Colonisation of all forms

Georgina Tuari Stewart, Melitta Hogarth, Sean Sturm & Brian Martin
Originally published 21 Feb 2022 in Educational Philosophy & Theory.

Colonisation occurs in many fields, from the scientific to the philosophical, and involves all forms of life, including flora, fauna and micro-organisms. All these forms of life can colonise or be colonised by others. The various processes of colonisation connect in new and deadly ways in the current pandemic of COVID-19: on both sides of the Tasman Sea, Māori and Indigenous Australians are faring the worst in terms of illness and death as ethnic groups relative to the national populations. It is already colonised peoples who are being hit hardest by the colonising viral pathogen. And this epidemic is but the latest in a series of epidemics since the arrival of Europeans in these lands, each of which has impacted disproportionately on the Indigenous populations there. For example, the Māori death rate in the 1918 influenza epidemic was eight times higher than that for Pākehā. The skewed rates by ethnicity of COVID-19 illness and death signal a broader lack of progress towards social justice in these societies.

Here, in response to the keynote of Melitta Hogarth in the PESA 2021 online conference, we address ‘colonisation’ as an antecedent concept that calls into being the identity concept of the ‘Indigenous.’ Our title bears a double meaning, referring both to the many levels and processes of colonisation and to the myriad forms of life, human and more-than-human, affected by colonisation in the world today. We consider how colonisation operates in its many guises and on its various targets, from the biological to the economic, to the linguistic, to the philosophical. All these processes of colonisation play a part in understanding what is at stake in identifying as Indigenous today. It is impossible fully to account for the contemporary sociopolitical situation in nation-states such as Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand without the concept of colonisation in its sociocultural sense. Europeans came as ‘explorers’ and ‘settlers’ to these lands to pursue their social and economic interests. If Indigenous peoples impeded those interests, they were forcibly moved or otherwise eliminated by whatever means necessary.

However, let us begin by canvassing some of the scientific meanings of colonisation and their implications for Indigenous peoples because science is implicated in sociocultural colonisation and its very material and ongoing social and economic impacts, despite its benefits, much-vaunted (by colonisers, in particular), for Indigenous peoples. Science is also central to biocolonialism, the extractive process by which genetic material and associated knowledge of indigenous peoples are being turned into commodities and sold.

Colonisation in immunology refers to the invasion of a body by another species. In the current COVID-19 pandemic, we need to take steps to protect our bodies against being colonised by the virus: hand hygiene, masking and physical distancing. These public health measures have significant sociocultural implications: some Māori traditional practices such as greeting our friends with hongi (pressing noses), kihi (kissing) or hui (gathering) are discouraged – yet these are the very behaviours by which Māori people perform our everyday ethnicity on both sides of the Tasman (there is a large active Māori diaspora in Australia, which has long been seen by Māori as a ‘land of opportunity’). While these measures affect everyone by limiting human contact and warmth, their impact on Māori identity is an added burden for Māori collectively (see Dawes et al.). Māori responses to COVID-19, e.g., noho haumaru (staying safe), rāhui (restrictions), tikanga (protocols), and manaakitanga (generosity), have been described both as cultural adaptation and as assertions of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination).

Colonisation in microbiology refers to a process in the laboratory in which a micro-organism is introduced onto a sterile growing surface, usually made from agar. This allows the production of microbial colonies of a manageable size. The agar plate offers an apt metaphor for the specious concept of terra nullius used by European ‘explorers’ to declare their legitimate right, usually decreed by God and/or King, to usurp the territories of Indigenous peoples, wherever they landed around the world. Sometimes, Indigenous peoples were not classed by the European invaders as being members of a sovereign society, or even as human, beliefs used to justify ruling that they could not, therefore, own land. At other times, Indigenous peoples were deemed as not currently occupying the lands wanted by the colonisers. That Indigenous peoples have been deprived of the ability to make sovereign decisions about how to manage COVID-19 is equivalent to a dominant White/Pākehā priming of the petri dish. Indigenous peoples have had no choice about being part of the experiment.

The narrative of colonisation by infection (via ‘introduced diseases’) is a long-told one. Māori scholarly examinations of this narrative date back at least as far as Te Rangi Hiroa. The narrative has been taken up more recently in the field of genocide studies, with an edited collection focusing on the theme of genocide in relation to Indigenous peoples in Australia.

Colonisation in ecology refers to the spreading of a species beyond the habitats in which it evolved, intentionally or not. Ecological colonisation contributes to processes of evolution, such as when plants and birds are carried by the sea from one landmass to another (hence, some species are classified as endemic to both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand). Of concern is anthropogenic ecological colonisation, premised in the case of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand on the colonial assumption that the transplantation of the flora and fauna of ‘Home’ (Britain) to the ‘new country’ by settlers would ‘improve’ the colonies, regardless of the co-adaptation or acculturation of the Indigenous peoples of the lands to the native fauna and flora.

Such careless introductions included innumerable species that became ‘pest species,’ causing widespread environmental degradation or squeezing out Indigenous species: from fauna such as sparrows, ducks, parrots, rabbits, hedgehogs, ferrets, stoats, weasels, possums, cats, deer, pigs, horses, trout and catfish, to flora including blackberries, old man’s beard, kikuyu, pampas grass and gorse, the last of which (it is said) was grown outside windows to repel native peepers. The possum, native to Australia, was introduced from there to Aotearoa New Zealand, wreaking destruction in the temperate forest ecosystems of Aotearoa New Zealand. The camel was introduced from North Africa to Australia in the mid-1800s such that, today, over one million feral camels roam out of control across 40% of the Northern Territory.

This type of colonisation is ethnocentric if it assumes that the flora and fauna of Western Europe are better or more desirable than those native to Australia or Aotearoa New Zealand, and if it ignores the existing material, social and spiritual connections to flora and fauna held by the Indigenous peoples. It is generally recognised that Indigenous cultures are based on sustainable practices and living harmoniously in the natural environment, and studies are finding that Indigenous spirituality predicts environmental regard.

To canvas the various scientific meanings of ‘colonisation’ helps us think about the larger sociopolitical and historical meanings of the concept and to expose the dependence of colonisation on racist or ethnocentric thinking. Science has not only often been an instrument of colonisation or facilitated it, but it has also sometimes done so by informing ‘social-scientific’ – often pseudo-scientific – thinking. Two examples:

  1. When the Indigenous peoples of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand were struck down in large numbers by diseases against which they had no immunity caught from (or introduced by) European settlers, settlers tended to see this affliction (or infliction) as evidence of their assumption of Indigenous inferiority and European superiority.
  2. Worse, when settlers contemplated the colonisation of an Indigenous place like in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, they implicitly justified their course of action based on the distortion of Darwin’s theory of evolution that is Social Darwinism – although it is worth noting that Darwin credited the influence on his theory of the ideas of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) about overpopulation and competition for resources.

As Marc Ferro argues, Social Darwinism is grounded in a competition for resources that slides between evolutionary theory (the ‘struggle of the species’) and economic theory (the class struggle). But it elides its ‘third side’: what might be called educational ‘theory’ (the struggle for the ‘spirit’), which takes in attempts to ‘civilise’ ‘lower’ beings in the Great Chain of Being through science and religion.

In this context, colonisation presents itself as the third side of this scientistic conviction. In his great goodness, the white man does not destroy the inferior species. He educates them, unless they are deemed to be not ‘human,’ like the Bushmen or the aborigines of Australia who were not even given a name – in which case, he exterminates them. Such reasoning encourages settlers to believe that colonising Indigenous peoples is the right or righteous action, hence tropes like that of the ‘White man’s burden,’ etc. And the idea that colonisation has been – and can be – beneficial to Indigenous peoples persists amongst settlers, as well as settler academics, including in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (for a now notorious example in the US, see Gilley’s ‘The Case for Colonialism’). Such beliefs illustrate how White supremacy maintains itself through systems of knowledge by which ignorance – of Indigenous peoples and their places, in this case – is transformed into truth. Agnotology studies are interested in such processes. In the Antipodean context, such willful ignorance made itself felt in the racist caricature of Māori as ‘superior natives’ who were congratulated ‘for occupying a higher place in the Chain of Being than their neighbours, the Australian aborigin[al people],’ as Anne Salmond wrote. Were such comparisons valid, the Indigenous truth of that specious binary would be very different: that the process of being colonised by the British was harsher and more brutal in Australia than in Aotearoa. Anecdotally, the comparisons persist in education discourse today, where it is common (e.g., at conferences) to hear White Australian educators say that ‘New Zealand does it better/right’ with respect to Indigenous education. Such statements are based on the visible Māori presence in education policy and practice, likely undergirded by the longstanding settler belief that Aotearoa New Zealand has the ‘best race relations in the world’. Analysis of typical scenarios such as the education pōwhiri (formal welcome) suggests that such inclusion is more symbolic than real, and raises the question of whether symbolic representation of Indigenous culture is better than no representation at all.

Colonisation is not simply an historical event or process. It is also a key concept that underwrites our modern societies in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. It is an important conceptual link in a complex and well-concealed chain of reasoning that leads from science to capitalist imperialism in its contemporary forms. And, more mutable even than the COVID-19 virus, it can hybridise to meet new conditions. A recent variant is the colonisation of Indigenous political causes by the anti-vax brigade, covertly funded by far-right US political interests. For example, in October 2021, key anti-vaxxers from the so-called Sovereign Hīkoi of Truth (SHOT) movement gate-crashed the 2021 annual commemoration of He Whakaputanga taking place in Taitokerau Northland. He Whakaputanga is a formal agreement signed in 1835 between iwi (tribal) leaders and the Crown, and a precursor of – and, its proponents argue, more authentic than – Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), signed five years later in 1840. All the evidence points to colonisation continuing in the present – and education more-or-less covertly supporting its operation.

Note: This article was originally published as Stewart, G. T., Hogarth, M., Sturm, S., & Martin, B. (2022). Colonization of all forms. Educational Philosophy & Theory. Advanced online publication.

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Full Citation Information:
Georgina Tuari Stewart, Melitta Hogarth, Sean Sturm & Brian Martin (2022). Colonisation of all forms. PESA Agora.