David A. Wilson, Graeme Morton, eds. Irish and Scottish Encounters with Indigenous Peoples: Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013. 389 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-4151-1.
Reviewed by Scott Spencer (Tufts University)
Published on H-Empire (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed (Elizabeth City State University)
Pushing Aside the Natives
As its title clearly states, this edited book of essays examines Irish and Scottish encounters with indigenous peoples. The introduction and fifteen chapters all pose, directly or indirectly, the question: did it make a difference to Native Americans, Canadian First Nations peoples, New Zealand Maori, or Australian Aborigines whether or not the Europeans in their midst were also “colonized” peoples, in this case, Irish and Scots? Were Irish and Scots “good colonists”? While some exceptions existed, the answer is no.
The individual authors explore the interactions of Irish and Scottish migrants with “natives” of North America and Australasia from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Most of the chapters focus on the nineteenth century. A majority researches Canadian encounters. The introduction summarizes the subsequent chapters and offers the collection’s overall conclusion: that any evaluation of European-indigenous relations needs to situate its analysis in the local contexts and circumstances of the colony. The editors could have added, as the chapters do, that time matters as well. Eighteenth-century encounters differed from nineteenth-century ones, which further contrasted from interactions in the twentieth century. Changes could occur even within lifetimes, as Kevin Hutchings’s chapter on author and colonial administrator John Buchan suggests.
The book is framed by its first chapter, Donald Harman Akenson’s interpretation of the “Great European Migration,” when nearly sixty million Europeans set forth across the seas during the post-Napoleonic nineteenth century (1815-1914). That migration, “one of the most important phenomena of human history to occur in the past 500 years,” led to “the greatest single period of land theft, cultural pillage, and casual genocide in world history” (pp. 22, 25). A revision of the “melting pot” thesis it is, and that is certainly Akenson’s point--to shake the reader into recognizing the absolute destruction of indigenous worlds caused by the Great European Migration. He distributes the blame widely, not just among U.S. Cavalry and other government agents but with “every person who boarded an emigration vessel.” Together they formed “marching army ants” of the same, networked system, one that spread European and neo-European democratic capitalism across New Worlds (p. 35). His point, as relates to this book, was that even those Europeans from exploited, oppressed backgrounds became exploiters and oppressors overseas. They had to, as they and the system had to justify taking land that was once somebody else’s, even if individual migrants never met a Red Indian, Maori, or Aborigine. I agree with Akenson, but to a point. The question that I would raise with him and others is: how would have other dominant cultures dealt with indigenous peoples in a first contact situation? As a counterfactual, what would have happened if Zheng He had travelled further south than East Africa? Or if Muslim traders had continued east from the Philippines across the Pacific? Would first contact between Old World and New have been less genocidal if it were not Europeans in the boats? My point is not to excuse European actors, but to ask whether asymmetrical first contact encounters normally led to exploitation and oppression. The evidence from the prehistoric, ancient, and postclassical worlds suggests, on the whole, yes. Nonetheless, the European New Worlds encounters differed from past ones in both their scale and the transfer of millions of additional “others” in the quasi-industrial African slave system, a point that Akenson also raises in his thought-provoking chapter.
This review will not summarize the other chapters. David A. Wilson’s introduction does that well. It will, however, relate some of the stronger points that come from them. In three chapters on the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), covering the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, Patricia A. McCormack, Beverly Soloway, and Marjory Harper document the regional recruitment of HBC agents in Scotland as well as the ecological changes that occurred in the far north Canadian landscape. Eighteenth-century agents from “Scotland” had to speak to each other in Cree, as Norn- and Scots-speakers from the Orkney Islands could not converse with Gaelic-speakers from the Isle of Lewis, the two main places of recruitment. From contact with HBC posts’ kitchen gardens, hunter-gatherers became hunter-planters.
Brad Patterson unearths an unusual (or perhaps not that unusual) case in Turakina, New Zealand, where the local Maori Ngati Apa tribe culturally and socially mixed with Scottish Highlanders in the mid-nineteenth century. The Ngati Apa needed the settlers to legitimate their status as a tribe. Over the decades, the Highland-Maori distinctiveness of the village was whittled away, but not by a growing “racial” divide. Once accessible by railroad, the big city of Wellington beckoned. Many small landholdings turned into a few large estates, with both Highlanders and Ngati Apa squeezed out. Anti-Maori land legislation helped too. Today, Turakina maintains its earlier distinctiveness through an annual Highland Games that attracts both Pakeha and Maori kilt-wearers.
Cian T. McMahon traces the origins of anticolonial internationalism to Young Ireland nationalists transported to Australia in the aftermath of the failed Rebellion of 1848. Though a radicalized minority, men such as William Smith O’Brien associated Britain’s treatment of Aborigines and other “natives” of the empire with the downtrodden of Ireland. Needless to say, British imperial administrators did treat indigenous peoples and the Irish, nationalists in particular, in similar, coercive ways. While distant, oppressed “others” in Afghanistan and China received Young Ireland’s moral support, local Aborigines in Australia did not. I look forward to McMahon’s forthcoming book.
A good collection of essays is a collection of short microhistories, of small stories that add up to something bigger together. Here, every essay, well written and therefore easy to digest, adds to our knowledge of colonial encounters at the small, localized scale. For example, Irish folklore studies received a boost from U.S. government-sponsored American Indian anthropological researchers. John Buchan used his position as governor-general of Canada to pressure the Dominion government to improve the health care of First Nations peoples. Méti fiddlers have long incorporated Scottish (in particular, Orcadian) musical patterns alongside indigenous and Québécois ones into their traditional repertoire. Taken together, however, the reader comes to the realization, noted by more than one author, that to many Irish and Scottish settlers the “natives” did not matter. As demonstrated by the silence of indigenous peoples in the letters, diaries, and journals of individual settlers, indigenous peoples lived in the background, in their place, but were not that important to the settler experience and perception of empire. The general conception was: they had their world, their time; we are now building ours. If we ignore them, push them aside, treat them as lesser than us, or “help” them toward “civilization,” then our “native problem” will go away. Like the unfamiliar climates, landscapes, and environments in the New Worlds, indigenous peoples were another obstacle to overcome, at least in the imagination if not reality.
Most reviews of collected essays criticize the scattered aspect of such works. I do not have that criticism here. I find its scattered nature refreshing. It is up to the reader to piece things together. My main criticism comes with the introductory essay. Nowhere in the book do the editors state where or how this collection came about. That’s an important point for readers, so they can understand whether the collected essays came from a conference, a culled call for papers, or a recruited anthology series in order to place the book into its proper context. Only from a small footnote in just one of the essays (and some online snooping) did I learn that the collection came from a conference: the 2010 RIISS Diaspora Conference: Irish and Scots Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, sponsored by the Universities of Guelph and Toronto. As the papers arose from a conference in Ontario, the editors are therefore limited in the scope of their book, which explains why the majority of the essays concern Canada. If based upon sheer numbers of Irish and Scots encounters with indigenous peoples, I would have expected more essays on experiences in the United States, whether Scotch-Irish in Appalachia, Irish miners in California, and so forth. I was particularly flummoxed by the absence of essays on Southern Africa. Here would have been a great place to compare the encounters of Irish and Scots settlers with groups of indigenous peoples that they could not dominate demographically. Hutchings’s chapter mentions the evolution of Buchan’s opinion of indigenous peoples, from his time working as private secretary to South African high commissioner Alfred Milner after the South African War to his Canadian governor-generalship in the late 1930s. I wonder rather if Buchan always evaluated differently the noble (but dying) Indian and the conniving, untrustworthy “Kaffir.” Again, the introduction neatly summarizes the book. But I would have liked to see more engagement with other work on Irish and Scots abroad and on colonizers in general. Here was the location to make up for the deficiencies of scope that collection of conference papers naturally lacks.
In the end, what do we learn from these engaging encounters? We understand, more deeply, how diverse colonialism was. In particular, we can see the regional aspect of it, within Ireland and Scotland and within Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Nineteenth-century colonial encounters helped integrate not just white settler Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States but Ireland and Scotland as well. We also see, by researching individuals, the motivations for leaving home: economic and social advancement. It was those small-scale motivations, not grand political aspirations, that slowly pushed British colonization forward and indigenous peoples aside.
. For example, see Jonathan Hyslop, The Notorious Syndicalist: J. T. Bain, a Scottish Rebel in Colonial South Africa (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2004); John M. MacKenzie with Nigel R. Dalziel, The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Idenity, Gender and Race, 1772-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); and Charles van Onselen, Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa, 1880-1899 (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2010).
. For starters, the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series is now up to fourteen publications, with books on the British Empire and Australia, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, India, British North America, the Black Experience, and others. Other numerous monographs would have helped too, including Akenson’s own If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730 (Montreal :McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997).
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Scott Spencer. Review of Wilson, David A.; Morton, Graeme, eds., Irish and Scottish Encounters with Indigenous Peoples: Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.
H-Empire, H-Net Reviews.
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