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Colonial states and settler colonies

Bernstein’s definition of colonialism: “...the political control of peoples and territories by foreign states..."
A map of the British Empire before the expansion in Africa
© Wikimedia Commons

In the previous step we spoke about the colonial project and I briefly mentioned the word “settler” when citing Bernstein’s (2000: 242) definition of colonialism as “the political control of peoples and territories by foreign states, whether accompanied by significant permanent settlement (‘settler colonies’) or not.”

Have you ever stopped and thought about how there are different characteristics to colonial states and how the political arrangements post invasion have distinct implications for indigenous peoples? Where this is most evident is in the difference between colonial states and settler colonies, such as Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States (and, as a contemporary project of a settler colony, we can add Israel to this list).

Let’s begin with the notion of colonial states. When we speak about ‘colonial states’, we refer to a territorial entity that was geographically separated from the imperial metropolis, the so-called ‘mother country’. The colonial state would have a military presence and an administration that ordered and controlled the colony and its inhabitants, and the political and economic process was characterised by an external relationship established by the colonising powers over colonised peoples. Colonial states were driven by economic pursuits and drive for development in the mother country, relying heavily on indigenous workers to produce raw materials, with cheap labour and cheap materials providing the economic and political basis for the transfer of wealth and capital moving out of the colonies with no return to these countries. Colonial states would not control production, nor export; put simply, it was solely a resource for the mother country. These conditions held for most the world’s colonised societies. It typically occurred in Africa and Asia, and many of the former colonial states are today amongst the poorest countries in the world.

Settler colonies, on the other hand, refers to the political and economic processes of colonialism as occurring within the colony; that is, the colonisers and the colonised occupy the same territory. This form of colonialism poses particular problems for indigenous people, where struggles for autonomy and recognition are more politically complex. In contrast to colonial states, settler colonies did not so much need labour but, rather, land. This very fact is closely linked to the major destructive aspect of settler colonisation, which is that indigenous people are socially eradicated; within a settler colonial state, the indigenous population cease to exist as separate and identifiable peoples because the land they occupied and used are appropriated by the colonisers for their own use.

German settlers and Aboriginal people gathered outside a settler's house; a lot of dogs are in the scene Alexander Schramm’s ‘‘A Scene in South Australia’’ (1850) depicts German settlers with Aboriginal people © Art Gallery of South Australia

Today, settler colonies are liberal democracies, which have their foundations in an act of dispossession. This act continues to pose a contradiction to the prosperity and freedoms of the settler state. In settler colonies, indigenous rights and freedom cannot be achieved through enforced settler evacuation, as is the case of the decolonial process of colonial states. Indeed, as you know from the colonial history of Australia and its vile policies of assimilation, settler colonialism seeks no less than to transform its own subordinate colonial status into an autonomous, self-governing entity, premised on a sustained denial of state-making capacities for indigenous people. Settler colonial states, then, cannot be truly decolonialised—the power remains in the hands of the ancestors of the colonisers and indigenous people will, even after recognition of indigenous people’s rights, be nations within the state who continue to struggle for recognition and compensation. A paradox remains within settler colonial states, namely that, by recognising indigenous rights, this may undermine the state; indigenous rights are continually obscured or denied through the settler colonialisms national construction of itself. The political and economic issues posed for indigenous peoples that are encapsulated within settler colonial states are, thus, primarily concerned with the subtle and solicitous forms of legal and institutional integration that pervade everyday existence

Let’s investigate

Find an example of an indigenous group within a settler colony and an indigenous group in a colonial state: what is their situation today?
© The University of Newcastle, Australia
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Indigeneity as a Global Concept

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