Beyond  /  Book Excerpt

“Invasion is a Structure Not an Event.” On Settler Colonialism and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

When he reflected on the consequences of empire, Conrad saw no logic or teleology. He saw mayhem. There is no surety in "Heart of Darkness."

The interpretative paths we have constructed to help guide us through the baffling, bewildering forests of early America struggle with horrific scenes like these. One of the most prominent of these paths was blazed by a thirty-­two-­year-­old historian named Frederick Jackson Turner. Delivered as an address in 1893 at an exposition commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World, Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier to American History” is widely considered to be among the most influential pieces of writing about American history.

How Turner reached his conclusions has become its own legend. As the story goes, Turner gathered the ideas that would become his “frontier thesis” after reading the results of the 1890 census. The bureaucrats in the Census Office proclaimed that the frontier, a line of “settlement” that had steadily advanced across the continent throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was now closed; it was a relic of the past. Turner read this report with alarm. It compelled him to investigate what effect the frontier had had on the United States.

In “The Significance of the Frontier,” Turner declared that the process of “perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities … furnish the forces dominating American character.” It was the secret to what made the United States different from and better than every other nation. For Turner, incidents like Yellow Creek were aberrations perpetrated by a “line of scum that the waves of advancing civilization bore before them.” Unfortunate episodes such as these were merely a small part of a larger glory, of a world-historical dynamic that had made America—­and Americans—­great.

Since the 1940s, scholars have challenged Turner’s thesis. They have pointed out all of the men and women whom Turner left out of his fabulous tale. Critics have especially taken issue with his notion of an advancing frontier line, using other words that emphasized space over time, place over process. Focusing on regional differences, historians have presented evocative and powerful accounts of how colonists and Natives encountered one another on middle grounds, native grounds, borderlands, and bordered lands.

Each of these terms offered a new analysis of Native-­colonial encounter, focusing on who dictated political, economic, and cultural terms and how power ebbed and flowed. They contend that geography matters: what happened in the region they are studying could only have done so in that specific spot. This is by design; a rejection of Turnerian meta-narratives.

More recently, scholars looking to interpret encounter between Native peoples and colonists have relied on the concept of “settler colonialism.” Developed largely by Australian scholars writing about what happened to Indigenous peoples there, the concept of settler colonialism has been used to argue that European settlers in the Americas did not simply take land and resources from Indigenous peoples but eliminated them after the fact by destroying their history and discrediting their way of life.