During the nineteenth century, British and American settlers acquired a vast amount of land from indigenous people throughout the Pacific, but in no two places did they acquire it the same way. Stuart Banner tells the story of colonial settlement in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Today, indigenous people own much more land in some of these places than in others. And certain indigenous peoples benefit from treaty rights, while others do not. These variations are traceable to choices made more than a century ago--choices about whether indigenous people were the owners of their land and how that land was to be transferred to whites.
Banner argues that these differences were not due to any deliberate land policy created in London or Washington. Rather, the decisions were made locally by settlers and colonial officials and were based on factors peculiar to each colony, such as whether the local indigenous people were agriculturalists and what level of political organization they had attained. These differences loom very large now, perhaps even larger than they did in the nineteenth century, because they continue to influence the course of litigation and political struggle between indigenous people and whites over claims to land and other resources.
Possessing the Pacific is an original and broadly conceived study of how colonial struggles over land still shape the relations between whites and indigenous people throughout much of the world.
In a brilliant comparative study of law and imperialism, Lisa Ford argues that modern settler sovereignty emerged when settlers in North America and Australia defined indigenous theft and violence as crime.
This occurred, not at the moment of settlement or federation, but in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when notions of statehood, sovereignty, empire, and civilization were in rapid, global flux. Ford traces the emergence of modern settler sovereignty in everyday contests between settlers and indigenous people in early national Georgia and the colony of New South Wales. In both places before 1820, most settlers and indigenous people understood their conflicts as war, resolved disputes with diplomacy, and relied on shared notions like reciprocity and retaliation to address frontier theft and violence. This legal pluralism, however, was under stress as new, global statecraft linked sovereignty to the exercise of perfect territorial jurisdiction. In Georgia, New South Wales, and elsewhere, settler sovereignty emerged when, at the same time in history, settlers rejected legal pluralism and moved to control or remove indigenous peoples.