Saliha Belmessous, ed. Empire by Treaty: Negotiating European Expansion, 1600-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Illustrations, maps. 304 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-939178-3.
Reviewed by Dane Kennedy (George Washington University)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Coercion as Consent? European Treaties with Indigenous Peoples
Under what circumstances did Europeans use treaties rather than untrammeled force to acquire imperial authority over other peoples and their territories? That is the central question posed by Saliha Belmessous and her contributors in this wide-ranging volume. It follows on Belmessous’s earlier edited work, Native Claims: Indigenous Law against Empire, 1500-1920 (2012), which examined how colonized peoples used the colonizers’ legal systems to defend their interests. Though Belmessous claims that the present book also seeks to “uncover indigenous strategies in their negotiations with European powers” (p. 10), its main focus is on European aims, interests, and actions. The essays look at how treaties operated as instruments of empire, consolidating European control over indigenous peoples and their lands. Yet treaties also presume some degree of reciprocity and consent. Therefore, they retain relevance, Belmessous suggests, for contemporary debates about “indigenous rights in postcolonial settler societies” (p. 15).
One of the strengths of the book is that it draws on a rich array of case studies. Arthur Weststeijn examines seventeenth-century Dutch colonial treaties. Daniel Richter discusses land cession treaties in seventeenth-century North America, while Alain Beaulieau focuses on their subsequent use in British Canada. Spanish and Portuguese treaties with indigenous peoples in South America are the subjects of Tamar Herzog’s essay. Robert Travers and Rebecca Shumway investigate British treaty making in eighteenth-century India and nineteenth-century West Africa respectively. Belmessous takes up the issue of the loss of land by Australia’s Aborigines and Damen Ward turns attention to the case of New Zealand’s Maoris. Political philosopher Paul Patton draws the volume to a close with an analysis of efforts by legal scholars and others to extract lessons from these past policies that speak to indigenous peoples’ current rights claims.
Pertinent to the entire project is the question raised by Patton: “what exactly is meant by the term treaty” (p. 244)? A few of the contributors use the term to describe formal contracts between representatives of polities of various sorts. Travers discusses the treaties the British East India Company signed with Indian states, which served to forge alliances, extract tribute, and establish indirect rule. Shumway examines the agreements that governed relations between the British and Fanti rulers in the Gold Coast. Most of the essays, however, focus on land cession treaties in colonies where European settlers laid claim to indigenous territory. Such treaties are the subjects of Richter’s and Beaulieau’s essays on the North American experience. Land is the key issue in Herzog’s essay as well, though she places the word “treaty” in scare quotes, preferring to term Spanish and Portuguese accords as “pacts” (p. 88). In Australia, the British infamously denied that Aborigines had any legal right to the territories they inhabited, which makes the title of Belmessous’s essay—“The Tradition of Treaty Making in Australian History”—sound like an exercise in counterfactual history. She focuses on a brief period in the early nineteenth century when some Australian officials and colonists wanted to legitimize the settler land grab through formal agreements with Aborigines, though nothing came of these proposals. In New Zealand, the British did sign the influential Waitangi Treaty with the Maori, which was given new life by the Waitangi Tribunal a few decades ago. But Ward—in what seems to me a rather perverse move—directs attention instead to mid-century debates about whether Maori property rights and cultural practices qualified them for the franchise. Given such varied uses of the term “treaty,” Patton understandably resorts to the phrase “treaty-like accords” (p. 255).
At issue in every essay is the question of indigenous consent. Weststeijn highlights what he calls the “paradox” of Dutch colonial treaties (p. 41): they used violence and other forms of intimidation to coerce consent. But is consent even meaningful in such a context? Most of the contributors suggest not. Richter points out that North American land treaties had “little to do” with indigenous consent; they were “all about proving English title to English land” (p. 74). Beaulieau refers to Canadian land cession treaties as “legal fictions” (p. 127). Herzog observes that the Spanish and Portuguese imposed agreements “unilaterally” and that “native consent was constructed” (pp. 88, 97). Although Travers notes that a few Indian polities, notably Mysore and the Maratha confederacy, negotiated agreements with the British from positions of strength, these cases were the exceptions: Edmund Burke’s famous condemnation of the East India Company’s conduct stressed the coercive nature of the treaties it imposed on Indians. Only Shumway’s study of British treaties with the Fante provides an example of genuine indigenous consent: these agreements drew on Fante forms of palaver, served Fante strategic interests, and maintained Fante land. But can this be characterized, then, as “empire by treaty”?
Belmessous believes these inquiries into imperial treaties can shed light on current disputes between native peoples and postcolonial states, especially over land rights. This helps explain why so many of the essays focus on land cession treaties in settler colonies. (The exceptions are the chapters by Weststeijn, Travers, and Shumway, which seem less relevant to contemporary controversies.) But what sort of light do these treaties shed? Both Belmessous and Patton suggest that they offer a foundation on which postcolonial societies can build better relations between indigenes and settlers. Belmessous makes the surprising and worrisome claim that the study of these treaties serve “to revise the narrative of the European dispossession of indigenous peoples” (p. 15). Does it? Most of the essays in the volume seem to substantiate the narrative of dispossession. Patton, in turn, discerns “a desire on all sides to legitimize the sovereignty of these settler societies by reference to the consent, however belated and hypothetical, of the Indigenous peoples on whose lands they were established” (p. 268). All sides? Surely the history of these treaties raises serious questions about the legitimacy of these claims of sovereignty, questions that arise in large part because indigenous consent was often coerced. To judge from the evidence offered by most of the contributors to this volume, the past appears to offer scant encouragement for the sort of resolution that Belmessous and Patton seem to desire.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Dane Kennedy. Review of Belmessous, Saliha, ed., Empire by Treaty: Negotiating European Expansion, 1600-1900.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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