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Book Review


Kate Fullagar and Michael A. McDonnell, editors, Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Pp. 376. Notes, List of Contributors, and Index. $39.95 (paper).


     The essays in the volume, edited by Kate Fullagar and Michael A. McDonnell, Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences in a Revolutionary Age, are "histories of empire with indigenous peoples as the main subject" (4). (The volume is inspired by Daniel Richter's Facing East from Indian Country, a Native American centered history of what became the United States east of the Mississippi River before 1800.) The main purpose of Facing Empire is to explore what the "revolutionary age," the period from 1750 to 1850, held in store for a variety of indigenous peoples. The chapters do not pursue large-scale narratives that take on a broader perspective, but rather they provide a geographically focused approach, locally grounded studies, and detailed discussions. By emphasizing indigenous agency, the editors believe, such studies have much to add to the "transnational or global approaches," which have been published in recent years. They also maintain that the essays elucidate the indigenous influence on Europeans.

     Facing Empire is to be commended for its focus on indigenous people and overall global focus, a perspective that is often neglected in the historiography of the "revolutionary age," which tends to favor European- or Atlantic-centered perspectives. The essays demonstrate that indigenous peoples were active players who influenced and shaped the history of the British Empire. WHC readers will find valuable and refreshing perspectives in the essays. The book is divided into three parts. The first collection of essays in the volume, by Bill Gammage, Michael McDonnell, Rebecca Shumaway, Jennifer Newell, and Sujit Sivasundaram, focus on how indigenous peoples helped to define the encounter between local populations and the British Empire. Part II of the book, entitled "Entanglements," with essays by Colin Calloway, Nicole Ulrich, Tony Ballantyne, and Robert Kenny, shows "the maturing relations and a variety of entanglements between empire and indigenous peoples" (15). The essays in Part III, by Kate Fullagar, Joshua Reid, Justin Brooks, and Elspeth Martini draw out several kinds of trans-colonial "Connections" that existed between the British Empire and indigenous peoples.

     Despite the volumes many strengths, there are some limitations that result both from the exploratory nature of the book and its small case-study approach. I often found myself wondering how different the "revolutionary age" in the case studies was from other examples of early modern interactions of European empires with indigenous peoples who actively shaped cultural encounters and processes of empire building. Facing Empire's "Pathways," "Entanglements," and "Connections," are useful concepts, but are these organizing principles unique to the "revolutionary age?" Did these patterns of indigenous-European interaction exist only from roughly 1750 to 1850, or could such interactions be discerned at other times and in different places? How, then, do they help us rethink the revolutionary era? These are central questions that could have been explored and problematized further in the introduction, as this is an issue widely discussed by scholars. For instance, following Howard Lamar and Leonard Thompson, some historians in the 1980s called the interactions explored by Facing Empire an "open frontier." In the 1990s, and following Richard White, several historians referred to such European indigenous contacts and relations as a "middle ground." Numerous scholars have applied the terms of "open frontier" and "middle ground" in a multitude of case studies throughout the early modern period and into the 19th century, work that has added temporal and spatial complexity and diversity to our understanding of this subject matter. Moreover, in several places the patterns described above had already broken down before 1750. Regions such as southern New England, southern African Western Cape, and the Mexican Highlands had experienced British or other European colonization for longer periods, a long-term exposure which had weakened indigenous peoples' capacities to deal with Europeans. A more nuanced exploration of time and place and some considerations beyond the British Empire, as well as a broader theoretical discussions of empire in world history in the introduction would have likely provided an even more careful study of indigenous peoples in a global revolutionary era. These are issues, queries, and questions that will occupy historians in the future, and Facing Empire provides a nice addition to this ongoing and developing discussion.

     The queries above are not meant to call into question the overall quality of the book. The combined case studies in the volume provide wide-reaching coverage and underscore the trans-colonial connections of indigenous peoples and the British Empire. The book features an interesting collection of essays from leading to early career scholars. It is an essential read for those scholars interested in the history of the British Empire, indigenous peoples and colonization, and the "Age of Revolution." The book might be of interest to instructors who teach upper-level undergraduate or graduate seminars related to these topics.  

Christoph Strobel is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He may be reached at


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