Genocide and Colonialism

by Prof. Dirk Moses, University of Sydney

lecture presented in Hist 33D
"Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust"
UC Santa Barbara
3 October 2002

1) Genocide and Colonialism: The Controversy

The genocide of indigenous peoples is often framed in terms of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Why?


'For them [the American Indians] the arrival of the Europeans marked the beginning of a long holocaust, although it came not in ovens, as it did for the Jews. The fires that consumed North American Indians were the fevers brought on by the newly encountered diseases, the flashes of settlers' and soldiers' guns, the ravages of "firewater," the flames of villages and fields burned by the scorched-earth policy of vengeful Europ-Americans. The effects of this holocaust of North American Indians, like that of the Jews, was millions of deaths. In fact, the holocaust of the North American Indians was, in a way, even more destructive than that of the Jews, since many American Indian people became extinct.
- Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), xv-xvi.

'Queen Elizabeth, King Ferdinand, Queen Victoria, King Louis and so on were the "Adolf Hitler's" (sic) of their day. "Auschwitz" was an everyday reality for many people across the world during the years of colonialism and the years that followed'.
- Antoon A. Leenaars et al, 'Genocide and Suicide among Indigenous People: The North meets the South', The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1999, 338.

'The American holocaust was and remains unparalleled, both in terms of its magnitude and the degree to which its goals were met, and in terms of the extent to which its ferocity was sustained over time by not one but several participating groups'.
- Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), 4.

Why there is no Holocaust Memorial for Native Americans or other victims?
- David E. Stannard, 'Preface', in Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, xviii. See his American Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

2) Issue of Theodicy

Definition: German philosopher G. W. Leibniz = 'justification of God' despite manifest evil.

Secular Theodicy:
'But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized -- the question involuntarily arises -- to what principle, to what aim, these enormous sacrifices have been offered?'

'The History of the World is not the theatre of human happiness'
- G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York, 1956), 14, 26.

= devising a philosophy of history that redeems this suffering in the name of a greater good.

That good is 'western civilisation'.

This is obviously controversial. It's the issue underlying the so-called 'culture wars' -- 'western civ' curricula in the USA, assimilation/separate development (Treaty) in Australia, 'stolen children' issue (Ann Haebich, For Their Own Good -- on 'Rabbit Proof Fence' issue).

I discuss these ideas, inter alia, in:
'Genocide of Indigenous Peoples and the Holocaust: Conceptual Blockages and Definitional Dilemmas in the Racial Century', Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 36, no. 4, 2002, 7-36 (pdf version).

3) Different Types of Colonialism

4) Question of Intention

But can one talk of genocide in pre-modern states, that is, where the state does not possess a monopoly of force in the country? If there needs to be an overall plan, Nazi style, to kill all indigenous people, then genocide can never be established in most colonial situations. But what about 'society-led' genocides as Alison Palmer suggests in today's reading? Where does the pressure to kill come from? For ideological reasons from above with the state as in the totalitarian cases of the 20th century? Or from society itself, which cannot reproduce itself unless indigenous resistance is smashed? How closely connected are the state and society?

Last week we looked at Australia and the problem of locating the exterminatory agent who must possess genocidal intent. Is it the settler on the frontier or the authorities in the town whose authority does not extend to the frontier? I referred you to my article for the full argument and details ("An Antipodean Genocide?" Journal of Genocide Research, 2000)

5) Case Study: North America

Key sources:
Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide
Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival
David Stannard, American Holocaust
There is much more in the library.

We can't cover 500 years of European settlement in a country of 8 millions square miles and 60 linguistic families in a few minutes.

Some generalisations:

British presence there due to voluntary migration to east coast (MAP). They were pure settlement colonies, which was more or less unique in European colonialism at the time. No slaves, no plantations, no proletariat. Structure modelled on Britain.

Completely different from French economic presence: fur trading, which meant the French trappers relied on Native Americans -- no exterminatory impulse, no competition for land.

How did this pattern unfold?

  1. Puritan settlers

    Puritans in 1600s identified local Indians as evil incarnate (they had themselves killed 100s of whites) and resolved that they be 'rooted out for being long a people on the face of the Earth'.

    Or 'Enemies of God's people'

    When smallpox killed most of the local Indians, they said 'God hath hereby cleared out title to this place'.

    Key point: no central or even enduring local policy of genocide: escalation to genocidal moments when the settlers feel threatened. Some scholars call the ensuing massacres, genocidal massacres

  2. Official British Genocide?

    July 1763 during Pontiac rebellion, British forces under General Jeffrey Amherst spread blankets with smallpox. Some of the officers involved were on the first fleet to Australia, where smallpox broke out in 1789

    But this seems to have been a one-off.

  3. Change after Independence?

    Some argue that the founding fathers shared optimistic anthropology of Australian governors of the time (see Bernard W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian, 1973) which favoured assimilation. Yet it seems Jefferson, for example, soon insisted on expulsion of Indians from the eastern territories to make way for white settlers in the new democracy. Between 1817-1842 a series of ethnic cleansings took place: 85,000 southeastern Indians were deported to Oklahoma. In the 1830s, 12,000 Choctaws, Cherokees, and Creeks died in the round-ups and treks westwards.

    In general, there seem to be far more official government (at the state level) endorsements of expulsion and extermination than in Australia.


    Because the settlers were in charge, not the imperial masters who insisted on 'justice' for the original inhabitants.

    Most flagrant example, Sand Creek Massacre, 1864, 700 soldiers killed nearly all 600 Indians camped there in peace.

    And in Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, 1890

    Most systematic sanctioned killing in California and Oregon in 1850s after the discovery of gold and influx of miners and settlers.

  4. Population:
    7 million in 1492
    500,000 in 1892.