Successful SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship Proposal

This was my successful proposal for a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship back in 2022. I hope it may be useful to anyone preparing their own proposals!


Colonial saboteurs? Settler-led Indigenous rights organizations in the Anglo World, 1840-1940

Project description

This project will compare the histories of four settler-led Indigenous rights organizations between 1840-1940 to explore the complex interconnections between Indigenous rights activism and settler colonialism. Settlers from across the Anglo World (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) formed Indigenous rights organizations. The longest lasting of these include South Australia’s Aborigines’ Friends Association (1858-2001) and America’s Indian Rights Association (1882-1994). Others were more fleeting, such as the Canadian Indian Research and Aid Society (1890-1891) and the Maori Rights Conservation Association (1906-1907). These organizations raised public awareness of Indigenous rights abuses, lobbied governments to change public policies, and raised funds to support Indigenous communities. Although led by settlers, these groups were often also connected with Indigenous-led organizations like the Allied Tribes of British Columbia (1916-1927), the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (1924-1927), and the Society of American Indians (1911-1923).

Settler-led Indigenous rights activism is a messy yet integral element of colonial histories, with implications cutting across the related disciplines of settler colonial studies, Indigenous studies, and British imperial historiography. These organizations were often highly assimilationist, but not always, and their vocal denunciations of settler societies problematize arguments within settler colonial studies that oppression was silenced and disavowed. Similarly, some of the Indigenous activists who worked with settler-led organizations supported policies of assimilation and some did not, reflecting ongoing debates within Indigenous studies over problematic binaries of assimilation/resistance. And the formation and continuation of settler-led Indigenous rights organizations over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries challenges assumptions within British imperial historiography that humanitarian discourses were in decline by the 1850s. These histories are therefore of great interdisciplinary importance, yet the transnational development of settler activism remains understudied.

I will begin this important work by blending traditional and digital techniques to explore the shifting rhetoric and policies of settler-led Indigenous rights organizations and locate their activities in relation to the Indigenous-led organizations they variously supported and marginalized. I am particularly interested in tracing changes and continuities in settler activism across three distinct periods: the 1840s, prior to self-government in most colonies and the apogee of imperial humanitarianism; the 1880s, the height of transitions to settler self-government when racialized legislation and new theories of race were in development; and the 1920s, when eliminationist and segregationist policies were firmly entrenched across the new settler dominions. By tracing the evolution of settler activism over these periods, I will provide insight into how settler colonialism historically persisted despite dissent from settler activists, how transnational discourses of Indigenous rights were locally interpreted, and how settler activism was informed by Indigenous perspectives. I will contribute to SSHRC’s future challenge areas “Working in the Digital Economy” and “Envisioning Governance Systems that Work” by blending traditional/digital techniques to explore how settler governments historically responded to democratic activist dissent.

Theoretical approach

This project brings together theoretical elements from settler colonial studies, Indigenous studies, and Anglo World approaches to British imperial history. Settler colonial studies is founded upon the recognition that colonization is not a unitary moment in the past but a continuously evolving structure requiring constant reaffirmation, most obviously because Indigenous peoples have never stopped existing and resisting (Kauanui 2016). These colonial structures have been historically maintained in many ways, including both physical and cultural genocide (Moses 2010) as well as through the disavowal of colonial violence and erasure of Indigenous knowledges and histories. Disavowal can range from psychological neuroses that shield traumatized minds from colonial realities (Price 2021; Veracini 2010) to narratives that absolve settlers of responsibility for colonial violence (Ahmed 2005; Hutchinson 2018). Erasure can occur through negative representations of Indigenous rights to land, sovereignty, and existence (Coulthard 2014; Coombes 2017; Moreton-Robinson 2015; Simpson 2014). Concepts like disavowal and erasure offer a lens to assess the extent to which settler activism may have intentionally and unintentionally sustained colonial power structures.

However, many Indigenous studies scholars criticize settler colonial studies for reifying “colonial fatalism,” a teleological perspective in which Indigenous peoples are always and only concerned about challenging settler colonialism (Kauanui 2021; Te Punga Somerville 2021; Warrior 2021). Instead, Indigenous studies emphasizes community-oriented scholarship encompassing diverse themes that are sometimes, but not always, directly connected to settler colonialism (Konishi 2019), such as supporting Indigenous knowledges and nurturing relationships to land and social/cultural spaces (McKinnon 2010; Moreton-Robinson 2015). Indigenous studies scholars also challenge settler colonial studies for enforcing a settler/Indigenous binary that flattens histories of entanglement and reduces Indigenous agency into reactionary choices of either assimilation or resistance, a binary that fails to capture the many ways that Indigenous peoples decide their own futures (Amadahy and Lawrence 2009; Byrd 2011; Russell 2001). Indigenous studies provides a lens to assess the relationships between settler-led and Indigenous-led activist organizations in terms of community-oriented goals and Indigenous perspectives.

The Indigenous rights organizations examined by this project were nationally bounded and locally specific, but they were also contextualized by the interconnections of the Anglo World. The Anglo World is a historical framework that emphasizes the economic, political, and cultural networks that wove Britain’s self-governing settler colonies as well as the United States into a transnational assemblage (Curless et al. 2015; Howe 2012). Anglo World scholars argue that national settler histories cannot be separated from the transnational flows of goods, people, and culture that connect them (Belich 2011; Buckner and Francis 2005; Morgan 2016; Reed 2017). Of particular importance to this project is work done on the development of humanitarianism as a transnational discourse, starting with networks of abolitionists in the eighteenth century and continuing with networks of missionaries and colonial governors in the nineteenth century (Barnett 2011; Laidlaw 2021; Lester and Dussart 2014; Nettelbeck 2019). Settler activist organizations were informed by these transnational discourses and emulated older imperial activist organizations. Anglo World approaches offer a lens to assess interconnections between settler activist organizations and compare local specificities with broader transnational processes.


My project will focus on the archival records of settler-led activist organizations, which include meeting minutes, internal correspondence, and published newsletters. Long-lasting and national settler-led organizations can be used as proxies to trace long-term trends and evolutions in settler activism, while short-lived and local groups can be used to identify short-term anomalies and transnational variations. The archives of Indigenous-led organizations can be used to compare settler activism against Indigenous perspectives, but these arose primarily in the twentieth century and cannot be used as proxies for Indigenous perspectives throughout my entire period. Thus, I will supplement my focus on organizational archives with other forms of public participation including letters to the editor, petitions, and lectures/performances. By approaching these records through an interdisciplinary lens combining settler colonial studies, Indigenous studies, and imperial historiography, I will interrogate the extent to which settler activism challenged/reinforced disavowal and erasure, supported/suppressed Indigenous knowledges and agency, and adopted/adapted imperial discourses of humanitarianism.

Whereas most studies of settler activism adopt a microhistorical and national scope (Curthoys and Mitchell 2018; Haig-Brown and Nock 2006; Nettelbeck 2019; Reynolds 1998), my project will adopt a macrohistorical and transnational scope that contributes to a growing historiography locating the settler colonies within the greater Anglo World (Dubinsky, Perry, and Yu 2015; Laidlaw and Lester 2015; Woollacott 2015) as well as to recent work applying digital techniques to the study of empire (Doherty et al. 2021). I will use a mixed quantitative/qualitative research design influenced by Franco Moretti’s distant reading method (2000). Distant reading focuses on small units within individual texts – e.g. devices, themes, and tropes – that can be abstracted and analyzed at a quantitative level. Using my extensive experience with the qualitative data analysis software Nvivo for a CIHR-funded project on online misinformation (Houlden et al. 2021; Veletsianos et al. 2022) as well as my previous work on quantitative textual analysis with Python’s Natural Language Toolkit (Reid 2019), I will adapt Moretti’s distant reading method to survey aggregate themes and trends within Indigenous rights organization archives across the Anglo World between 1840-1940. Most of my primary sources are already digitally available through Gale and other online repositories. Using Nvivo to identify qualitative discursive elements and Python to identify quantitative changes in topic, word meaning, and sentiment, I will digitally survey the transnational corpus of settler activism. However, distant reading can result in over-abstraction at the cost of historical specificity and context. Following Catherine Hall’s assertion that biographies can be combined with big data analysis to blend historical detail with large structural patterns (Laidlaw et al. 2022), I will blend the distant reading method with strategically chosen microhistorical case studies to connect lived experiences with transnational developments.

Significant contributions

My research will make significant contributions to each of the theoretical frameworks I adopt. Within British imperial historiography, I reappraise scholarship that represents humanitarianism as confined to missionaries, metropolitans, and imperial officials (Barnett 2011; Laidlaw 2021; Lester and Dussart 2014; O’Brien 2015). Of the studies that do attend to settler activists, those activists are typically treated as social outliers (Cruickshank and Grimshaw 2015; Haig-Brown and Nock 2006; Reynolds 1998; Wickwire 2019), or else as oppressors appropriating humanitarian rhetoric to legitimize oppression (Curthoys and Mitchell 2018; Lester and Dussart 2014; Nettelbeck 2019). Conversely, I approach Indigenous rights activism as a widespread and lasting fixture among settler societies that was not inherently oppressive and was often informed by Indigenous-led activism. When historical attention has been given to the pervasiveness of settler activism, its implications have been largely theorized for Australia alone (Curthoys and Mitchell 2018; Furphy and Nettelbeck 2019; Hutchinson 2018; Lydon 2013; Price 2021). Indeed, in a recent edited collection claiming to be the first book on transnational humanitarianism, the section covering 1840-1940 merely offers three chapters on Australia and one on West Africa (Damousi, Burnard, and Lester 2022). Thus, my research will expand our awareness of settler-led Indigenous rights activism as a fixture of the wider Anglo World.

Within settler colonial studies, I will expand the concepts of disavowal and erasure from a unidirectional process of suppressing Indigenous knowledges and histories to a multidirectional process of suppressing settler and Indigenous dissent alike. Concepts like censorship and disinformation have long been articulated in reference to knowledge of the empire within Britain, where government and special interest groups tried to control what the British public knew about the empire (Bayly 1996; Kaul 2003; Mackenzie 1984; Potter 2004). Settler colonial studies has interpreted these concepts differently, primarily in terms of settler efforts to silence and erase Indigenous perspectives, and historians have explored many of the tactics used by settlers to suppress Indigenous dissent with tools including law, education, and bureaucracy (Ford 2010; Smith 2009; Swartz 2019; Vogt 2020). Yet the pervasiveness of settler activist organizations raises important questions about how settler governments managed settler dissent in addition to Indigenous dissent. Jane Lydon has recently begun pursuing this issue, suggesting that settler activism in Australia was undermined by unfair standards of evidence which made proving settler abuses next to impossible (2019). My research will expand this line of thinking and reappraise settler colonialism as a structure that persists not just through the erasure of Indigenous perspectives, but possibly through the suppression of settler activist efforts as well.

Finally, I will contribute to calls from Indigenous scholars to historicize and contextualize moments when Indigenous politics appear counterproductive to resistance. Audra Simpson, for example, argues that “Indigenous politics require a deep historical accounting to contextualize the processes that appear anomalous, illiberal, or illogical” (2014). Jodi Byrd argues that “complicities of colonialism” must be contextualized within vertical Indigenous-settler conflicts as well as horizontal conflicts between groups with competing claims to historical oppressions (2011). And Scott Lyons insists that Indigenous cooperation with assimilation programs must be contextualized within the discursive formations available at the time (2010). Consequently, some Indigenous scholars suggest that activism that appears on one level to be complicit in assimilationist policies is more productively interpreted as manifestations of Indigenous agency to participate in modernity and shape their futures (Maroukis 2021; Maynard 2007; Nickel 2019). My research will support such efforts to contextualize these complicated histories.

Connection to dissertation

This research will build on significant findings from my thesis on the British Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS). My thesis examined how colonial subjects in the late nineteenth century moved between parallel imperial networks (petitioning, letter-writing, and newsprint) as a means of navigating the complicated landscape among competing Indigenous, settler, and imperial sovereignties. I argued that the APS afforded space for Indigenous peoples, missionaries, and settlers to perform imperial citizenship in the period after such citizenship was rendered obsolete by self-government. I found settler activism to be far more common than historians have accounted for during the period, and I stumbled upon many settler-led Indigenous rights organizations that have received little historical attention. My postdoctoral research will turn this finding into the starting point for an entirely new research project, moving from a focus on the APS in Britain to activist organizations formed in the colonies themselves. I will defend my thesis in June 2023 and pursue a book contract with Manchester University Press on the APS in the late nineteenth century, whereas my postdoctoral research will be directed towards a new book project on settler activism across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Suitability of institution

McGill University provides the best environment for my postdoctoral research due to its combination of research strengths and professional development opportunities. McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services offers a Course Design Essentials series and a Learning to Teach series that will help me transition into teaching my own courses, while the McGill Digital Scholarship Hub offers consultation and skills development for my work with Nvivo, Python, and MySQL. McGill also offers valuable opportunities to engage with international and interdisciplinary researchers, particularly through conferences, workshops, and seminars hosted by the Montreal History Group, the Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative, and the Indian Ocean World Centre. Moreover, I will be working under Dr. Elizabeth Elbourne, who has written extensively on imperial humanitarianism and settler colonialism (Elbourne 2003, 2016, 2021). Dr. Elbourne focuses on an earlier period than my thesis and is also an expert in themes like gender and religion that I am not specialized in, so is well positioned to help me expand into different historical periods and frameworks. Dr. Elbourne also hosts the Montreal British History Seminar, which will contribute to my subject expertise and develop my research network. I will further benefit from engaging with McGill’s wide array of experts in various aspects of empire and settler colonialism, including Noëlani Arista’s work on Indigenous Hawaii, Allan Greer’s work on North American dispossession, and Elsbeth Heaman’s work on theories of civilization.


My research will be completed in four six-month stages. For the first stage I will conduct a preliminary survey of primary sources, building a database using MySQL and identifying possible trends, themes, and case studies using Nvivo and Python. The second stage will be dedicated to drafting an introduction and sample chapter for a new book proposal. The third stage will conduct further primary source research and draft a book section on settler activism in the 1840s, while the fourth stage will do the same for the 1920s. My thesis has pointed towards useful material for a section on the 1880s, so by the end of my postdoctoral program I will have made significant progress on the draft of a second book. I will continue writing at least one article and presenting at around two conferences per year, as I have done during my PhD. I completed a full draft of my thesis in two years while also publishing articles and book reviews, presenting at conferences, working as a research assistant and a teaching assistant, organizing a conference, and developing a video game to engage diverse audiences with my research, so I am confident that I can complete this ambitious project.

Works Cited

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