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Are colonial counterinsurgencies genocides? They may be. Even if the goal of the settlers is peace and not genocide, the logic of settler colonialism can structure the situation so that extermination of the indigenous peoples seems to be the only real option.
 

In order for a crime to be genocide, the perpetrator must have the intent to annihilate a racial, ethnic, national or religious group. But does this really apply to the situation of colonial settlers? Historian Dirk Moses says that it may.

Certainly, when colonial settlers fought to secure land from indigenous people, massacres occurred. And, in places like America and Australia the settlers finally conquered the territory. But, the skirmishes were localized. In the case of Australia, there was no consistent government policy to physically destroy the Aborigines. So, how were the actions against the aborigines genocide?

Even if the initial goal of colonization was not the annihilation of the occupied peoples, the logic of the situation made it such that, in the end, general extermination seemed like the only option to many settlers. The impetus toward genocide came from the very logic of settler colonialism. Genocide was inherent in the terms and logic of conquest.

Terms of Conquest

In settler colonialism (when an occupying country moves settlers into an area), the goal is to appropriate the land, to settle it, to “civilize” it. The goal is not to conquer the indigenous people for their labor. It is the land that is at issue.

In a classic war, the aim is to defeat military forces. In colonization the goal was to annex the territory and rule over the people. In war, states negotiate a settlement. In colonization there was not the same negotiation because the aims were not limited. The occupiers already claimed the land. What was to negotiate? The occupied peoples either needed to get out of the way or settle down and become good subjects of the new government. The aims of the colonizers were total.

Little Distinction between Combatants and Civilians

In situations of settler colonialism, the colonizers often ended up waging war against the entire population. Indigenous peoples did not have European style armies and so resistance was often guerrilla style. This meant that it was difficult for the colonizers to distinguish combatants from civilians. In the minds of the colonizers, all indigenous people were potentially involved in a local insurgency and so were targets of a counterinsurgency.

Additionally, there was no monolithic aboriginal society. Colonizers did not fight an aboriginal state, but local tribes and groups. It would no doubt have been safer for the aborigines if there had been a centralized government against which the colonizers could fight. But, the conflicts were local and aboriginal society was relatively “flat.” They didn't have the layers of government between the average woman on the street and the leader. So, without a head for the colonizers to take aim at, the counterinsurgency took aim at the entire aboriginal group.

If the colonizers could not take out an aboriginal government, they would need to target the entire aboriginal group. Use of terror and scorched earth were common counterinsurgency tactics.

Logic of Conquest

When the Europeans claimed a new land, all the inhabitants became de facto subjects to the crown. This meant that fighting an indigenous insurgency was not the same as waging a war against a foreign power. It was, in effect, putting down a rebellion among the country's own people.

The logic of the classical notion of war—armed conflict between two independent states—works differently than the logic of settler colonialism. In the colonial European mind, international war should follow certain rules. Non-combatants should be spared. The goal is to defeat the enemy, not annihilate them.

However, these rules did not apply when a state dealt with their own subjects. Traitors and rebels were not given the same protections. If a state was constrained to exercise some degree of restraint in war, there was no obligation that the state exercise the same restraint against its own subjects. States were free to destroy traitors and rebels. In the European mind, an international war was different than a counterinsurgency. The rules of war did not apply.

For instance, according to the rules of international war, women and children should be spared and prisoners taken. However, in a rebellion there were no prisoners of war. The basic goal was to eliminate the rebellious threat—which meant eliminating the rebellious people.

What about Intent?

In order to understand the killing of aborigines, we need to look beyond the supposed moral perfidy of individual settlers. Something else is going on. But, if there is no clear state policy for extermination, why all the killing?

Moses says that the key to understanding intent is to look at where the logic of settler colonialism and the concerns of individual settlers meet.

Settlers sought to carve out a life for themselves on the new land—land that the government said was theirs. Problem was, the indigenous people saw the land as theirs as well and resisted being displaced. This often lead to violent opposition against settlers. From the perspective of the settlers, all they were looking to do was create a home and livelihood, but when they were attacked, fear set in. Settlers wanted to be safe and when they were not, their fear triggered the genocidal aspects of the logic of settler colonialism. They feared that the only way to be safe was to get rid of the threat completely.

Remember, we are not talking about war. There was no aboriginal government against which the colonial government could fight. It was the aboriginal people who were framed as the threat. And, because they were simply rebels or bandits, the rules of war did not apply.

It is not that the settlers initially intended to exterminate all the aboriginal people. In the minds of the settlers, if the indigenous people just let the settlers live in peace, then there would be no problem. So, extermination was not the goal, peaceful lives was the goal. But, when settlers fear for their lives, extermination may seem to be the only logical way to have a peaceful life. These sentiments are captured in letters of Australian land owners to colonial governors about conflicts with the aborigines. As one landowner put it, “the dreadful alternative only remains of a general extermination by some means or other.” Another informed the Colonial Secretary, “Total extermination however sever the measure, I much fear will be the only means left to the Government to protect the Whites.”

The motive for the mass killing is not the issue. Settlers wanted to be safe. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem was that within the context of settler colonialism the only way for the settlers to feel safe was the general extermination—genocide—of the aborigines.

Bottom Line

The motive behind colonial massacres of indigenous people may not be extermination. Rather, the goal may be the safety of the settlers. However, because indigenous people are considered subjects of the colonial government, they are not protected by rules of war. They are defined as bandits, rebels or traitors. Because there is no aboriginal government for the occupiers to fight against, the target of colonial counterinsurgencies is often the indigenous people in total.

So, in order for the settlers to settle down and carve out lives on the new land in safety, the only option (in the face of resistance by indigenous peoples) may appear to be the extermination of the occupied peoples.

 
Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Historical research and documentary evidence.

Funding Sources:

Not reported.

 
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Reference

Moses, A. Dirk. 2008. "Moving the Genocide Debate Beyond the History Wars." Politics & History 54:248-270. 

 
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