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A bloody history of settler colonialism

The term settler colonialism is again at the forefront of analysis of Israel. Charlie Kimber looks at the debates about what it means and the implications for a strategy of liberation
Issue 2894
settler colonialism bloody racism

A Lithograph of the Waterloo Creek Massacre in Australia where European colonists murdered Indigenous people settler 

Defining Israel as a settler colonial state isn’t some academic exercise. It helps us describe its nature and shapes our hopes of how the Palestinians can win.

As author Ilan Pappe points out, “The idea that Zionism is settler colonialism is not new. Palestinian scholars in the 1960s did not frame Israel as just a British colony or an American one, but regarded it as a phenomenon that existed in other parts of the world—settler colonialism.”

He adds, “The most important logic adopted by settler colonial movements is that in order to create a successful settler colonial community outside of Europe, you have to eliminate the natives in the country you have settled”.

The view that settler colonialism always means wiping out people who live in an area fits with the horrendous experience in Australia, North America and Canada. 

Settler colonialists quite deliberately exterminated nearly all the Indigenous people in these territories to seize their land and found a “new state”.

As Karl Marx wrote, “The extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Even the mainstream Australia Museum says, “Because of colonial genocidal actions like state-sanctioned massacres, the First Nations population went from an estimated 1-1.5 million before invasion to less than 100,000 by the early 1900s.”

When imperialists didn’t murder all of the native population, they crammed them into overcrowded and barren areas, destroyed their distinctive cultures and sought to wipe out their languages. 

They stole their children or forced them into education systems defined by the supremacy of the oppressor. When the Zionists spoke of Palestine as, “A land without a people for a people without a land”, they followed a murderous tradition. For example, genocide in Tasmania, California and Namibia began with the common lie that the land was “empty” or “unclaimed”.  

The British in Australia employed a doctrine of terra nullius, or “land where nothing exists”. In Namibia, colonists imposed a policy of “creating a map scraped smooth”.

And, just as in Israel, other settler colonialists buttressed this exclusion of thriving Indigenous cultures with racist myths that those who inhabited the regions were not fully human, or lesser humans.

Benjamin Madley, a historian of genocide, wrote, “In Tasmania, colonists who seized Aboriginal children and dashed their brains out or lined Aborigines up as targets for musket practice likely considered their victims less than human.

“Whites spoke of Aborigines as ‘horribly disgusting,’ ‘constituting in a measure the link between man and the monkey tribe,’ or ‘undoubtedly in the lowest possible scale of human nature, both in form and intellect.’

“Many white settlers in California considered the Yuki (a group of Native Americans) subhuman.

“Why else would settler Dryden Lacock proudly brag that he routinely joined Yuki-massacring parties while his neighbour Hank Larrabee boasted of killing 60 Yuki children with his hatchet?”

An 1859 letter from the notorious “Indian-killer” Walter Jarboe to the governor of California describes the Yuki as “the most degraded, filthy, miserable thieving lot of any living thing that comes under the head and rank of human being”.

A missionary named Eiger in Namibia suggested that “the average German looks down upon the natives as being about on the same level as the higher primates (baboon being their favourite term for the natives) and treats them like animals. The settler holds that the native has a right to exist only in so far as he is useful to the white man.”

That doesn’t mean that settler colonialism only involves mass violence supported by racism. What’s sometimes called “franchise colonialism”—where the imperialists rule from afar and exploit people rather than slaughter them all—also involves such crimes. This form of colonialism in India was particularly deadly.

In the 1876-8 Indian famine alone, over six million Indians starved to death while the British imperialists exported food from their country. 

It was the same foul crime committed against the Irish peasantry 30 years before. In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis argued, “Between 1875–1900—a period that included the worst famines in Indian history—annual grain exports increased from 3 to 10 million tons”, equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25 million people.

“By the turn of the century, India was supplying nearly a fifth of Britain’s wheat consumption at the cost of its own food security.”

The British Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, spurned all pleas to reduce the suffering of millions of peasants in the Madras region and concentrated on preparing for Queen Victoria’s investiture as Empress of India.

The highlight of the celebrations was a week-long feast at which 68,000 dignitaries heard the queen promise the nation “happiness, prosperity and welfare”.

In the rural areas outside Madras, people died from hunger and thirst—as the empire’s guests gorged on the finest produce shipped in from across the globe at massive expense.

Nor is it true that settler colonial states always reject intense exploitation of the subject population in favour of complete butchery. 

The clearest example is South Africa where there were internal battles among colonisers over whether to eliminate black people, enslave them or suck value from them through wage labour. 

In the end, imperialist capitalists forced black people to work in the mines. These produced huge profits but also proved to be the downfall of the apartheid system once black workers organised and rose against the system.

Indigenous people are not objects or simply victims. They fight back—and settler colonialism uses this to frame their mass murder as “defensive”.

US General Philip Sheridan—believed to be the originator of the disgusting phrase, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”, was an expert in such formulas. He wrote in the 1870s, “If an Indian village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the Indians whose crime necessitated the attack.”

Historian Jacob P Dunn told his readers in 1886 that the killing of Indian women and children was justified by “vengeance” and by the need to “dampen” the enthusiasm of Indian warriors to resist American expansion.

Every example of settler colonialism has its specific features, and Israel does not fit neatly into a simple categorisation. But the Zionist coloniser borrowed and used some tried and tested settler colonial methods to extert their grip on Palestine.

Settlers pretended to themselves and others that they were settling on uninhabited land. They used and continue to use racism against Arabs. They murder, remove and seek to demonise those they oppress. And, just as after 7 October, they say their genocidal policy is “defensive”.

All that worked in the 19th century but today billions of people across the world recognise in the Palestinian struggle an echo of their own desire to rise against a racist, brutally unequal world order.

The lies about defensive violence and the slurs of antisemitism when we criticise Israel may impress prime ministers, presidents—and leaders of polite opposition parties. But they convince fewer and fewer ordinary people.  

It’s why Ilan Pappe said recently that he believed we are just at the start of “two years that will witness the worst kind of horrors that Israel can inflict on the Palestinians. But even in this dark moment we should understand that settler colonial projects that disintegrate always use the worst kind of means to try and save their project.

“I am not saying this as wishful thinking and I am not saying this as a political activist. I am saying this as a scholar. On the basis of sober professional examination, I am stating that we are witnessing the end of the Zionist project, there’s no doubt about it.”

Israel will not just collapse, nor will its imperial backers just abandon such a useful watchdog in a crucial part of the world. And we know from South Africa that the appearance of emancipation can often be very different to the reality.

But the three pillars of liberation—the courageous resistance by Palestinians themselves, the revolutionary uprisings of workers and the poor in the wider Middle East and the rage against imperialist states in the West—can win.  

Settler colonial regimes are some of the most appalling examples of how capitalism rules. The revolutionary overthrow of Israel could be an inspiring example to follow.

Read more

Settler Colonialism: An Introduction by Sai Englert £16.99

Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis £12.99

Israeli settler colonialism is at an end, a lecture by Ilan Pappe go here 

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