See also the article "The Dutch colonization project during World War Two" in the EHNE.
Settler colonies were areas outside Europe in which so many European immigrants voluntarily settled that their numbers were large enough to secure their political dominance, even if they were in a minority among the indigenous population.1 Up to the early 19th century, colonies were overwhelmingly settler colonies, whereas thereafter settler colonies were a particular form of colony. In classical antiquity, "colony" specifically meant a compact settlement of emigrants from a polis, or in the Roman context a settlement of army veterans. The term "settler colony" is thus tautological when one takes the meaning of colony as it was used in classical antiquity. We nevertheless use this term because from the 19th century actual settlement became the exception rather than the norm. The concept of colonialism, which only emerged in the late 19th century, has connotations of "foreign rule".
A colony is an "offshoot" of a society, which is established in a distant region. This implies two things: 1. In its early years, a colony does not consist of random individuals thrown together, but of people who have common heritage; this common heritage can be a common kingdom, region or even city of origin, it can be a common religious heritage as in the case of the Puritans, or it can refer to a shared experience, as in the case of the Australian convicts. 2. Consequently, the group of emigrants brings important institutions from the society of origin with them, which they take as a given and which, due to the relative homogeneity of the emigrants, are not called into question: social hierarchies, settlement forms, political institutions and the legal system. While these institutions are adapted to the new circumstances and colonies are never a carbon copy of the society of origin, precisely these institutions are the cause of many conflicts with the indigenous population. The latter does not grasp the meaning of these institutions, just as conversely the institutions of the indigenous population are viewed by the settlers as alien, and often also as primitive and incomprehensible.
As a global historical phenomenon, settler colonies are not exclusive to modern European history or to European settlers. There are many other examples of settlements of people in neighbouring or distant territories in global history.2 However, this article only discusses the settler colonies under European rule. The settlers in these colonies were predominantly of European heritage, though in the 19th century Asians also settled in some European colonies. European settler colonies existed from the beginning of European overseas expansion and even the USA can be considered a settler colony up to the end of the 19th century, because it was only then that the free space for settlement disappeared.3
In the early modern period,4 settler colonies were limited to the Atlantic world. The low population density of the indigenous people in large parts of North America and mass mortality among the indigenous populations in the Caribbean and Central and South America as a result of diseases introduced from Europe provided favourable conditions for European settlement there.5 While many Spaniards – primarily Castilians – settled in the territory under Spanish rule, a mixed form of settlement and domination of the indigenous population emerged in this region. It was characterized by strong statehood, and through institutions such as the encomienda – by which whole groups of native Indians and villages were put under the control of participants of the Spanish Conquista – a social hierarchy emerged which disempowered the indigenous population.6 While in the Andes region the indigenous population remained a substantial portion of the population, in the south of the continent settler colonies developed, which subsequently became the states of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Brazil, which was settled by the Portuguese, was the only Latin American country which did not have a strong urban character.7 The settler colonies in North America saw themselves as communities of European settlers, since attempts to include the indigenous population quickly failed or were rejected.8
With the exception of the Cape Colony, European expansion into the Indian Ocean did not result in settlement because the primary aim was to develop trade relationships. Up to the mid-18th century, European possessions in the region were bases for trade, in which mixed societies quickly emerged. It was almost exclusively European men who settled in these European bases, and who chose spouses and partners from the indigenous population.9 In addition to the small number of Europeans, large numbers of Asians were drawn to these bases. In the early modern period, Batavia – present-day Jakarta – was a Chinese city ruled by the Dutch, in which no Javanese lived.10 It was not until the late 18th century that Europeans began to establish settler colonies in the Pacific region, in Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia.
Settlement typically began with the establishment of a bridgehead, usually a harbour city (Boston, Cape Town, Sydney), which then served as a base for further expansion into the hinterland. Europeans settled whole continents (North and South America, and Australia) and large territories (Siberia) and they emigrated in such large numbers, that by the late 19th century they had marginalized the indigenous population groups.11
Northern Ireland is an exception as a settler colony within Europe, which Great Britain established in the period of confessional conflict with the aim of strategically securing British rule in Ireland.12 In the case of Siberia, settlement did not occur overseas, but it certainly involved a settler colony, which had a moving settlement frontier up to the end of the 19th century, at which point the modern state extended its administrative power to the Pacific coast.13
The Cape Colony was the only settler colony of the early modern period in which the settlers not only permanently remained in the minority, but they even became increasingly outnumbered with the expansion of the colony.14 Europeans were only able to settle in the malaria-free uplands of southern and eastern Africa. This, the immunity of the African population against the diseases introduced by the Europeans, and their stable social and political systems ensured that white people remained in a minority. The mass mortality of the Khoikhoi population of South Africa from smallpox in the 18th century was an exception.15
A second African settler colony did not emerge until the conquest of Algeria in 1830 and the migration of French, Spanish, Maltese and Italian settlers to the northern African territory from about 1848. Other settler colonies in Africa were only established after the so-called "scramble for Africa", the rapid division of almost the entire continent between the European powers in the 1880s.
South Africa and Algeria had the largest numbers of settlers – more than a million in each country. Besides these, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Kenya, Mozambique, Angola and German South-West Africa (Namibia) can also be described as settler colonies.16 In other countries, there were only regional enclaves of settlers, such as in German East Africa17 and Katanga (Congo),18 or they were such small minorities that they did not have the level of political influence that is typical of settler colonies.
Settlers and Power
The controlling power of the state was noticeable both in the establishment of bridgeheads, from which further settlement proceeded, and in the subsequent arrival of further settlers. In many cases, the first settlements on an overseas territory were organized and controlled by the military and civilian elites, while the actual settlers themselves were either prisoners or paupers. For example, North America, which subsequently became synonymous with liberty, was primarily settled by indentured labourers during the early modern period.19 These labourers sold their labour to a plantation owner or some other entrepreneur for a number of years in return for their passage to America. They were unfree workers, as they were subject to the Masters and Servants Laws and the employers enjoyed extensive patriarchal authority over them. New South Wales, as the first settlement in Australia, consisted of convicts under military supervision.20 Siberia was shaped by banished convicts perhaps to a greater extent than any other settler colony, though there were also escaped serfs looking for a new, freer existence.21 Similarly, forcibly dispossessed Highland Scots migrated to Canada, for example Nova Scotia and Ontario, from the mid-18th century as impoverished migrants, where they were initially settled in communal groups.22
Thus, the Red River Settlement (present-day Manitoba) in North America was a private settlement initiative undertaken by the Scottish Lord Thomas Douglas Selkirk (1771–1820), who wished to strengthen the territorial position of the Hudson's Bay Company, of which he was a leading member.23 During the American War of Independence, loyalists also migrated northward and predominantly settled in Upper Canada (Ontario) and New Brunswick, bringing large numbers of people with conservative social values to Canada. However, the dominance of the conservative elites around the Anglican bishop John Strachan (1778–1867) was not to last due to the arrival of further new migrants. Two rebellions which coincidentally broke out at the same time – in 1837 – in French Lower Canada and in British Upper Canada resulted in a comprehensive reform of the institutions, which was recommended by John George Lambton, Lord Durham (1792–1840), after his detailed investigation and famous report.24 In 1820, British settlers migrated to the Cape Colony as socially stratified groups, which soon dissolved and gave way to individualization.25
Social conflicts emerged in almost all of the settler colonies, initially between settlers and the indigenous population, but also within the settler communities themselves. In spite of the egalitarian image that settler communities had of themselves, class tensions emerged with the commercialization of agriculture – in the form of sheep rearing in Australia, for example – and industrialization. In the late 19th century, these class tensions gave rise to conflicts, which were in some cases severe, and resulted in the emergence of unions and workers' parties in the early 20th century.26 Newfoundland was a special case. A divide emerged between the English, Protestant commercial elite in the capital St. John's and the predominantly Irish Catholic fishermen who lived in numerous small isolated villages along the coast, and who were kept in a state of dependency by means of contracts of adhesion and credit. It was not until William Coaker (1871–1938) organized the Fishermen's Protective Union in the early 20th century that reforms were initiated in the form of legislation.27 Conflict situations also emerged in Algeria and New Caledonia,28 the preferred destinations to which the defeated supporters of the Revolution of 184829 and the Paris Commune of 1870 were deported.
The settler colonies soon became different from the societies of origin in Europe. In the colonies, land was freely available as private property and it thus became a commodity in the colonies earlier than in Europe itself. The USA in particular became a magnet for immigrants as a result of the Homestead Act passed in 1862, which granted 65 hectares of land to each new settler. For many involved, the ownership of their own land was like obtaining new freedom, as they did not have to pay dues or enter into a relationship of dependency with a landlord and they could make their own commercial decisions. Nevertheless, large-scale land ownership emerged over time, for example in South Africa, where in the small colony of Natal companies and land speculators accumulated a lot of land, which they leased to farmers. Due to the easy access to and the commodification of land, dynamic agricultural economies emerged in the late 19th century in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa,30 whose economic development was made possible by new technologies, such as the exportation of Argentinian beef on refrigerator ships.
In the medium term, the settlers were not satisfied with remaining the suppliers of raw materials for the European economies. Instead, they followed the example of European urbanization, industrialization and commercial forms of agriculture, though the concrete manifestations of these in the colonies often differed considerably from the European models. Due to their greater influence, which on the one hand was due to familial and social networks reaching back to Europe and on the other hand to their privileged status as members of the "higher European race", settler colonies found it much easier to do this than the indigenous inhabitants of other colonies.
Settlers and Political Power
In the African settler colonies, the settlers established a system of privileges which treated the indigenous population very unequally, even though equality among the settlers was considered a given. This was also the case in the USA and Australia, where the settlers soon constituted an overwhelming majority of the population. How settler power was structured depended to a large degree on the situation at the time the colony was established. Where settlement did not occur until after conquest, it was more difficult for the settlers to instrumentalise the administrative regime for their own purposes than in cases where settlement and colonial administration began at the same time. In Algeria, it took the settlers nearly 40 years to gain the upper hand in their relationship with the French military administration,31 and even in Rhodesia, where the British South African Company acted in a fairly settler-friendly way, it took the settlers years to get the already established power structures working in their favour. Where seizure and settlement proceeded simultaneously, as it did in North America and South Africa, the colonial administration saw itself from the beginning as an advocate for the settlers. In Australia, it took some time before the administration represented the settlers in this way, which was due in part to the convict status of the initial settlers. In Siberia, conditions were considerably more complicated since the first settlers were Cossacks, while during the course of the 19th century convicts and banished people, who had lost most of their rights, constituted an increasing proportion of the settler population.32 The settlers devoted much energy to obtain and expand their institutions of self-administration in order to increase their own freedom of action in relation to the colonial power. As new possibilities and requirements emerged, they created new institutions, such as the town meeting in New England.33 The Canadian Confederation34 founded in 1867 employed a model of a federal state which was unfamiliar in Great Britain itself and it served as an example for the subsequent formation of similar confederations within the British Empire, for example in Australia in 1901.35
Many of these constitutions were also more democratic than those of the European "mother countries", which often made the settler colonies more eager to experiment and more open to innovations than the European states. Of course, this was also due to the fact that the majority of the settlers had not come from the traditional elite classes of the European states. However, the "colour blind" electoral franchise which was introduced in the Cape Colony in 1853 with the establishment of a colonial parliament and which granted a minority of the indigenous population the right to vote was decreed by London.36 In 1923, power was transferred to a settler parliament in Southern Rhodesia, when the colony had already been in existence for 25 years. This parliament elected a prime minister and his government from among its members.37 While the British government ignored the grotesque demographic imbalance between the approximately 34,000 white settlers and the approximately 900,000 Africans in establishing "responsible government", in the subsequent decades the British prevented the further development of settler autonomy and prevented Rhodesia from obtaining full dominion status.38
Difficulties arose when a colony changed owners and the new rulers could not be sure of the loyalty of the settler communities. After the British had taken Canada from the French in 1763 and the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806, they endeavoured to appease their new subjects and to win their loyalty with concessions. The enforced resettlement of the French Acadiens in the early years of the Seven Years' War was an exception in this regard. The French settlers in Acadia (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) on the Canadian east coast were not prepared as Catholics to swear allegiance to the British king, who was also head of the Church of England, after they became British subjects through the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. After decades of friction and distrust, the British deported the Acadiens to other colonies during the Seven Years' War, and only a portion of them managed to return.39
While in most colonies the settlers were able to obtain a legally guaranteed position of power, in Kenya they only held informal influence. Though the settlers, who had come from the British elite, had considerable informal power, the British government denied them their own parliament.40 In the Dutch and French colonies in North America, settlers had to push hard to get a say in their own governance, and in German South-West Africa a comparatively powerless Landesrat was introduced relatively late.
The expansion of settler participation in governance in the settler colonies of the British Empire followed a particular pattern. First of all, representatives elected by the settlers replaced members who had previously been appointed by the governor in the legislative and executive committees. The next step was "representative government", a settler parliament which controlled the budget, but which had to deal with a powerful governor appointed by London. It was only with the introduction of "responsible government" that the parliament was able to elect a prime minister, which also led to the formation of the first political parties. In most colonies, jurisdiction was held by courts which were controlled by the metropole and were thus independent of the colonial administration. In many cases, law continued to be developed because, in addition to European law, the supposed customary laws of the indigenous population were codified, particularly in Africa.41 In almost all settler colonies there was an indigénat,42 a separate set of laws for the native population, which enshrined their inferior legal status in relation to the white settlers. Western-educated African intellectuals were exempted from this, but they were not given full legal equality. Instead, they found themselves in an uncertain status between the natives and the settlers. They in particular had their hopes dashed by the broken promises of the Europeans regarding their civilizing mission. They attributed the fact that they were not accepted as equals to racism. There was no clear correlation between the intensity of this racism and demographic conditions. While one might expect settler populations that were in a minority to have been more racist in their dealings with native populations, the USA and Australia demonstrate that some white majority populations were characterized by strong racism. This was directed both against the Native Americans and the Aborigines as well as against the supposed threat posed by Asian immigration.43
The Dynamics of Expansion: The Frontier
The Frontier as a Zone of Interaction
The establishment of a "bridgehead" in the form of the initial settlement was followed in many colonies by an expansion driven by the settlers themselves. The state lagged behind expansion, sanctioned it after the event, secured the conquered territory, and implanted its institutions there. The military conquest of Algeria remained an exception to this.
This situation driven by the settlement dynamic is referred to as a frontier. While in the American context Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) romanticized the frontier as a victory march of American civilization through a continent of natural wilderness,44 the frontier is now generally viewed as a zone of interaction which is characterized by instability – by the simultaneity of trade and robbery, war and peace, violence and cooperation.45 Its moving border was the result of the asymmetrical power relationships between the natives and the settlers. The initially relatively balanced power relationship shifted in favour of the European immigrants due to the arrival of more settlers and, as was the case in North America, due to the decimation of the native population as a result of diseases brought by the settlers and as a result of violence. The settlers then appropriated the land of the natives and forced the latter into a relationship of colonial subjugation or forced them into reservations. This process was accompanied by an increasingly brutal approach, which in some cases included massacres and even genocide.
The history of settler colonies should of course not be judged exclusively from the perspective of the present day, as though those living at the time could have predicted the decimation of the natives. While the Beothuk on Newfoundland withdrew when the white settlers arrived and thereby forfeited access to essential resources and died out in 1820,46 and the Tasmanians were driven to extinction, native populations elsewhere succeeded in mounting very effective resistance for a long time.47 Ultimately, it was the sheer numbers of the arriving settlers and the use of scorched earth policies which brought the Sioux in the Great Plains,48 the Aborigines of Australia,49 the Maori in New Zealand50 and the Native Americans on the northwestern coast of Canada under white rule.51
The efforts of the colonial powers to restrict or at least control the expansion of the settlers were often defeated by the distances involved, by poor communications, or by the resistance of the settlers. For example, the attempt by the British authorities to define the Ohio valley as the western border of settlement through the Quebec Act of 1774 in order to protect their Native American allies was one of the causes of the American Revolution.52
Cities and the Frontier
Contrary to the egalitarian self-image of frontier societies, by no means all settlers engaged in agriculture. The tendency towards the formation of towns and cities emerged early on. The 1820 Settlers in South Africa soon left the parcels of land that had been allotted to them not just because these parcels were too small and the land was not particularly fertile. Most of the settlers had come from towns and had been traders by profession, and they reverted to this form of livelihood by moving to the garrison towns of the frontier.53 In the USA towns were less outposts of an already diversified and Europeanized society on the coast, than drivers of settler expansion. Chicago is the most famous example of a frontier city, which from the early 19th century was connected with the east coast – initially by the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes and subsequently by the railway – and which drove settler expansion in the Midwest. Infrastructural expansion promoted the expansion of settlement, just as it assisted the colonial nation-building process.54
Frontier cities often grew up around forts – as in the case of Chicago – which is understandable given the strategic location of forts. In Siberia also, many cities developed from forts, which was in part due to the fact that the territory was initially settled by Cossacks.55 In South Africa, the towns of the frontier region grew up around military fortifications and around the residences of landdrosts, the most important office holders in the interior.56
Divergence from the societies of origin was not limited to the social and political institutions, but also affected social practices and the settlers' cultural understanding of themselves. As a zone of unrest, the frontier gave rise to a particular settler type, the characteristics of which hardened ideologically into normative expectations. They had a strong assimilatory effect on new immigrants.57 This understanding of masculinity demanded self-reliance, personal initiative, a willingness to use physical force, and the protection of one's own family, while women were conversely viewed as weak and in need of protection. The right to bear arms was essentially a concomitant of private landownership and the experience of being far removed from the protection of the state.
Of course, how the settlers perceived themselves often deviated from reality. As powerful as the self-perception and performance58 of a martialistic masculinity was in many settler colonies, many women were by no means prepared to accept their assigned role "at home in the kitchen". In Australia, a colony that was particularly influenced by colonial masculinity, an effective women's movement emerged,59 and New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women full voting rights in 1893.
The Relationship with the Native Population
Subjugation, Marginalization and Extinction
Conflicts with the indigenous population were influenced by the political and social organisational forms of the natives.60 Thus, indigenous societies that lived in small, loosely organized groups based around the family were more easily subjugated than populous kingdoms or chiefdoms.61 In South Africa, the Khoikhoi, who were mobile cattle herders and whose organizational form was based on the weak authority of chiefs, were integrated comparatively quickly into the emerging colonial order of the Dutch. By contrast, the powerful chiefdoms of the Bantu-speaking Xhosa were subjugated by means of a bitter conflict that lasted a century.62 Unlike the Native Americans of North America, the Aborigines of Australia and the Khoikhoi, the Xhosa and other African peoples did not die as a result of diseases brought by Europeans. Consequently, the settlers never became a majority in the Cape Colony.
In Nouvelle France (Quebec) and in Nieuw-Nederland (New York), a less conflictual coexistence developed, as the purpose of establishing the colony was to trade furs and settlement remained restricted to a specific region.63 The basis of existence of the indigenous population was never threatened in the way that it was in the British colonies in North America with their much larger, land-hungry populations. Due to Canada's vast size and the fact that it was climatically less attractive to prospective immigrants, the land question never became as serious a problem there as it did in the USA. In the USA, even a territory like Oklahoma, which had been promised in perpetuity to the Native Americans (some of whom had been forcibly resettled there), was ultimately opened up for settlement as a result of pressure from the settlers. In Australia, the Aborigines were able to withdraw to the arid interior. Those that remained near the coast became culturally marginalized and often alcohol dependent, and were despised by the white settlers after just a few short decades of contact. Outside of Africa, only the Maoris were able to hold their own against the settlers for a longer period. Their marginalization occurred so late that they were able to recover quickly demographically, and in the late 20th century they were able to claim back many lost territories through the courts. Additionally, colonial myths in New Zealand tended to emphasize the peaceful coexistence of whites and Maoris64 and not – as in South Africa, Australia and the USA – racial separation.
The idea of a civilizing mission, which was employed in the 19th century in particular to legitimize British and French imperialism, played a large role in how the settlers defined themselves ideologically – as civilizing triumphalism, as was the case in the USA, or as a defensive racist superiority complex, which was apparent in all of the African settler colonies.65 In Africa, the settlers were dependent on the labour of the indigenous population and they consequently established systems of extreme exploitation accompanied by strict racial separation.66 As they needed the natives as workers, settlers in Africa did not engage in genocidal campaigns against them. Outside Africa, by contrast, land was the most contentious resource, and the natives were consequently expelled and driven to extinction.67 Similarly, the reservations for the indigenous population in the African settler colonies served the function of using territorial racial separation to maintain the settlers' system of privileges while retaining access to cheap mobile labour. In countries where the settlers constituted an overwhelming majority such as Canada and Australia, they attempted to do the opposite, to forcibly assimilate the natives.68 Additionally, there was a form of truly global racism in the late 19th century, which was directed against competition from Asian immigrants and which resulted in immigration restrictions. In French Algeria, the native Jewish population, who unlike the Muslims had obtained French citizenship, were viewed with animosity by both the settlers and the Muslims.
The Decolonization of Settler Colonies
While settler colonies outside Africa with their large white majorities gradually transitioned into de facto sovereignty and became independent states,69 for the settler minorities in Africa decolonization posed an existential threat. They reacted by aggressively separating themselves off from the majority and with a militarization which increased as the settlers' power to influence the "mother country", which had already decided to decolonize, disappeared. The most extreme case was Southern Rhodesia, which separated from Great Britain by means of a unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 in order to prevent an anticipated transfer of power to the black majority population. In all settler colonies, decolonization involved guerrilla wars70 fought by militant independence movements against the settlers, with the colonial power often supporting the settlers militarily until the international situation or a political realization lead to a rethink in the metropole, as occurred in the case of Algeria after 1958.
In some colonies such as Algeria, Mozambique, Angola and Kenya, the settlers left the country after independence,71 in the others, including South Africa after 1994, they lost their political power and became a tolerated minority. But there was no guarantee of this toleration, as developments in Zimbabwe since 2000 have shown, where white farmers were forcibly dispossessed and the white minority as a whole came under threat.
With the exception of smaller territories like the Falkland Islands or New Caledonia, European settler colonies are a thing of the past. The great settler colonies of the Americas, northern Asia and Australia had little difficulty, once indigenous populations had been marginalized, in establishing themselves as nation states or becoming part of such states. The settler colonies of Africa tended to meet their end in long, bloody conflicts in which the previously oppressed majority population took power. This is not to say that there will never again be settler colonies, but it seems unlikely that they would be vast territorial states or populated by Europeans.