Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age

This post is a part of our “Native American Revolutions” Series.

By Kate Fullagar and Michael A. McDonnell

To close this roundtable on Native American Revolutions, we’d like to flag a forthcoming collection that argues for an extension of our analysis to other Indigenous peoples facing other revolutions through our shared era.

The “Age of Revolution” is most often characterised by the intense political struggles that took place in Europe, Asia and the Americas. But another revolutionary dimension of this era was the profound acceleration in encounters and contacts between new peoples around the globe. As historian C.A. Bayly long ago noted, European imperial expansion was one of the main drivers of this phenomenon, but so too were indigenous peoples, especially in thickening and complicating relations between different societies.[1]

While many scholars have looked at the expansion of imperialism and noted its links with globalisation, they have usually done so from European perspectives. Even as an increasing number of historians recognise the crucial roles indigenous people played in this process, few have tried to think comparatively about indigenous experiences within and across expanding imperial borders over the course of the revolutionary age. Granted, one reason for the scholarly neglect has been a reluctance to perpetuate the European framing that such work must entail: to place indigenous peoples from vastly different spaces into historical relation is to give some special privilege to the European empires that encountered them separately. Yet this reluctance has also come at a cost: it has missed an opportunity to understand how indigenous people in this period shared some common means of accommodating, repelling, complicating, ignoring and shaping the European encounter in general.

In our forthcoming collection of essays entitled Facing Empire, we attempt to take up the comparative challenge. It looks at indigenous experiences of the British Empire in particular, in order to sharpen the focus of the volume. Britain faced a series of political upheavals and massively increased its imperial claims between about 1760 and 1840 – in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Our book asks: What role did indigenous peoples play in these movements? How did they help shape the end of the first British Empire and the start of the second? What lessons did indigenous peoples learn about Europeans, and what new connections did they make between themselves, newcomers, and other indigenous peoples?

In thinking about these questions, we aimed to view indigenous peoples as vital and dynamic actors across this increasingly global stage and think about what this new world might have looked like to them. In other words, we wanted our contributors not merely to write histories that include indigenous perspectives but to present the imperial past with indigenous peoples as the main subjects. The time is right for more comparative, indigenous-centered histories. A new generation of historians have written not just insightful indigenous histories of particular places and times, but they have also demonstrated how native peoples have shaped European history profoundly, especially at the colonial level.[2] We now have an opportunity to think about how indigenous-shaped local exchanges, cultural relations, and warfare provoked discussion and policy-making in Whitehall as much as it did in Charleston, Cape Town, or Sydney.

Scholars of empire and imperialism are now more attuned to the interplay between the local and metropolitan, but few works explore these exchanges from the perspective of indigenous peoples themselves.[3] At the same time, many scholars of indigenous histories have taken an inevitably local perspective, necessarily labouring to understand the nuances of encounters, exchanges, and conflict in particular settings. The collaborative work and conversations an edited collection invariably entails allowed us to bring these disparate studies together in conversation, within a comparative and transnational framework.[4]

Moreover, the Age of Revolution is currently enjoying something of a renaissance due to both the re-birth of Atlantic history and the surge of interest around the origins of the newly-coined Anthropocene. But whether you take your cue from the Haitian radicals of C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins, the liberal democrats of R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution, the industrial workers and capitalists of Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution, the motley crew of Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s Many-Headed Hydra, or the scientists and thinkers of Paul Dukes’s Minutes to Midnight, one would struggle to find Indigenous peoples at all, let alone Indigenous peoples as driving part of the story themselves.[5]

They sometimes appear at the margins of liberationist stories, such as in North America, where they are typically depicted as being compelled by Europeans to make the best of a number of bad choices in choosing a side. In accounts of industrialization, they are often afforded less agency than the commodities and textiles their bodies produced in order to foster commerce and manufacturing. And, of course, we know and sometimes acknowledge that dispossessed Indian lands were used to provide much of the fuel – in the form of new crops — driving the globally momentous turn to fossil fuels. Indigenous peoples are victims in these studies, and as victims, they are often hidden pawns in a game in which they could only lose.

When we do take into account Indigenous peoples in this Age of Revolution, we stand to gain a new perspective on the origins, nature, and consequences of Europe’s so-called democratic and industrial revolutions. Contests with Indigenous peoples over land, resources, and new commodities sparked eighteenth-century imperial expansion, fueled economic innovations, and precipitated global conflict. Moreover, Indigenous peoples everywhere helped create and exploit the volatility at the heart of the Age of Revolution. They sometimes exploited European political conflicts, tensions, and uncertainties to enmesh them in local conflicts that were not always advantageous to empire. At other times, they made vital connections with newcomers that would both lay a foundation for future relations with European empires and form precedents for pan-Indigenous resistance movements.

From playing a crucial role in the movement toward a more powerful, centralised, neo-imperial state in North America, then, to accelerating British territorial expansion in Africa, Indigenous peoples helped create instabilities on the new frontiers that gave geographic shape and intellectual stimulus to nineteenth-century imperialism.

Bringing Indigenous experiences into focus across this critical period might also give us a basis for a new kind of thinking about what constituted the Age of Revolution. Such a reconsideration would firmly tie the roots of the newly-reanalysed “Settler Revolution” to the Age of Revolution. In turn, we would be compelled to rethink ideas and concepts such as independence, sovereignty, and even the very notion of “European” and “Indigenous” peoples that arose in this era.

Finally, we might also reconsider our periodization. Historians of Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific worlds have raised questions about the timing and the nature of revolutionary change when we explore deeper migratory patterns, the impact of diseases, or ecological management. The conflicts over land and water, labour and resources, and hearts and minds that poured fuel over the fires that drove movements for democracy, industrialization, and the move into the Anthropocene era have left a living legacy of contested relations that continue to resonate in contemporary politics and societies today. Indigenous peoples were at the heart of the Age of Revolution. Studying that history makes it clearer that we are all still living with, enmeshed in, and responsible for its legacy.

Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, 1760-1840 is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press, and includes contributions from Daniel Richter, Colin Calloway, Justin Brooks, Elspeth Martini, Jennifer Newell, Bill Gammage, Nicole Ulrich, Tony Ballantyne, Rebecca Shumway, Joshua Reid, Robert Kenny, Sujit Sivasundaram, and Shino Konishi.

—–

Kate Fullagar teaches Modern History at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the author of The Savage Visit: New World People and Popular Imperial Culture in Britain, 1710-1795 (Berkeley: UCP, 2012). She is completing a history of the interconnected eighteenth-century lives of the Cherokee warrior Ostenaco, the Polynesian traveller Mai, and the British artist Joshua Reynolds. Kate blogs at katefullagar.com and tweets as @kfullagar.

Michael A. McDonnell is Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the author of The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier’s History Prize, and coeditor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War. His most recent book, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), won the Robert M. Utley Award from the Western Historical Association, and a Michigan State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. Michael blogs at blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/ and tweets as @HstyMattersSyd. You can find more about his work at michaelamcdonnell.org

Further Reading:

Tracey Banivanua-Mar, Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Jane Carey and Jane Lydon’s Indigenous Networks: Connections, Mobilities, and Exchange (New York: Routledge, 2014).

Zoe Laidlaw and Alan Lester’s Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism (Basingstoke, UK: palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Endnotes:

[1] Bayly, C. A., “British and Indigenous Peoples,” in M. J. Daunton & R. Halpern, eds., Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, 1600-1850 (London, 1999), 21.

[2] See, for example, Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln, Ne.: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Michael Witgen, Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Joshua L. Reid, The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs, An Indigenous Borderlands People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014); Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas (London: Penguin, 2003); Nicholas Thomas, Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

[3] There have been some excellent comparative works in this vein in recent years. See, for example, Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), Stuart Banner, Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous Peoples from Australia to Alaska (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), and James Belich, replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). The recent rise in settler-colonial studies is promising for comparative history, but we also need to be mindful that it does not lose sight of indigenous subjectivity.

[4] As we started to put this volume together, we were delighted to find two collections appear that answered some of our pleas for a comparative indigenous history of empire. Both Jane Carey and Jane Lydon’s Indigenous Networks: Connections, Mobilities, and Exchange (New York: Routledge, 2014) and Zoe Laidlaw and Alan Lester’s Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) make excellent starts on the benefits to accrue from placing deep histories of indigenous peoples facing empire into a comparative frame. They also challenge imperial and transnational historians to start taking seriously indigenous peoples as dynamic and mobile historical actors. Both these volumes, however, concentrate on the nineteenth century and beyond (and Laidlaw and Lester focus, too, only on settler colonies). Neither tackles the critical period in which Britain both lost and gained an empire amid intensely global revolutionary struggles.

[5] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: The Dial Press, 1938); R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 3 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959-1964); E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1962); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); Paul Dukes, Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). For an extended discussion of this historiographic elision see Michael A. McDonnell, ed., Rethinking the Age of Revolution (London: Taylor & Francis, 2017).

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