White Settler Society

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White Settler Society

The term white settler society refers to a group of societies that sprang up as a result of the great European expansion into other regions of the globe from the late fifteenth century onward. The white settler societies established by the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Dutch conquerors in the Americas, Africa, and Austral-asia all established forms of white racial dominance in the course of their development. They also provided important incubators for the development of theories and practices of racism, sometimes producing their own racial theorists and theories, as occurred in the United States. Examples of the latter would include the scientist and physical anthropologist Dr. Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) who wrote the influential book Crania Americana (1839), arguing that Negroes belonged to a separate species, and his disciples Josiah C. Nott and George Glidden, who championed polygenism in their book Types of Mankind (1854). In the middle of the nineteenth century, experiences of colonization in Australia, including attempts to “civilize” Australian Aborigines, contributed to the development of theories of “polygenism”—the belief in separate origins for different groups of people, and thus the inherent separation of human “races”—as news from the Australian colonies filtered back to racial theorists like Robert Knox at the imperial center.

White settler societies were different from other types of colonies. D. K. (David Kenneth) Fieldhouse, in his classic study The Colonial Empires (1965), classified the varying colonial situations found across the globe under four major categories: occupation, mixed settlement, plantation, and pure settlement. During the Age of Expansion, European colonizers exploited the more densely populated and organized societies of Africa and Southeast Asia for labor and material goods and then used them as a market for surplus European goods. In these colonies of occupation, the primary aim (and opportunity) was not to settle European populations (though this usually occurred to some extent), nor was it to impose a European political and legal framework over the territory and its indigenous populations (though, again, this happened to a lesser or greater extent). As George M. Fredrickson, the comparative historian of racism, points out, “the new European overlords could profit most handily by skimming a surplus ‘off the top’s without systematically destroying the traditional cultures, modes of production, or forms of local governance.” As a consequence these colonies “did not undergo a radical and thoroughgoing social reorganization to reflect the hegemony of a substantial and permanent white status group” (1988, p. 219). In the era of decolonization after World War II, these societies, including important examples such as India and Indonesia, threw off their colonial shackles and reinvented themselves as independent nations.

However, social reorganization, as well as the establishment of permanent white status groups, was exactly what happened in the colonies of settlement (the other three categories). Here, European colonizers primarily sought the land itself, and not indigenous labor or goods, both for exploitation and to provide space for an expansion of the European population. In societies such as South Africa and America (hybrids of the plantation and mixed settlement types), the Latin American countries (mixed settlement), the sugar islands of the West Indies (plantation), and Australia (pure settlement), the goal was to set up European-style societies in new lands, under the assumption that this represented the spread of civilization.

The term white settler society covers a diverse range of societies and racial formations. South Africa has a minority white population and a much larger black African population. This was an important factor in the setting up of the racist apartheid system in the second half of the twentieth century. As in other parts of southern Africa including Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and Kenya, these white settler societies were structured in particular ways because they formed small white enclaves administering and dominating much larger black African populations. Whites in these situations developed strict regimes of racial separation and segregation. As the twentieth century wore on they became increasingly fearful of what their long suppressed black populations might have in store for them, should they ever achieve equality and democratic rights. They also tended to develop rigid and conservative colonial cultures, determined not to let themselves be “contaminated” by the indigenous African populations that lived alongside them, or by the environment, which was often seen as a potential source of degeneration to Europeans.

White settler societies were also shaped by the different types of terrain and people they encountered. For example, they would be influenced by the lifestyle of the original inhabitants. Confronting largely nomadic peoples in sparsely settled lands (rather than settled agriculturists), colonists in Australia and Canada developed large white-majority societies with small indigenous populations, which were supplanted and peripheral to the emerging capitalist mode of production. After World War II, however, as a result of mass immigration, these societies increasingly became ethnically diverse, and in the early twenty-first century they have significant non-white immigrant populations along with the white majority population.

The United States also supplanted indigenous populations and developed into a large white-majority society, but one with a large minority black population as a result of the slave trade, in addition to a large mixed Hispanic population as a result of the annexation of territory that formerly belonged to Mexico and both legal and illegal immigration. Like Canada and Australia, the United States is ethnically diverse, and it is often referred to as the world’s largest multicultural society.

Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, as a result of the circumstances of their colonization—including their use of both local labor and imported slaves, as well as their adoption of Spanish and Portuguese attitudes and laws about intermarriage—developed large mixed, or mestizo, populations alongside their white populations. This had significant implications for their particular racial formations. Race boundaries tended to be less rigid than they were in South Africa or the United States, for example. Brazil, which had imported millions of slaves up until the nineteenth century, developed a large black African immigrant population and an elaborate racial classification system. This provided ample opportunities for racial “passing,” which allowed lighter-colored people to move up the racial hierarchy in ways less possible in the United States, with its “one-drop rule.” Here, after emancipation and the erection of Jim Crow laws, the one-drop rule meant that having even one drop of African blood classified a person as black.

As racist theories consolidated during the nineteenth century, white settler societies found a compelling justification for maintaining white rule. Many racial myths that have since been discredited found a powerful resonance in these societies. In the white settler colonies of the British Empire, the myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority among the hierarchy of races was used to justify or explain the continuing domination of white over black in the United States, Australia, Canada, Kenya, and Rhodesia. Immigration policies aimed at keeping nonwhite peoples out of white settler societies were also established. During the gold rushes of the nineteenth century, California and some Australian colonies enacted restrictions on Chinese immigration. Australia’s immigration restriction of all nonwhites, commonly known as the “White Australia” policy, lasted from the beginning of the twentieth century until the early 1970s.

It is sometimes argued that the white settler societies arising from Spanish and Portuguese colonization—such as Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico—were less concerned with race and a racial hierarchy. Rules regarding intermarriage between the “races” were either lax or absent, resulting in large mixed-race populations. Some authors, however, have questioned this view, suggesting that Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina were in fact deeply racialized societies in which an intricate color coding structured social relations, privilege, and status (see Menchaca 2001, Wolfe 2001). White racial myths were also prevalent in these societies.

White settler societies had mixed fortunes as they moved beyond explicitly racist and discriminatory social formations in the second half of the twentieth century. The nightmares that some white South Africans had regarding how those they had tortured and suppressed might exact their revenge has not played out in the post-apartheid era. Since the 1990s, however, many whites have left South Africa. At the same time, the plight of white farmers in Zimbabwe became increasingly untenable under the repressive Mugabe regime from the late 1990s onwards, also leading to whites leaving the country. The fate of such white colonial enclaves was to largely disappear or find reduced significance as the societies reverted to black majority rule.

The United States had long struggles with racial segregation during the twentieth century, and the nation still bears the scars of its turbulent racial history. However, as a majority white society, it survived and prospered (unlike Rhodesia and Kenya) in the same era that saw the collapse of scientific racism and the delegitimization of various forms of racial discrimination. Australia, which still called itself White Australia at the end of the 1960s, has been peacefully transformed into a relatively harmonious multicultural society, as has Canada. In the last decades of the twentieth century, both Canada and Australia sought accommodations with the indigenous peoples they had supplanted, granting them rights they had previously been denied. These nations also removed the last vestiges of official racial discrimination. The white settler societies of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil have had far more turbulent histories following decolonization, including military coups, revolutions, and economic instability.


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Anthony Moran