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Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities

By Penelope Edmonds

Review By John Lutz

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 172 Winter 2011-2012  | p. 130-31



Colonists seldom embarked alone to new continents, and so the act of “settling” was often the act of creating a “settlement.” Penelope Edmonds’s Urbanizing Frontiers reminds us that the interface between settler and Native was very often an urban one – a town, a village, an outpost – and urban areas have their own geographies of power and politics of space. 

Her book compares Melbourne, Australia, in the State of Victoria, with the City of Victoria on Vancouver Island, focusing on the 1830s-60s, and asks whether British colonialism had similar patterns on different sides of the Pacific. She examines “the racialized transformation of these developing cities and proposes that urbanizing colonial precincts can be viewed as formative sites … where bodies and spaces were rapidly transformed and mutually imbricated in sometimes violent ways, reflecting the making of plural settler-colonial modernity” (5). Influenced by Judith Butler’s insights into the relationship between bodies and space, by Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper’s attention to intimate geographies of power, and by Henri Lefebvre’s insights into the social construction of space, Edmonds brings post-colonial theorists to the urban history of empire. 

There is much to learn from the comparison. Both Victor ia and Melbourne were brought into the European orbit by James Cook in the 1760s-70s, both were described as “Eden” by early British visitors, both boomed as a result of 1850s gold rushes, and both, in their way, honour Britain’s longest-serving monarch. But what Edmonds wants to tell us is that both required similar discursive strategies to displace indigenous peoples, first by rhetorically creating them as interlopers and vagrants in territories that had recently been theirs and then by pathologizing them as threats to white order: savage, diseased, and depraved. Rhetoric was backed up with force: police tried to remove indigenous people from the settler cities, while on both continents missionaries tried to transform them into civilized citizens. Both depended on similar property regimes and systems of surveying and mapping. Ironically, Edmonds argues, while colonists devoted so much energy to displacing indigenous peoples, their own identity was being displaced by commercial and carnal intercourse with them – a case that is stronger for Victoria than it is for Melbourne. As much as the colonists wished, the resulting cities were not “Britain on the Pacific;” rather, these nineteenth-century cities, particularly Victoria, were hybrid spaces characterized by racial mingling and vestigial indigenous spaces in the heart of the urban world. 

The differences tell us as much as do the similarities. The burghers of Melbourne were more successful at “vanishing the indigene” and blanching the city white than were those of Victoria, in large part because of the balance of power that comes from the balance of population. In Victoria, a much smaller colonial population encountered a much larger indigenous one, even after diseases had reduced the latter to a fraction, so settlers were more constrained in their violence, more dependent on indigenous labour, and more inclined to marry into the local population. Edmonds’s conclusions rest upon a modes of production interpretation: the fur trade economy that founded Victoria was one that depended on indigenous participation, while the pastoral economy that founded Melbourne depended on displacing indigenous people from their land. 

Particularly welcome is not only the comparative insights from Australia and Canada but also the transnational post-colonial investigation into how power operated. But such an enterprise has its own risks. It is a challenge to bring that literature to a wide audience without burdening it too much with jargon, and it is impossible to be an expert on the big picture as well as on the minute details in two far-flung case studies. So, at least with respect to Victoria, a few minor inaccuracies have crept in. 

On an interpretive level, Edmonds emphasizes an underlying fear among the settlers in both colonies, which provoked “often violent spatia contestation” (6, 243). In looking at the evidence she offers (34-35, 38, 193-95), I agree that violence was part of the process (more so in Melbourne), but I would emphasize the opposite – the peaceable subordination or what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “anti-conquest.” Most of the displacement of indigenous peoples Edmonds describes happened through disciplinary practices such as sanitation and vagrancy laws, and through capitalist, missionary, or educational institutions. Time frame makes all the difference. The fear of the indigene was very short-lived, followed by a long-lasting cultural imperative to protect and to civilize. Not surprisingly, in such a regime most of the displacement of settler identities happened through intermarriage (particularly in Victoria) and every-day interaction. 

Overall, this is an insightful book that effectively links the macro processes of colonization with the local processes of city growth. It should be read by historians of British Columbia and British colonial enterprises worldwide, who will be made to think afresh about the distinctive features of British settler colonialism and about the way “New World” cities hide the racial and spatial displacements that were required for them to exist and grow. 

Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities
Penelope Edmonds
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.  328 pp. $85.00 cloth, $35.95 paper