How did peoples of Early Modern Europe construct the identities of themselves and others?

Shakespeare’s famous comment on identity specifies that: “we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”[1] However, the issue of identity goes beyond the perception of oneself. Hence, the only way to create an identity “includes differentiating oneself from what one is not, identity politics is always […] a policy of the creation of difference.”[2] Thus, contrary to Shakespeare’s claim, identities are far from simple. This essay, aims to focus on the evolving and constructed identities of the subaltern, in contrast to the hegemonic norms, in three kingdoms: the Spanish empire, the Atlantic archipelago, and the Swedish Kingdom from circa 1500-1700.[3] Thus, this work will firstly focus upon the geographic nature of Europe, which helped to created a myriad of identities for those who live on the fringes. Secondly, therefore, it is important to explore the transformation in the role of the polity. For instance, At the “beginning of the sixteenth century, the state held no exclusive command of armed men, by the end of the eighteenth century, states maintain gigantic armed forces and, in the event of war, are able to mobilize their entire population” [4] Hence, in the early modern period we see a shift in the role of the state. Nevertheless, the third part of this essay will focus on how the extension of the state towards the frontier, engenders a variety of different identities in contrast to the prevailing norms. As such, it is then vital to focus upon humanism, order, land use and war, which helped to construct binary identities, bearing in mind Michael Foucault’s nations of power, “whereby the representation of truth engenders power complexes.”[5] However, owing to the short length of this essay, belief[6], as a hegemonic norm, will not be examined, in spite of the fact that “throughout Europe the emphasis on political or social order led to the persecution of Christians whose understanding of Christianity differed from those in power.”[7]

Europe has been endowed with a repertoire of physical features; its landforms, climate, geology and fauna have combined to produce an environment that is essential to an understanding of its development. [8] Nevertheless, Europe, which in itself was a relatively modern idea, was defined in contrast to other, ‘darker’ parts of the globe. This was expressed by Voltaire, in 1751, who described Europe as “a kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed. […] They all have the same principles of public law and politics unknown to other parts of the world.” [9] Thus, many Europeans have assumed that their continent was so magnificently endowed that it was designed by nature for world supremacy. This argument was echoed by Montesquieu who wrote, in 1748, that Europe was simply synonymous with progress. [10] This perception of  superiority reinforced by geography directly impacts upon the ways in which identities were created. For instance, Spain, the Atlantic archipelago and the Swedish kingdom, our examples, lie on the periphery of Europe, against what were perceived as unsafe, even ‘barbarous’ lands. Moreover, within these territories the ‘othered’ individuals lived in these marginalised territories, those closest to the borders. For example, in Spain, the moriscos tended to live in the mountainous regions in the south, close to North Africa and the Barbary Coast. Furthermore, the etymology of the term the Barbary Coast is crucial to understanding the Early Modern conception of the North African territories. The word, which was used by Shakespeare in the merchant of Venice in 1600, is deliberately similar to barbarity, barbarousness and barbarism, which were seen as synonymous with Africa. [11] Thus, the territories on the fringes of Europe were viewed with fear and scepticism, in contrast with enlightened and progressive civilisations of Europe. This is particularly noticeable when one traces the origins of the word civilisation, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means: “the action or process of becoming civilized.” [12] Moreover, this term appears to have been regularly used in the Early modern period. In 1767, for instance, a book entitled An Essay on the History of Civil Society included the phrase: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species from rudeness to civilisation.” [13] Thus, this belief in a divine European kingdom, helped to create a multiplicity of different identities by the middle of the eighteenth century.

However, at this point it is useful to highlight the differing conceptions by which people in the early modern period would have understood territories, states and kingdoms, bearing in mind Michael Biggs’ observations:

Looking at any map or atlas, we see a world composed of states. The Earth’s surface is divided into distinct state territories. Each is demarcated by a linear boundary, an edge dividing one sovereignty from the next. The division is accentuated when each territory is blocked out in a separate colour from neighbouring states, implying that its interior is an homogeneous space, traversed evenly by state sovereignty. Our world is a jigsaw of territorial states, and we take this picture for granted. […] Familiar to us, such a depiction would have been utterly unknown to people at the time, who rarely used maps to represent geographical information and did not imagine states, or rather realms, as enclosed spaces. [14]

Thus, in order to understand how people in the early modern period understood and constructed their identities one must remember that the ‘state’ as we know it would not have existed. Instead, the cities were used as a way to civilise the landscape around them. Consequently, the city “itself was viewed as an important symbol of sophistication and civilisation,”[15] Thus, those who lived on the fringes of the state, farthest away from the metropol were viewed with the most suspicion. This trend had been the case since the Romans. For instance, Tacitus in his Germania is able to convey to his elite Roman audience just how barbarous and alien the Germans are by telling them, “it is well known that no German cities exist, indeed that they do not allow joined buildings amongst them.”[16] Thus, the identity of those on the fringes of the state was created in contrast to the ‘civilised civilisation’. However, one must not forget that the “periphery is defined only relative to an arbitrarily demarcated centre.”[17]

Thus, at the start of the sixteenth century, the crown had little, if any, control over these areas on the fringes of the kingdom. Thus, “the Early Modern period saw a revolution in the scale […] of government in Europe,” as rulers sought to extend their influence.[18] This is noticeable throughout all three kingdoms of Spain, Sweden and the Atlantic archipelago. James I of England, for instance, was purported to have said that “his will above all things, at his death, is to leave one worship to God, one kingdom entirely governed, one uniformity of laws”[19] Similarly, Phillip IV and his ministers worked towards “union and equality in the law, customs and forms of government between all the states and the monarchy.” [20] Moreover, our three territories are ruled by, what Elliot coined as, “composite monarchies” whose sovereignty went beyond a single territory.[21] Thus, there was an even greater attempt to codify the powers of the territory and create homogeneity.

Nevertheless, the best example of the extension of state power is illustrated by the Swedish Kingdom. At the start of the sixteenth century, the towns of Sweden were little more than overgrown villages; Stockholm, for instance, had a population of just six thousand.[22] Moreover, vast tracts of the Swedish realm, which stretched from the fertile central plains of Östergötland and Uppland as far as the Karelian Isthmus, were inhospitable.[23] Nevertheless, Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) set about drastically curtailing the powers of the Catholic Church, just as Henry VIII had done, , which owned approximately one fifth of the land compared to the one twentieth owned by the Crown. Thus, by 1539 a royal decree had subordinated the church to state control.[24] Moreover, the Lutheran reformation and the extension of the state bureaucracy allowed increasing numbers of people to map and explore the northern fringes of the state, in turn helping to identify what was and was not Swedish.

Thus, as the state extended its power towards the frontier, it also needed to retain authority and control over these peripheral areas. In order to do this, it was necessary for the state to subjugate other powers which were entrenched within society. Consequently, “if dynasties such as the Bourbons, the Hollenzollerns or the Tudors wanted to increase their control over the resources of their respective countries, they had to eliminate, or at least force back, the rival holders of autonomous power […] Their rivals were first of all other dynasties, that is, the families of higher rank nobility, and the church.” [25] In addition, the ways in which the state extended its tentacles was based upon value judgements and norms. Hence, as Rousseau observed:

“The holders of power in a state did not only develop their own interests, but also a           specific group consciousness based on common interest. Therefore, they are inclined to use           this power of the state which holds in it the interests of their own groups first of all. The   same collective egoism drives them to promote the growth of state power and the            development of state institutions. Of course, services are rendered for the common good but       only because this gives the holding power the air of legitimacy” [26]

Thus, the extension of the state’s power is value laden, meaning “some groups are dominated and abused by the workings of power”[27]

In the early modern period rulers, therefore, attempted to extend their power, and increase their authority over an area, within their kingdom.[28] This trend is, unsurprisingly, linked to an hegemonic norm which “gripped Europe”; humanism.[29] Humanism, focussed upon a return to the classical antiquity through a close study of Greek and Roman writings. It was based on the values of grammar, rhetoric, self-restraint and order.[30] This is perhaps best illustrated through the Leoni brothers’ sculpture (1551-1564) of Charles I of Spain who is depicted as a Roman legionary, standing on top of another figure, who is also Charles I. Although this work is often called ‘Charles I Conquering Heresy’, it is more likely that Charles is in fact protecting and guarding himself from the excesses, which humanists fear. Thus, the Leoni brothers have created a sculpture to portray the King as rational, restrained, ordered and dignified, qualities which were highly valued at the time. However, others in society did not follow this strict criterion of norms. Thus, a myriad of identities in all three kingdoms were created against this perceived ‘perfected model’ of human behaviour. This is particularly apparent in the way in which the subaltern dressed, which, especially to the Spanish, appeared unrestrained, flamboyant and provocative. This is evident when one examines a petition written by Francisco Nunez Muley, a morisco noble, who protested, in 1567, about increasingly draconian measures which limited the rights of his community:

The dress of our women is not Moorish but merely provincial, just as in Castile and in other          regions it is usual for the inhabitants to have distinctive headdress, skirts and hose. Who can    deny that our dress is very different from the apparel of Mors and Turks?[31]

In spite of these protests, the moriscos continued to be viewed with scepticism owing to their dress, language and culture, which appeared ‘unrestrained’ and  inherently Islamic.

Similarly, the Irish  were also viewed with fear owing to their style of dress. This is clear when one examines the engravings by Albrecht Durer, who depicted a group of Irish warriors and peasants in 1521. (See figure 1, in appendix, p14) Durer, who appears to be a fairly objective by-stander, does however highlight certain features, which, to the Early Modern man, would be deeply troubling. For instance, the men are seen to be wearing long, baggy clothes. The English, however, preferred people to dress, in relatively tight clothing, where one could not hide or conceal weapons. Thus, the Irish were branded as sneaky and dishonourable as they did not conform to this unspoken societal law. Moreover, the fashion of the times dictated that people should refrain from having long hair, or a beard, as this allows someone to judge whether they are friendly based on their facial expressions.  Hence, it became entrenched as a popular stereotype that the Irish were different, and these physical signs were used as a way to categorise the Irish identity.

Moreover, binary identities were also created against the norm for land use, farming. This had been the hegemonic norm since the middle ages and provided the occupation and identity for most rural communities.[32] Thus, the harvest was central to the concerns of ‘ordinary’ people.[33] Moreover, this type of land use was respected, and, crucially, taxable. In the Americas, for instance, the English were obsessive in regimenting land, consequently, allowing the land to be controlled more effectively. However, in Ireland, the English found people who did not follow the traditional conceptions of land use. In contrast to the English, most Irish clans were nomadic and therefore had no fixity of settlement, something which the English struggled to comprehend. This is particularly noticeable when one realises how often ownership and property were discussed and debated in the early modern period. John Locke, for example, believed “the same law[s] of nature […] give us property”, an idea which helped to justify colonialism but became synonymous with progress and order, two other hegemonic norms. [34] Thus, the Irish clan system was viewed with scepticism and mistrust owing to its difference from the norm. This is particularly noticeable when one explores twentieth century historical attempts to represent cartographically the land controlled by a Clan. (figure 2, in appendix, p14) This is an impossible task owing to the movement of the clan which tended to follow the cattle, irrespective of borders or geographical constraints. Nevertheless, this highlights how, in the twentieth century, we still find it difficult to comprehend the Irish clan system without using methods of depiction completely alien to those who lived at the time. Thus, even now we, as a society, find it difficult to understand things outside of the ‘norm’. Moreover, the English viewed this ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ method of land use as abhorrent and inherently barbarous. For instance, John Derricke who was the writer and artist of a book entitled The Images of Ireland, with a Discoverie of Woodkerne, depicted an Irish feast. (figure 3, in appendix p15) The picture, which is labelled to draw attention to the most ‘hideous atrocities’ committed by the Irish, sneers at the habits of the Irish who cook outside and allow debauched acts of nudity at the dinner table. Furthermore, the image goes beyond these derisive and mocking depictions, suggesting that the Irish are naturally or inherently different. This is best illustrated through point A where two men are seen cutting open an animal for the feast. The word best used to describe that act would be butchery, what the Oxford English dictionary defines as “to slaughter […] in a brutal or indiscriminate manner”.[35] Thus, John Derricke, has drawn this picture in order to educate the nobility about the heinous acts of barbarity committed by the Irish. Thus, the Irish were ‘othered’ owing to the way in which they did not follow the norms surrounding land holding, something which the English saw as inherently ordered and therefore ‘right.’ Consequently, a dichotomy of identities was made in contrast to this hegemonic norm.

One of the best examples of an emerging norm in the Early modern period was the changing nature and character of war. Moreover, war was the father of all things to unite and build a state. In order to be able to wage war, one must expands the polity’s administration and taxation mainly in order to be able to wage war. [36] This trend becomes particularly evident when one realises that the “number of soldiers [in Europe] grew tenfold between 1500-1800, whereas the population numbers doubled” [37] In spite of this growth in the number of soldiers, there were definite norms which people were meant to abide by. This is particularly noticeable when one explores the etymology of the word nobility, or those who would fight in wars, one finds that nobility refers to a specific way of fighting whereby one has “the quality of […] high moral principles and ideals”.[38] The moriscos, and Irish were, therefore, seen to fight in a ‘dishonourable’ fashion. This is evident when one examines a painting of the rebellion of the moriscos at the castle of Pop in Valencia. The picture (see Figure 4, appendix p15) depicts the Spanish cavalry attempting to scale the steep mountainside towards the moriscos. However, the Spanish are marching in a regimented, ordered style, allowing the moriscos’ crude tactics to be deeply effective. Hence, although the Morsicos did not have traditional weapons, like those used by the Spanish; pushing rocks, stones, trees and themselves off the cliff was equally effective. Moreover, these tactics helped to add to the identities of the two groups.

However, in contrast to the other subaltern groups and almost ironically, the Saami people of northern Sweden were actually integrated into the army. This is mainly owing to the conscription system introduced (utskrivning) under Gustav Vasa, which was later perfected by Gustav Adolph. However, this was not owing to its pluralistic ideals and accepting nature, as we might understand it. It was actually owing to the ways in which others in Europe viewed the Saami. (see figure 5, p16 of appendix) Although little was known about the Saami people of the northern fringes of the Baltic state, their belief system was linked to witchcraft. Moreover, their cultures seemed alien to the culture of the state. Nevertheless, the myths  associated with them reinforced their usefulness to the state as soldiers. The bible, for example, had declared that from a “place in the far north” will unleash attacks and head towards Israel.[39] The importance of these words is difficult for us to comprehend but for many in the early modern period who witnessed the strength and power of the Swedish army, who fought in the Thirty Years War, the most religiously charged conflict in most people’s lives, the fear would have been tangible Thus, the ‘barbaric northerners’ were othered owing to the way in which they dressed and fought in wars, but ironically this was why they were integrated.

Consequently, the way in which early modern identities were understood was far from simple. In this essay we have found that Europe as a continent, is viewed as superior and the borders of this landmass are naturally viewed with the most suspicion. This is not, as one might think, a coincidence, instead it is owing to the way in which the ‘state’ operated in the early modern period. In contrast to our conception of the state with border controls, homogeneity and control, at the start of the sixteenth century the polity was weak. Hence, the monarchs set about ways in which to control and order their territories. This, as we have seen, was not carried out in a pluralistic fashion as we may understand it. The state and society, therefore, projected certain norms against which the ‘othered’ communities were viewed. The effect of this, so called, ‘civilising mission seems’ “to be to engender, sharpen, or heighten the consciousness of the peripheral people.”[40] One historian even argues that the “periphery peoples, while resenting the attempts to ‘civilise them’, nevertheless accept the general premise that they are less civilised or morally less worthy. Thus they develop a ‘stigmatised identity’, […] a sense of themselves as backward, uncivilised, dirty and stupid.”[41] this, is however, almost impossible to evaluate. It is however, possible to see, through the primary sources used that people were shocked by those that were found on the boundaries of our kingdoms. To the humanist, the moriscos possessed naturally unrestrained, colourful and flamboyant, qualities, which allowed the state to be prejudist against them. Equally, to the English, the Irish conception of land use was so unfamiliar that they were disregarded as disordered, barbaric hooligans. Moreover, the way in which these people from the fringes fought was astonishingly different to how a soldier was expected to fight. Thus the identities of the subaltern were created against the hegemonic norms created by society, in England and Spain. However, this was not completely the case with Sweden, where the Saami were othered owing to their nomadic tribe system, their dress and their culture, which was seen to resemble witchcraft. Yet, interestingly, Sweden used these barbaric northerners as soldiers in the Thirty Years War as a way of defining themselves.  Moreover, this is perhaps owing to the relative stage of ‘development’ of the three territories. Both Spain and England, for example, in spite of their best efforts failed to control the varied and heterogeneous kingdom; they had power, not influence. In contrast, Sweden’s huge bureaucracy created the best example of a state with both power and authority within its borders. However, these identities were almost definitely only available to a select few. For instance, if we refer back to John Derricke’s Images of Ireland, we see that one would have to be able to read in order to appreciate the ‘barbarity’ of the Irish. Hence, although, there were great changes between the two cultures, Spafford points out that: most people would have been unaware of the identities of those on the fringes of the state.[42] Finally, it is important to examine the way we understand identities ourselves. Michael Foucault argues that often in history it is difficult for someone in our times to comprehend the way in which people understood things in the past.[43] Nevertheless, on this particular issue it is possible to see correlations in the way that people in the early modern period constructed their identities. Thus, contrary to Foucault’s claims, some people in our society still hold very similar conceptions of the other, to those of the early modern man. This is particularly evident when one examines the rhetoric of the Bush administration following the September 11th attacks in 2001. George Bush’s autobiography, for example, is filled with comments which illustrate how incredibly simple the word is – how the globe can be divided into good and evil, right and wrong, order and disorder:

“On one side were decent people who wanted to live in dignity and peace. On the other were    extremists who sought to impose their radical views through violence and intimidation.”[44]

Thus, the similarity between the norms being established by the Americans in the twenty-first century and those by the Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is striking. Consequently one could argue, as Herbert Gans does, that our society craves a subject to label and subjugate as people crave the feeling of inclusion in a society.[45] In other words, as a society we both create and savour prejudice, in order to belong.


[1]Shakespeare, W. Hamlet Act 4 scene 5, line 43-44 in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Harper Collins, Glasgow, 1994) p1112

[2]Benhabib, S., (eds.) Democracy and Difference, contesting boundaries of the political (Princeton University Press, Chichester, 1996) p 3

[3]The Atlantic Archipelago refers to a group of islands off the north-west coast of Europe comprising England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and adjacent smaller islands.

[4]Biggs, M. “Putting The State on the Map: Cartography, Territory, and European State Formation” in Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 41. No. 2 (April,. 1999), p374

[5]Danaher, G., Schirato, T., Webb, J., Understanding Foucault (Sage publication, London, 2005) pp63-65

[6]The word ‘belief’ is chosen over religion owing to the way in which religions are controlled and tend to be codified, beliefs are not.

[7]Weisner-Hanks, M. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010) p151

[8]Davies, N., Europe, A history (Pimplico, London, 1997) p47

[9]Ibid.

[10]Voltaire, Le Siecle de Louis XIV, quoted by Denys Hay, Europe: The Emergence of an Idea (Edinburgh, 1957) p123 in Ibid.  p7

[11]“Barbary, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see bibliography>.

[12]“civilization, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see bibliography>

[13]Adam Ferguson An essay on the history of civil society 1767. in “civilization, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see bibliography>

[14]Parker, G. Europe In Crisis (Blackwell, Oxford, 2001) p41

[15]Goodman, P., J., The Roman City and The Periphery, From Rome to Gaul (Routledge, Abingdon, 2010) p10

[16]Ibid. p10

[17]Handler, R. (eds.) Central sites, Peripheral Visions (University of Wisconsin Press, London, 2006) p3

[18]Ibid p41

[19]Ibid p30

[20]Ibid p30

[21]Parker, G. Europe In Crisis (Blackwell, Oxford, 2001) p29

[22]Kirby, D., Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period, The Baltic World 1492-1772. (Longman, London, 1993) p310

[23]Ibid p169

[24]Ibid p311

[25]Rienhard, W., (eds.) Power Elites and State buidling (OUP, Oxford, 1996)p7

[26]Ibid. p6

[27]Danaher, G., Schirato, T., Webb, J., Understanding Foucault (Sage publication, London, 2005) p74

[28]Anderson, M., Frontiers, Territory and State Formation in the Modern World (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997)  p17

[29]Butters, H., “The Renaissance” in Kumin, B. (eds.) The European World 1500-1800 (Routledge, Bassingstoke, 2009)  p151

[30]Ibid p155

[31]Luis de Mármol Caravajal, Historia del Rebelión y castigo de los moriscos del Reino de Granada (Malaga 1600) in Biblioteca de autores españoles 21 (Madrid, 1852) abridged and translated by D. Goodman, and printed in D. Englander, D. Norman, R. O’Day and W.R. Owens (eds.), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Oxford 1990) pp.301-3.

[32]Hindle, S. “Rural Society” in Kumin, B. (eds.) The European World 1500-1800 (Routledge, Bassingstoke, 2009)  p45

[33]ibid

[34]   Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pate- Nofter-Row, 1728) page 163

[35]“butcher, v.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see Bibliography>

[36]Rienhard, W., (eds.) Power Elites and State buidling (OUP, Oxford, 1996) p9

[37]Ribalta, P.,M., “The Impact of Central Institutions” in Ibid. p24

[38]“nobility, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 22 April 2012 <URL see Bibliography>

[39]Bible, Ezekiel , 38, 15-17.

[40]Harrell, S. (eds.) Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995) p 6

[41]Harrell, S. (eds.) Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1995) p 6

[42]Spafford, M. Contrasting Communities, English Villages in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2000) p 352

[43]Danaher, G., Schirato, T., Webb, J., Understanding Foucault (Sage publication, London, 2005) p 97

[44]Bush, G.,W., Decision Points (Clays Ltd, St Ives, 2010) p232

[45]  Gans, H. “Deconstructing the Underclass: The term’s dangers as a planning concept” Journal of the Planning Association, Vol. 56, No. 3, p271

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What do you understand by the term colonialism in the early modern Americas?

Colonialism is an emotive term that has many definitions, with numerous academics and scholars struggling to find one firm interpretation. In this essay, therefore, the validity of these different explanations will be assessed with particular reference to the colonial experiences of Spain, England and Sweden. However, in order to fully answer this question, particular emphasis should be placed on the provenance of sources and historiography, which often provide an interesting insight into the reasoning behind the conclusions of various scholars. The word colonialism only emerged in the English language between 1850-55; despite this it is a widely used term, tending to emphasise exploitation through various means: an attachment to the mother country or nation state, and the extension of power in a new territory. Although useful, this explanation fails to get to the heart of the issue: is colonialism an idea or a model? Or, perhaps, is it a word that encompasses so much that it has come to mean very little? Surely it is almost an impossible task to assemble a definition around such a varied and diverse experience of three countries covering vast territories? Consequently, in this essay, it is necessary to look at the way in which colonialists themselves justified taking land in the Americas and the utopian ideas, which enshrined colonial belief. Furthermore, it is important to examine models of colonisation that have attempted to bottle the essence of this complex and varied term.

The Spanish believed that the Americas were open to conquest, as Christian doctrine “granted the right to the persons and property of heathens and infidels.”[1] This beliefs stems from natural law, or the idea of a great chain of being; a hierarchy within all of society. However, many different philosophers inside this group had varying beliefs, as shown by the “Valladolid controversy” that took place between 1550-55. Juan Gines De Sepulveda, a Franciscan monk, believed that “the most powerful and most perfect rule over the weakest and the most imperfect”.[2] Therefore, Spaniards  had a natural right to rule over “the barbarians of the New World […] who in wisdom, intelligence, virtue and humanities are inferior”.[3] This is in contrast to the view of Bartolome De Las Casas, a Dominican monk, who broadly agreed that Christians have a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to convert heathens. However, this conversion must be achieved in a way “which does not notably harm or damage the rights of those […] individual infidels.”[4] De Las Casas was writing in reference to the Encomienda (meaning ‘to entrust’) system, which was established to entrench Native American labour.[5] Despite legislation by the Crown to limit the powers of the Encomienda (like the Laws of Burgos in 1512), the system remained in place as conquistadors had no incentive to reform.[6] Spanish colonialism was therefore typified by this disparity between colonial belief and individuals who were on the frontier of colonial action.[7] Burkholder and Johnson believe that the pyramid structure (with the monarch at the helm) envisaged by the Spanish was a theory that simply did not work in reality. Instead, a more accurate representation is that of wheels, with each hub being in the capital of the Audiencia (administrative territory) and every spoke extending to a province. The Spanish court, in turn, formed the hub of the wheel whose spokes are the Audiencias. From this view the imperial organisations are actually characterised by decentralisation.[8]

English colonial belief was also justified but through a different means. John Locke, who was linked to the colonial development of the Carolina settlement (1663) through his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury, wrote The Two Treaties of Government (1689) which outlines many ideas on property and ownership. Locke believed “the same law[s] of nature […] give us property”.[9] Therefore, property allocated to one man is “as much as any one can make use of to any advantage.”[10] Consequently, man is justified to take land as long “as there was still enough, and as good left”.[11] This was obviously the case in the Americas, where land was in abundance. However,  Locke does stress that a colonialist does not have the right to “engross as much as he will”.[12] This is owing to the view that a colonialist has a responsibility to improve land and, in doing so, it becomes his property. Therefore “as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates and can use […] is his property.”[13] This helps us to understand what colonialism was for the English. As Barbara Arneil rightly puts it, “nothing could reflect more clearly the aggressive colonialism of the […] English than the assumption that we actually possess everything on earth and it is up to each individual person, or nation, to grab its claim before anyone else can.”[14] This is an essential point in explaining the varied colonial experience of the English. The English were almost opportunistic in the way that they viewed the Americas. Therefore, the English had “learned from the Spanish [that] the argument from conquest could only justify imperium over the native peoples but not dominium over American land”.[15] Thus the English were able to improve on the Spanish colonial justification, enabling Locke  to construct a new chapter in the Second Treatise (chapter 5)[16]; when one looks at the discontinuity in the language used, and its specific focus on property, it is evident that chapter 5 was written independently of the rest of the book, thus providing an experience-enabled justification of English colonialism (thanks to his association with the Earl of Shaftesbury and with the constitution of the Carolina settlement).[17] Consequently, Locke’s argument has “identifiable colonial origins” in the Carolina settlement, though “not exclusively colonial applications” as it failed to provide a full and nuanced illustration of the varied English colonial experience.[18]

Swedish colonial development is also justified through natural law and humanist principles. Samuel Von Pufendorf, a Lutheran, wrote De Jure Naturae et Gentium (The Law of Nature and of Nations, 1672) in which he outlines his views on ownership. Pufendorf believes that God “did not determine […] what things should be held individually, and what in common”, thus he left this “to the judgement of men”.[19] Pufendorf argues, contrary to Hugo Grotius, that not only are men sociable but that they are so sociable that people’s judgement should decide how property is owned. As Pufendorf goes on to say, there is no such thing as a just war, as decisions should be made through the “authority of a judge of commonwealths”.[20] This belief in the natural harmony of interest is noticeable in the way in which New Sweden developed a unique relationship with the Lenai Lenape.[21] However, Pufendorf was writing in 1672 and the New Sweden colony was established in 1638. Therefore, this is also an example of retrospectively justifying colonial policy. Perhaps Swedish colonialism was, for this reason, an opportunity as it was a “society in the semi-periphery of the world, which strived to reach the world economy’s centre.”[22]

All of the ideas above about justifying colonialism stem from a belief in utopia (or, perhaps, a dystopia, its opposite). Utopia means two things: an ‘ideal place’ but also ‘no place’. The word, which emerges from Greek, was first translated into English by Sir Thomas More in 1551.[23] More, in his book Utopia, describes a secluded island, isolated and remote, away from corruptible presences. This was an idolised concept and by 1640 the production of utopian literature was prodigious. Furthermore, it was accessible owing to the printing press, which revolutionised the availability of scriptures.[24] This allowed Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis to become very popular, so much so that Bacon was involved in founding the Virginia Company in order to officially consolidate colonialism and utopianism as a capital venture.[25] The Spanish also viewed the Americas as a utopia. Vasco de Quiroga allegedly carried a copy of Sir Thomas More’s book at all times during his time in Mexico city and Michoacan.[26] Furthermore, the number of books, paintings, sculptures and  literary works that emerged depicting the Americas as a new paradise was vast, even if they were diverse in the ways in which they envisaged moulding the environment. This is a key point in understanding why colonialism was so varied in the Americas. Despite broadly similar aims and justifications, the individuals in the Americas were faced with hugely varying circumstances in which to create “utopia”. Therefore, any attempt to give a definition of colonisation must incorporate the effect of the area, the terrain, individuals, the era and the relationship with the natives and the society that this produces. Perhaps the idea of colonialism is, therefore, separate from the act of colonisation, suggesting that colonisation is a process that develops and changes along with the individual in the Americas.

Many historians believe that Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis (1893) is one of the most accurate representations of a model of colonialism. Turner describes how the “advancement of the frontier has meant the steady growth of independence on American lines”.[27] Therefore, the “environment is at first too strong for the man” and “little by little he transforms the wilderness but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply a development of the Germanic germ […] he is a new product that is American”.[28] This led Evelyn Page to write, in 1948, The First Frontier – The Swedes and the Dutch, in order to substantiate this claim.[29] As the title suggests, the book focuses on the Swedish colonial presence in the Americas, which was short and unique. Sweden was too weak economically and its shipping too undeveloped to compete with England and the Netherlands[30]. This, coupled with the wild aims, meant that the tiny New Sweden colony was doomed to failure and, in 1655, Fort Christina was stormed by the Dutch.[31] This comparatively mundane attempt by Sweden at colonisation appears, at first glance, to be a huge failure. However, the Swedish Colonial Society exists today, releasing quarterly news letters[32] and documenting the way in which, after the fall of New Sweden, the Swedes and Finns remained continuing their unique friendship with the Lenape Indians.[33] This adaptability and ability to “accept conditions which it furnishes, or perish”[34] is evident throughout Sweden’s brief colonial experience. Firstly, the colonists of New Sweden showed immense courage and independence; “in spite of disease and violent death, [those who remained] must have possessed a hardihood that could only be imaginatively measured.”[35] The frontier, perhaps, “bred individualism and self reliance”.[36] Secondly, the Swedes were said to have a “special relationship” with the Lenape Indians;[37] they exchanged “furs […], game and fruit, native clothing, mats, bags, and rope” using the native currency.[38] Thirdly, the Swedish sense of European identity weakened with a dislike and disregard of authority. Consequently, Swedes had a heightened sense of individual opportunism that is a “common characteristic of the frontiersmen.”[39] Finally, the “Swedes were not only willing […] to put themselves under alien control, but were far from reluctant to shift loyalties on the spot”.[40] This, at first glance, leads one to believe that Jackson’s frontier thesis is the exact model of Swedish colonialism; however, this is simply not the case. The “rugged individualism” of which Turner writes merely occurred owing to the fact that the Swedes wanted to return home. Johan Printz’s first report in 1643-44 stated that a fifth of colonists had died and there was “no longer any desire to remain here”.[41] Furthermore, the frontier had little effect, if any, on the practice of religion.[42] The Swedes continued to teach and follow Lutheranism, suggesting that “European germs” had in fact triumphed over their environment.[43] Moreover, the disorganised society produced in New Sweden was more a result of conflicting aims than of the effect of the frontier. Nevertheless, it is also important to look at the number of people in New Sweden who were on the frontier. Terry Jordan, a Human Geographer, found that 22 American family names uniquely derived from the colony as late as 1820[44]. Jordan argues that the Swedish were on the frontier as “they became thoroughly mixed into the American population” and their effort created the ideas and founding principles of the United States.[45] This argument is ultimately flawed as it views history through a distorted lens, which manipulates through hindsight and is, therefore, ahistorical. It is a perfect example of teleological history, which views history with an end or a purpose in mind. Consequently, Jordan and Turner are both guilty of placing an emphasis on the “uniqueness of Americans”.[46] This led Ian Tyrrel, a professor at the University of New South Wales, to claim that this exceptionalist ideology was partly founded by Frederick Jackson Turner, who centred their national historical tradition.[47] However, the “legacy of […] exceptionalism still haunts the study of American history” today, as it is “too narrow in its concentration on American uniqueness.”[48] This becomes even clearer when one attempts to use the frontier thesis to look at Spanish colonialism in the Americas. Turner himself believed that the modern American individual was formed from a “Germanic”, not Hispanic, European.[49] Therefore, one immediately wonders why: did Spain not colonise the Americas? The answer is yes, of course they did, and the Spanish colonial Church became the primary vehicle of acculturation, preparing indigenous communities for integration into the colonial order.[50] Furthermore, the Church was present in all areas of colonial life and by the early seventeenth century the number of creoles far surpassed that of the peninsular Spanish, further indicating how the Church anchored itself within society.[51] The missionaries are the perfect example of frontiersmen as shown in the way that they travelled across the Americas, faced with truly daunting circumstances, establishing regular assemblies for instruction and worship.[52] This also took place in modern day North America in the Florida colony (1565). This is ignored by Turner in his infamous thesis. Moreover, subsequent historians have continued to overlook the huge, looming presence of Spain in the Americas. This is something that needs to be addressed if an extension of Turner’s thesis is to provide an accurate model for “colonisation”, whatever that might be. However, perhaps the frontier idea is ultimately flawed as it too focussed on American uniqueness and exceptionalism.

In recent years many different fields of study (anthropology and geography in particular) have attempted to define colonialism. They have established a set of rules or a series of events that lead to a successful colony. Jurgen Osterhammel, a political scientist, writes about three different types of  colony: settlement, maritime, and exploitation.[53] These provide a good framework of what colonialism was for most English, Dutch and Swedish colonial experiences. Osterhammel writes that “colonialism is a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and minority of foreign invaders”.[54] This, at first glance, appears to be a good description of many colonies in the Americas. However, there are clear exceptions to this rule; Barbados was previously unsettled before the English arrived, but it was undeniably still colonisation. This shows how Osterhammel has provided a skeleton of what colonisation tends to involve, but historians will always find isolated examples to disprove his rather rigid theory. The best model of colonisation is provided by Donald Meinig who, in 1986, provided the five stages of progression for colonies to become viable or successful.[55] However, he also describes the effect that the Americas had on Europe and European ideas. This can be seen in Spain, Sweden and England not only in relation to the arts, as discussed earlier, but also relating to power in the country. Spain established the House of Trade (from 1504) and the Council of Indies (from 1524), which oversaw every kind of judicial activity in the colonies,[56] thus tipping the power balance in Spain south towards Seville. In England, major ports were established in Bristol and the West of England, hence the phrase “ship shape and Bristol fashion.” Meinig’s model therefore becomes flexible, far more so than that of Osterhammel. In spite of this, Meinig still struggles to enshrine Spanish colonisation. The Spanish appear to jump from “exploration” (point I) to “imperial imposition”(point IV)[57]. Furthermore, the Spanish believed in mercantilism far more than in commerce; as such, Meinig’s model cannot apply to the Spanish.  Despite being a monumental effort at Atlantic history, which provides an excellent model of colonisation, Meinig is still producing a model of colonisation; thus it will always be flawed, failing to incorporate the nuanced and varying colonial experiences of Spain, England and Sweden.

Colonialism is a concept derived from the notion of utopia. Despite varying definitions and views on how utopia should be implemented, all three countries broadly shared the same aims: to bring religion to the heathen; to gain economically; and to spread their national identity. Colonialism is therefore separate from colonisation, the process which shaped both Europe and the Americas. Colonialism was justified by the philosophers Locke, Sepulveda, De las Casas and Pufendorf, all of whom retrospectively justified colonialism in order to allow further exploits in the Americas. Consequently, one can view colonialism as an opportunistic notion based on the ideas of utopia. The range of opinions on the definitions of utopia allowed an array of individuals to be classed as colonialists, hence part of the reason for the diversity of the first colonial experiences. However, the process of colonisation was varied owing to the Americas, which had a fundamental effect on the colonists themselves. This is where the Turner thesis provides some useful analysis of the colonisation process, as the area, terrain, individuals, era and relationship with the natives would have “bred individualism and self reliance”.[58] Unfortunately, the theory is also steeped in American exceptionalism and ignores the Spanish presence in the Americas. However, Donald Meinig has produced an insightful five point process through which colonisation takes place, providing a good analysis of the effect of the Americas on Europeans and visa versa. In spite of this, Meinig’s model glosses over the individual motives and mind-sets of individuals, thus failing to incorporate all the nuanced and varying colonial experiences of Spain, England and Sweden. Therefore, if one is to create a definition of colonisation that fits England, Sweden and, most importantly, Spain, it will be a momentous achievement. It will need to be subtle: not a model, but a flexible and coherent argument arising from historic examples. One definition of colonialism would only blur the very real differences between the experiences of the different countries. A definition that would satisfy twenty-first century sentiments would be far removed from encompassing the varied objectives that motivated the nations and individuals involved.


[1]    Middleton, R. Colonial America, A History, 1585-1776, 2nd edition, (Routledge, Oxford, 1996) page 9

[2]              Juan Ginès de Sepúlveda, ‘On the Indians’, c.1547, in Englander et.al.(eds.), Culture and Belief in Europe(The Open University, 1990), pp.321-24.

[3]              Juan Ginès de Sepúlveda, ‘On the Indians’, c.1547, in Englander et.al.(eds.), Culture and Belief in Europe(The Open University, 1990), pp.321-24.

[4]    Bartolomé de las Casas. “Aqui se coienen treinta proposciones muy juridicas” in Englander et al Culture and Belief in Europe (Oxford Basil Blackwell, 1990) pp324-9.

[5]    Black, Johnson N. The Frontier Mission and social transformation in Western Honduras The order of our lady of Mercy 1525-1773. (Studies in Christian mission, 1995) page 34

[6]    Black, Johnson N. The Frontier Mission and social transformation in Western Honduras The order of our lady of Mercy 1525-1773. (Studies in Christian mission, 1995) page 36

[7]    Black, Johnson N. The Frontier Mission and social transformation in Western Honduras The order of our lady of Mercy 1525-1773. (Studies in Christian mission, 1995) page 37

[8]    Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008) page 95

[9]              Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater- Nofter-Row, 1728) page 163

[10]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 163

[11]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 164

[12]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 164

[13]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 165

[14]  Barbara Arneil, “John Locke, natural Law and colonisation” History of Political thought, Vol xiii. No 4. (1992), p601

[15]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p618

[16]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p617

[17]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p617-8

[18]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p619

[19]             Pufendorf, S. eds Jean Barbeyrac, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, 2nd edition (Oxford, Linchfeild, 1710) p34

[20]             Pufendorf, S. eds Jean Barbeyrac, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, 2nd edition (Oxford, Linchfeild, 1710) p15

[21]           Rambo, H R, The Swedish Colonial Society, by the Swedish Colonial society available at: http://www.colonialswedes.org/AboutSCS/swedish_colonial_society.html  accessed on the 15/11/2010

[22]  Dahlgren, S. “The Crown of Sweden and the New Sweden Company” in Hoffenhecker, C, Waldron, R, Williams, L, Benson, B New Sweden in America (Associated university press, London, 1995) page 54

[23]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 52

[24]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 85

[25]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 54

[26]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 52

[27]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921) page 2

[28]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921) page 2

[29]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948) page 276

[30]  Dahlgren, S. “The Crown of Sweden and the New Sweden Company” in Hoffenhecker, C, Waldron, R, Williams, L, Benson, B New Sweden in America (Associated university press, London, 1995) page 60

[31]  Dahlgren, S. “The Crown of Sweden and the New Sweden Company” in Hoffenhecker, C, Waldron, R, Williams, L, Benson, B New Sweden in America (Associated university press, London, 1995) page 61

[32]  Rambo, H R, The Swedish Colonial Society, by the Swedish Colonial society available at: http://www.colonialswedes.org/AboutSCS/swedish_colonial_society.html  accessed on the 15/11/2010

[33]  Rambo, H R, The Swedish Colonial Society, by the Swedish Colonial society available at: http://www.colonialswedes.org/AboutSCS/swedish_colonial_society.html  accessed on the 15/11/2010

[34]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921)page 2

[35]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 281

[36]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 281

[37]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 283

[38]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 283

[39]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 302

[40]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 285

[41]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 285

[42]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 303

[43]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 303

[44]  Terry Jordan “New Sweden’s role on the American Frontier: A Study in cultural preadaption” in Geographer Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol 71, No 2 (1989), p82

[45]  Terry Jordan “New Sweden’s role on the American Frontier: A Study in cultural preadaption” in Geographer Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol 71, No 2 (1989), p82-83

[46]  Ian Tyrrell “Exceptionalism in the Age of International History” in The American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 4. (Oct 1991) p1031

[47]  Ian Tyrrell “Exceptionalism in the Age of International History” in The American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 4. (Oct 1991) p1031

[48]  Ian Tyrrell “Exceptionalism in the Age of International History” in The American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 4. (Oct 1991) p1031-2

[49]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921) p 2

[50]  Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008)page 106

[51]  Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008)page 106

[52]  Edwina Williamson, The penguin History of Latin America, (Penguin group, London, 2009) page 99-100

[53]  Jurgen Osterhammel Colonialism, A Theoretical Overview(Markus Weiner Publishers, 1997 Jamaica) p10

[54]  Jurgen Osterhammel Colonialism, A Theoretical Overview(Markus Weiner Publishers, 1997 Jamaica) p16-7

[55]  Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, A Geogrphical perspective on 500 years of History, Vol 1: Atlantic America, 1492-1800. (Yale University press, London, 1986)

[56]  Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008)page 109

[57]  Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, A Geogrphical perspective on 500 years of History, Vol 1: Atlantic America, 1492-1800. (Yale University press, London, 1986)

[58]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 281

Was Ambedkar right to condemn Gandhi’s attitude to caste oppression?

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, two key figures in the Indian Nationalist movement, aimed to end the oppressive treatment of the Untouchable caste. However, they had distinctly different approaches to this problem, which even to this day provide a controversial part of daily politics in India.[1] Caste is a “system of hierarchical social and cultural relations among groups defined by birth”;[2] people are therefore categorised according to their varna, a limited set of ranked social categories into which each birth group, or jati, fits.[3] Each birth group is linked to purity, since it was first expressed in the vedic hymn.[4] These main four castes of priests, warriors, commoners and servants have developed from ancient times and have become entrenched in daily life. The Untouchable caste, however, has been systematically shunned by society, emphasised by the way in which they are refused entry to village schools, to take water from village wells, to use public conveyance and, most importantly, a denial of land ownership.[5] Therefore, the fight for the Untouchables was the main part of Ambedkar’s life, whereas Gandhi focussed on the Indian freedom movement as a whole; thus any attempt to answer this question must realise that both Gandhi and Ambedkar were important figures and cogs in the machine which fought for freedom. Furthermore, the term “right” oversimplifies the relationship between these figures that was often symbiotic.

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar was born an Untouchable, and his childhood of injustice and alienation meant that, for the rest of his life, he was devoted to gaining equality and opportunity for his people.[6] In his book, Untouchables or the Children of India’s Ghetto, Ambedkar describes the social order and the inhumanity to which the Untouchables are forced to adhere.[7] The main means of livelihood is begging for food;[8] as Ambedkar writes: “if anyone were to move to a village after the usual dinner time, he will be met with a swarm of Untouchables moving about the village begging for food.”[9] This is in stark contrast to Gandhi, who, perhaps patronisingly, saw the village as a utopian structure.  However, he did not agree with persecution of Untouchables. For instance, when Gandhi was just twelve he told his mother that it was wrong to consider contact with the Untouchable cleaner as sinful.[10] Throughout his life Gandhi pushed for this cause, but it was often deemed less important than the fight for Hind swaraj or home rule. Thus, any criticism of Gandhi must accept the diversity of Gandhi’s goals, in contrast to Ambedkar’s.

This is evident  in 1920 as Gandhi wrote, in Young India, “non-cooperation among the government means cooperation among the governed, and if Hindus do not remove the sin of Untouchability there will never be swaraj in one year or one hundred years.”[11] Yet Gandhi qualified this statement in a letter to C.F. Andrews in 1921, saying: “[Untouchability] is a bigger problem than that of Indian independence but I can tackle it better if I gain the latter on the way.”[12] Therefore, although Gandhi had deep feelings on Untouchability he understandably could not let go of the bigger goals of Hindu-Muslim unity and independence. It was for this reason that Ambedkar struggled to trust Gandhi, who associated himself with the National Congress; thus Ambedkar was dismissive of their cause, claiming that “the cause of the Hindus and the cause of the Musalmen is not the cause for freedom.”[13] He added that “the Congress is a body of the middle class Hindus supplied by the Hindu capitalists whose object is not to make Indians free but to be independent of British control and to occupy the places of power now occupied by the British.”[14] However, this critique of Gandhi  is, perhaps, slightly unfair. In 1927, approximately fifteen thousand Untouchables assembled at Mahad to demonstrate over the right to use public water.[15] At the conference, a copy of the manusmriti (a Hindu scripture) was burnt, as Untouchables claimed that “either we should burn all these scriptures or verify and examine the validity of their rules regarding Untouchability […] truly these scriptures are an insult to the people. The government should have confiscated them long ago.”[16] Gandhi echoed this argument but had a distinctly different approach on how this should be achieved. This was evident on 10th March 1925 when Gandhi met with the Brahmins in Vaikam, in a three hour long debate.[17] Despite this, the Brahmins’ positions remained unchanged as Gandhi disappointedly recalls, saying: “I appealed to their reason. I appealed to their humanity. And I appealed to the Hinduism in them. I am sorry to confess to you that I was not able to produce the impression that I had expected that I would be able to.”[18] From this moment, Gandhi’s position on Untouchability changed; instead of uniting with Ambedkar, as C.F. Andrews had suggested, he underplayed his reformist goals in order to keep the nationalist movement united.[19] Therefore, up to 1930, it is easy to be critical of Gandhi’s approach to Untouchability but one must remember that this was one of many battles for freedom that Gandhi was fighting for, and as such could not possibly retain his complete attention.

The contrasting objectives of Gandhi and Ambedkar flared during their first meeting at the Round Table conferences in 1931, where India’s constitution would be discussed.[20] Ambedkar had stated that whilst he agreed with congress politicians that “no country is good enough to rule over another”, he added that “it is equally true that no class is good enough to rule over another.”[21] Thus, justifiably, Ambedkar wanted separate electorates, to prevent further tyranny and oppression at the hands of the Touchable castes.[22] Moreover, Ambedkar wanted a sufficient number of Untouchables to hold key positions so that the Untouchables may have some confidence in the administration.[23] Furthermore, Ambedkar justifies this for many reasons, but concludes that a “man’s skin is closer to him than his shirt”; a man’s skin is his caste, more often than not, and his constituency is his shirt.[24] However, this view was not shared by Gandhi, who understandably believed that separate electorates would create political disunity and play into the hands of the British. In addition, Gandhi believed that “what these people [Untouchables] need more than election to the legislature is protection from social and religious persecution. Custom, which is often more powerful than law, has brought the degradation of which every thinking Hindu has need to feel ashamed. Thank God the consciousness of Hindus has been stirred so the relic of Untouchability will soon be a relic of our sinful past.”[25] Thus, for Gandhi, the issue of separate electorates would merely perpetuate the differences between the Untouchables and the Touchables and therefore weaken the nationalist movement.[26] This was evident when Gandhi met Ambedkar, before the Round Table conferences.[27] However, the meeting was short and unproductive. After exchanging questions, Ambedkar asked Gandhi what his position was on separate electorates for both Muslims and Untouchables. Gandhi responded by stating that he was “against the political separation of Untouchables from Hindus. That would be absolutely suicidal.”[28] With that, Ambedkar rose and left the room. Therefore, both Gandhi and Ambedkar wanted the issue of Untouchability removed from the fabric of society but their approaches were contradictory. Gandhi believed that truth is more powerful than legislation and one can only change through “dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification and growing self-reliance.”[29] This, justifiably, angered Ambedkar who wanted fixed legal procedures to engender fast change.

Once Gandhi heard that separate electorates would be granted, he launched a ‘fast unto death’ campaign in protest in order to “give his life for the Untouchables.”[30] The response across the country was staggering. “All over the country temples were opened to Untouchables and Brahmins and Untouchables ate together.”[31] Gandhi himself described it as one of the most spiritual moments of his life.[32] The fast ended just seven days later and was from that moment known as “Untouchability Abolition Week.”[33] The Yeravda Poona pact that emerged was a compromise between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Untouchable candidates would gain more representation but there would not be a separate electorate. In the view of one commentator, “the agreement between the  Mahatma and Ambedkar saved society from turning upon itself and committing collective suicide.”[34] Therefore, at points, Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed on the issue of Untouchability.

Between 1932 and 1934, Gandhi devoted much of his time to the campaigns for anti-Untouchability, or what he now called the harijans or “Children of God.”[35] Gandhi founded the weekly paper The Harijan in 1933, and established the Harijan Sevak Sangh to look at the interests of the depressed classes. Furthermore, Gandhi undertook three fasts against the practice of Untouchability. Ambedkar was, however, understandably sceptical of Gandhi’s methods as the movement was based in the Touchable classes. Moreover, Ambedkar saw these campaigns as a way for the Hindus to “uplift” or “civilise” the unclean and immoral Untouchables.[36] Ambedkar found this patronising and still associated the problem of Untouchability with Hinduism. He describes how “the Romans had their slaves, the Spartans their helots, the British their villeins, the Americans their negroes and the Germans their Jews. So the Hindus have their Untouchables.”[37] Despite slavery disappearing, Untouchability still exists and will last as “long as Hinduism will last.”[38] Thus Ambedkar was quick to distance himself from the Harijan Sevak Sangh. Furthermore, Gandhian thinking was not having the radical effects that Ambedkar wanted; it took Gandhi a further eight years to come to this conclusion.[39] Thus, it is easy to see how Gandhi’s methods were not working and Ambedkar was right, from his point of view, to condemn Gandhi.

Ambedkar and Gandhi had different goals for Untouchables. Gandhi wrote that there is no fifth caste in the Shastras, hence Untouchables should be regarded as Shudras or members of the servant caste.[40] Therefore, Gandhi still believed in the traditional view of Varnshrama dharma, or the divinely ordained division of society.[41] It was this idealised view that Ambedkar found hard to stomach. Ambedkar, justifyably, wanted to raise the the educational standards of the Untouchables so that they could aspire to the level of the highest Hindu and be in a position of political power as a means to that end.[42] Consequently, for Ambedkar, equality did not mean equal status of the castes but rather equality of opportunity for Untouchables.[43]

By 1945, Gandhi had adopted the approach to Untouchability that Ambedkar had advocated all along.[44] In a conversation Gandhi debated the possibility of going on another fast on the issue but doubted it would have had any effect.[45] Furthermore, the Harijan Sevak Sangh was informed that it needed to rethink its goals as it is easier to educate Untouchables than caste Hindus: “you can educate Harijans by giving them scholarships, hostels etcetera but no such way is possible among caste Hindus.”[46] Thus, Gandhi had a flexible approach to the problem of Untouchability. On November 29th, 1948 the members of the constituent assembly cheered “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” or “victory to Mahtama Gandhi” when a measure was passed declaring Untouchability illegal.[47] In fact, Gandhi was firmly opposed to legal methods, instead believing that moral suasion of the high caste Hindus was the only true way to resolve the issue of Untouchability.[48] Thus, it is possible to see how Gandhi ideas have been augmented since his death, and moulded as he has become a cult figure. This theme is explored by Claude Markovits in his book the Un-Gandhian Gandhi, which examines the contradictory philosophy of Gandhi. Markovits concludes that “although there has been some retreat from the hagiographical trend which dominated work on Gandhi”, there is still and “over-abundance of interpretations” giving many contrasting images of Gandhi.[49] Therefore, Gandhi’s ideas have a susceptibility to being reborn or reinvented.[50] Thus, Ambedkar’s condemnation of Gandhi’s attitude must be viewed from a perspective which acknowledges the overarching importance of Gandhi but also the paradoxical nature of Gandhi’s ideas.

Ambedkar was born an untouchable and devoted his whole life to their cause whereas Gandhi said, in 1946, that “he became a Harijan by choice.”[51] Despite Gandhi’s good intentions, many people did find this approach patronising and often ineffective. Furthermore, Ambedkar believed that “nobody can remove your grievances as well as you can and you cannot remove these unless you get political control in your hands.”[52] This was Gandhi’s second difference to Ambedkar.  Gandhi believed that change could only occur through a constant search for truth. His autobiography was even entitled The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Consequently, Gandhi believed that “truth is God” and that “life is impossible without an immovable belief in a living law in obedience to which the whole universe moves.”[53] Unsurprisingly, this religious approach angered Ambedkar and justifiably so, as Gandhi himself conceded late in his life that no system of oppression could be ended without the active involvement and political educational and organisation of its victims.[54] However, this critical approach of Gandhi is, perhaps, slightly unfair. Firstly, without Gandhi’s intervention it is unlikely that Ambedkar would have been given the opportunity to be the Chairman of the Drafting Commission for the Constitution of India.[55] Secondly, both Ambedkar and Gandhi needed each other and benefited from the other’s contribution.[56] Therefore, from Ambedkar’s perspective it is “right” to condemn Gandhi’s attitude to caste oppression but this oversimplifies a complex and symbiotic relationship between two great figures. Furthermore, “right” is perhaps an inappropriate word to use in history as it is a subjective notion that reinforces the idea of history as a linear process with fixed outcomes. History’s role is not to affirm that there is a progression in history towards a more enlightened or western future. Thus, “right” and “wrong” are based on subjective norms and perceptions that reinforce power relationships.


[1]See Dalit Freedom Network, http://www.dalitnetwork.org/go?/dfn/index, 2010. Accessed 18/03/2011

[2]Burton, S. Burton Stein(ed.) A history of India, 2nd ed. (Blackwell publishers, West Sussex, 2010) p108

[3]Burton, S. Burton Stein(ed.) A history of India, 2nd ed. (Blackwell publishers, West Sussex, 2010) p108

[4]Burton, S. Burton Stein(ed.) A history of India, 2nd ed. (Blackwell publishers, West Sussex, 2010) p108

[5]    Rao, P, V. “Untouchability and the Post-colonial predicament: a Note” in Social scientist, Vol. 37, No. 1/2 (January – February. 2009), pp65-66

[6] Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p62

[7]Ambedkar, B.R., Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto, chapter 5

[8]  Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p62

[9]Ambedkar, B.R., Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto, chapter 5

[10]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p63

[11]M.K Gandhi, Young India, 29th December 1920, cited in Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p44

[12]The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Delhi: Government of India, 1971) cited in Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p44

[13]  Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 2

[14]  Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 2

[15]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p46

[16]As quoted by Zelliot, From Untouchables to Dalit cited by Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p46

[17]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p46

[18]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p46

[19]Bhikhu Parekh, Colonialism, Tradition and reform (New Delhi: Sage, 1989) cited by Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p47

[20]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p47

[21]As quoted by Zelliot, From Untouchables to Dalit cited by Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p47

[22] Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 3, Resolution IV.

[23] Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 4.

[24] Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 4.

[25]The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Delhi: Government of India, 1971) cited in Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p50

[26]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p50

[27]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), pp47-8

[28]D.C. Ahir, Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Comparative Study (New Delhi: Blumoon books, 1995) cited by Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p48

[29]  M. K. Gandhi, Young India, June 28, 1928, in Duncan, R. (eds.) The selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (Fontana publishings, London, 1972) p276

[30]The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Delhi: Government of India, 1971) cited in Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p51

[31]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p52

[32]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p51

[33]Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) cited in Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p51

[34]From Ravindar Kumar’s The Making of a Nation; Essays in Indian History and Politics (Delhi, Manohar, 1989) cited in Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p51

[35]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p53

[36]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p54

[37] Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 2

[38] Ambedkar, B.R., Mr Gandhi and the emancipation of the untouchables, (Bombay : Thacker & Co., 1943). Chapter 2

[39]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p55

[40]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p56

[41]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p56

[42]As quoted by Zelliot, From Untouchables to Dalit Cited by Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p57

[43]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p57

[44]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p62

[45]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p62

[46]The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Delhi: Government of India, 1971) cited by Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p41

[47]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p41

[48]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p41

[49]  Markovits, C. The Un-Gandhian Gandhi, The life and Aftermath of the Mathatma, (Anthem Press, Wimbledon, 2004). p102

[50]  Markovits, C. The Un-Gandhian Gandhi, The life and Aftermath of the Mathatma, (Anthem Press, Wimbledon, 2004). p165

[51]Harijan, 9th June 1946 cited in Duncan, R. (eds.) The selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (Fontana publishings, London, 1972) p271

[52] Ambedkar, B.R, The Annihilation of Caste (1936) cited in Desai, A. R. Social Background Of Indian Nationalism , 4th ed. (Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1996) p 268

[53]Harijan, 25th April 1936 cited in Duncan, R. (eds.) The selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (Fontana publishings, London, 1972) p271

[54]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p63

[55]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p63

[56]Coward H,. (ed.) ‘Gandhi, Ambedkar and Untouchability’, Indian Critiques of Gandhi, (University of New York Press, New York, 2003), p63