Acclaimed U of C prof examines conquest

By Kimberly Richards

Navigating the stream of early modern English research, Professor Ken MacMillan makes waves debunking the rhetorical and propagandistic power of the term conquest.

MacMillan, a legal, constitutional and imperial historian of early modern England, is an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of History.

In the brief period since completing his PhD in 16th and 17th century history at McMaster University in 2002 and earning an associate professorship in the Department of History, MacMillan has become a campus favourite, receiving the 2007 Social Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award, 2005 and 2006 Maclean’s Magazine Popular Prof, and 2004 Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Award.

Currently on sabbatical, he has been focusing on two research projects.

The first project deals with the ways the English use the term conquest, primarily in the context of the empire.

“When they were talking about indigenous peoples or claiming sovereignty over the land, did they use the term conquest or did they use other terminology? And if they did use the term conquest, what did that term actually mean?” asks MacMillan.

MacMillan is reacting to a large body of 20th century scholarship in which conquest has a very aggressive connotation.

“Scholars always assume that when contemporaries in the 16th, 17th and 18th century used the term conquest, what they meant was the belligerent subjugation of the indigenous peoples, and imposing lordship over them.”

“My argument is that essentially in the 16th and early 17th century [England], the word conquest did not have a belligerent connotation to it; it had more of what I call a benign and benevolent connotation.”

The English did use the word when discussing expansion into the new world, but they were not talking about subjugating indigenous peoples, says MacMillan.

“[The English] were talking more in the Francis Bacon sense of the conquest of the works of nature; they were talking about tilling the land, and conquering the peoples to an extent, but in a benign way.”

One of the discoveries in his book Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World: The Legal Foundations of Empire, 1576-1640 (2006) was that, in contrast to Spain, the English did not use the word conquest in a legal way, rather, they employed land oriented terminology “in order to distance themselves from what they call the rapacious example of conquest in the Spanish conquest in the new world — raping, pillaging and mass murder.”

“As a result of the reception of international law, and England having to speak with the international community when it came to establishing sovereignty in the new world particularly, the word conquest began to take on a more belligerent connotation,” says MacMillan.

MacMillan attributes his interest in the term to a book he read in a graduate seminar that he found so fundamentally flawed he sought new answers to the questions being asked.

Compiling English and European antiquarian chronicles from the 1560s and 1570s, and legal treatises from 1560s up to the 1750s, there is a large body of ideological and critical work to consider.

MacMillan credits the Special Collections and Law Library at the U of C as a great resource for early modern British scholars.

While non-historians may not immediately grasp the implications of MacMillan’s research outside of academia, he brings the subject matter to life.

“If we look at a lot of contemporary debates about governments and their relationship with indigenous peoples, it is often founded on this language of conquest.”

MacMillan draws upon the landmark 1823 Johnson versus M’Intosh case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Native Americans had the right of occupancy, but not ultimate title to their lands. Native Americans therefore could not sell land to private U.S. citizens; rather the U.S. government had ultimate title to the land.

MacMillan notes that the trial has had massive legal ramifications in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and in recent academic debate.

“In this case, the Chief Justice [John] Marshall rendered his opinion that the indigenous peoples and their lands were conquered by the English in the 17th century, and this was subsequently used in the 19th century to justify dispossessing the indigenous peoples, removing a lot of rights from them, placing them in the reservation system, and all of that has bled over today into American and Canadian relationships with native peoples.”

MacMillan’s argument is that although Marshall did draw on appropriate discourse from the 17th century that used conquest, he “fundamentally misunderstood what the word conquest meant, and as a result . . . that Supreme Court case which then rendered an opinion, that had an impact for 200 years, becomes almost mute.”

“We need to redefine how these relationships need to be worked out based on contemporary language. If you are going to use evidence of the 17th century to render a decision, you need to understand how that language was actually designed to be used.”

MacMillan has been recognized with numerous research and teaching awards. Notable fellowships include the Royal Historical Society, the Huntington Library, the John Carter Brown Library, the Killam Trust and the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, for which he has currently been on research sabbatical.

MacMillan looks forward to returning from research sabbatical to his teaching duties this January.

“Research and teaching become very mutually reinforcing. That’s not a new idea; everybody says it. It’s absolutely true; and it’s absolutely true for me.”

MacMillan said teaching first year students can be very rewarding.

“It teaches me to explain things in a way that can be understood beyond my own discipline. And I think that is a lesson we all need to learn in teaching and in scholarship.”

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