Colonial Mindscapes: Indigenous People, Colonizers, and Their Cognitive Worlds, 1400-1850


People in the first global age became colonizers for many reasons. For some, the prospect of social and economic advancement, escape from debt or spoiled relationships, religious conversion, or simple curiosity and adventure brought them to leave their homelands for barely known places with uncertain but potentially rewarding prospects. For the majority, however, becoming a colonist was never a matter of choice. They were men, women, and children coerced into leaving their homelands by strangers who owned their bodies, by emperors who ordered their removal, and by employers and judges who offered unemployment, prison, or the gallows as their only alternatives. Whether they were volunteers or forced migrants, however, the people who settled in African and Indian Ocean entrepots, in the Americas, in Siberia, and in the Chinese borderlands between 1400 and 1850 shared a common experience: they all migrated far from home to places where other people predominated and different ways of life surrounded them. Whether they hailed from Europe, Africa, China, or Russia they were all bound to live in new worlds.


The colonizers’ new worlds were, however, old worlds for those they encountered. All indigenous societies were accustomed to hosting strangers, especially those societies that engaged in intensive trade. When Vasco da Gama landed his small fleet in Calicut, India in 1498, neither the local Arab traders nor the Zamorin of Calicut were very surprised because they had been dealing with diverse groups of traders since the fifth century BCE. Da Gama even found people who recognized him as Portuguese in this cosmopolitan Indian Ocean port and at least two who spoke Spanish. The Taino people were no less accustomed to hosting strangers in their far-flung Caribbean trading network and they easily accommodated the strange light-skinned people who sailed into their midst in 1492. Not sure where they came from, they concluded that they were traders from the sky, a place where people reputedly had white skin. Like the Tainos, the indigenous people who lived along the southern border of China’s Yunnan province were not especially concerned to see a trickle of strangers enter their lands during the late seventeenth century. Peasants, craftsmen, and small merchants, these Chinese migrants sought opportunities they could not find at home and within a generation dozens of indigenous Yunnan villages contained integrated Chinese and mixed indigenous-Chinese families. These situations would all change in the course of the sixteenth century (the eighteenth century in Yunnan), however, as occasional appearances of explorers, traders and peasants became full-time advances of aggressive merchants, armed colonists, and imperial armies intent on ruling over indigenous people, their markets, and their lands. Like their would-be colonizers, after 1500 indigenous people too would find themselves living in new worlds.


The colonial societies that punctuated and in large part defined the early modern world  were unique creations. Neither simple impositions of metropolitan social forms in foreign places nor equally simple mixtures of indigenous and colonizer traits, early modern colonial societies were singular, as different from their metropolitan and indigenous foundations as ancient agricultural societies were from the foraging and hunting societies that preceded them. Just as river valley agriculture created new forms of social, economic, political, cultural, and cognitive life five thousand years ago, so too did colonization create distinctive types of societies, each dealing with the everyday problems of encounter with their own distinctive logics and actions.


The mainsprings of everyday life in these early modern colonial societies were the connections that indigenous people and colonizers forged with each other, the networks that emerged from these connections, and the ways in which both groups charted cognitive pathways through their commingled world. Indigenous people and colonizers were thus the main players in these colonial dramas and, while economic and geopolitical concerns were vital to the dozens of trade and colonial initiatives of the early modern era, it was the people on the ground, the indigenous villagers, merchants, soldiers, and clan leaders as well as their colonizer counterparts who first encountered each other and in time fashioned distinctive colonial societies. Distant metropolitan leaders certainly  projected their wishes through proclamations, orders, and the dispatch of colonial officials, but their policies and desires were always filtered, adjusted, circumvented, and  ignored at the local level. What happened in the metropolitan centers was important and helped shape the colonization process, but the real work of colonization took place in the Indian Ocean trading posts, in the “upper country” of the North American Great Lakes, and the contested borderlands of southern China and Southeast Asia. It was here, in the everyday relationships that bound indigenous people and colonizers together, that the most profound histories of colonization were lived.  What follows is an attempt to understand these everyday colonial encounters and the men and women, colonizers and indigenous people alike, who created colonial societies throughout the early modern world.

What were they thinking? Cognition and Colonization  


Understanding how colonization worked in the everyday lives of indigenous people and colonizers requires us to shift our attention away from the geo-political and colonization/resistance paradigms that have dominated colonial writing since its inception. While these two approaches have made valuable contributions to colonial studies, helping us understand the economic, political, and social aspects of colonial life, their conceptual tool kits leave them largely at sea when it comes to dealing with the cognitive side of the colonial equation. And, as we will see, it is the cognitive dimensions of colonization that really counted in the everyday lives of the indigenous people and colonizers who built colonial societies throughout the early modern world.


Along with war and natural disasters (with which it shares many characteristics), colonization was one of the most challenging of all human experiences. In part, this challenge came from the routine use of force, intimidation, and coercion that was never absent in colonial situations. But its deepest and least recognized challenge came from the ways that colonization called into question the patterns that indigenous people and colonizers normally used to sort out their everyday experiences and the maps they used to understand their personal and collective worlds. All people rely on socially shared expectations about the world--they are our compass for navigating everyday life--and large-scale disruptions such as colonization unhinge people’s conceptual and emotional expectations about how the world works, leaving them anxious, confused, and unsure of how to act. Disruptions are thus dangerous zones for people and most other organisms and this ultimately explains, for example, why the human brain has evolved to largely ignore sameness, instead devoting much of its perceptual, motor, and cognitive energies to recognizing and responding to change and the the threat of disruption. Noticing the tiger crouched in the bush is ultimately more important than the look of bush itself.


Large and small disruptions are nonetheless a part of life and the vast majority of people eventually adjust to changes in their lives, recreating old lifeways, adopting new ones, and absorbing change by creating new ways of thinking and acting in the world.  This is what happened when initial encounters turned into the sustained and regularized interactions of colonial societies. In effect, indigenous people and colonizers created a new normal. That new normal may have been full of conflict and contention, but the same could be said of any society, including those of both indigenous people and colonizers before colonization began.


Colonial Mindscapes seeks to understand these and other everyday colonial processes by adopting an explicitly cognitive approach, one that relies on the work of hundreds of researchers in the broadly defined disciplines of social cognition and social neuroscience. These are not the usual fields that historians turn to for conceptual assistance, but the insights of social cognition and neuroscience are especially attuned to answering questions about the shifting cognitive stances that indigenous people and colonizers adopted in the drama of colonization. While it can’t answer all of our questions, it does point us in some promising directions.