White settlers with “good intentions”

Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the activities undertaken by the Indian Affairs Committee of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers.) Amazingly, that committee has been in continuous– or sometimes, possibly a bit sporadic?– operation since 1795 CE. In that blog post, I interrogated the commonly voiced thought that the earlier leaders and members of the IAC had acted “with good intentions” and therefore they and their actions should not be judged too harshly– or possibly, even at all?– by Quakers and others today… I concluded that blog post by looking particularly at the record of a 19th-century Quaker from Baltimore called Philip E. Thomas who was both a longtime clerk (head) of the BYM-IAC, 1838-61, and also the founding– and long-serving– president of a major piece of settler-supporting infrastructure, in the form of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. This Wikipedia page tells us that by 1854, the B&O Railroad was generating, “$2.7 million of annual profit on its 380 miles (610 km) of track… with 19 million passenger miles.”

My focus in quoting those figures was less on the profits that Thomas and his company were realizing but on the passenger miles. Who were those passengers? A small number of them, it seems, were Native Americans. But I am sure the vast majority of them were “White” people who were traveling to Ohio and other points west of the Appalachians in order to found or join colonial settlements there, or merchants or tradespeople serving and supporting the colonists in one way or another. Without that speedy new transportation link that connected the trans-Appalachian settlements with Baltimore and the other port cities of the East Coast, the prospect of going to live and farm in one of those settlements in the Ohio Valley would have been considerably less inviting…

(And yes, Mr. Thomas and his fellow B&O shareholders were also able to make a nice profit off all those passenger miles.)

One way of looking at the actions of Mr. Thomas that I have found helpful is to compare them with the “pro-peace” actions undertaken over the decades– though notably with less visibility or effect in recent decades–by members of Israel’s once-powerful “liberal Zionist” movement… People like the leaders of the “Peace Now” movement, or the Meretz political party (back in the day). Those Jewish Israelis wanted through their actions to limit, or possibly even end, the harms that Israel was inflicting on the Palestinians of the areas that the Israeli military occupied in 1967… But they never wanted to undertake any actions that might call into question– or lead to the reversal of– the extensive land expropriations and ethnic cleansing that the Zionist militias undertook in 1947 and 1948.

That is, in both cases, these relative “liberals” or “philanthropists” from among the privileged settler population sought to reduce to some degree the suffering that the settler-colonial project of which they were the clear beneficiaries was inflicting on the Indigenes. But they always steadfastly refused to do anything that might curb or dent the settler-colonial project itself. And indeed, in the case of Philip Thomas, he was an active player in pushing the White settler-colonial project in Turtle Island forward to new levels.

(Also worth noting here, parenthetically, how many of the leaders of Israel’s “Peace Now” and related pro-peace movements had actually been born in the United States and voluntarily immigrated to “Israel” as adults, thus proving their strong adherence to the Zionists’ ideology as well as their project. I’m looking at you, Yossi Alpher, Galia Golan, Gershom Gorenberg, Jeff Halper, and so many more… )

But thinking about the complexity of the stances adopted by “liberal” or “philanthropic” settler-colonialists in Turtle Island and Palestine has led me to a number of other questions. It certainly leads me to explore other cases of “White” settler colonialism worldwide, where members of other privileged colonial populations have also started to grapple with these issues. I’m thinking in particular here of South Africa or Aotearoa/New Zealand, which are cases that I’m fairly familiar with; but also, Canada, Australia, and perhaps even (formerly Portuguese) Angola– all in this latter group being cases with which I claim only a tiny familiarity.


The case of the “settlers of conscience” in Aotearoa/New Zealand seems to me in many ways the most interesting. I was lucky enough to visit Aotearoa back in 2005, and I was fascinated with the steps that many in the “Pakeha” community there were taking to try to provide a degree of restitution to the surviving remnants of the country’s Indigenous Maori community. (“Pakeha” is itself an interesting word, used in a significant way. It is the word that speakers of the country’s Maori language use for the White settlers who started invading their islands in large numbers in the early 19th century CE… And now, significantly, many members of the settler community also happily refer to themselves as “Pakeha”.)

You can read the blog posts I wrote about that visit to Aotearoa here: 1, 2, 3, 4. Among the main things I learned then were:

  • Since the 1970s, roughly, the government has made some serious attempts to reinstate and implement some of the key portions of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi that provided key protections to the country’s Maoris.
  • Since the Maoris were judged at that time to make up 17% of the national population, the treaty-implementation steps taken in the late 20th century included allocating 17% of the “common goods” of the country’s national resources to the Maori clans.
  • The implementation steps also included dedicated efforts to preserve/revive the Maori language as a living language. That included establishing Maori-language-incubating preschools and Maori-language tv and radio channels. (I discussed Maori language loss, or more accurately the language-suppression efforts of early generations of settlers, in this 2005 blog post.)
  • For some Pakeha, the fact that country had a degree of multi-culturality to it, between them and the Maori, was something they really valued and that they felt made them distinctive– especially in contrast to their White-settler neighbors in Australia!
  • The fact that the Maori in Aotearoa all came from a single language /culture group (or nation) made figuring out how to reinstate and start implementing the Treaty of Waitangi a lot easier than doing something similar in, say, Australia or the United States would be.

I am sure that a lot of things have happened in Aotearoa since 2005 on this issue. (Would love to go back there!) But still, I greatly value what I learned then. Here is the website for the country’s Ministry of Maori Development (Te Puni Kōkiri), which has lots of great resources.

How to be an anti-colonial settler?

This is a question I’ve been pondering quite a lot lately. To be clear: I do think of my position here on Turtle Island as that of a settler. My current thinking on this (which may well evolve more) is that everyone who’s here in Turtle Island who is not either (a) a member of an Indigenous nation or (b) a descendant of someone who was brought here in chains, is essentially a member of the settler group. Some of us, myself included, came here voluntarily as adults. Some of us are the descendants of people who came here, not in chains, from elsewhere. Many White people’s ancestors came here seeking “refuge” from oppression in Europe or elsewhere. But I should note that I think that the claims that many White people make that their ancestors “needed” that refuge may well be overblown. For example, the Quakers and other Protestant dissenters like the Puritans who came here claiming they needed refuge actually left numerous co-religionists behind them in Europe where they prospered…

Also, whether here in Turtle Island or in “Israel”, how can it be justified for people fleeing oppression in one country or continent simply to travel to another country or continent and immediately start enjoying the rich benefits of a political-economic structure that is built intrinsically on the large-scale dispossession of another people or peoples and the plundering of those peoples’ land and resources?

These questions trouble me greatly– and I am not even claiming that I came here to Turtle Island “in flight” from any oppression. I acknowledge that I came here voluntarily, originally to work; I met a local person (a White descendant of settlers) and married him; and gained the full rights and benefits of citizenship here through that marriage. All I can note that is in a tiny way exculpatory is that I did not come to settle here because I believed in “the American ideal”, in the way that many of those US-Jewish immigrants to Israel went because of their adherence to the ideals of the Zionist settler-colonial project of Palestine.

Anyway, I shall continue to wrestle with these matters as I figure out a way to contribute to the dismantling of the settler-colonial system in this country. What I saw happening in Aotearoa/New Zealand provided one intriguing approach to doing that. ..

There are some other instances from other countries of people who were members of the settler community who made a contribution to a dismantlement of settler colonialism that was considerably more thorough than anything that has happened to date in Aotearoa. I’m thinking here particularly about South Africa, where a number of members of the White settler community rose to key positions in the anti-Apartheid and pro-democracy movement led by the (non-racial) African National Congress (ANC.)

The most prominent of those anti-colonial settlers were the heroic Jewish Communists Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Wikipedia tells us:

Slovo was a delegate to the June 1955 Congress of the People organised by the ANC and Indian, Coloured and white organisations… that drew up the Freedom Charter. He was arrested and detained for two months during the Treason Trial of 1956. Charges against him were dropped in 1958. He was later arrested for six months during the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

In 1961, Slovo and Abongz Mbede emerged as two of the leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, formed in alliance between the ANC and the SACP. In 1963 he went into exile and lived in Britain, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia.

He was Ruth First’s spouse. She had her own distinguished role in both the SACP and the ANC, and was assassinated by Apartheid-regime goons in Maputo, Mozambique, in 1982. While Joe Slovo was in exile, in addition to running MK he was a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee and also secretary-general of the SACP. After the country’s first democratic election in April 1994, he became Minister of Housing. Tragically, he died on cancer in January 1995.

Slovo and First were far from the only White South Africans who made serious contributions to the South African liberation struggle. (A large number of them were, like Slovo and First, Jewish.)

And in neighboring Angola, meanwhile, in the early and mid 1970s, one of the key commanders in the the MPLA guerrilla movement that was battling to end Portugal’s 500-year-long colonial control of the country was a Portuguese national by the name of Commandante Farrusco, as I wrote about here in May 2020. (Farrusco hadn’t himself been a Portuguese settler in Angola. He was Portuguese-Portuguese. He said he was converted to the anti-colonial cause when he was serving in the Portuguese Army’s counter-guerrilla campaigns in Angola… and he’d been horrified by the extreme poverty and want he saw the Indigenes living in there… )

I want to assure my readers, in case you were wondering, that I’m not about to follow the great examples presented by Joe Slovo, Ruth Frist, and Commandante Farrusco. Those two people (and their “White” colleagues in those movements) were acting in settler-colonial situations very different from the one that exists here in Turtle Island.

And actually, while I’m talking about how to be a settler who is an effective anti-colonial activist, I should certainly mention my friend, the Jewish-Israeli writer and speaker Miko Peled, who along with a small number of other people of Jewish-Israeli origin like Ilan Pappe and Jeff Halper have made distinctive contributions to the public critique of the Zionist project and the visioning of a future for Palestine that is determined by Palestinian people of all faiths.

Becoming an effective settler of conscience in Turtle Island

Truly, I am still at the start of this process of discovering what it might mean to be an effective settler of conscience (or perhaps better, a “settler of embodied conscience”) here in Turtle Island. Learning a lot more about the White-supremacist settler-colonial project here is definitely one thing I should do. And I’ll definitely plan/hope to gain some guidance and leadership from Native American colleagues and friends along the way.

Here, though, are some very preliminary thoughts/questions, based on the above:

  • From a practical point of view, I think the demographics of the current situation do limit the kinds of outcomes we might hope to envision or arrive at. Thus, for example, in Algeria– which the French for 150 years used to consider to be part of the French homeland— the eventual victory of the Indigenes and the complete overthrow of France’s settler-colonial project was eventually possible because of the much greater numbers, and the resilience and religious homogeneity, of the Indigenes. In many other cases throughout Africa, the local demographic balance was similarly a factor in the victory– always, at a horrendously high cost– of the Indigenous forces over the settler-colonial projects of numerous West-European empires.
  • In Aotearoa, by the 1970s, the Maoris did not enjoy anything like numerical superiority. But they had a large degree of cultural/national homogeneity amongst themselves which I am sure helped to make more possible the envisioning and implementation of a revival of the 1840 Treaty.
  • The case of Ireland, which was Protestant England’s first overseas settler-colonial project dating back to Cromwell, is also definitely worth studying! It provides something of a mid-way point between the Indigenes getting 17% of the “whole” in Aotearoa, and those many cases in Africa where the Indigenes got, essentially ,100%.
  • (Just to add, here, that most of those countries of the Global South that won 100% of political independence in the era of decolonization, remained extremely vulnerable to the economic power of the “West”-dominated international monetary systems… )
  • Getting back to a consideration of the demographic situations, in both Australia and here in Turtle Island, the currently very strong demographic superiority of the settler populations, along with the very heterogeneous nature of the Indigenous populations, make envisioning an ending of the settler-colonial system very complex indeed, in practical terms.
  • However, even if the practicalities of envisioning and implementing decolonization in these or other situations look very daunting, that by no means erases the moral necessity for us to try to do this.
  • We can and should be aided in this quest through international outreach efforts, including the adoption by the UN General Assembly in September 2007 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP– full English-language text in PDF here.) Four states voted against it at the time– the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • Over the years that followed, Australia, NZ, and Canada all reversed their decisions on UNDRIP. Then in 2010, Pres. Barack Obama announced that the United States would do the same; but it is not clear what practical effects, if any, that decision had.