Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native

106. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized

albert memmi

Albert Memmi’s 1957 book Portrait du Colonisé précedé du Portrait du Colonisateur was first published in an English edition in 1965. Memmi was Tunisian, and since Tunisia was then a French colony, although one engaged in a struggle for liberation, he was one of the colonized. “I discovered that few aspects of my life and my personality were untouched by this fact,” he writes of being colonized in the book’s preface. “Not only my own thoughts, my passions and my conduct, but also the conduct of others towards me was affected” (viii). For this reason, he continues, “I undertook this inventory of conditions of colonized people mainly in order to understand myself and to identify my place in the society of other men. It was my readers—not all of them Tunisian—who later convinced me that this portrait was equally theirs” (viii). What Memmi was writing about “was the fate of a vast multitude across the world” (viii-ix). But The Colonizer and the Colonized goes beyond a description of colonized people:

The colonial relationship which I had tried to define chained the colonizer and the colonized into an implacable dependence, molded their respective characters and dictated their conduct. Just as there was an obvious logic in the reciprocal behavior of the two colonial partners, another mechanism, proceeding from the first, would lead, I believed, inexorably to the decomposition of this dependence. (ix)

It’s clear how Memmi could write about the colonized, since he would be drawing from his experience, but how could he understand the colonizer? “I know the colonizer from the inside almost as well as I know the colonized,” he writes (xiii), noting that even though he was Tunisian, he was Jewish, not Muslim, and the Jewish community in Tunisia “passionately endeavoured to identify themselves with the French,” thereby gaining some minor, “laughable” privileges (xiv). “The Jewish population identified as much with the colonizers as with the colonized,” he writes, and because of this ambivalence, he understood “the contradictory emotions which swayed their lives” (xiv). “All of this explains why the portrait of the colonizer was in part my own—projected in a geometric sense,” he continues (xv).

So Memmi’s book describes the colonized, but it is also a description of the colonizer, of the relationship between colonizer and colonized, and the process of decolonization; and Memmi relies on his own experience as a colonized person as the source of his understanding of these. Indeed, writing this book helped him to understand his experience. “The sum of events which I had lived since childhood, often incoherent and contradictory on the surface, began to fall into dynamic patterns,” he writes (x): 

I needed to put some sort of order into the chaos of my feelings and to form a basis for my future actions. By temperament and education I had to do this in a disciplined manner, following the consequences as far as possible. If I had not gone all the way, trying to find coherence in all these diverse facts, reconstructing them into portraits which were answerable to one another, I could not have convinced myself and would have remained dissatisfied with my effort. I saw, then, what help to fighting men the simple, ordered description of their misery and humiliation could be. I saw how explosive the objective relation to the colonized and colonizer of an essentially explosive condition could be. (x)

As I read these words, I wondered if after 60 years Memmi’s insights still have value, and if they might be applied to settler colonialism as it exists in Canada. The answer: yes, I think they can.

In his introduction to the book, published in the 1957 edition, Jean-Paul Sartre writes that it “establishes some strong truths”:

First of all, that there are neither good nor bad colonists: there are colonialists. Among these, some reject their objective reality. Borne along by the colonialist apparatus, they do everyday in reality what they condemn in fantasy, for all their actions contribute to the maintenance of oppression. They will change nothing and will serve no one, but will succeed only in finding moral comfort in malaise. (xxv-xxvi)

Doesn’t that describe those of us who reject the premises of settler colonialism but are nonetheless caught in the position of colonizer? Those colonizers, Sartre continues, deny “the title of humanity” to the colonized, which isn’t difficult, “for the system deprives them”—that is, the colonized—“of everything” (xvi):

Thus oppression justifies itself through oppression: the oppressors produce and maintain by force the evils that render the oppressed, in their eyes, more and more what they would have to be like to deserve their fate. The colonizer can only exonerate himself in the systematic pursuit of the “dehumanization” of the colonized by identifying himself a little more each day with the colonialist apparatus. Terror and exploitation dehumanize, and the exploiter authorizes himself with that dehumanization to carry his exploitation further. The engine of colonialism turns in a circle; it is impossible to distinguish between its praxis and objective necessity. (xvi-xvii)

Thus, at some level, Canadians must not think that First Nations deserve clean drinking water, to take one egregious example, because they don’t already have clean drinking water. They must think that First Nations children deserve to be apprehended by social services at astonishing rates, because they can be apprehended by social services. At the end of his introduction, Sartre suggests that the colonizer regards the humanity in others “everywhere as his enemy. To handle this, the colonizer must assume the opaque rigidity and imperviousness of stone. In short, he must dehumanize himself, as well” (xxviii). Doesn’t that describe our federal government’s continuing behaviour towards First Nations, despite its fine words about reconciliation? Hasn’t it become dehumanized by denying the humanity of others? “A relentless reciprocity binds the colonizer to the colonized—his product and his fate,” Sartre continues, and yet colonialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, because “[t]he excluded human beings will affirm their exclusivity in national selfhood. Colonialism creates the patriotism of the colonized” (xxviii). These are some of the insights Sartre has gleaned from his reading of Memmi’s work. But what have I learned from it?

Memmi begins the book’s first part, “Portrait of the Colonizer,” in the book’s first chapter, “Does the colonial exist?,” with the mythical image of this creature as “laboring selflessly for mankind, attending the sick, and spreading culture to the nonliterate,” a pose of “a noble adventurer” or “a righteous pioneer” (3). That image is belied by the economic motives of colonization, he continues: “The cultural and moral mission of a colonizer, even in the beginning, is no longer tenable” (3). Why do Europeans move to colonies? The reason, Memmi suggests, is simple: the colony is “a place where one earns more and spends less” (4). “You go to a colony because jobs are guaranteed, wages high, careers more rapid and business more profitable,” he suggests (4). Yet, despite finding life in the colony profitable, Memmi continues, “the colonizer has nevertheless not yet become aware of the historic role which will be his. He is lacking one step in understanding his new status; he must also understand the origin and significance of this profit” (7). That understanding is not long in coming: “For how long could he fail to see the misery of the colonized and the relation of that misery to his own comfort? He realizes that this easy profit is so great only because it is wrested from others. In short, he finds two things in one: he discovers the existence of the colonizer as he discovers his own privilege” (7). Thus the European living in the colony 

finds himself on one side of a scale, the other side of which bears the colonized man. If his living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low; if he can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labor and servants, it is because the colonized can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the colony; if he can easily obtain administrative positions, it is because they are reserved for him and the colonized are excluded from them; the more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked. (8)

It is impossible, Memmi continues, for the colonial “not to be aware of the constant illegitimacy of his status,” a “double illegitimacy,” since by coming to the colony, “he has succeeded not merely in creating a place for himself but also in taking away that of the inhabitant, granting himself astounding privileges to the detriment of those rightfully entitled to them” (9). The colonized, of course, recognize this fact, but Memmi argues that the colonizer does as well: “he knows, in his own eyes as well as those of his victim, that he is a usurper. He must adjust to both being regarded as such, and to this situation” (9).

Memmi now sets out “a convenient terminology” which distinguishes between “a colonial, a colonizer and the colonialist” (10). A colonial, he suggests, “is a European living in a colony but having no privileges, whose living conditions are not higher than those of a colonized person of equivalent economic and social status” (10). However, such a creature “does not exist, for all Europeans in the colonies are privileged” (10). Such privilege is relative, he continues: “To different degrees every colonizer is privileged, at least comparatively so, ultimately to the detriment of the colonized” (11). All Europeans in the colony are thus colonizers or colonialists. The courts will be more lenient on the colonizer than the colonized; it will be easier for the colonizer to get help from the government; jobs will be more available. “Can he be so blind or so blinded that he can never see that, given equal material circumstances, economic class or capabilities, he always receives preferential treatment?” Memmi asks. “How could he help looking back from time to time to see all the colonized, sometimes former schoolmates or colleagues, whom he has so greatly outpaced?” (12). The colonizer “need only show his face to be prejudged favorably by those in the colony who count” (12). 

Other groups in the colony—“those who are neither colonizers nor colonized,” such as (in Tunisia) Jews, Maltese, Corsicans, Italians—are “candidates for assimilation” or “the recently assimilated,” will receive “small crumbs” of privilege which “contribute toward differentiating them—substantially separating them from the colonized” (13). “To whatever extent favored as compared to the colonized masses, they tend to establish relationships of the colonizer-colonized nature,” Memmi argues. “At the same time, not corresponding to the colonizing group, not having the same role as theirs in colonial society, they each stand out in their own way” (13-14). The Jews in Tunisia, for instance, despite “their enthusiastic adoption of Western language, culture and customs,” are not permitted to develop a resemblance to the colonizer “in the frank hope that he may cease to consider them different from him” (15). “Thus they live in painful and constant ambiguity,” Memmi writes. “Rejected by the colonizer, they share in part the physical conditions of the colonized and have a communion of interests with him; on the other hand, they reject the values of the colonized as belonging to a decayed world from which they eventually hope to escape” (15-16). Memmi might be describing the situation of newcomers to Canada—particularly people of colour—with these words.

Memmi concludes this first chapter on the colonizer with a series of “fundamental questions”:

Once he has discovered the import of colonization and is conscious of his own position (that of the colonized and their necessary relationship), is he going to accept them? Will he agree to be a privileged man, and to underscore the distress of the colonized? Will he be a usurper and affirm the oppression and injustice to the true inhabitant of the colony? Will he accept being a colonizer under the growing habit of privilege and illegitimacy, under the constant gaze of the usurped? Will he adjust to this position and his inevitable self-censure? (18)

The next chapter, “The colonizer who refuses,” addresses the possibility that colonizers will not accept colonization (19). If a new arrival to the colony vows not to accept colonization, Memmi argues, that vow, that sense of indignation, “is not always accompanied by desire for a policy of action. It is rather a position of principle. He may openly protest, or sign a petition, or join a group which is not automatically hostile toward the colonized. This already suffices for him to recognize that he has changed difficulties and discomfort” (20). 

Why are the refusing colonizer’s actions merely symbolic? Memmi has the answer: “It is not easy to escape mentally from a concrete situation, to refuse its ideology while continuing to live with its actual relationships. From now on, he lives his life under the sign of a contradiction which looms at every step, depriving him of all coherence and all tranquility” (20). What this colonizer renounces “is part of himself, and what he slowly becomes as soon as he accepts a life in a colony. He participates in and benefits from those privileges which he half-heartedly denounces” (20). If this colonizer continues to object to colonialism, “he will learn that he is launching into an undeclared conflict with his own people which will always remain alive, unless he returns to the colonialist fold or is defeated” (21). His fellow colonizers will see this person as “nothing but a traitor. He challenges their very existence and endangers the very homeland which they represent in the colony” (21). The colonizer who refuses must either submit to the demands of “the colonial community” or leave, Memmi suggests (22), although he notes that there is one other option: to “adopt the colonized people and be adopted by them,” to “become a turncoat” (22). But this is a problem: “To refuse colonization is one thing; to adopt the colonized and be adopted by them seems to be another; and the two are far from being connected,” Memmi writes (22-23). “To succeed in this second conversion, our man would have to be a moral hero,” he continues (23). The impossibility of this conversion seems to block Memmi. “But let us drop this,” he writes, noting that one can be, “while awaiting the revolution, both a revolutionary and an exploiter”: 

He discovers that if the colonized have justice on their side, if he can go so far as to give them his approval and even his assistance, his solidarity stops here; he is not one of them and has no desire to be one. He vaguely foresees the day of their liberation and the reconquest of their rights, but does not seriously plan to share their existence, even if they are freed. (23)

Racism is part of the reason for the impossibility of doing more than this, which does not surprise Memmi at all: “Who can completely rid himself of bigotry in a country where everyone is tainted by it, including its victims?” (23). But in fact the refusing colonizer simply realizes that, while “the colonized have suddenly become living and suffering humanity” and “the colonizer refuses to participate in their suppression and decides to come to their assistance,” at the same time “he has another civilization before him, customs differing from his own, men whose reactions often surprise him, with whom he does not feel deep affinity” (24). And, one might add, there’s no guarantee that the colonized want to accept this person into their community. There may be no way to cross the cultural, social, and linguistic barriers between them.

“I am quite willing to admit that excessive romanticizing of the difference”—that is, the differences between European colonizers and North African colonized—“must be avoided,” Memmi writes. “It may be thought that the benevolent colonizer’s difficulties in adapting are not very important. The essential factor is firmness of ideological attitude and condemnation of colonization” (27). If the “benevolent colonizer has succeeded in laying aside both the problem of his own privileges and that of his emotional difficulties,” Memmi continues, “[o]nly his ideological and political attitudes remain to be considered” (27). That will involve tackling the question of nationalism—difficult for socialists, with their “internationalist bent” (28). “For a number of historical, sociological and psychological reasons, the struggle for liberation by colonized peoples has taken on a marked national and nationalistic look,” Memmi points out, which is a problem for “the European left,” which “suffers from very intense doubts and real uneasiness in the face of the nationalistic form of those attempts at liberation” (29). This doubt and uneasiness “is distinctly aggravated in a left-wing colonizer, i.e., a leftist living in a colony and living his daily life within that nationalism” (30). Such a person will be uncomfortable with terrorism and political assassination, which are tools in the struggle of the colonized for freedom (30). The refusing colonizer will also worry about what will happen after liberation, whether “the liberated nation” will aspire “to be religious,” or to show “no concern for individual freedom” (32). “Again there is no way out except to assume a hidden, bolder, and nobler motive,” Memmi writes: to believe that “all the lucid and responsible fighters are anything but theocrats; they really love and venerate freedom” (32). Yet, “proclamations in the name of God” and “the Holy War concept” will throw “the leftist off balance” and, “fearing that he might be wrong again, he will retreat; he will speculate on a more distant future,” in which “the colonized will rid themselves of xenophobia and racist temptation” (33-34). So, while “every true leftist must support the national aspirations of people,” it may be that, “in fact, he is perhaps aiding the birth of a social order in which there is no room for a leftist as such”” no room for “political democracy and freedom, economic democracy and justice, rejection of racist xenophobia and universality, material and spiritual progress,” in other words (34). “These very difficulties, this hesitation which curiously resembles remorse, excludes him all the more,” Memmi continues. “They leave him suspect not only in the eyes of the colonized, but also in those of the left wing at home; it is from this that he suffers most” (35). 

All of these anxieties stand in the way of the rejecting colonizer’s adoption by the colonized. But Memmi also points out that, “[t]o succeed in becoming a turncoat, as he has finally resolved to do, it is not enough to accept the position of the colonized, it is necessary to be loved by them” (37). This second point is just as difficult as the first: 

In order truly to become a part of the colonial struggle, even all his good will is not sufficient; there must still be the possibility of adoption by the colonized. However, he suspects that he will have no place in the future nation. This will be the last discovery, the most staggering one for the left-wing colonizer, the one which he often makes on the eve of the liberation, though it was really predictable from the very beginning. (38)

After all, “the colonial situation is based on the relationship between one group of people and another,” with the “leftist colonizer” remaining “part of the oppressing group” and “forced to share its destiny, as he shared its good fortune” (38). “If his own kind, the colonizers, should one day be chased out of the colony, the colonized would probably not make any exception for him,” Memmi notes. “If he could continue to live in the midst of the colonized, as a tolerated foreigner, he would tolerate together with the former colonizers the rancor of a people once bullied by them” (38). “To tell the truth,” Memmi continues,

the style of a colonization does not depend upon one or a few generous or clear-thinking individuals. Colonial relations do not stem from individual good will or actions; they exist before his arrival or his birth, and whether he accepts or rejects them matters little. It is they, on the contrary which, like any institution, determine a priori his place and that of the colonized and, in the final analysis, their true relationship. . . . Being oppressed as a group, the colonized must necessarily adopt a national and ethnic form of liberation from which he cannot but be excluded. (38-39)

There appears to be no way for the refusing colonizer to remain in the colony after its liberation. “Through a de facto contradiction which he either does not see in himself or refuses to see, he hopes to continue being a European by divine right in a country which would no longer be Europe’s chattel; but this time by the divine right of love and renewed confidence,” Memmi writes (40). But, with the end of colonization will come “the overthrow of his situation and himself” (40). 

“One now understands a dangerously deceptive trait of the leftist colonizer, his political ineffectiveness,” Memmi writes:

It results from the nature of his position in the colony. His demands, compared to those of the colonized, or even of a right-wing colonizer, are not solid. Besides, has one ever seen a serious political demand—one which is not a delusion or fantasy—which does not rest upon concrete solid supports, whether it be the masses or power, money or force? (41)

The colonizers know what they want, as do the colonized, but the colonist who refuses is part of neither group. “Politically, who is he? Is he not an expression of himself, of a negligible force in the varied conflicts within colonialism?” Memmi asks (41). “The difference between his commitment and that of the colonized will have unforeseen and insurmountable consequences,” Memmi answers:

Despite his attempts to take part in the politics of the colony, he will be constantly out of step in his language and in his actions. He might hesitate or reject a demand of the colonized, the significance of which he will not immediately grasp. This lack of perception will seem to confirm his indifference. Wanting to vie with the less realistic nationalists, he might indulge in an extreme type of demagogy which will increase the distrust of the colonized. When explaining the acts of the colonizer, he will offer obscure or Machiavellian rationalizations where the simple mechanics of colonization are self-explanatory. Or, to the irritated astonishment of the colonized, he will loudly excuse what the latter condemn in himself. Thus, while refusing the sinister, the benevolent colonizer can never attain the good, for his only choice is not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness. (42-43).

The colonizer who refuses is bound to fail, Memmi states: “everything confirms his solitude, bewilderment and ineffectiveness. He will slowly realize that the only thing to do is to remain silent” (43). “If he cannot stand this silence and make his life a perpetual compromise, he can end up by leaving the colony and its privileges,” Memmi concludes (43). Memmi’s argument is like looking into a disturbing mirror, one that reveals the impossibility of rejecting settler colonialism while remaining, by birth and citizenship, a descendant of settlers. And yet, so many Canadians are in the same place: they reject our country’s continuing colonialism, but see no effective ways to put that rejection into practice. We end up engaging in symbolic acts; these might be valuable, but they aren’t tangibly contributing to the goal of decolonization, which Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang describe as “the repatriation of land” to Indigenous peoples (7). That’s perhaps because we don’t know how to effect such a repatriation, what it would look like, or what it might cost.

The next chapter, “The colonizer who accepts,” begins by acknowledging that “it is more convenient to accept colonization and to travel the whole length of the road leading from colonial to colonialist” (45). A colonialist, in Memmi’s definition, is “only a colonizer who agrees to be a colonizer. By making his position explicit, he seeks to legitimize colonization” (45). “This is a more logical attitude, materially more coherent than the tormented dance of the colonizer who refuses and continues to live in a colony,” Memmi writes. “The colonizer who accepts his role tries in vain to adjust his life to his ideology. The colonizer who refuses, tries in vain to adjust his ideology to his life, thereby unifying and justifying his conduct. On the whole, to be a colonialist is the natural vocation of a colonizer” (45). Because the most talented colonizers will tend to leave the colony for the metropole, either to pursue opportunities or for ethical reasons, only the mediocre remain (48). “It is the mediocre citizens who set the general tone of the colony,” Memmi contends, suggesting that “it is the mediocre who are most in need of compensation and of colonial life” (48). “It is between them and the colonized that the most typical colonial relationships are created,” he continues:

Accepting his role as colonizer, the colonialist accepts the blame implied by that role. This decision in no way brings him permanent peace of mind. On the contrary, the effort he will make to overcome the confusion of his role will give us one of the keys to understanding his ambiguous position. Human relationship in the colony would perhaps have been better if the colonialist had been convinced of his legitimacy. In effect, the problem before the colonizer who accepts is the same as that before the one who refuses. Only their solutions are different; the colonizer who accepts inevitably becomes a colonialist. (51-52)

The related features that spring from this acceptance form what Memmi calls “The Usurper’s Role (or, the Nero complex)” (52). In this role (or complex), the colonialist, 

at the very time of his triumph . . . admits that what triumphs in him is an image which he condemns. His true victory will therefore never be upon him: now he need only record it in the laws and morals. For this he would have to convince the others, if not himself. In other words, to possess victory completely he needs to absolve himself of it and the conditions under which it was attained. This explains his strenuous insistence, strange for a victor, on apparently futile matters. He endeavors to falsify history, he rewrites laws, he would extinguish memories—anything to succeed in transforming his usurpation into legitimacy. (52)

This bad conscience expresses itself in other ways: “the more the usurped is downtrodden, the more the usurper triumphs and, thereafter, confirms his guilt and establishes his self-condemnation. Thus, the momentum of this mechanism for defence propels itself and worsens as it continues to move” (53). The colonialist will even “wish the disappearance of the usurped,” as Patrick Wolfe (among others) has noted (53). As the colonialist engages in heavier oppression, he become an oppressor. “Nero, the typical model of a usurper, is thus brought to persecute Britannicus savagely and to pursue him,” Memmi states. “But the more he hurts him, the more he coincides with the atrocious role he has chosen for himself. The more he sinks into injustice, the more he hates Britannicus. He seeks to injure the victim who turns Nero into a tyrant” (53).  Memmi’s argument here suggests something I’ve often wondered about: whether one explanation for settler colonial racism might not be a hidden awareness that our possession of the land and resources is illegitimate.

Unlike Wolfe, though, Memmi argues that even if the colonialist wants to murder the colonized, doing so is impossible, because it would mean “eliminating himself” (54):

The colonialist’s existence is so closely aligned with that of the colonized that he will never be able to overcome the argument which states that misfortune is good for something. With all his power he must disown the colonized while their existence is indespensable to his own. Having chosen to maintain the colonial system, he must contribute more vigor to its defense than would have been needed to dissolve it completely. Having become aware of the unjust relationship which ties him to the colonized, he must continually attempt to absolve himself. He never forgets to make a public show of his own virtues, and will argue with vehemence to appear heroic and great. At the same time his privileges arise just as much from his glory as from degrading the colonized. He will persist in degrading them, using the darkest colors to depict them. If need be, he will act to devalue them, annihilate them. But he can never escape from this circle. The distance which colonization places between him and the colonized must be accounted for and, to justify himself, he increases this distance still further by placing the two figures irretrievably in opposition: his glorious position and the despicable one of the colonized. (54-55)

The colonialist, despite possessing personal virtues, “will surely be transformed into a conservative, reactionary, or even a colonial fascist” (55). And yet, “[n]othing and no one can give him the high praise he so avidly seeks as compensation: neither the outsider, indifferent at best, but not a dupe or accessory; nor his native land where he is always suspected and often attacked; not his own daily acts which would ignore the silent revolt of the colonized” (57). In fact, the colonialist “scarcely believes in his own innocence. Deep within himself, the colonialist pleads guilty” (57).

The colonialist will end up over-evaluating the importance of the mother country, while simultaneously devoting “himself to a systematic devaluation of the colonized,” even while realizing that without the colonized, the colony would lost its meaning (66). The colonialist rejects both the colony and the colonized, refusing to remedy its deficiencies, because “the colonialist never planned to transform the colony into the image of his homeland, nor to remake the colonized in his own image! He cannot allow such an equation—it would destroy the principle of his privileges” (69). That equality is impossible “because of the nature of the colonized,” and so “the colonialist resorts to racism. It is significant that racism is part of colonialism throughout the world; and it is no coincidence. Racism sums up and symbolizes the fundamental relation which unites colonialist and colonized” (69-70). According to Memmi, 

colonial racism is so spontaneously incorporated in even the most trivial acts and words, that it seems to constitute one of the fundamental patterns of colonialist personality. The frequency of its occurrence, its intensity in colonial relationships, would be astounding if we did not know to what extent it helps the colonialist to live and permits his social introduction. The colonialists are perpetually explaining, justifyng and maintaining (by word as well as by deed) the place and fate of their silent partners in the colonial drama. The colonized are thus trapped by the colonial system and the colonialist maintains his prominent role. (70-71)

Memmi argues that colonial racism has three main ideological components: “one, the gulf between the culture of the colonialist and the colonized; two, the exploitation of these differences for the benefit of the colonialist; three, the use of these supposed differences as standards ob absolute fact” (71). The first point “is the least revealing of the colonialist’s mental attitude”: the colonialist “stresses those things which keep him separate, rather than emphasizing that which might contribute to the foundation of a joint community. In those differences, the colonized is always degraded and the colonialist finds justification for rejecting his subjects” (71). But the differences between colonizer and colonized are removed “from history, time, and therefore possible evolution” by the colonialist (71). Those differences become “biological, or, preferably, metaphysical” (71). Even conversion to the colonizer’s religion would not be able to erase those differences, which is, Memmi suggests, “one of the reasons why colonial missions failed” (73). Racism is therefore “not . . . an incidental detail, but . . . a consubstantial part of colonialism. It is the highest expression of the colonial systema nd one of the most significant features of the colonialist” (74). 

“But there is one final act of distortion,” Memmi writes. “The servitude of the colonized seemed scandalous to the colonizer and forced him to explain it away under the pain of ending the scandal and threatening his own existence. Thanks for a double reconstruction of the colonized and himself, he is able both to justify and reassure himself” (75). The colonizer thus sees himself as a “[c]ustodian of the values of civilization and history,” one who brings “light to the colonized’s ignominious darkness” (75). And, “since servitude is part of the nature of the colonized, and domination part of his own,” colonization will never end: it is eternal, and the colonialist “can look to his future without worries of any kind” (75). “After this, everything would be possible and would take on a new meaning,” Memmi suggests:

The colonialist could afford to relax, live benevolently and even munificently. the colonized could only be grateful to him for softening what is coming to him. It is here that the astonishing mental attitude called ‘paternalistic’ comes into play. A paternalist is one who wants to stretch racism and inequality farther—once admitted. It is, if you like, a charitable racism—which is not thereby less skillful nor less profitable. (76)

“Having founded this new moral order where he is by definition master and innocent, the colonialist would at last have given himself absolution,” Memmi concludes. “It is still essential that this order not be questioned by others, and especially not by the colonized” (76). That last statement suggests something about the psychological fragility of the colonizer’s innocence; it will not survive scrutiny or questioning. 

Memmi now moves to the book’s second part, “Portrait of the Colonized,” with a chapter entitled “Mythical portrait of the colonized.” One element in that portrait is “the often-cited trait of laziness” (79). “Nothing could better justify the colonizer’s privileged position than his industry, and nothing could better justify the colonized’s destitution than his indolence,” Memmi writes (79). “By his accusation the colonizer establishes the colonized as being lazy,” Memmi continues. “He decides that laziness is constitutional in the very nature of the colonized. It becomes obvious that the colonized, whatever he may undertake, whatever zeal he may apply, could never be anything but lazy. This always brings us back to racism, which is the substantive expression, to the accuser’s benefit, of a real or imaginary trait of the accused” (81). The same analysis could be made of each of the features found in the colonized (81). So the colonized is weak, wicked and backward, inept, poor, ungrateful—all traits that justify the colonizer’s behaviour (81-82). “It is significant that this portrait requires nothing else,” Memmi notes. “It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile most of these features and then to proceed to synthesize them objectively. One can hardly see how the colonized can be simultaneously inferior and wicked, lazy and backward” (82-83). The lack of consistency in this portrait applies to the colonizer’s self-portrait as well (83). “The point is that the colonized means little to the colonizer,” Memmi writes:

Far from wanting to understand him as he really is, the colonizer is preoccupied with making him undergo this urgent change. The mechanism of this remolding of the colonized is revealing in itself. It consists, in the first place, of a series of negations. The colonized is not this, is not that. He is never considered in a positive light; or if he is, the quality which is conceded is the result of a psychological or ethical failing. (83-84)

So the fabled Arab hospitality is seen as “a result of the colonized’s irresponsibility and extravagance, since he has no notion of foresight and economy” (84). “Another sign of the colonized’s depersonalization is what one might call the mark of the plural,” Memmi continues. “The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity,” as in the phrase, “They are all the same” (85). “Finally, the colonizer denies the colonized the most precious right granted to most men: liberty,” Memmi states. “Living conditions imposed on the colonized by colonization make no provision for it; indeed, they ignore it. . . . The colonized is not free to choose between beign colonized or not being colonized” (85-86). At the end of “this stubborn effort” to dehumanize the colonized, little is left: “He is surely no longer an alter ego of the colonizer. He is hardly a human being. He tends rapidly toward becoming an object” (86). 

Memmi suggests that it is surprising that this image excites “an echo . . . in the colonized himself”:

Constantly confronted with this image of himself, set forth and imposed on all institutions and in every human contact, how could the colonized help reacting to his portrait? It cannot leave him indifferent and remain a veneer which, like an insult, blows with the wind. He ends up recognizing it as one would a detested nickname which has become a familiar description. The accusation disturbs him and worries him even more because he admires and fears his powerful accuser. . . . Willfully created and spread by the colonizer, this mythical and degrading portrait ends up by being accepted and lived with to a certain extent by the colonized. It thus acquires a certain amount of reality and contributes to the true portrait of the colonized. (87-88)

The “adherence of the colonized to colonization,” then, “is the result of colonization and not its cause. It arises after and not before colonial occupation” (88). “In order for the colonizer to be the complete master, it is not enough for him to be so in actual fact, but he must also believe in its legitimacy,” Memmi concludes, and in order “for that legitimacy to be complete, it is not enough for the colonized to be a slave, he must also accept this role” (88-89).” The bond between colonizer and colonized is thus destructive and creative,” Memmi continues. “It destroys and re-creates the two partners of colonization into colonizer and colonized. One is disfigured into an oppressor,” and the other, “into an oppressed creature, whose development is broken and who compromises by his defeat” (89). “Just as the colonizer is tempted to accept his part,” in other words, “the colonized is forced to accept being colonized” (89).

In the following chapter, “Situations of the colonized,” Memmi argues that this mythical portrait “becomes what can be called a social institution. In other words, it defines and establishes concrete situations which close in on the colonized, weigh on him until they bend his conduct and leave their marks on his face” (90). These situations, he continues, “are situations of inadequacy. The ideological aggression which tends to dehumanize and then deceive the colonized finally corresponds to concrete situations which lead to the same result” (91). Moreover, that mythical portrait is “supported by a very solid organization: a government and a judicial system fed and renewed by the colonizer’s historic, economic and cultural needs” (91). “Even if he were insensitive to the calumny and scorn, even if he shrugged his shoulders at insults and jostling, how could the colonized escape the low wages, the agony of his culture, the law which rules him from birth until death?” Memmi asks (91). It is impossible for the colonized to “avoid those situations which create real inadequacy” (91).

“The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community,” Memmi argues. “Colonization usurps any free role in either war nor peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility” (91). The colonized carries the burden of history, but he is not its subject, merely an object (92). Because the colonized does not govern, “he ends up by losing both interest and feeling for control. How could he be interested in something from which he is so resolutely excluded?” (95). In addition, “[t]he colonized enjoys none of the attributes of citizenship; neither his own, which is dependent, contested and smothered, nor that of the colonizer. He can hardly adhere to one or claim the other” (96). According to Memmi, “[t]his social and historical mutilation gives rise to the most serious consequences. It contributes to bringing out the deficiencies in the other aspects of the colonized’s life and, by a countereffect which is frequent in human processes, it is itself fed by the colonized’s other infirmities” (96-97). The society either revolts, or it calcifies (98). “Colonized society is a diseased society in which internal dynamics no longer succeed in creating new structures,” Memmi writes. “Its century-hardened face has become nothing more than a mask under which it slowly smothers and dies (98-99). The colonized’s “institutions are dead or petrified,” and the colonized “often becomes ashamed of these institutions, as of a ridiculous and overaged monument” (103). The “few material traces” of the colonized’s past are erased, and replaced with those celebrating the colonizer (104). 

Memmi discusses the place of language—in his argument, Arabic—in the colony. “If only the mother tongue was allowed some influence on current social life, or was used across the counters of government offices, or directed the postal service; but this is not the case,” he notes. “The entire bureaucracy, the entire court system, all industry hears and uses the colonizer’s language” (106). This argument reminds me of something my friend Art told me once: Indigenous languages need official recognition if they are to survive. Without such recognition, “bilingualism is necessary,” although such bilingualism symbolizes, to Memmi, two worlds in conflict (107). Colonized writers need to be able to use European languages in order to be published, and it is only in those language that such writers can advocate for their own languages (110). 

Memmi then turns to the question of what might have happened to the colonized without the experience of colonization, and the reason colonization happened in the first place. Such questions, he states, are not important: 

What does count is the present reality of colonization and the colonized. We have no idea what the colonized would have been without colonization, but we certainly see what has happened as a result of it. To subdue and exploit, the colonizer pushed the colonized out of the historical and social, cultural and technical current. What is real and verifiable is that the colonized’s culture, society and technology are seriously damaged. He has not acquired new ability and a new culture. One patent result of colonization is that there are no more colonized artists and not yet any colonized technicians. (114)

Memmi’s claim about technicians might be true in Canada, although I’m not sure that it is, but his claim about artists is definitely not. Of course, he wasn’t writing about Canada, but I need to be cautious about borrowing too freely from his analysis. In any case, he continues, “colonization weakens the colonized and . . . all those weaknesses contribute to one another” (115). For instance, the country’s lack of industrialization leads to “a slow economic collapsed of the colonized” (115). Meanwhile, the colonizer “enriches himself further by selling raw materials rather than competing with industry in the home country” (116). There are few educational opportunities for the colonized as well, and even if universities and apprenticeships existed, their graduates would find it difficult to apply their training (116). “Everything in the colonized is deficient, and everything contributes to this deficiency—even his body, which is poorly fed, puny and sick,” Memmi writes. “Many lengthy discussions would be saved if, in the beginning, it was agreed that there is this wretchedness—collective, permanent, immense. Simple and plain biological wretchedness, chronic hunger of an entire people, malnutrition and illness” (117). Memmi concludes the chapter by asking how a social system which perpetuates such distress endure: “How can one dare compare the advantages and disadvantages of colonization? What advantages, even if a thousand times more important, could make such internal and external catastrophes acceptable?” (118).

The next chapter, “The two answers of the colonized,” begins with the recognition that “[t]he body and face of the colonized are not a pretty sight,” because they display the damaged caused by “such historical misfortune” (119). “The colonized does not exist in accordance with the colonial myth, but he is nevertheless recongizable,” Memmi writes. “Being a creature of oppression, he is bound to be a creature of want” (119). There are two “historically possible solutions” to this situation which may be tried: the first is to assimilate, “to become equal to that splendid model and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him,” a step through which the colonized “rejects himself with the most tenacity” (120-21). “That is to say that he rejects, in another way, the colonial situation,” Memmi writes. “Rejection of self and love of another are common to all candidates for assimilation. Moreover, the two components of this attempt at liberation are closely tied. Love of the colonizer is subtended by a complex of feelings ranging from shame to self-hate” (121). However, “[t]he candidate for assimilation almost always comes to tire of the exorbitant price which he must pay and which he never finishes owing” (123). Moreover, the colonizer never accepts the colonized who tries to assimilate (124). Assimilation, in other words, is impossible (125). “To say that the colonizer could or should accept assimilation and, hence, the colonized’s emancipation, means to topple the colonial relationship,” Memmi argues (126). 

If assimilation and colonization are contradictory (127), what option is left? Revolt (127). “Far from being surprised at the revolts of colonized peoples, we should be, on the contrary, surprised that they are not more frequent and more violent,” Memmi writes (127). The colonizer guards against revolts in many ways, including using corruption and police oppression to abort “all popular movements” and cause “their brutal and rapid destruction,” but the colonized as well, by admiring their conquerors, “hope that the almighty power of the colonizer might bear the fruit of infinite goodness” (127). “The colonial situation, by its own internal inevitability, brings on revolt,” Memmi continues. “For the colonial condition cannot be adjusted to; like an iron collar, it can only be broken” (128). Once assimilation is abandoned, 

the colonized’s liberation must be carried out through a recovery of self and of autonomous dignity. Attempts at imitating the colonizer required self-denial; the colonizer’s rejection is the indispensable prelude to self-discovery. That accusing and annihilating image must be shaken off; oppression must be attacked boldly since it is impossible to go around it. After having been rejected for so long by the colonizer, the day has come when it is the colonized who must refuse the colonizer. (128)

Considered by the colonizer as a homogenous mass, the colonized responds “by rejecting all the colonizers en bloc. The distinction between deed and intent has no great significance in the colonial situation. In the eyes of the colonized, all Europeans in the colonies are de facto colonizers, and whether they want to be or not, they are colonizers in some ways” (130). Their economic and political privileges, for instance, or their participation “in an effectively negative complex toward the colonized,” make them colonizers (130). “If xenophobia and racism consist of accusing an entire human group as a whole, condemning each individual of that group, seeing in him an irremediably noxious nature,” Memmi continues, “then the colonized has, indeed, become a xenophobe and a racist” (130). And yet, he writes, it must be acknowledged that “the colonized’s racism is the result of a more general delusion: the colonialist delusion” (131). In other words, the colonized becomes to accept the colonialist’s racist, Manichean division of the colony and, indeed, the whole world (131). “Being definitely excluded from half the world, why should he not suspect it of confirming his condemnation?” Memmi asks. “Why should he not judge it and condemn it in its turn?” (131). Such a response, Memmi suggests, is “not aggressive but defensive racism” (131). 

The colonized has been excluded from universal human values, and “[t]he same passion which made him admire and absorb Europe shall make him assert his differences; since those differences, after all, are within him and correctly constitute his true self” (132). The young intellectual, Memmi writes, rediscovers a previously rejected religious faith: “Assigning attention to the old myths, giving them virility, he regenerates them dangerously. They find in this an unexpected power which makes them extend beyond the limited intentions of the colonized’s leaders” (133). The colonized’s language is also revitalized (134). “This must be done no matter what the price paid by the colonized,” Memmi writes. “Thus he will be nationalistic but not, of course, internationalistic. Naturally, by so doing, he runs the risk of falling into exclusionism and chauvinism, of sticking to the most narrow principles, and of setting national solidarity against human solidarity—and even ethnic solidarity against national solidarity” (135). But, he continues, “to expect the colonized to open his mind to the world and be a humanist and internationalist would seem to be ludicrous thoughtlessness. He is still regaining possession of himself, still examining himself with astonishment passionately demanding the return of his language” (135).

Even though the colonized people reject the colonizer’s myths, they still admit that they correspond, to some extent, to that picture of themselves. “He is starting a new life but continues to subscribe to the colonizers’ deception,” Memmi notes, because “his situation is shaped by colonization. It is obvious that he is reclaiming a people that is suffering deficiencies in its body and spirit, in its very responses” (137):

He is restored to a not very glorious history pierced through with frightful holes, to a moribund culture which he had planned to abandon, to frozen traditions, to a rusted tongue. The heritage which he eventually accepts bears the burden of a liability which would discourage anyone. He must endorse notes and debts, the debts being many and large. It is also a fact that the institutions of the colony do not operate directly for him. The education system is directed to him only haphazardly. The roads are open to him only because they are pure offerings. (137)

But to go through with the revolt, the colonized must “accept those inhibitions and amputations” (137). “[T]he rebellious colonized begins by accepting himself as something negative,” Memmi writes, and this “negative element has become an essential part of his revival and struggle, and will be proclaimed and glorified to the hilt” (138). “Suddenly, exactly to the reverse of the colonialist accusation, the colonized, his culture, his country, everything that belongs to him, everything he represents, become perfectly positive elements,” Memmi continues, a “countermythology” born from protest (138-39). “In order to witness the colonized’s complete cure”—the colonized’s emergence from this countermythology into an authentic sense of self—“his alienation must completely cease. We must await the complete disappearance of colonization—including the period of revolt” (141).

In his conclusion, Memmi suggests that “the colonizer is a disease of the European, from which he must be completely cured and protected. There is also a drama of the colonizer which would be absurd and unjust to underestimate”: a “difficult and painful treatment, extraction and reshaping of the present conditions of existence” (147). “Colonization disfigures the colonizer,” Memmi contends (147). The colonizer who rejects colonization’s role “is unlivable” and “cannot long be sustained” (148). The colonial situation itself must disappear (148). The two propositions made by colonization—the extermination of the colonized or their assimilation—will also have to disappear (148). “Extermination saves colonization so little that it actually contradicts the colonial process,” Memmi contends, confusingly offering the genocide in the American west as an example (149). He also argues that assimilation is “the opposite of colonization,” because it “tends to eliminate the distinctions between the colonizers and the colonized,a nd thereby eliminates the colonial relationship” (149-50). If the colonizer “refuses to abandon his profitable sicknesses, he will sooner or later be forced to do so by history,” since “one day he will be forced by the colonized to give in” (150). Revolt—successful revolt—is inevitable: “The refusal of the colonized cannot be anything but absolute, that is, not only revolt, but a revolution” (150). That’s because “colonization materially kills the colonized,” and “it kills him spiritually. Colonization distorts relationships, destroys or petrifies institutions, and corrupts men, both colonizers and colonized. To live, the colonized needs to do away with colonization” (151). And then, once “he ceases to be a colonized—he will become something else” (153). “Having reconquered all his dimensions, the former colonized will have become a man like any other,” Memmi concludes. “There will be the ups and downs of all men to be sure, but at least he will be a whole and free man” (153).

I can’t tell whether Memmi’s depiction of the colonized is accurate; it appears to be, but I don’t have enough knowledge to know for sure. I do think his representation of the colonizer is right on the money, however. His argument is so powerful that it is hard to find points where I disagree. I would have to say that his claims that extermination undercuts the colonial relationship is belied by the experience of Indigenous people in North America, and by settler colonial theorists like Wolfe, who note that elimination of the native is one of the options available for securing the land for settlers. I think he’s wrong about assimilation as well, although I’m less certain of that, since the various methods of forced assimilation in Canada, such as residential schools, did such a terrible job that one wonders if assimilation was really their intention, rather than just cultural and linguistic extinction without assimilation. I’m not sure. Part of the reason for my confusion here is the different ways colonialism has been expressed in Canada and in Memmi’s Tunisia. But Canadians can learn from Memmi’s work, and although it’s not an easy or a happy read, The Colonizer and the Colonized is an important text that I’ll return to in the future.

Work Cited

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized, expanded edition, Beacon, 1991.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40. https://www.latrobe.edu.au/staff-profiles/data/docs/fjcollins.pdf.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240.

102. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native”

Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native first page

Patrick Wolfe’s name appears on almost every bibliography of every text I’ve read on settler colonialism. So it’s time to sit down and read his work, instead of relying on how other people talk about it. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” begins with the word “genocide”: “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life” (387). That doesn’t mean, he continues, “that settler colonialism is simply a form of genocide,” or that genocide can’t take place without settler colonialism (387). However, he continues, in this essay, he “shall begin to explore, in comparative fashion, the relationship between genocide and the settler-colonial tendency that I term the logic of elimination” (387). His contention, he writes, is that settler colonialism should be distinguished from genocide; while it is “inherently eliminatory,” is is not “invariably genocidal” (387).

Wolfe begins exploring this claim by noting that “both genocide and settler colonialism have typically employed the organizing grammar of race,” and that even though race is a social construct, “different racial regimes encode and reproduce the unequal relationships in to which Europeans coerced the populations concerned” (387). Those relationships were different: in the United States, for instance, because Africans were enslaved, the offspring of an enslaved person and “any other parent” would be enslaved as well, a “taxonomy” that “became fully racialized in the ‘one-drop rule,’ whereby any amount of African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical appearance, makes a person Black” (387-88). For Indigenous people in the United States, in contrast, “non-Indian ancestry compromised their indigeneity, producing ‘half-breeds,’ a regime that persists in the form of blood quantum regulations” (388). Unlike enslaved Africans, “whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive. In this way, the restrictive racial classification of Indians straightforwardly furthered the logic of elimination” (388). All that Indigenous people have to do “to get in the way of settler colonization,” Wolfe writes, citing Deborah Bird Rose, “is stay at home” (388). The “primary motive for elimination” of Indigenous peoples, then, is simply “access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element” (388).

“The logic of elimination not only refers to the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, though it includes that,” Wolfe continues (388). He suggests that “settler colonialism has both negative and positive dimensions” (388). “Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of native societies,” he writes. “Positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base—as I put it, settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event” (388). Elimination of Indigenous populations, then, “is an organizing principal of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence,” and that elimination can include activities familiar to Canadians: “child abduction, religious conversion, [and] resocialization in total institutions such as missions or boarding schools” (388). “Settler colonialism,” Wolfe states, “destroys to replace” (388)

Renaming is one form of symbolic elimination or erasure. However, Wolfe notes that in Australia, 

the erasure of indigeneity conflicts with the assertion of settler nationalism. On the one hand, settler society required the practical elimination of the natives in order to establish itself on their territory. On the symbolic level, however, settler society subsequently sought to recuperate indigeneity in order to express its difference—and, accordingly, its independence—from the mother country. (389)

For that reason, Australian official symbolism, sports teams, and corporations “are distinguished by the ostentatious borrowing of Aboriginal motifs” (389). That’s true in this country as well: think of the appropriation of the inukshuk for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, or of the way totem poles became a national symbol. (I just saw artist and academic David Garneau give a talk on this very subject.) “For nationalist purposes, it is hard to see an alternative to this contradictory reappropriation of a foundationally disavowed Aboriginality,” Wolfe continues (389).

“In its positive aspect, therefore, settler colonialism does not simply replace native society tout court,” Wolf writes. “Rather, the process of replacement maintains the refractory imprint of the native counter-claim” (389). “In short,” he concludes, 

elimination refers to more than the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, although it includes that. In its positive aspect, the logic of elimination marks a return whereby the native repressed continues to structure settler-colonial society. It is both as complex social formation and as continuity through time that I term settler colonization a structure rather than an event, and it is on this basis that I shall consider its relationship to genocide. (390)

That assertion of complexity clarifies a great deal about the relationship between Settlers and Indigenous peoples and about the way Settlers have tended to represent Indigenous peoples and celebrate their cultural artifacts while they are appropriating their land and abducting their children.

Wolfe now returns, in a new section of the essay, to the past, to “the European sovereigns who laid claim to the territories of non-Christian (or, in later secularized versions, uncivilized) inhabitants of the rest of the world” did so through multiple versions of “the doctrine of discovery” (390). The discourse around such claims, though, “was primarily addressed to relations between European sovereigns rather than to relations between Europeans and natives” in an attempt “to restrain the endless rounds of war-making over claims to colonial territory that European sovereigns were prone to indulge in” (390). In Australia, for instance, where “British dominion was effectively unchallenged by other European powers, Aborigines were accorded no rights to their territory, informal variants on the theme of terra nullius being taken for granted in settler culture” (390-91). In North America, on the other hand, “treaties between Indian and European nations were premised on a sovereignty that reflected Indians’ capacity to permute local alliance networks from among the rival Spanish, French, Dutch, Swedish and Russian presences” (391). However, even where Indigenous sovereignty was recognized, “ultimate dominion over the territory in question was held to inhere in the European sovereign in whose name it had been ‘discovered’” (391). There was, Wolfe continues, a “clear distinction between dominion, which inhered in European sovereigns alone, and natives’ right of occupancy, also expressed in terms of possession or usufruct, which entitled natives to pragmatic use (understood as hunting and gathering rather than agriculture) of a territory that Europeans had discovered” (391). For Wolfe, this distinction “between dominion and occupancy illuminates the settler-colonial project’s reliance on the elimination of native societies” (391).

Those who claimed to discover a particular territory thereby “acquired the right, on behalf of his sovereign and vis-à-vis other Europeans who came after him, to buy land from the natives,” a right known as pre-emption (391). This notion “would seem to pose little threat to people who did not wish to dispose of their land to anyone,” but in practice, Wolfe writes, quoting Harvey Rosenthal, “‘The American right to buy always superseded the Indian right not to sell’” (391). This sense of priority is crucial, Wolfe suggests:

Why should ostensibly sovereign nations, residing in a territory solemnly guaranteed to them by treaties, decide that they are willing, after all, to surrender their ancestral homelands? More often than not (and nearly always up to the wars with the Plains Indians, which did not take place until after the civil war), the agency which reduced Indian peoples to this abjection was not some state instrumentality but irregular, greed-crazed invaders who had no intention of allowing the formalities of federal law to impede their access to the riches available in, under, and on Indian soil. (391)

Canadians may shake their heads and mutter something about greedy Americans, but the behaviour of squatters in the Haldimand Tract in Ontario, which was deeded to the Haudenosaunee in 1784, was not much different, and, like Wolfe’s example of the removal of Indigenous peoples from the American South that made way for the development of “the slave-plantation economy” (391) the governments of Upper Canada and later Canada West supported the rights of those squatters over the rights of the Haudenosaunee to their own land. 

To Wolfe, the behaviour of the soldiers who drove the Cherokees from their homes illustrates “the structural complexity of settler colonialism” (392). Those soldiers, he notes, were “economic immigrants “ who

were generally drawn from the ranks of Europe’s landless. The cattle and other stock were not only being driven off Cherokee land; they were being driven into private ownership. Once evacuated, the Red man’s land would be mixed with Black labour to produce cotton, the white gold of the Deep South. To this end, the international slave trade and the highest echelons of the formal state apparatus converged across three continents with the disorderly pillaging of a nomadic horde who may or may not have been “lawless” but who were categorically White. (392)

“In this light,” Wolfe states, “we are in a position to understand the pragmatics of the doctrine of discovery more clearly”:

 Understood as an assertion of Indigenous entitlement, the distinction between dominion and occupancy dissolves into incoherence. Understood processually, however, as a stage in the formation of the settler-colonial state (specifically, the stage linking the theory and the realization of territorial acquisition), the distinction is only too consistent. (392)

What does Wolfe mean? He returns to the point that Indigenous people could only transfer “their right of occupancy to the discovering sovereign and no one else” (392). “They could not transfer dominion because it was not theirs to transfer; that inhered in the European sovereign and had done so from the moment of discovery,” he continues. “Dominion without conquest constitutes the theoretical (or ‘inchoate’) stage of territorial sovereignty” (392). “In other word,” Wolfe writes,

the right of occupancy was not an assertion of native rights. Rather, it was a pragmatic acknowledgment of the lethal interlude that would intervene between the conceit of discovery, when navigators proclaimed European over whole continents to trees or deserted beaches, and the practical realization of that conceit in the final securing of European settlement, formally consummated in the extinguishment of native title. (393)

That conceit might have been, as Eva Mackey suggests, a fantasy, but it had tangible consequences. And, remember, in this country, the goal of the federal government in negotiating treaties with First Nations was “the extinguishment of native title.” That’s the purpose of the clauses in the numbered treaties—which Sheldon Krasowski argues, convincingly, were never discussed during the negotiations of those treaties—which claimed that, by making treaty, First Nations were signing away their land. “In sum, then, settler colonialism is an inclusive, land-centred project that coordinates a comprehensive range of agencies, from the metropolitan centre to the frontier encampment, with a view to eliminating Indigenous societies,” Wolfe writes. “Its operations are not dependent on the presence or absence of formal state institutions or functionaries” (393). For that reason, “the occasions on or the extent to which settler colonialism conduces to genocide are not a matter of the presence or absence of the formal apparatus of the state” (393). That genocide can be conducted by priests and nuns and dormitory supervisors in residential schools, or by men who prey on Indigenous sex workers. Our discomfort with the use of the term “genocide” to describe the actions of those people—and I’m thinking of Canadian Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s rejection of that term in the conclusions of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)–has less to do with the reality of what is happening than our own squeamishness at calling something what it really is. Wolfe, however, would disagree, as the final sections of his essay indicate.

Here Wolfe begins third section of his essay, in which he points out that while “the pace, scale and intensity of certain forms of modern genocide requires the centralized technological, logistical and administrative capacities of the modern state,” settler colonialism is not pre-modern, and that “some of the core features of modernity were pioneered in the colonies” (citing W.E.B. Dubois, Hannah Arendt, and Aimé Césaire) (393). He notes that many of the Nazis’ victims were murdered “in deranged shooting sprees that were more reminiscent of sixteenth-century Spanish behaviour in the Americans than of Fordism, while millions of Slav civilians and Soviet soldiers were simply starved to death in circumstances that could well have struck a chord with late-eighteenth-century Bengalis or mid-nineteenth-century Irish people” (394). The point, he continues, is not that the Holocaust can be divided into “modern and atavistic elements”; rather, the point is that colonialism was modern (394). In fact, he continues, settler colonialism “was foundational to modernity” (394). “[A] global chain of command” linked “remote colonial frontiers to the metropolis,” he argues, and “[b]ehind it all lay the driving engine of international market forces, which linked Australian wool to Yorkshire mills and, complementarily, to cotton produced under different colonial conditions in India, Egypt, and the slave states of the Deep South” (394). He quotes Cole Harris on the dispossession of First Nations in Canada: “‘Combine capital’s interest in uncluttered access to land and settlers’ interest in land as livelihood, and the principal momentum of settler colonialism comes into focus’” (394). The Industrial Revolution “required colonial land and labour to produce its raw materials just as centrally as it required metropolitan factories and an industrial proletariat to process them, whereupon the colonies were again required as a market” (394). For that reason, “[t]he expropriated Aboriginal, enslaved African American, or indentured Asian is as thoroughly modern as the factory worker, bureaucrat, or flâneur of the metropolitan centre. The fact that the slave may be in chains does not make him or her medieval” (394).

“Of itself, however, modernity cannot explain the insatiable dynamic whereby settler colonialism always needs more land,” Wolfe writes at the outset of his essay’s fourth section (395). Agriculture is one reason, but so are other “primary sectors” that “can motivate the project,” including forestry, fishing, pastoralism, and mining (395). However, he argues, agriculture “not only supports the other sectors,” but is “inherently sedentary and, therefore, permanent” (395). “In contrast to extractive industries, which rely on what just happens to be there, agriculture is a rational means/end calculus that is geared to vouchsafing its own reproduction, generating capital that projects into a future where it repeats itself,” he writes (395). (Of course, one could argue that agriculture is extractive as well.) Agriculture also supports a larger population than other modes of production (395). “In settler-colonial terms, this enables a population to be expanded by continuing immigration at the expense of native lives and livelihoods,” he continues. “The inequities, contradictions and pogroms of metropolitan society ensure a recurrent supply of fresh immigrants—especially, as noted, from among the landless. In this way, individual motivations dovetail with the global market’s imperative for expansion” (395). Thus, agriculture “progressively eats into Indigenous territory, a primitive accumulation that turns native flora and fauna into a dwindling resource and curtails the reproduction of Indigenous modes of production,” rendering Indigenous people to a dependency “on the introduced economy” or reducing them “to the stock-raids that provide the classic pretext for colonial death-squads” (395). Wolfe could be talking about Saskatchewan.

Wolfe notes that whether Indigenous people practise agriculture or not, “natives are typically represented as unsettled, nomadic, rootless, etc., in settler-colonial discourse” (396). Agriculture thus becomes “a potent symbol of settler-colonial identity” because of its “life-sustaining connectedness to land” (396). “Accordingly,” he continues, “settler-colonial discourse is resolutely impervious to glaring inconsistencies such as sedentary natives or the fact that the settlers themselves have come from somewhere else” (396). Even if the Indigenous people are already farmers, however, their productivity cannot be simply incorporated into the colonial economy:

At this point, we begin to get closer to the question of just who it is (or, more to the point, who they are) that settler colonialism strives to eliminate—and, accordingly, closer to an understanding of the relationship between settler colonialism and genocide. To stay with the Cherokee removal: when it came to it, the factor that most antagonized the Georgia state government (with the at-least-tacit support of Andrew Jackson’s federal administration) was not actually the recalcitrant savagery of which Indians were routinely accused, but the Cherokee’s unmistakable aptitude for civilization. Indeed, they and their Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole neighbours, who were also targeted for removal, figured revealingly as the “Five Civilized Tribes” in Euroamerican parlance. (396)

The Cherokees, he notes, had become successful farmers “on the White model, with a number of them owning substantial holdings of Black slaves, and they had introduced a written national constitution that bore more than a passing resemblance to the US one” (396). Why would the Georgians “wish to rid themselves of such cultivated neighbours?” (396). Because “the Cherokee’s constitution and their agricultural prowess . . . all signified permanence” (396). The first thing the soldiers did was to burn the Cherokees’ houses (396).

Another reason for the removals was that tribal land was owned collectively. “Indians were the original communist menace,” Wolfe contends (397). The Choctaws who stayed in Mississippi “became individual proprietors . . . of separately allotted fragments of what had previously been the tribal estate, theirs to sell to White people if they chose to” (397). But without the tribe, Wolfe continues, those who remained were “for all practical purposes no longer Indians. . . . Here, in essence, is assimilation’s Faustian bargain—have our settler world, but lose your Indigenous soul. Beyond any doubt, this is a kind of death. Assimilationists recognized this very clearly” (397). That’s what links Richard Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle boarding school and leader of “the philanthropic ‘Friends of the Indian’ group” to General Phil Sheridan, “scourge of the Plains and author of the deathless maxim, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’”:

Given the training in individualism that Pratt provided at his school . . . the tribe could disappear while its members stayed behind. . . . In a paper for the 1892 Charities and Correction Conference held in Denver, Pratt explicitly endorsed Sheridan’s maxim, “but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” (397)

Remember, the Carlisle boarding school was one of the models for the Canadian residential school system, and Regina’s own Nicholas Flood Davin drew on his visit to that institution when he wrote his 1879 work, “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds” (“The Davin Report”).

The death that is involved in assimilation is, Wolfe argues, a form of genocide: “Richard Pratt and Phillip Sheridan were both practitioners of genocide,” he writes (398). He rejects the term “cultural genocide” (often used in Canada) because “it confuses definition with degree,” and because of “the practical hazards that can ensue once an abstract concept like ‘cultural genocide’ falls into the wrong hands”—the “elementary category error” that claims genocide is either biological (“the real thing”) or cultural “and thus, it follows, not real” (398). “In practice, it should go without saying that the imposition on a people of the procedures and techniques that are generally glossed as ‘cultural genocide’ is certainly going to have a direct impact on that people’s capacity to stay alive,” he argues, noting that in the decades after the creation of Indian boarding schools in the US, “Indian numbers hit the lowest level they would ever register” (398-99). That situation is reflected in contemporary Aboriginal life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Australia. “Clearly, we are not talking about an isolated event here,” he writes. “Thus we can shift from settler colonialism’s structural complexity to its positivity as a structuring principle of settler-colonial society across time” (399).

Wolfe now begins a new section of his essay. He describes the westward expansion of the frontier in the United States in terms of the temporary nature of the removals of Indigenous peoples, “which kept time with the westward march of the nation” (399). When the frontier no longer existed, “when the crude technique of removal declined in favour of a range of strategies for assimilating Indian people now that they had been contained within Euroamerican society, we can more clearly see the logic of elimination’s positivity as a continuing feature of Euroamerican settler society” (399). In other words, “elimination turned inwards, seeking to penetrate through the tribal surface to the individual Indian below, who was to be co-opted out of the tribe, which would be depleted accordingly, and into White society” (399). In the last 30 years of the 19th century, assimilationist legislation and Supreme Court decisions “which notionally dismantled tribal sovereignty and provided for the abrogation of existing treaties . . . relentlessly sought the breakdown of the tribe and the absorption into White society of individual Indians and their tribal land, only separately” (399-400). This “‘New Colonialism’” was “a discursive formation based on reservations and boarding schools,” and it attacked “‘every aspect of Native American life—religion, speech, political freedoms, economic liberty, and cultural diversity,’” Wolfe writes, quoting John Wunder (400). “The centrepiece of this campaign was the allotment programme, first generalized as Indian policy in the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and subsequently intensified and extended, whereby tribal land was to be broken down into individual allotments whose proprietors could eventually sell them to White people,” he continues, noting that in the 50 years after 1881, “the total acreage held by Indians in the United States fell by two thirds” (400). “Needless to say, the coincidence between the demographic statistics and the land-ownership rates was no coincidence,” he writes. “Throughout this process, reformers’ justifications for it (saving the Indian from the tribe, giving him the same opportunities as the White man, etc.) repeatedly included the express intention to destroy the tribe in whole” (400). The New Deal introduced blood quantum requirements, whereby “one’s Indianness progressively declines in accordance with a ‘biological’ calculus that is a construct of Euroamerican culture,” a procedure that Juaneño/Jaqi scholar Annette Jaimes has called “‘statistical extermination’” (400). “In sum, the containment of Indian groups within Euroamerican society that culminated in the end of the frontier produced a range of ongoing complementary strategies whose common intention was the destruction of heterodox forms of Indian grouphood,” Wolfe concludes (400).

In both the US and Australia, “the full radicalization of assimilation policies . . . coincided with the closure of the frontier, which forestalled spatial stop-gaps such as removal” (400). But, Wolfe writes, “assimilation should not be seen as an invariable concomitant of settler colonialism. Rather, assimilation is one of a range of strategies of elimination that become favoured in particular historical circumstances. Moreover, assimilation itself can take on a variety of forms” (401). These strategies might be “‘softer’ than the recourse to simple violence,” but they “are no necessarily less eliminatory” (401). He notes that the UN’s Convention on Genocide “includes among the acts that constitute genocide (assuming they are committed with intent to destroy a target group in whole or in part) the imposition of ‘measures intended to prevent births within the group’” (401). Practices of forced adoption such as, in Canada, the Sixties Scoop, a misnomer because Indigenous children continue to be taken from their parents at astonishing rates, which are intended to “bring about a situation in which second-generation offspring were born into a group that was different from the one from which the child/parent had originally been abducted,” would therefore be examples of genocide, according to the UN’s definition (401). “Though a child was physically abducted, the eventual outcome is as much a matter of a social classification as it is of a body count,” Wolfe writes. “Nonetheless, the intentional contribution to the demographic destruction of the ‘relinquishing’ group is unequivocal” (401).

Wolfe begins the next section of his essay with a question: why does he use the term “logic of elimination rather than genocide?” (401). Settler colonialism, he repeats, “is a specific social formation and it is desirable to retain that specificity. . . . an understanding of settler colonialism would not be particularly helpful for understanding the mass killings of, say, witches in medieval Europe, Tutsis in Rwanda, enemies of the people in Cambodia, or Jews in the Nazi fatherland (the Lebensraum is, of course, another matter)” (401). These examples of mass killings “would seem to have little to tell us about the long-run structural consistency of settler colonizers’ attempts to eliminate native societies” (402). Use of the term “genocide” would invite comparisons to the Holocaust, creating “hyphenated genocides” which would only “devalue Indigenous attrition” (402). However, 

[n]o such problem bedevils analysis of the logic of elimination, which, in its specificity to settler colonialism, is premised on the securing—the obtaining and the maintaining—of territory. This logic certainly requires the elimination of the owners of that territory, but not in any particular way. To this extent, it is a larger category than genocide. For instance, the style of romantic stereotyping that I have termed “repressive authenticity,” which is a feature of settler-colonial discourse in many countries, is not genocidal in itself, though it eliminates large numbers of empirical natives from official reckonings and, as such, is often concomitant with genocidal practice. Indeed, depending on the historical conjuncture, assimilation can be a more effective mode of elimination than conventional forms of killing, since it does not involve such a disruptive affront to the rule of law that is ideologically central to the cohesion of settler society. When invasion is recognized as a structure rather than an event, its history does not stop—or more to the point, become relatively trivial—when it moves on from the era of frontier homicide. Rather, narrating that history involves charting the continuities, discontinuities, adjustments, and departures whereby a logic that initially informed frontier killing transmutes into different modalities, discourses and institutional formations as it undergirds the historical development and complexification of settler society. (402)

“How, then, when elimination manifests as genocide, are we to retain the specificity of settler colonialism without downplaying its impact by resorting to a qualified genocide?” Wolfe asks (402-03). He offers the term “structural genocide,” suggesting that it would avoid “the questions of degree—and, therefore, of hierarchy among victims—that are entailed in qualified genocides, while retaining settler colonialism’s structural induration” (403). “Given a historical perspective on structural genocide,” he continues, “we can recognize its being in abeyance (as, mercifully, it seems to be in contemporary Australia) rather than being a thing of the past—which is to say, we should guard against the recurrence of what Dirk Moses terms ‘genocidal moments’ (social workers continue to take Aboriginal children in disproportionate numbers, for example)” (403). “Structural genocide” would also enable us to understand “some of the concrete empirical relationships between spatial removal, mass killings and biocultural assimilation” (403). For instance, “assimilation programmes can reflect the ideological requirements of settler-colonial societies, which characteristically cite native advancement to establish their egalitarian credentials to potentially fractious groups of immigrants” (403).

Wolfe begins the final section of his essay with another question: “How, then, might any of this help to predict and prevent genocide?” (403). For one thing, “it shows us that settler colonialism is an indicator. Unpalatable though it is (to speak as a member of a settler society), this conclusion has a positive aspect, which is a corollary to settler colonialism’s temporal dimension” (403). That is, “[s]ince settler colonialism persists over extended periods of time, structural genocide should be easier to interrupt than short-term genocides” (403). (There is no evidence anywhere to support that conclusion, I’m afraid.) In addition, he argues that “[s]ince settler colonialism is an indicator, it follows that we should monitor situations in which settler colonialism intensifies or in which societies that are not yet, or not fully, settler-colonial take on more of its characteristics” (403). He argues that “Israel’s progressive dispensing with its reliance on Palestinian labour would seem to present an ominous case in point” (403). Apartheid in South Africa was not a genocide because the country’s economy depended on African workers; “[t]he same can be said of African American slavery,” Wolfe writes (404)—a shockingly uninformed thing to say, given the mass death that happened before slavery was abolished. He suggests that because enslaved Africans were “valuable commodities, slaves had only been destroyed in extremis” (404), something that might appear true in theory but that I doubt accurately conveys the numbers of Africans who died during the Middle Passage or on the huge plantations of Mississippi. “Today in the US, the blatant racial zoning of large cities and the penal system suggests that, once colonized people outlive their utility, settler societies can fall back on the repertoire of strategies (in this case, spatial sequestration) whereby they have also dealt with the native surplus,” he writes (404). The West Bank barrier, he continues, is such an example of spatial sequestration, as was apartheid, and “as Palestinians become more and more dispensable, Gaza and the West Bank become less and less like Bantustans and more and more like reservations (or, for that matter, like the Warsaw Ghetto)” (404). What an astonishing thing to say.

I’m not sure Wolfe’s conclusion is of much value—there is, after all, nothing in this country that would suggest settler colonialism is easy to interrupt—and I’m honestly not convinced that avoiding the term genocide is actually useful in thinking about the way Indigenous people have experienced settler colonialism. By the UN’s definition of genocide, all of the institutions of settler colonialism–in this country, anyway–are genocidal. We might not want to admit this is true, but it is. Perhaps “attempted genocide” would be a better term, since Indigenous people, cultures, languages and ways of thinking about the world remain vital and relevant. Nevertheless, the rest of Wolfe’s essay is helpful to me in understanding the significance of the oft-repeated claim that settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event. It carries on in new forms, and those new forms are always rooted in the occupation of land by settlers. And the discussion of American boarding schools brings home how I’ve benefitted—or was intended to benefit—from residential schools in this country. Yesterday was Orange Shirt Day in Canada, a day when we wear orange T-shirts and remember the children who were incarcerated in this country’s Indian residential schools. Some 150,000 children were sent to those places, and about 5,000 died (the exact number may never be known). Those institutions, Wolfe would argue, were established in order to assimilate Indigenous children, a process of assimilation that was supposed to benefit settlers by eliminating competing Indigenous claims to the land—by destroying Indigenous languages, cultures, families, and communities. To think that those places were part of a system in which I am enmeshed—against my will, and for most of my life without my knowledge—is disturbing and painful. But it seems to be the truth. And the truth must come before reconciliation; at least, that’s what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada would argue. The truth of settler colonialism isn’t pretty, but it has to be faced before reconciliation, or decolonization, can happen. 

Works Cited

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Mackey, Eva. Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization, Fernwood, 2016.

“The Davin Report, 1879.” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Indian Residential Schools in Ontario, 2005, http://rschools.nan.on.ca/article/the-davin-report-1879-1120.asp.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240.