Oct. 2, 2023

The figure of the ‘savage’ and landed property in colonial contexts

Author: Anna Möllers

Part IV of the blog series “Verfügung über Dinge

As Alicia Kroemer states in a report of the Minority Rights Group International from 2018, the Canadian federal government ignores large protests and demonstrations against big pipeline projects, such as the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries unrefined oil from Alberta to the West Coast for export to the global market. Indigenous communities who live on the land which is affected directly by these pipeline projects were not asked for consent, and their demonstrations and protests are ignored or suppressed by private security firms, as in the case of the 2016 protests near Standing Rock Reservation, where Lakota Elder LaDonna Bravebull-Allard organized protests that attracted global attention, but which were violently dissolved with attack dogs and rubber bullets (Kroemer 2018: 42-46).

With this blog post, which belongs to the series Verfügung über Dinge: Historische und aktuelle Perspektiven des Eigentums im Wandel, I want to show how philosophers of the Enlightenment and political economy constructed a figure of the ‘savage’ which was and sometimes still is used to justify dispossession and the implementation of Western property regimes in settler colonies. I want to highlight that the dispossession and eviction of Indigenous people in different parts of the world is an on-going process and that their freedom of movement and ways of subsistence continues to be disrespected.

The pipeline projects of Kinder Morgan continue to threaten Indigenous life and spirituality. The Secwepemc, who never formally agreed to cede their lands to the Canadian government (they were not part of any of the questionable land treaties, which were mainly negotiated and imposed between 1871 and 1921), are suffering from the plan of the Canadian government to become an oil export superpower on the global market. In order to build houses for the pipeline’s construction workers, a region of the land was fenced and put under surveillance in 2021. A member of the Secwepemc, Mayuk Manuel, explained why this was a profound violation of their land rights in this region: “This is an area where we walked down to the river for more than three years to offer prayers. And then they go and clear-cut the area and put us under 24-hour surveillance” (Parrish 2022).

Terra Nullius

The use of the land for spiritual reasons has not been taken seriously by the federal government since the colonial era and is still debated today. Euro-American settler-colonists have traditionally thought of land as a resource for economic growth since at least the 18th century or even earlier.  With European expansion in the Americas, the old Roman idea of ‘terra nullius,’ indicating land without an owner allegedly free for occupation and cultivation, was revived and emerged in Enlightenment thought and philosophy. According to Enlightenment theories of political economy, land was one of three elemental pillars a functioning society relied on, next to labour and capital. Throughout the 19th century, Europeans often portrayed colonisation as a main ‘remedy’ for balancing one’s own society and simultaneously re-establishing a new, ‘ideal’ society in the American colonies, where land was perceived as less scarce than in European countries. Colonising Europeans believed that the American colonies—free from the disadvantages of the old, feudal system—were ideal for constructing a new, perfectly functioning society in which wages would never drop below a certain level, because in a fresh colony so-called labour resources were perceived as in a ‘good’ proportion to capital and land and not—as in Britain—overly available.

John Stuart Mill highlights in his famous 1848 work Principles of Political Economy how colonisation is perceived by white Europeans as one of the main ‘solutions’ for the improvement of the situation of working-class people and day labourers „without wrong to any one“ (Mill 1848: 456). Indigenous people are not mentioned in this context at all. The land in the colonies is an imaginary space, free from people who live there.

The Figure of the ‘Savage’

While the myth of ‘terra nullius’ erased Native Americans and First Nations of Canada in many instances of theoretical thought of colonisation, Indigenous people became an alleged ‘problem’ whenever they actively resisted displacement and the occupation of their lands. As much as violent self-government of the settlers drove them from their lands, many juridical steps were taken to dispossess Indigenous people in a systematic way. Scholars like Brenna Bhandar and Robert Nichols have examined how a racialized system of property emerged in colonial contexts in America and elsewhere. The justification of this systematic expropriation was tied to a constructed figure of the ‘savage,’ who was, according to Enlightenment thought, not capable of relating to land in a way that was meaningful for all of (white) society. Not only were Indigenous hunting strategies perceived by Euro-American settler-colonists and philosophers as an irregular and occasional habit on which they only relied due to missing alternatives and absent improvement as a society, but their techniques of cultivation of rice, maize, and other plants were also ignored or degraded. Indigenous relationships to land were classified by Euro-Americans as random, loose and disturbing to Western models of a functioning society, in which land was an abstract factor for economic growth. One central notion of these legitimizations of violent dispossession of Indigenous land was the Lockean idea of private property. In his famous 1689 work Two Treatises of Government, John Locke derives the right to own land from the capability to cultivate it (Locke 1689: §37 - §38). This idea was referenced in colonial contexts in order to justify why land could purportedly be used more profitably and thus meaningfully in the hands of white settlers.

The figure of the ‘savage’ was produced in contrast to the ideal white settler and could roughly be described with three main characteristics that mostly consisted of negatives: the ‘savage’ was believed to have a random connection to the land, as mentioned above. In contrast to that, the ‘ideal’ white settler, who cultivated the earth, was tied in his very existence to the soil he worked.

Another central characteristic of the figure of the ‘savage’ was his ‘wild’ and violent behaviour, which made him a supposed threat to white settlers and their property. As Emma LaRocque shows in her work When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, 1850 - 1990, Indigenous people were often demonized or animalized in order to evoke fear or disgust in 19th-century American literature (LaRocque 2010: 55-58). This image was used especially by colonisers, who demanded eviction or extermination of Indigenous people as the only possible way to maintain the lives and livelihoods of white settlers. The trope functioned as a strategy of twisting the roles of oppressor and victim, in order to make it look like a defensive act for white settlers to drive Indigenous peoples from their lands. The presumed ‘wild’ and animal-like behaviour was directly connected to the idea that Indigenous people didn’t have any respect for private property and were thus a danger to the colonies.

The third characteristic of the constructed figure of the ‘savage’ was missing foresight. According to Mill, the purported problem of Indigenous people living in North America was not a lack of the will to work or idleness (which were the prevalent characteristics attributed to enslaved people in this civilisational hierarchy), but rather a presumed cognitive incapability of planning and supposed lack of foresighted behaviour (Mill 1848: 203-204). According to Mill, the connection between labour and reward has to be very closely linked temporally for the constructed ‘savage’ in order to build an incentive that is strong enough to keep this fictional person working towards it. For the white settler, this foresighted behaviour is one habit of a set of virtues that he could purportedly learn from cultivating the earth. This set includes patience, restraint, and foresighted behaviour. The ‘wandering savage’ is the alleged counterpart to this ideal; the nomadic lifestyle is constantly perceived as something negative and in contrast to a settled lifestyle—less foresight, less safety, less restraint.

The ‘cure’ for this was, of course, private landed property. With private property—especially of land—19th-century humanities scholars believed people to be more anxious and foresighted. Lacking these virtues, the figure of the ‘savage’ often was and sometimes still is compared by Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment thinkers to children and imagined in a status in which he has all the best conditions to learn the colonial virtues that would put him on a path to civilization. Members of the Aborigines‘ Protection Society (APS), which was established in London in 1837, made it their task to promote this image of a child-like person who needed guidance in order to obtain the possibility of developing a settled lifestyle and more ‘civilized’ behaviour and habits. They accepted the idea that Indigenous people of North America were the original owners of the lands, but in order to maintain this title, members alleged, Indigenous people in the Americas needed to change their way of subsistence. The APS thus promoted allotment systems rather than genocide or eviction.

In an 1830 letter to Sir George Murray, the Colonial Secretary, James Kempt, the Governor of British North America at that time, which the APS printed in their Report of the Upper Indians from 1839, also proposes granting each Indigenous family one hundred acres of land with a ticket-system on the condition that „two acres of land shall be cleared and cultivated within one year from the date of the ticket“ and „an additional quantity of three acres shall be, in like manner, cleared and cultivated at the end of the second year: and three more by the end of the third year“ (Kempt 1839: 12-13). The cultivation of land and the construction of a dwelling were the conditions for giving land to a Native family. The property form was considered an allotment, because Indigenous people would be allowed to live on the land, to cultivate it, and to bequeath it to one’s wife, children, or other family members, but not to sell it without the consent of „His Majesty’s representative“ (Kempt 1839: 13). Colonising Europeans believed the figure of the ‘savage’ was able to hold land as a possession under very specific circumstances and depending on his status in the ‘progress of civilisation,’ but not under any circumstances as a proper proprietor.


All three main characteristics of the figure of the ‘savage’ were related to land use. Colonisers justified genocide, eviction and dispossession via private property in land. And even though the Enlightenment-derived figure of the ‘savage’ is centuries old, instrumentalisation of this figure in the dynamics of dispossession is still relevant. The struggle for recognition, reparations, independence and autonomy of Indigenous people in the United States and Canada is not over, since many Indigenous people feel dragged into a socio-economic reality in which they were perceived as unfit or less valuable from the very beginning. Getting the right to use their land as they think it best for their cultural and social life is one of the goals of many contemporary Indigenous scholars, like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who writes about the possibilities of connecting to land in a form that is not influenced by Western possessive individualism (Simpson 2014).