Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole

Indigenous Power

Anonymous, Farmington, Connecticut Land Deed (March 11, 1785)

Throughout the Empire, Britons conceived of indigenous peoples—from North America to India to the Scottish Highlands—within similar conceptual frameworks expressed by similar vocabularies.  On their own, the materials gathered in this exhibition offer only fragmentary insights into the ways in which British imperial officials ordered native peoples into a series of comparable categories across the globe. When brought together, however, they reveal some of the most significant axes along which policymakers framed these comparisons and reimagined both indigenous peoples and indigenous governance over time.  Texts like Reasons for Settling the Trade to Africa (1750), Lord Clive’s Speech to Parliament (1772), and T. Erskine’s Tract on the ancient liberties of Britain (1777)  similarly framed West Africans, Bengalis and Scottish Highlanders as targets of English expansion and domination since at least the seventeenth century.  Despite similarities in language used to express colonized peoples as wild, cruel, submissive and mean, British policy-makers sought to construct alliances with indigenous leaders and bring these alliances into a European imperial context, thereby creating space for indigenous groups to renegotiate and even resist British control.  This exhibition suggests, then, that the reworking of ideas about indigeneity that occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century owed not to British perceptions about indigenous “backwardness,” but rather to indigenous peoples’ indispensability to even the most powerful of European empires.

Further Reading: Indigenous Power