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New Worlds: Colonial Subjects

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Having raised the specter of imperialism last week, it’s time to talk about the common counterpart to the empire: the colony.

The two don’t always go hand-in-hand, of course. Not all empires have colonies, and there are ways to have a colony without an empire. But that depends on what type of colony you’re talking about — so let’s take a look at what some of the options are.

Science fiction in particular has frequently deployed the trope of a colony established on uninhabited land. In some cases that just means no intelligent life; in others there’s no life at all, and the colony’s mission is to begin terraforming the planet to make it more habitable. Fantasy makes less use of this idea, but still, it crops up from time to time, often with magical wildernesses highly inimical to the settlers.

In the real world, I suspect this scenario hasn’t existed since the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) about eight hundred years ago — and it hasn’t existed on a large scale for probably more like ten thousand years, as humans finished spreading throughout the Americas. Which makes this particular trope a deeply problematic one, as it posits a rosy scenario in which no intelligent creatures, human or otherwise, are being displaced . . . when the reality on the ground was usually quite different.

Establishing a colony has often meant subjugating or at least driving off the original inhabitants. Nobody wants to set themselves up on marginal, unproductive land, but since the good spots are generally spoken for already, some kind of struggle will usually ensue. I’m not going to say this is universal, since some ancient colonies at least started out as trading posts than regular agricultural settlements; in those cases you might see more in the way of treaties and intermarriage than warfare. But where the colonizers have a solid advantage in numbers, organization, or technology over the local population, the latter will often find themselves pushed back to less favorable areas — if they’re not killed outright. If the advantage isn’t solid enough, then the colony fails, as the invaders are the ones killed or driven away.

So far I’ve been talking about settler colonies, where a group of people from A go establish themselves in the land of B and build their own society there. But the huge wave of imperialism that swept the globe often took a somewhat different form, where aim was less to establish a new population hived off from A, more to exploit B for profit. In this case it might be clearer to speak of B as a colonial possession of A: while there’s probably a certain number of people from A there to handle administration or pursue their personal interests, the aim is not to get rid of all the B people. (If you did that, who would you exploit for profit? Much better to have them labor on your behalf — especially if it’s a tropical area and you’re more vulnerable than they are to the local diseases.)

Colonies of the settler type get established for a variety of reasons, not all of them focused on profit. Sometimes the founding population is made up of refugees or exiles, fleeing or driven from their original home and hoping to make a new one elsewhere . . . even if it means driving somebody else off in turn. On other occasions, though, some ambitious individual sees an opportunity and convinces others to help them pursue it. A colony can even be officially sponsored by the government of its mother country, when the ambitious individual in question is the one in charge.

Flip that around, and you see the reasons why someone might decide to take the risk of emigrating — because make no mistake, many of these colonies were dangerous enterprises. It’s always difficult to get a new settlement up and running, even when there aren’t hostile locals trying to kick you back out again. But the romance of the colony is that it offers a wide range of opportunities, not all of them purely monetary. Criminals might have their crimes forgiven in exchange for a certain span of labor, while some Greek colonies around the Mediterranean offered their settlers the citizen status they could never earn at home. Or maybe you just need to leave behind a controlling family, a broken heart, or some other personal woe.

Especially in pre-modern times, though, it can be very difficult to maintain control over a colony once it’s well-established. During the early days it’s likely dependent on the mother country for supplies, reinforcements, and defense, but as it grows out of its childhood and into the teenage years (metaphorically speaking), rebellion becomes common. After all — as my own nascent country said — why should this place remain beholden to a far-off ruler who often sees the daughter colony as nothing more than a convenient source of profit? Remember, empires tend to exploit the periphery for the benefit of the core, and while settlers may not be exploited as brutally as indigenous inhabitants, that doesn’t mean they’re treated well. Or rebellion isn’t even necessary, because events back in the homeland render the mother country unable to devote any attention to non-local concerns. Like one organism budding off another, the colony abandons its obligation to send taxes or tribute, and becomes fully independent.

As the science fiction and fantasy genres have changed with the times, we’ve seen a drop in those “colonizing an alien planet or magical land” stories — but not a drop in stories about colonization. We’ve just put the shoe on the other foot, looking at the process from the perspective of those displaced or oppressed, rather than the brave settlers forging a new life for themselves on other people’s land. Even when there’s no sentient species on the alien planet, we’re starting to question how justifiable it is to terraform an existing ecosystem for our own benefit, or to introduce life where it doesn’t exist at all. Narratives about how humanity leapt to the stars when Earth could no longer support life are giving way to narratives about how maybe we should fix the planet we’re on, rather than spending those resources on screwing up another one.

But we’re a long way from having no stories about colonies at all. Not while the scars left by our real “brave settlers” are still so raw.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds: Colonial Subjects”

  1. I’d love to see some fiction that explores alternatives. Where there is large power asymmetry, is the colonial relationship inevitable? I wonder how an exploring civilization could structure relations with a significantly less powerful (economic, military, etc.) external power. I suspect the problem is not quite as trivial as “be fair” – after all the US revolution was, in large part, because the colonists rejected Britain’s treaties with the Native Americans.

    1. I’ve been thinking about this myself because I’m reading Cronon’s Changes in the Land, about the ecological impact of European colonization in New England, and . . . even if you took the racism out of the equation, even if you took out the greed, you’d still have some enormous effects, and those effects would be largely negative for the indigenous people. The two cultures were based in ways of life that were wildly incompatible with each other, ecologically speaking. And so you’d need something along the lines of the Prime Directive, constraining the exploring civilization to have as light a presence possible, to avoid causing those sorts of cascading changes — but it’s very easy for that to tip over into its own kind of paternalism, as shows up in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead.

    2. “State of the Art”, by Banks, had the Culture deciding to leave Earth alone as part of the control group, kind of a scientific Prime Directive, though metatext indicates full contact later.

      Of course “control group” implies that the Culture meddles in other civilizations, and they do. But it’s more of moral missionary activity, trying to gradually advance better (more free, more socialist), societies; putatively, the Culture is so rich it has no _need_ to exploit anyone. And at times that activity is as low key as “infiltrate someone to be the king’s doctor who tries to talk him into being slightly more progressive”.

      Cherryh’s Alliance was not entirely uncolonial, but had enough respect for people that Union simply dumping a bunch of azi clone-slaves onto an alien planet was enough to poison-pill Alliance expansion there for a couple hundred years.

      Even here on Earth, India has decided that the Sentinelese should be simply left alone, as they clearly wish to be.

  2. There’s also intellectual/moral colonialism, based not on overt power differences but and overwhelming innate sense of intellectual and/or moral superiority — even when arriving “unarmed” and not representing a political entity. Mary Doria Russell’s duology The Sparrow and Children of God partly engages with this; but then, she’s an anthropologist. Some of the darker aspects of “missionaries” fall into this variant. Even when they didn’t bring along the Conquistadors (or, somewhat later, the US Cavalry), the missionary position (pun intended) was at least as colonialist.

    And the less said about linguistic colonialism and imperialism, the less attention we’ll have to pay to the western coast of Africa.

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