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An Indictment of European “Genocide” that Backfires Badly

Settler Genocides of Indigenous Peoples
Jeff Fynn-Paul
Written by Jeff Fynn-Paul

This book sets out to prove that European contact with the wider world was characterised by genocide as in inevitable product of racism and capitalism. In fact, it shows the opposite.

Review of

Mohamed Adhikari. Destroying to Replace: Settler Genocides of Indigenous Peoples (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2022.)


During the 2010s, the South African scholar Mohamed Adhikari began to embrace the “settler colonialism genocide” paradigm which was gaining in popularity at the time.  He has since produced a number of works on the theme, including an edited volume with Routledge (2021), followed closely by the work under review.  A self-confessed “addled Marxist” as a student (and many of us can profess a similar pedigree), it seems that Adhikari never shed the Marxist’s desire for an overarching, Newtonian-style paradigm of how history and society function.  Indeed the star contributor to Adhikari’s Routledge volume, Lorenzo Veracini, began his 2010 volume Settler Colonialism:  A Theoretical Overview with an appeal to Marx and Engels.  The International Network of Genocide Scholars who awarded Adhikari their 2020 inaugural Impact Award is likewise riddled with people who continue to call themselves Marxists of some flavour or another, despite the fact that Karl Marx ceased writing some 140 years ago now.

Whether Adhikari and his band of genocide scholars are actual Marxists or not is of course neither here nor there.  What matters for this review is what their allegiances say about both their scholarly methodologies and their motivations.   About their methodologies, it suggests that they are activated by Wallerstein-esque “paradigms” which purport to show how the entire world functions in a structuralist fashion.  More specifically, they agree with Howard Zinn that social systems inevitably perpetuate a violent conflict between two opposing camps of oppressor and oppressed; and that these can be split along economic, racial, or gender lines as one sees fit.  About the genocide scholars’ motivations, their pedigree suggests that they are actuated by a desire to make “capitalism” (i.e. the West) look as bad as possible, in the hopes that this will eventually bring about a revolution in which everyone rides bicycles to work and lives on sustainably-grown avocado toast.  The end goal may be fuzzy, but the desire to bring down capitalism and the West are strong.  As we’ve seen in the past several years, their rhetoric is no joke in an age of social-media-driven populism and increasingly organized autocratic challenges to Western democracy.

Destroying to Replace brings together four disparate case studies in which Western colonists caused grievous harm to a group of non-Western “Indigenous” people.  These are, the Canary Islands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the nineteenth-century slaughter of Australian aborigines in Queensland, the so-called “California Genocide” (formerly the “California Indian Wars”) of ca. 1850 to 1870, and the Herero and Namaqua Genocide in German South West Africa which took place between 1904 and 1908.

The overarching goal of the book is to highlight the structural connections between European colonialism and genocide across global history in time and space, with an eye to proving the ultimate “truth” of the settler colonialism paradigm in the process.  That truth being, that Europeans were driven by capitalist and racist forces to replace Indigenous people with more productive non-Indigenous populations, even at (ideally at?) the cost of genocide.  As Adhikari explains, “The social reality we contend with today, especially for those of us living in settler societies such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, has fundamentally been fashioned by the intertwined plot lines of [settler colonialism and genocide.]  The subject demands our attention if we are to understand the making of the modern world.”

The four case study chapters—while well-researched and written—are of little scholarly value per se, as they are simply potted summaries of other peoples’ work.  For example, the California chapter relies heavily on Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide (Yale, 2016), the book which almost single-handedly convinced the California public that their early Indian Wars were indeed a genocide.  In all four cases, Adhikari commits the common genocide scholar’s error of assuming a priori that what they are describing was indeed a “genocide,” an attitude which leads them to overlook fistfuls of countervailing evidence.  For example, Adhikari describes the Spanish colonization of the Canary Islands as a war of extermination, without properly emphasizing the role of plague and disease, and without considering the extent to which Canarians intermarried with the colonizers, thus creating a Mestizo race which is alive and well to this day.

The four case studies are likewise highly misleading for the university students at whom they are aimed, because they represent the epitome of the genocide scholar’s tendency to cherrypick.  All four are chosen to maximize European guilt.  Out of hundreds of possibly genocidal moments that occurred across the globe over the past six centuries, these represent some of the surprisingly few instances which fit Adhikari’s European:oppressor :: Non-European:victim paradigm.  For example, the California Indian Wars represent the most concentrated, most egregious massacres of Indigenous peoples by Europeans in the New World since the sixteenth century.  The Queensland massacres represent a similar nadir in Australian history, and ditto the South West African incidents.  (Presumably Adhikari ignored the much greater African casualties in the Belgian Congo because of the complicity of Africans in the genocides there.)

If the case studies are cherrypicked and unoriginal, perhaps there is value in the book’s Conclusion, which attempts to sew together all of the sinews of the Settler-Colonial-Genocide World System?  Unfortunately, the impression one gains from the Conclusion is that of a scattershot hitting a brick wall at range.  Adhikari throws virtually every item available at the European colonialist era, in the hope that some of them will illuminate “the very heart of all settler colonial projects, particularly those that were part of Western global expansion since the fifteenth century.”  Amongst the suggested links are “access to globalizing markets,” an “attendant desire among colonists to accumulate wealth rapidly,” a “desire to exploit natural resources,” “integration to the global economy,” the “commodification of natives,” “ruthlessly exploitative attitudes to land and labor,” “settler incursions” which brought “privatization and commodification,” crop growing, pastoralism, and mining, “commercial activity,” “colonial law,” “Indigenous resistance,” and “demographic and technological imbalances.”  In short, all that is done here, is that some rather general aspects of the global economy have been marshalled in a failed attempt to link four incidents much better understood as parts of more specific stories, with which grand nineteenth-century paradigms of system-driven oppression have very little to do.

In conclusion, might I be so bold as to suggest a better use of Professor Adhikari’s time?  As an expert in the peoples of southern Africa, perhaps it would be most illuminating if Professor Adhikari can look at the grand history of genocidal violence in southern Africa from the 1850s onwards—or best, beginning even earlier.  From that vantage point, it would become clear that many of southern Africa’s problems today—while sometimes exacerbated by colonialism—were in fact due to the small-scale nature of African political systems, linguistic pluralism, and the lack of a coherent cultural cement (such as Christianity or Islam) which might have mitigated certain atrocities (while spurring others).  This vantage point would also reveal what Adhikari is magnanimous enough to admit in the Preface to his book, which is that Europeans never had an exceptional monopoly on settler colonialism, let alone genocide.

Indeed, of the hundreds of colonial enterprises that Europeans embarked on around the globe since the fifteenth century, only in a precious few of these—namely in North America north of the Rio Grande, in Australia, and in New Zealand, did Europeans end up “replacing” Indigenous peoples with European populations.  Almost everywhere else, including Mexico, Peru, and nearly all of Africa and Asia, Europeans must be judged to have failed miserably, if the goal of their colonizing efforts was to exterminate and replace Indigenous populations.

The obvious conclusion is that most settler colonialism happened by accident, rather than by any combination of systemic inevitability or evil intent.  The US, Canada, Australia (and places such as southern Chile and Argentina, and parts of South Africa) only became majority European due to a combination of fertile land and sparse Indigenous populations.  For example, all of Australia is estimated to have been home to less than 300,000 people when Europeans first set foot on the continent, and Canada had a similar number.  (By contrast there are estimated to be about 900,000 Indigenous Australians today, and over 1.3 million Indigenous Canadians—figures difficult to square with any standard definition of genocide.)  Central Mexico and environs was meanwhile home to fully 50% of the New World population when Cortés arrived, and of Mexico’s ca. 130,000,000 people today, less than 20 percent of these are full-blooded Europeans.  A similar number are full-blooded Indigenous, while the rest are Mestizos—mixed-blooded Indigenous and Europeans.

If the global history of European colonization tells us anything, then, it seems to point in a direction opposite of what Professor Adhikari hopes to prove.  It shows us that “settler colonial genocides” in which Europeans exterminated Indigenous populations were very much the exception to the rule in global history.  It further demonstrates that any hope of proving European civilization to have been driven by a racist, capitalist “system” of oppression and extermination must finally be given up in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Dr Jeff Fynn-Paul is a UD1 [Assoc. Professor] at Leiden University, and Series Editor, Brill Studies in Global Slavery

About the author

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul is Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has published widely on Iberian, Mediterranean, and Global History, is a founding editor of the Journal of Global Slavery, and a co-editor of the Studies in Global Slavery book series for Brill. Fynn-Paul won the European History Quarterly Prize in 2016. In 2020, his Spectator article “Myth of the Stolen Country” went viral, enraging large swathes of academic twitter. His book on the history of European-New World encounters will be published by Post Hill Press in 2022.