In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emigration and Nineteenth-Century British Colonial Settler Narratives

  • Introduction
  • Social and Political Context
  • Empire and Race
  • Ecocriticism

Victorian Literature Emigration and Nineteenth-Century British Colonial Settler Narratives
Tamara Wagner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0197


British colonial settler narratives of the nineteenth century comprise creative prose writing set in settler spaces that were under British rule during this time period. The term chiefly refers to narratives that were written by emigrants and settlers, as well as travelers and returnees. Traditionally, scholarship on British settler colonialism centers on the individual literary histories of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Recent research reconsiders emigration and settler writing in the larger context of a global nineteenth century. Thus, comparative studies of the experience and representation of settlement throughout the British Empire have begun to open up new venues to explore settler narratives. Transatlantic and transoceanic approaches have helped to highlight the circulation of cultural formations across the globe at the time. Simultaneously, studies reading settler and metropolitan, or British-based, fiction in tandem have facilitated a new consideration of genre and form, allowing us to recognize the hitherto underestimated contribution of British settler narratives to genre developments. In addition, important critical work has been done in the areas of gender and domesticity as well as of empire and race, although more research needs to be undertaken on the representation of Indigenous peoples in colonial settler narratives. More recently, ecocriticism has emerged as an illuminating theoretical framework to reinvestigate settler colonialism and the narratives it produced at a time of rapid industrialization and global expansion. While these approaches have brought unexplored aspects of settler narratives to light, renewed attention to often hitherto marginalized works has had an important impact on reconsiderations of the global nineteenth century. British colonial settler narratives provide different perspectives on imperialism, globalization, and the encounter with Indigenous populations. In addition, the gradual expansion of a canon of settler writing provides insight into the experience of women, who often turned to and thereby transformed different genres of writing. Thus the still seldom discussed domestic settler fiction deliberately upends narratives of exploration and adventure. As these contrasting texts exemplify, record, and at times constructively complicate the circulation of literary culture, they prompt us to reexamine how the globe was drastically reshaped through mass emigration and settler cultures that deliberately transformed the environment.

Social and Political Context

Current research on British colonial settler writing primarily considers it in the context of settler colonialism. The social and political aspects of this specific form of colonialism are the subject of several more general overviews and discussions. While most of these works seldom or only tangentially analyze settler narratives in detail, they are nonetheless important for a thorough understanding of the material culture in which these narratives were produced. Over the last decades, in fact, the study of colonial settler spaces has emerged as a separate field of scholarly inquiry, with a specific theoretical framework that conceptualizes settler colonialism as a distinct imperial formation. Wolfe 1999 influentially distinguished between colonial and settler colonial formations, arguing that settler colonization is structurally based on the elimination of native populations. Veracini 2010 further conceptualized settler colonialism as transnational, stressing the importance of a global history of settler colonial forms. Within this growing emphasis on global interconnectedness, the 19th-century English-speaking colonial settler world is now nonetheless commonly understood as comprising Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Coombes 2006 includes South Africa, defining settler societies as former British colonies that subsequently became British dominions. Belich 2009 has been influential in conceptualizing an “Anglo-world” or “Anglo diaspora,” which has significantly redirected the discussion of 19th-century emigration, underscoring comparisons with the settler histories of the United States of America. Bell 2007 specifies that Victorian conceptualizations of a settler empire could both mean the settlement colonies, chiefly Australia and New Zealand, and the totality of the English-speaking settler world, including the United States. Bateman and Pilkington 2011 apply a particularly broad definition of settler spaces, while critically engaging with the changing definitions of settler colonialism in the nineteenth century. Bickers 2010 further complicates the discussion by comparing forms of colonization and expatriation, whereas Morgan 2017 provides a far-reaching overview that furthermore takes into account colonial relationships with Indigenous peoples. Johnston 2003 adds the perspective of missionary work and writing. Although concerned with the Victorians’ representation of geopolitical relations in general, Goodlad 2015 engages more directly with literary works and thereby offers a useful premise for a reconsideration of settler narratives.

  • Bateman, Fiona, and Lionel Pilkington, eds. Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    This edited collection stresses the violence of settler colonialism, emphasizing that the notion of putatively “unoccupied” territories is founded on the annihilation of native or Indigenous peoples. Individual chapters focus on specific aspects of several settler colonies, including South Africa and Hawai’i. It also contains a minutely researched discussion of how settler colonialism was theorized in the nineteenth century itself.

  • Belich, James. Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199297276.001.0001

    This is an influential discussion of the expansion of settler colonies through mass emigration at an unprecedented rate in the course of the long nineteenth century. Belich focuses on what he terms the resulting “Anglo-World,” comprising Australia and New Zealand as well as North America. Insightful discussions of several narratives are interspersed in various chapters.

  • Bell, Duncan. The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860–1900. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

    This far-reaching discussion of the conceptualization of British expansionism in the settler colonies critically unpacks the formulation of imperial political thought during the nineteenth century. The focus is on conceptual shifts of what the Victorians termed a Greater Britain, including how they studied the history of empires. Bell also discusses South Africa and the divergent historical trajectories of the different parts of North America as well as Australia and New Zealand.

  • Bickers, Robert. Settlers and Expatriates: Britons over the Seas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199297672.001.0001

    This study constructively complicates the discussion of settler colonialism by critically parsing the formation of British identity in the colonial world outside the traditional settler colonies. This could open up further comparative study.

  • Coombes, Annie, ed. Rethinking Settler Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand and South Africa. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006.

    This collection of essays stresses the importance of comparative work on Britain’s settler colonies, arguing that these colonies share not only a number of features in terms of their colonial histories, but also a similarly ambivalent relationship to the imperial or metropolitan center. These comparisons make a significant contribution to the larger reframing of what are termed metropolitan–colonial relations. One of the first works to stress the need to rethink settler colonialism along these lines.

  • Goodlad, Lauren M. E. The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198728276.001.0001

    Although this study is more concerned with reframing British imperialism at large, in which settler colonialism only features tangentially, the concept of a geopolitical aesthetic can provide a useful premise for a rethinking of the settler world. The focus is on literary works and includes an analysis of Anthony Trollope’s representations of Australia and New Zealand in the context of imperialism.

  • Johnston, Anna. Missionary Writing and Empire: 1800–1860. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511550324

    This insightful account of 19th-century missionary writing in the context of imperialism adds a different perspective on the discussion of emigration and settler writing. Concentrating on the evangelical London Missionary Society’s activities in several colonial spaces, it contains discussions of Australia as well as Polynesia. It critically investigates the ambiguous role of missionaries within colonial power structures.

  • Morgan, Cecilia. Building Better Britains? Settler Societies in the British World, 1783–1920. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442607538

    A detailed historical investigation of settler colonialism, this far-reaching study stands out in offering an analysis of colonial relationships with Indigenous peoples, arguing that the defining feature of settler colonies is their relationship with the original inhabitants. Chapter 2 in particular concentrates on migration and settlement, while the remaining chapters explore settler economies; domesticity (grouped under “civil society,” which also includes religion and education); and settler constructions of identity.

  • Veracini, Lorenzo. Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230299191

    This overview of settler colonialism as a distinct field of scholarly research provides an important introduction to recent conceptualizations, primarily in the social sciences. The book specifically stresses that settler colonialism constitutes a transnational phenomenon, opening up new, comparative venues of inquiry.

  • Wolfe, Patrick. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. London: Cassell, 1999.

    This is a defining discussion of settler colonialism that has influentially distinguished it as a distinct imperial formation and consequently a separate field of inquiry. In addition, in contains detailed discussion of how 19th-century anthropological theory informed settler politics, taking as an example how several of its underpinning concepts were appropriated on ground within Australian settler-colonial ends.

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