World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini, eds., The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism. New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xv + 469. Index. $208.00 (cloth).

     In this substantial edited volume, the authors and editors seek to explain how the structures and ideas of settler colonialism functioned in widely different places and times. In the process, they uncovered the shared realities as well as the real differences of how settler colonialism operated as a particular mode of domination that, in Veracini's words, "thinks geopolitically" (1). The work is most remarkable for its scope both in time and place, reaching back into antiquity through today, and illustrating the reach of settler colonialism with case studies from every continent except Antarctica. In its breadth, the work makes a powerful case about settler colonialism as a unique form of colonialism, and also about its massive reach, importance, and potential in understanding global history.   

     The text is divided into five parts: Settler colonialism in the ‘Old World,' the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. Each part contains four to seven case studies and is preceded by a cursory introduction on the essays that follow. This geographic organization of the work is clear and helpful, but it does mean that the introductions are largely descriptive, and sometimes the reader finds themselves asking what the case studies share beyond geography. Although students of settler colonialism will no doubt make their own connections, the lack of guidance in themes and theorizing might make the work a challenge as an introduction to the topic. The main exception to this point is Veracini's introductory chapter to the entire volume. It very briefly, but adequately, brings together the various stories of settlement and colonialism into a useful group, and makes a good case for the use of settler colonialism as a valuable transnational lens.

     The power of the volume lies therefore not necessarily in its explicit overall theorizing, but rather its repetition of similar outcomes and modes of dispossession, reinforced by the vast collection of diverse examples. For example, Katsuya Hirano's chapter on Hokaido describes the familiar story of how the indigenous Ainu people were dispossessed of land and access to resources which interfered with their traditional way of life. This process then continued as new forms of economy and agriculture were instituted on the island to benefit settlers and left the local Ainu destitute. Although there were slight modifications, at least one example of a similar story was described in every continent discussed in the text.     

     In spite of the familiar outcomes and modes, the authors still found room for substantive analysis in the text. Many authors described at length how typical or atypical their particular example was of settler colonialism. Most, like Will Jackson in his chapter on Kenya believed that it was "both exemplary and aberrant" (231). And some, like S. J. Conolly in his chapter on Ireland, came rather close to arguing that settler colonialism might not be the most correct, or at least the most useful, theory to understand the history of a particular region. Many of the differences centered around whose ideas of settler colonialism the different authors utilized as a framework. Some adhered more to Patrick Wolfe's arguments that "see settler colonialism primarily as a contest over land rather than labour" and centered their study on dispossession and the elimination of the native (292). Others were more likely to focus on Veracini's ideas about the desire of the settler colonials to separate from the metropole and usually utilized cultural history approaches.   

     The text would be particularly useful for historians who seek a wide-ranging collection of comparisons with their own work, studying a particular instance of settler colonialism. The broad scope could facilitate thinking about how a particular settler colonial situation is or is not comparable to an array of examples across other diverse regions, and push historians to think more transnationally, which could strengthen settler colonialism's potential as a global approach to history.

     The volume would also be a useful teaching resource for instructors of world history courses who are in search of themes that can tie the course together. They will find countless examples of settler colonialism operating in a specific context and also as part of a march of broader forces such as scientific knowledge creation, genocide, environmental transformation, decolonization, and industrialization. Some of the essays might also be useful as discussion section readings if the course is structured to include them. For example, James Ciment's essay captures the central role played by a non-white, but still racialized form of settler colonialism in Liberia. This essay could facilitate insights and critical inquiry into the multiple layers of racism in world history. Similarly, Laur Ishiguro's chapter on western Canada could help students question, problematize, understand, and discuss the similarities and differences of ideas like the frontier and "westward expansion" in a context outside of the United States. Sarah Maddison's chapter on Australia and Richard S. Hill's on New Zealand might offer similar opportunities.

     The book is probably less suited as a seminar text for graduate or advanced undergraduate students because the essays are too short for in-depth discussion, and few students would have the necessary broad background in all the regions discussed. However, seminars focusing on a particular region might find use for a sample of the essays that address a particular country or region. For example, a seminar on Russian history would be enhanced by Alexander Morrison's chapter on Russian settler colonialism in Central Asia, a topic that is important to Russia's history, but often overlooked in favor of more well-known topics such as serfdom, political violence, or Bolshevik ideologies. Similarly, a seminar on the Middle East could benefit from the chapters on Israel and Palestine that include Gershon Shafir's "Theorizing Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine," Arnon Degani's "From republic to empire: Israel and the Palestinaians after 1948," and Pekka Pitkanen's essay on ancient Israel, "Settler colonialism in ancient Israel." This collection could encourage a lively discussion and analysis on the appropriateness or problems of utilizing settler colonialism as an explanatory lens to understand the history of Palestine.

     While the book's scope is impressive, some scholars might object to the lack of a coherent common ground on what makes settler colonialism. Nevertheless, the broad collection of stories that clearly share important similarities that could usefully be called settler colonialism offers at least the jumping off point of a conversation about this ideology that has both long historical as well as a massive geographic range. The essays in this work as a collection and as individual studies are a useful and thought-provoking addition to the topic of settler colonialism that can shed light on it as a global phenomenon that is at once universal and peculiar to particular places. What is more, they offer a challenge to the field of global history to utilize settler colonialism as a lens or dispose of it as too broad, ineffective, or too ill-defined to be useful.    

Jack Seitz is a PhD Candidate in the Rural, Agricultural, Technological, and Environmental History program at Iowa State University and can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use