Colonisation as an Engine for Ethnogenesis

Previously on this site, I’ve discussed the phenomenon of ethnogenesis, which is the process (or rather, processes) by which ethnic groups are formed.  As a regular reader of the Times might have picked up, ethnicity and ethnogenesis are subjects which interest me greatly, and which I consequently think and read about a good deal.  Recently, I’ve been reading the proceedings from a series of papers submitted to a colloquium organised by the Centre for Hellenic Studies at Harvard.  These papers all deal with various aspects of ethnicity as it related to the archaic, classical, and Hellenistic Greeks.  One of the issues that has most interested me is that of colonisation (of which the Greeks did quite a lot) and how separation from the metropolis and interaction with “barbarians” affected the ethnicity of the colonials, both as to how they view themselves and how they were viewed by other Greeks.  It strikes me that we can look to certain of the situations in Greek colonialism and draw some conclusions about situations in more recent history, and even those occurring today.

Basically, the three types of situations are these: 1) When a people plant large and populous colonies into a relatively uncivilised location, or at least those in which the indigenous peoples are technologically backwards and unable to effectively resist; 2) when a people colonise an already well-populated region with inhabitants who have attained a high level of civilisation, but remain aloof, and 3) when a people colonise the same, but attempt an integration of the indigenous population.

Historically, the first of these situations in the Greek colonial experience was epitomised by the city of Syracuse and the other Greek plantations in Sicily (Gela, Leontini, Zancle, etc.).  This wave of colonisation started around the 8th century BC and continued for a couple of centuries.  Sicily was already occupied by three groups of apparently related, probably Italic, peoples – the Sikels, the Sikans, and the Elymians (these three may have been the “Shekelesh” who were part of the Sea Peoples of whom the Egyptians wrote) – who were considered by the Greeks to be backwards because they “lived in villages” rather than forming poleis.  Certainly, the Greeks were able to dominate (though never destroy or drive out completely) these peoples, and ended up more or less confining them to the interior of the island while the Greek colonists retained the coasts and immediate hinterlands.

Two things of interest about the Sicilian Greeks (Sikeliotai).  First, though they were initially largely Doric in origin (majority of cities were founded from Crete, Rhodes, Corinth, etc.), they eventually came to become a mixed Greek population as Ionians, Euboeans, and Chalcidians entered into the equation.  Second, the Greeks apparently traded extensively with the indigenous peoples, thus there was a degree of cultural infusion in both directions.  Over time, due to both of these pressures, the Sicilian Greeks came to be thought of on some levels as a different ethnos than “home Greeks.”  Despite the relative nearness of the home cities and the strong cultural ties that continued to be felt, the Sicilians still underwent a certain  amount of ethnogenesis, becoming a somewhat different people than their metropoleis because of the interaction with culturally different indigenes and their physical separation from the main body of Hellenic culture.  The Sicilians and the mainland Greeks could be considered perhaps even to have been subclades within the larger Hellenic clade.

The second colonial situation listed above would find its best expression in the Greek situation in Ptolemaic Egypt (and in other Greek foundations throughout the Hellenistic east).  In Egypt, there had already been a Greek presence prior to its conquest by Alexander – this being the Greek colony of Naucratis in the Nile delta.  However, after Alexander’s death and the takeover by Ptolemy, Alexandria (especially) and Ptolemais joined Naucratis as Greek cities among a sea of Egyptians.  In Egypt, the Greeks generally stood aloof from the native Egyptians – each had their own set of laws and customs, Greeks and Macedonians occupied a legally and socially privileged place, and there was a good deal of dissention between the two.  Despite some commercial dealings, the Greeks generally kept to themselves, and their cities were basically islands of Hellenic culture and no more.  The native Egyptians were there to be exploited, and little else.

As a result, the Ptolemaic Greeks tended to consciously work to retain their Hellenic culture, developing very oppositionalistic tendencies vis-à-vis the natives.  One fruit of this was that Alexandria essentially took over pride of place from Athens as the centre of Greek culture and learning – the Ptolemids were successful in maintaining Hellenic purity.  Another fruit, however, was that after Christianisation, the native Egyptians (now called Copts) consciously opposed the “orthodoxy” of the Eastern Roman court at Constantinople, and when the resurgence of Oriental Near Eastern culture came knocking in the form of the Muslim Arabs, the native Egyptians were all too ready to throw off the centuries-old-but-still foreign Greek influences.  As such, the Ptolemaic Greeks resisted ethnogenesis –  but at the expense of a genuinely lasting accommodation with the indigenes.

The third colonial situation – that of colonisation with attempts to integrate the indigenous people – can be observed in the situation with Greek colonisation of Epirus and the eastern Adriatic coast.  At around the same time that Sicily was being colonised, the Corinthians, Euboeans, and others were founding cities such as Epidamnus, Apollonia, and Corcyra, among others.  The indigenes along these coasts were in some cases Illyrians, but in others were quasi-Greek peoples (still considered, initially at least, as barbarians because they didn’t build poleis) like the Chaonians, Molossians, Thesprotians, Amphilocians, and so forth.  These latter groups spoke dialects of Greek (from the NW dialectical family), but were still far from being “genuinely” Greek in the eyes of most writers.

However, the Greeks apparently viewed these peoples as having some hope for civilisation.  Several Greek writers accepted, or fashioned, Heroic lineages for many of these groups, tracing them back to foundations by heroes of the Trojan War as they returned back to their homes.  As such, these “barbarians” were different from other barbarians.  As a result, many of the Greek colonies made inroads into Hellenising these people, going beyond just their nearness in language to also bringing Hellenic culture through trade and interaction with native elites.

I believe that each of these three colonial situations have relevance in more recent history.

First, the Sicilian situation closely matches that of the United States.  Founded in wilderness with technologically inferior and socially decentralised indigenes, the British colonies were highly populated and initially consisted of British and other near-kin NW European colonists.  As such, there was enough “social pressure” for them to retain their fundamentally British culture.  However, through a combination of cultural exchange with the Native Americans and the introduction of immigration that was further afield (yet still basically European in origin, at least until 1965), American culture is somewhat (though not exceedingly) different from the Anglo root from which it sprang.  The same situation also obtained in other British foundations in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  The Spanish were less successful in truly Hispanicising many of their colonies because of the smaller (relative to the native population) number of colonists emigrating from Spain, which is why much of Latin America retains essentially Native American culture with a superficial overlay of Spanish influence from the language and Catholic religion.  Ethnogenesis was much more of a complete process in Latin America, where we see truly hybrid mestizo cultures existing across much of Central America and the northern part of South America.

This would seem to suggest two things.  First, that ethnogenesis is probably inevitable even in the best of circumstances.  Much as in biology, once you start separating populations from their parent stock and thrusting them into new environments and new interactions with new peoples, there will be cultural drifting that occurs.  The only way to retain “cultural purity” is to not interact with other populations to begin with, which means either you don’t colonise, or else you completely segregate yourself (likely achievable only through complete extermination) from outside groups.  The latter is certainly not preferable.  Barring these, colonisers should be willing to accept ethnogenesis.  Second, however, is that ethnogenesis can be slowed by transferring a larger relative population of immigrants to the new foundation.  This creates more social pressure which reinforces the cultural confidence of the colonists.  Hundreds of thousands of Brits living near a handful of Native Americans keeps British culture in the colonies strong.  Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards spread out across one and a half continents with millions of indigenes means the Spanish culture is only superficially applied and becomes much more miscegenated. In a negative way, we see this taking place today in barrios and banlieus across the USA and Europe where large numbers of inassimilable foreigners have been allowed to congregate and reinforce themselves against outside cultural pressures.

The second colonial situation, that of the Hellenistic foundations in Egypt, mirrors that of the British colonisation in India.  Here, small numbers of socially elite British immigrants – largely there as administrators, military personnel, or plantation owners – ruled over a large body of natives with whom there was very little social and cultural interaction.  Their rule was, of course, never truly accepted by the Indians, and when the opportunity came to force the British out of India, they did not hesitate to take it.

This suggests that colonisers who wish to make long-term successful plantations should be wary of keeping themselves too aloof from the indigenes.  A certain amount of cultural interaction is likely necessary, if for no other reason than to stave off insurrection.  Obviously, and as we saw above, this comes with the trade-off of allowing ethnogenesis to take place.  Indeed, the Angrezi Raj depicted in Stirling’s speculative fiction work The Peshawar Lancers is a sound guess at what the British in India would have been like had they been a bit more willing to “go native.”  The long story short would seem to be that those desiring to keep themselves 100% culturally pure should not participation in colonial activities.

The third and final colonial type, that of the Greek foundations in the Adriatic that were coupled with attempts to incorporate the natives, are (unfortunately) seen in today’s attempt by Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East to colonise Western Europe.  Here we see a minority population of aggressive colonists who have already managed to succeed in forcing large parts of the native societies to bend to their wills.  Far from remaining aloof, the Muslims are “interacting” and are increasingly successful in spreading their culture into many European countries.  Large swathes of France, Germany, and Sweden have already been essentially Islamised.  Like it or not, the Muslims in Europe are pursuing a successful strategy of coupling excessive natalism with aggressive cultural expansionism.  Just as the Molossians and Chaonians became Hellenised enough to be considered serious participants in the Peloponnesian War, in the dystopian future, Frenchmen and Germans maybe be Islamic enough to participate in the revanchist Caliphate. In the process, the Islamic culture of a Muslim Europe would differ (again through ethnogenetic processes) from those of the Turks or Maghribis.  However, because of Islam’s universalistic biases, this would likely not be considered as much of a problem provided the Firangis were orthodox in theology.

In summary, colonisation is a process that cannot help but create ethnogenesis if it is to be successful.  Both the American and the Muslim models have been successful, while the Alexandrine/British Raj models proved not to be in the long term.  In today’s world, the openings for genuine colonisation are not likely to be there except for cases such as the Muslim invasion of Europe, which exists solely because the Europeans themselves have pointedly refused to defend themselves from it.  I genuinely believe that if Europe chose to fight back, it could clear itself of invaders within a year – the power is not lacking, but only the political will to use it.  However, one does not know what the future holds, and should the Great Reset prove to be bad enough and widespread enough, colonialism might well become a going concern once again.  For those with an imperial mindset, the considerations presented above ought to be kept in mind.  Colonisation is a powerful act, but it can lead to unintended consequences if efforts to control the direction of its energies are not made.


3 thoughts on “Colonisation as an Engine for Ethnogenesis

  1. Interesting points. Wrt to you speculations on the Raj: something like that did occur in British (and French) N. America, but by degrees. The hunters, trappers, traders and prospectors effectively adopted indigenous culture 90%, only sticking to their European roots to the extent necessary to make use of important technologies and maintain ties back to the forts/trading posts. The pioneers had, in some ways, the most antagonistic relationships with the injuns, but also had to adopt a great deal of their lifestyle (eating maize and other “indian crops” which were still considered animal-fodder by Europeans in 1945, borrowing indigenous tactics for hunting and warfare). Only farmers and artisans located immediately adjacent to the harbors had the density and the economic means to maintain a strictly European lifestyle.

    The one missing piece in the picture you present is disease. American Indians were decimated by Old World epidemics; Hindus were, if anything, the *original source* of many of those same epidemics. Temperate climates were well-suited to European immunology and respiration; tropical climates host all sorts of nasty diseases, whether in Panama or in India.


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