Equal Subjects, Unequal Rights: Indigenous Peoples in British Settler Colonies, 1830-1910

By Julie Evans; Patricia Grimshaw et al. | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In 1841, Herman Merivale, professor of political economy at Oxford University and soon to be appointed under-secretary of state for the colonies, made the following remarks about the nature of colonisation:

The history of the European settlements in America, Africa, and
Australia, presents everywhere the same general features – a wide and
sweeping destruction of native races by the uncontrolled violence of indi-
viduals, if not of colonial authorities, followed by tardy attempts on the
part of governments to repair the acknowledged crime.1

At the beginning of the new millennium, Herman Merivale's midnineteenth-century characterisation of colonies of settlement at once confirms and challenges a 'commonsense understanding'2 of colonialism. The work of revisionist historians has ensured that Europeans can no longer claim ignorance of the devastating impact on Indigenous peoples of this particular type of colonial enterprise. But the alleged disorder and pragmatism of its administration, so candidly asserted as 'irregular and arbitrary' by one of its major protagonists, is perhaps less immediately brought to mind.3

In this book, where we trace the general and particular circumstances in which political rights were accorded or denied to Indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, from the 1830s to 1910, Merivale's twin observations emerge as particularly pertinent. By situating the violence and upheaval of dispossession within a comparative perspective, we hope to identify shifting modes of British and settler rule over time as British governments and colonial elites adopted more 'respectable' means of establishing and then entrenching settler dominance and privilege, in lands that were inhabited by others. Part of securing that dominance, as well as of attempting to repair 'the acknowledged crime' of colonisation, would include consideration of how surviving Indigenous peoples were to be incorporated within the political systems that were unfolding.

We turn our attention to this specific aspect of colonial rule in these newly forged aggregations – to how first British and then settler governments addressed the question of Indigenous peoples' political rights. In demonstrating critical links between similar types of colonial formation in vastly different parts of the Empire, we argue that the ways in which Britain and the individual colonies responded to this question, while varying significantly, conformed nevertheless to the general

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