Notes on 4th Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: Bayly

George Seton, watercolour, “ Winter Travelling in Rupert’s Land,” dated 1857. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-9.

C.A. Bayly, “The British and indigenous peoples” in Martin Daunton, and Rick Halpern, eds., Empire and others: British encounters with indigenous peoples, 1600-1850 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 19-41.

Editors Daunton and Halpern describe this collection of essays as designed to enlarge the scope of British and American history while retaining a coherent centre from which to examine the ‘European’ perspective. They seek to  ‘reintegrate’ history of colonial North America with imperial and British history in order to extend chronology and obtain a wider set of contact/conflict histories for comparative analysis. Aboriginal peoples worldwide are not the central subject scrutinized; rather their presence serves to define European subjects. Identity is meant to be viewed as a category for analysis in which recognition of multifaceted multiplicity has displaced essentialism.[1]

Bayly‘s essay, though not explicit about it, is in effect ethnicizing the British. As Bayly puts it, “historians have begun to expose the particular conjunctures of political and economic change which created both ‘the British’ and ‘native peoples’.”[2] He does not use the term ethnicity for the British, therefore, but describes the formation of a widely shared acceptance or consciousness of a distinct ‘identity’ at the national level.

This was an identity based on the perception that unity of purpose and strength in numbers could confer power and allow domination on a world scale. Such domination was seen as a means of assuring homeland security, comfort, and prosperity. Past British subjects appear to have been pretty much correct about all of this up to a point. The state’s position got much stronger and it is still the unit of national governance. The country was not destroyed by warfare. Empire didn’t pan out though, Britain did not sustain its position as leading economic or military power, nor did the British people turn out to be higher up the evolutionary ladder than everyone else.

In tracing the emergence of Britishers, Bayly notes that “far from being a given Britishness was a recent, fragile and contested ideology of power. The century between the accession of George III and Benjamin Disraeli’s first ministry witnessed the creation of a still friable sense of British identity and British statehood, overriding regional patriotisms and local particularism.”[3] He describes catalysts of identity formation as including domestic economic integration, international war, revival of strenuous Protestant Christianity, and reinvention of the British Crown, along with the experience of ‘empire’ (meaning empire building).

While he acknowledges that “during the century from 1760 to 1860, domestic economic expansion and the experience of empire were finally absorbing the ‘indigenous peoples’ of the British Isles themselves,”[4] Bayly’s discussion seems to refer to Scottish and Irish people very generically – the point that there were communities among them that included spouses and progeny whose heritage reflected indigenous origins in other parts of the world is not made. He does note, however, that “This pattern of assimilation was not a smooth one. It raised sharp conflicts about identity, language and control of local resources within Britain itself.”[5]

Of attitudes towards assimilation and peoples elsewhere, Bayly suggests that “Outside the British Isles, the years from 1760 to 1860 also saw the creation of a new concept of indigenous peoples. Eighteenth-century ideas about the unity of mankind and the diffusion through the world of the lost tribes of Israel were slowly being replaced by the vision of a ladder or hierarchy of development up or down which societies must pass.”[6] It is worth noting, however, that Canadian historian Olive Patricia Dickason, Myth of the Savage, traces the history of these ideas to much a earlier period.

Bayly mentions that the question of whether North American Métis were ‘indigenous’ or not was asked, but he does not elaborate on where or when. Overall his commentary on the “debate about origins” of peoples is loose — he comments that it has “considerable resonance today, at a time when United Nations and other agencies are targeting economic resources at ‘indigenous peoples’, often very narrowly defined,” but does not delve deeply into whether such debates are solely about origins, or in what sense. Is he speaking of geographic, cultural, or biological arguments? By what measurement are arguments judged to be narrow?[7]

George Seton, watercolour, “Indian Dog Feast. Ruperts Land 1857.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-1.10R.

In the context of the book’s collection of essays, it is acceptable for Bayly to argue “that the period from 1760-1860 was a critical one in the epistemological and economic creation of ‘indigenous peoples’ as a series of comparable categories across the globe … also … that a consideration of the nature of British imperial expansion and of British intellectual history is central to an understanding of the invention of these ‘indigenous peoples’.” Nevertheless, the lack of a balancing North American perspective presents problems. One of the first difficulties I had with the text was the seeming — and rather heavily seeming — implication throughout most of the piece that being indigenous was somehow a British invention that other peoples had no deliberate part in (Bayly reserved for the essay’s end a comment that “Non-European societies were not, of course, passive victims of these material pressures or ideological constructs,” they “fought back against, ‘wrote back’ against and creatively negotiated the advances of colonial rule”).[8] Even in his acknowledging that there is a need to “locate the voices of the marginalized in a broader context” Bayly persists in maintaining a centric position that places ‘them’ on his margins – which the language of the entire text suggests are ‘our’ margins.[9]

My biggest problem with Bayly’s historical assessment lays in the tendency to make rather sweeping statements about North America that don’t seem to recognize how big a place it was/is, how greatly varied its peoples, and how time matters when it comes to instancing. For example his observation that “In North America, the new rifles of the  American and British forces came into the hands of American Indians who used them with great effect against the European invader,” apparently refers to 1750. But, which ‘Indians’? Where? And ‘came into the hands’ does not adequately take agency into account — were these guns bought and paid for? Nor is any explanation given as to how access to French guns might have figured in conflict.[10]

George Seton, watercolour, “Buffalo Hunters of the Far West, 1858.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-1.8R.

I am even less comfortable with Bayly’s handling of the ‘prevalent idea’ that “indigenous peoples were to be subject to stricter controls, and if possible exploited as a labour pool.”[11] Though this was definitely a British idea, at a practical level it was not always possible to implement — in the vast territory of Rupert’s Land for example. And, once again, if  the agency of the ‘other’ is considered — as numerous North American historians have done — ‘exploitation’ seems, at times, to have been a two-way arrangement. Further to the matter of ‘stricter controls’ it seems to me that Bayly’s description of historical patterns is likely to foster a misapprehension. He cites Elizabeth Mancke as recently pointing out:

the role of the domestic British state and of its military and naval forces in what became Canada had long been much more obtrusive than it was further south in the Thirteen Colonies. … After 1783, British territorial expansion into central and north-western Canada and treaty-making with native peoples continued to be driven forward by rivalries with the Americans and Russians and by the need to secure revenues to pay for an exaggerated military presence. These concerns continued to influence the nature of Canadian political culture until well into the nineteenth century. In Mancke’s words, ‘the red coats of the army, rather than the red coats of the North West Mounted Police preceded British settlement’ in nineteenth-century Canada.” [12]

Some definition, of which manifestation of ‘Canada’ is being referred to and at what particular time, is needed here — especially to explain how one can argue that British naval ships, soldiers, and coastal settlements were not all preceded by fishing sailors and their shore stations. Or, to take an inland example: If the above quote is meant to include Lord Selkirk’s Red River Colony begun in 1812, where a small settlement already existed, then the first red coats bent on control appeared in 1816 and were worn by North West Company [NWC] Métis, who had previously fought for the British against the Americans (in the War of 1812), but who were at that time antagonistic to that particular version of the settlement. The next militaristic regiment to appear was a mixed assemblage of mercenaries primarily made up of de Meuron’s retired Swiss regiment (also from the war of 1812) hired by Lord Selkirk as soldier/settlers. Selkirk was taken to court in Montreal over having deployed them against the NWC post at Fort William while enroute to Red River, and found guilty of unwarranted trespass in 1818. His ‘troops’ failed as farmers and deserted the settlement by 1826. The original Métis settlers continued to pursue their own interests as they had from the outset. An actually British military contingent appeared in 1846, led by John Ffolliett Crofton, ostensibly slated to somehow handle the Oregon Territory problem much further west. They did not stay long in North America — apparently Crofton saw no point in being there — but were replaced by a small band of Chelsea pensioners in 1848.[13] These generated complaints from settlers for being drunk, some were arrested, and then most went home (though throughout Red River’s history there were individuals who had arrived with various groups, opted to integrate with the community, and remained as settlers). Settlement continued in Red River without any official military presence until 1857 when a contingent of Royal Canadian Rifles arrived (in black coats) — once again finding there was nothing much to do, though Major George Seton created a number of sketches of the settlement, some of which illustrate this post. The Canadian Rifles departed in 1861.[14] Another temporal gap occurred until Canadian militiamen from Ontario and Quebec arrived with Colonel Wolseley as the Red River Expeditionary Force in 1870 — with the promise of 160 acres of crown land apiece if they remained as settlers. It was at this time that the control of life in the Canadian West was radically altered, and not by red coats’ soldiering, but by an inundation of settlers from Ontario, supported by the expansionist program of the new Dominion of Canada.

George Seton, watercolour, “ Fort Garry, Rupert’s Land,” dated 19 March 1858. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-1.19R.

I find very little of what Bayly goes on to say about such things as ‘garrison mentality’, ‘military imperialism’, or forestry concerns meshes well with Canadian historiography, simply because very little is done to specify where or when in North America over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries his comments are meant to apply. I found the lack of precision distracting to the point that I have to admit failure when it comes to appreciating his argument — though perhaps the real problem is my unwillingness as a reader to suspend my own sense of place and assimilate to a perspective generated an ocean away.

George Seton, watercolour, “Men’s Barracks from the Officers Messroom Window, Fort Garry, Winter of 1857-1858.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-1.12R.

Additional reading:

See Sharron A. Fitzgerald, abstract, “Hybrid Identities in Canada’s Red River Colony,”

Frances Ann Hopkins, oil on canvas, “The Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls,” dated 1877, with inscription: “”This picture represents a portage on the ‘Red River Expedition’ commanded by Colonel G.J. Wolsely (afterwards F.M. Viscount Wolsely). It was painted for him by Mrs. Edward Hopkins. Colonel Wolsely is on a very low seat in the boat with Union Jack and has a puggaree on his hat. Louisa, Dowager Viscountess Wolsely presented it to the Dominion of Canada in 1917, in memory of her husband.”  Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1989-400-1 In memory of Viscount Wolsely.

[1] Martin Daunton, and Rick Halpern, “Introduction: British identities, indigenous peoples and the empire,” in Empire and others: British encounters with indigenous peoples, 1600-1850 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 1-18.


[2] Bayly, in Empire and others, 19

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 21-22.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 24.

[11] Ibid, 25.

[12] Ibid, 26. According to the end notes, Bayly is referring to Mancke, “Another British America. A Canadian model for the early modern British empire,”  Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 25, no. 1 (1997): 1-36.

[13] On red coated Chelsea pensioners see

[14] See Charles N. Bell, “Some Red River Settlement History,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions Series 1, No. 29 (Read 29 April 1887),


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes 2, Section I: Identity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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