General editor's introduction
in Equal subjects, unequal rights


It is a welcome development that we have now moved beyond the nationalistic approach to the history of the former ‘dominions’, the territories of white settlement of the British Empire. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (from 1910) have many points of similarity in their emergence as countries in which indigenous peoples were dispossessed by a series of white dispersals extending from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Until 1776, the American colonies were in the same category, but this book is concerned with the four that remained within the British orbit. Apart from its comparative approach, what marks this book out is the fact that it deals with political rights, essentially parliamentary representation and the extension of the franchise. This is innovative, for in the past, land and other social and economic rights have figured more prominently in the concerns of historians.

In many respects, the question of political rights boils down to the contrast that was sometimes drawn between subjects and citizens. Although these two concepts were often discussed, the British Empire never formalised them. The French did, and the status of sujets and citoyens was carefully defined, with attendant rights and responsibilities. For the French a citoyen had abandoned indigenous social organisation all together. The citoyen had become a black Frenchman, educated as such, accepting French cultural norms, usually living in cities, and thereby liable for military service as well as having a right to vote. The centralisation of the French imperial system was symbolised by the fact that the citoyens secured representation in the French Assembly in Paris. The British always retained dispersed political authority, but, in effect, some of the indigenous people of the British white dominions aspired to a similar status, particularly those who were products of the missionary environment.

What is striking about the conclusions of this work is the stress that the authors place upon an anti-progressive history. As devolved political institutions were granted to whites, partly as a direct fear of further revolutions along the American model, the treatment of indigenous peoples was often retained as an imperial prerogative in London. But as representative government developed into responsible government, and then into full dominion status, the imperial government in London was very reluctant to exercise such authority. In effect, white power over indigenous peoples was devolved by default. And the spread of white liberties often meant the restriction of indigenous freedoms and a reluctance, partly born of political fear, to extend political rights to the native peoples. The chapters here demonstrate how carefully nuanced our awareness of this check upon indigenous rights should be: it was sometimes related to the concept of the empty land or absence of legal rights; to the continuation of allegedly incompatible notions of communal ‘tribal’ organisation; to the development of pseudo-scientific racism; to ideas about labour, educational attainment, supposed economic contribution, and also to aspects of gender.

In all these respects, the four territories offer different emphases and varying speeds of response on the part of both white and indigenous people. We should also note that similar checks were taking place in colonial territories where there were no white settlers. In West Africa, tasks undertaken by Africans in respect of the administration, of medical work, and missionary endeavour in the mid-nineteenth century, became the prerogative of expatriate whites by the 1890s. In India, there were also checks to advancement in the professions and into the bourgeois status implied in the French citoyen. As in the dominions, such checks were designed to inhibit indigenous advancement, to protect white rule from threat, and to slow down rates of political activism. Ironically, such barriers probably did more than anything to foment nationalism and the demand for decolonisation in those territories.

Although this book does not deal with the United States, some parallels should be noted. The Declaration of Independence did not lead to the distribution of political rights to native Americans, Afro-Americans, or women. When slavery was finally abolished with the Civil War of the 1860s, black rights received a severe set-back through legislative and repressive social action. Segregation and discrimination remained prevalent in many states until the 1960s, and even now registration of black voters and the ability of such voters to cast their votes can be restricted, as in Florida in a recent presidential election. The battles for indigenous and black rights in the United States, as in the former dominions, are not yet over.

John M. MacKenzie

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Equal subjects, unequal rights

Indigenous people in British settler colonies, 1830s–1910




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