Ship and Iterate: Colonialism as a Recursive Process – Mark Thompson


Time: 16:00. Venue: Faculty of Theology, Oude Boteringestraat 38, room 130

This paper argues that colonialism is a recursive process.  That is, to draw from the concept of recursion in computer science, colonialism resembles a process in which the output of a function becomes the input of the next iteration of the function.  In this case, colonialism is also dynamic (and often chaotic) so that with each iteration the successive outcomes (and the inputs) are different, sometimes wildly so.  Yet the recursion does not entirely efface itself after each iteration—traces remain of previous forms.  And because colonialism is at once a serial process (one settlement follows another), a parallel process (colonies develop simultaneously), and a networked process (colonies influence one another)—traces are left behind not only from previous colonies and previous iterations of a colony but also from previous iterations of other colonies.

This model runs against important models of colonization for early modern British America in which “virgin land” colonization appears as the typical process of development.  Although historians long ago showed that European colonization had roots in Old World experiences, the sense persists that colonization is culturally new.  Not only that, it is new again and again—it is new each time it begins in a new place.  But as the rage for interconnectivity has swept through history as well as all else in modern culture, historians have begun to show that colonies have had strong connections to one another not just at later stages of development but at earlier ones, too.  We begin to see that all colonies are colonies of colonies.

Dr Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer at the Department of American Studies at the University of Groningen. He recently published The Contest for the Delaware Valley: Allegiance, Identity, and Empire in the Seventeenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).


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