Settler Colonialism – An Introduction book review

By Bob Newland

The author, Sai Englert, is not an academic. He is a political activist against racism and colonialism. He does however explore a wide range of academic studies of this highly complex subject in putting together this informative and very readable volume.

As Englert says of settler colonialism in his introduction, ‘many of the debates surrounding it … have not managed to transform broader popular understanding of settler regimes and the struggles against them’, Englert begins by referring the reader to Marx’s analysis of the role of accumulation and dispossession in the history of capitalism, a theme which is fundamental to his thesis and to which he returns on several occasions.

He goes on to explore Wolfe’s approach which stresses that ‘settler colonialism is not limited to the past. It… continues to define settler societies in many places, such as North America, Oceana, or Palestine.’ Englert, however, takes issue with Wolfe’s overall assessment which he suggests precludes the experience of Algeria and South Africa and Spanish settler colonies in the Americas; colonies whose prime basis he argues was the exploitation of the Indigenous population.

Settler colonialism is seen as a distinct characteristic of modern European imperialism. The book explores two key aspects of this. Those states where settlers became the majority leaving the indigenous peoples dispossessed and in many cases such as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand corralled in ‘reservations’ and those such as in the Indian sub-continent and Africa where a minority settler population held sway over a majority indigenous population. In both cases the book demonstrates how extreme force was used to establish and maintain settler control.

While clearly pointing the finger at the crimes of imperialism the author does not shy away from controversy. Nowhere is this more difficult than when he identifies the role of white workers, often the victims of dispossession themselves, establishing racially based trades unions to fight to exclude indigenous and imported non-white workers from skilled and better paid work. Racialisation is a key feature of the story as it unfolds.

The scope of the book ranges from Africa to the Americas, India and Oceana. Two different approaches include on the one hand dispossession, theft of land and resources and genocide and on the other dispossession, theft of land and resources and separation for the purpose of exploiting cheap labour. In the case of Palestine we see one followed by the other.

I have spent a lifetime engaged in anti-colonial struggle and would consider myself to be knowledgeable on the subject. This book however in not much more than 200 pages has brought many new ideas into my perspective.

Englert stresses that there was always resistance to settler colonialism wherever it occurred. Despite many successes in defeating settler colonialism he identifies many cases in which its power and influence abides. South Africa’s failure to overcome the legacy of colonialism and apartheid despite successful national liberation is well known to us all. Since the well-publicised ‘Battle of Wounded Knee’ in 1973, little is heard of massive campaigns by native Americans against further dispossession and removal from their reservations. Examples include the coming together of native Americans with ecologists in struggles to defend treaty rights and opposition to the super exploitation of traditional land within the reservations for water for the cities and for extraction of oil.

Overall, this is a very readable and exceptionally well-informed contribution to ongoing debates about the nature of colonialism, its ongoing impact on many peoples and the necessity to make amends for its violent ravages and exploitation. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Settler Colonialism – An Introduction book review. Sai Englert: Pluto Press. Paperback £16.99 eBook £9.99.

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