In a Wilderness of Tigers: Violence, the Discourse of English Colonizing, and the Refusals of American History

Christopher Tomlins


This essay addresses the first century of English colonization of the North American mainland. Rather than narrate a familiar story of events — migration, settlement, the creation of viable Anglophone cultures amid hardship and danger — it pursues a less familiar track by examining the terms upon which English adventurers and their contemporaries understood the world they inhabited, the process of transatlantic expansion upon which they were engaged, and, in particular, the justifications they espoused for their appropriations of space from its existing inhabitants. My examination concentrates in particular on the conjoined discourses, literary and legal, in which the meanings of those terms are most clearly displayed. Through analysis of Shakespeare's early play Titus Andronicus (c. 1591), I demonstrate the salience of Tudor political economy — principally of sovereign power and invasion, of land and inhabitation, and of the city and barbarism — to the discourse of early-modern English colonizing. I show how the same complex of ideas animated the founding legal texts of English "settlement," revealed in the jurisdictional structures created and spaces occupied by the projectors of colonies. Finally, through reference to another foundational text, not of colonizing but of modern American legal history (Willard Hurst's Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth Century United States, published in 1956), I show the cardinal importance to contemporary America's historical self-construction of a refusal to acknowledge America's historical origins in a political economy of "colonization" and its violence, and its preference for a narrative of "energy" and "freedom" and their occlusion of violence.

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