Building Better Britains?: Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920

To mark the publication of the newest book in the CHA/UTP International Themes and Issues Series, the author, Cecilia Morgan, provides some background on her reasons for writing Building Better Britains?: Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920.

Building Better BritainsWriting Building Better Britains? appealed to me for a number of reasons. For some years now I’ve been teaching a course in the history of gender and empire, one that’s become more focused on the British Empire and the colonies of “white settlement.” Thus, the opportunity to research and write a short study of British settler colonialism which focuses on the period of its immense spread and growth seemed too good to pass up! As well, much of my research deals with questions of colonialism in nineteenth-century Ontario and the links between English Canada and imperial, transatlantic, and transnational worlds. I thought, then, that this book would take me a few steps further from more narrowly-focused monographs to the wider canvas of a short survey. I also had just finished writing a short book on the history of commemoration and public memory in Canada, enjoyed the experience, and thought that I could put to use the lessons I’d learned from it.

Other reasons, though, also made me want to tackle this project. For one, discussions of settler colonialism are very much “in the air” at the moment. Scholarship in the journal Settler Colonial Studies and a host of monographs, edited collections, and journal articles, all written in a range of disciplines—history, geography, anthropology, law, and literary studies, just to name a few—have been exploring particular instances of settler colonialism or theorizing about it, so it seemed like a particularly good time to address this phenomenon in a wider-ranging historically grounded study. As well, the phrases “settler society” or “settler colonialism” crop up often in public discourse and in talks with my students, phrases which in Canada are almost inevitably—and understandably—linked to discussions of residential schooling, unfulfilled or broken treaty promises, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. This seemed like an opportune moment to try to provide an account of the longer and complex history of colonialism in countries such as Canada. This latter goal was important to me, since my primary appointment is in a faculty of education, a site where the phrase “settler” is used frequently but not with much attention to the historical specifics of time and place or an understanding of the historical processes that have led us to the present day.

Like the other books in the CHA’s series on International Themes and Issues, I synthesized a large body of other scholars’ research and arguments while simultaneously attempting to put my own “stamp” or my own interpretation on this work. For me, that meant at least two things. First, I wanted to foreground the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous peoples as much as possible. As British historian John Mackenzie has recently pointed out, the question of imperial intent—how deliberate and self-conscious was imperial expansion—becomes less important when we consider the very real effects that imperialism had on Indigenous peoples’ lives: no less so when we look at settler colonies. The other perspectives I wanted to emphasize were those of the settler colonists: not to celebrate or condone their attitudes and practices but, rather, to push students to understand the ideologies, practices, and experiences that both bound them together and divided them. While imperial policies were important in shaping these colonies, settlers brought a range of values to their new homes, ones that in turn might be brought into sharper relief, revised, or changed fundamentally because of their interactions with Indigenous peoples, unfamiliar landscapes, or each other. Settler colonialism can often seem like an inevitable process or foregone conclusion but, like other forms of colonial expansion, it too had its own tensions and uncertainties; the role of historical contingency can’t be ignored. The quotes that open each chapter represent my attempt to draw the reader into these worlds and, too, to suggest that the creation and expansion of these settler societies affected and was viewed by different groups in different ways.

Other considerations shaped this book. Simply trying to determine which “settler” colonies to explore and delineate a time frame was a challenge, particularly for a short book. There are other British colonies, most notably Kenya and Zimbabwe, that could have been included in this study but that would have meant writing a bigger book with a longer chronological sweep. Too, the United States could have been part of this book but that also would have meant a significant expansion of the book’s chronology and dealing with a historiography that has only recently begun to question national frameworks and incorporate the insights of imperial and colonial history. Overall, Building Better Britains? is not meant to be the “last word” on the topic of settler colonialism’s expansion. Rather, I see it as providing a kind of map for students and, I would like to think, for interested members of the general public. Such a map, I hope, will give readers a framework to help them pursue their own questions about the spread of the British Empire and the many actors involved in that expansion.

Cecilia Morgan is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

Leave a Reply