After reading American Colonies: The Settling of North America, I was struck by the incredible similarities in British modus operandi in North America and India the 17th and 18th centuries. These two imperial domains seem very different, but recall that Lord Cornwallis plays a prominent role in both Colonial and Indian history. This was a world-wide empire, the French and Indian War in North America was just a piece of the broader Seven Years’ War, which also played out in India.
But aside from the broad-brush banalities of empire, it is notable the extent to which the early colonies used indigenous proxies and trade networks, and how aggressively native polities attempted to manipulate various European powers in a game of dueling trade networks and geopolitical machinations. Native confederacies initially assumed that the small colonial settlements would simply be adjuncts to their own system. The Indian conquest was the work of native soldiers fighting against local polities, led by European and mixed-race officers, and armed by the military-industrial production system of the British Empire. In many cases the situation in North America was very similar, in particular the role that the Iroquois Confederacy took upon itself as “enforcers” for the colonial regimes against other tribes in return for plentiful guns with which to fight the French and make war against tribes deep in the North American interior (who of course were technologically at disadvantage). Each of the colonial regimes had their own sensibility, and the settlers of New England are a familiar and expected story. Rather, the similarities to the Indian case are clearest in the Southern colonies, where demographically inferior whites used the indigenous populations against each other, as well as to control their slave populations. Native groups who were subordinated often took upon a role as shock troops against the unconquered peoples beyond the frontier. It is fundamentally an old story of imperial conquest and co-option, divide and rule.
And yet the North American story is fundamentally different than that of India. Like Australia the colonies of North America were quickly dominated by settlers of European, generally British, extraction. The political machinations during the period when the native peoples in North America were at rough parity with the white settlers, a situation which lasted for decades, and well into the 18th century, is not emphasized to a great deal because of their total conquest and preponderant assimilation. In contrast, the details of Indian history as it relates to us now resonates because of the reality of the Republic of India, whose elite is a synthetic byproduct of the British Imperial experience and the indigenous substrate.
The difference is one of biology.While groups which assimilated themselves to the British Imperial system in India, such as Sikhs, Gurkhas or Anglicized upper classes, might have prospered in a relative sense, the native North Americans integrated into the British system died. The more assimilated the native peoples became, the more they interacted with whites, the more they settled in dense conglomerates, the greater the likelihood of the inevitable outbreak of smallpox rendering them extinct. Rather, the native peoples who persisted the longest in any appreciable numbers were the “wild” ones who were being rolled back on the frontier.
History’s deterministic wheels were set in motion by the fact that the native peoples of the New World had no immune response to the evils of Eurasian infection. The outcome was foregone when the first outsider landed on New World shores. Instead of wealth or advancement, integration of native peoples into word-wide trade networks heralded their extinction. But, it is important to observe that despite the difference in ultimate outcomes, in the proximate scale the dynamic between North American natives and the British was a replica of what was occurring all over the world. When we note that a set of outcomes differs, we need not presume that each is sui generis, unconnected by general principles. And since the “divide and conquer” phase lasted into the 1700s, we need to apply general principles to understand the particular temporal dynamics which affected the first two centuries of British empire in the New World, just as it gave way to the American republic.