indigenous labour and social movements continue to play an absolutely central role in struggles for the redefinition and transformation of those societies in a very different way than in the Anglo-Saxon settler colonies. Settler colonialism is actually much less stable than it appears to be in analyses that only consider Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand. There’s a danger in developing perfect forms and then losing sight of processes of social struggle that happen both between settlers and Indigenous populations, as well as within those groups. That struggle leads to lots of variation and transformation in colonial histories.
Early settlers in the Americas enslaved and exploited Indigenous labour, something that they later moved away from. Exploitation is crucial in its early stages for the survival of the settlement. When the French conquered the Barbary Coast in North Africa, it’s not clear that their original idea was the development of a settler colony. However, they are met with Indigenous resistance which forces the Empire inland, in order to try to break the resistance. Then the question of how to control those lands arises, so finding European populations, not only French, but also Spanish, Italian, and others, becomes central to developing control. They not only bring external populations in, but also start changing the legal status of the indigenous Jewish populations, who are made European by legal fiat in order to shift power relations between Indigenous and settler societies.
The danger of limiting our understanding of settler colonialism to ideal types is that it misses both the dynamism of social relations in the colonies and the variety of struggles they engender, both of which shape the different colonial forms that develop.
In part two, Sai discusses the history of settler colonialism, zionism, and Palestinian liberation.