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Overcoming space: mobility and history

Mobility is integral to human life, but not all mobility is treated as equivalent. What happens to those who are unable to move away from wilderness and into history?

'The First Thanksgiving' by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (c. 1912). Wikimedia Commons.

We are all ‘mobile individuals’ living in a world that has been structured by mobility. As political theorist Thomas Hobbes argued in the seventeenth century, we are matter in motion. That motion, the restlessness that ceases only in death, tells us that we are alive and human. Mobility itself is understood as a human good, a positive value and a general principle of modernity. The liberal possibility that we are free to pursue our own good involves choosing our own path. It suggests we can change the story of our lives by moving its location, altering the supporting cast of characters and giving ourselves new opportunities, opening up new horizons. In this context, mobility is understood as increasing personal freedom and widening opportunities, and it is inextricably linked to the idea of modernity as progress. Mobility allows us to break away from tradition, to accelerate social change and to become civilised. In its connection with civilisation, mobility emerges from this historical context as a relational concept. The mobility of some relies on the immobility of others.

This relation between mobility and immobility helped structure colonialism. Settler colonies were not primarily established to extract surplus value from indigenous labour, but to displace indigenous people from the land. This meant that settler colonies were premised on the elimination of native societies—the colonisers came to stay. Early liberal theorists like John Locke held that this was justifiable in the Americas. Although the indigenous people lived on fertile land capable of producing food and other resources in abundance, he argued, they had put themselves outside the current of history by failing to realise the potential value of what they had. By clinging to tradition they remained outside market society, with no hope of commerce with the rest of the world. They had made themselves immobile. As a result, Locke said, ‘A King of a large and fruitful Territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day labourer in England’.

The English colonists based their claim to virtuous ownership on agricultural plantation and cultivation, growing sugar in Barbados and tobacco in New England. They put up fences and rooted themselves in the soil in ways that suggested immobility, but the new crops they brought, the towns they established to trade with England, and their commerce with the rest of the world were all about expansion and appropriation and so about mobility, modernity and progress. Their sense of mission meant that they felt they had God’s authority to enclose the ‘vacant lands’ of America. They used the English courts to command the Americans to fence their land. When they did not do so, the settlers regarded the land as being actively neglected. The Indians may have occupied the land, but they had failed to fulfil God’s commandment to subdue the earth.

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

—Genesis 1:28

Instead, they had left the grass to rot and the fruit unpicked, and their land could still be looked upon as waste. They were seen as immobilised by their inability to get beyond subsistence. Their “dependence on the spontaneous productions of nature to supply almost all their wants”, Ronald Takaki observes, allowed settlers to imagine indigenous peoples as ‘wild’ beings, suspended in a state of nature.

Through seventeenth century European eyes, the indigenous Americans were conceived as immobile because they failed to use their minds to expand their horizons beyond the ordinary wants of the body: fishing, hunting, dancing and revenge. Locke’s understanding of the Indians as savage was based on his conviction that they were unable to extend their thoughts through literacy and conversation, so that their minds could not attain a ‘comprehensive enlargement’. They had the potential to exercise reason, but to “achieve sufficient moral sophistication one needed to enter a polite and civil world”, as Daniel Carey puts it. English men, by contrast, were seen as living in a superior society where they could pursue their desires and engage in international exchange. They could travel, leaving their civilised worlds to investigate the customs, inclinations, beliefs and habits of others, to study the Indians and their environment, to cultivate their own worldliness.

Within this structure of thought, in the beginning all the world was America. The peoples Locke found there ‘show us our history’. By constructing the Native Americans as wild and primitive, as yet unaware of the value of private property and of God’s grand design for the earth, Locke placed them in the past. Once there, they could be subjected to a narrative in which their current practices would—inexorably—be transformed into those of Europe. In this sense, America appears at the beginning of history, not yet fully distinguished from nature. The inhabitants’ inability to progress would have to change, but their mobility would have to be regulated by the politeness and civilisation of European society. As Georg Hegel later argued about Africa in the Philosophy of History, there are some “strange places that are located in the world but not in history”. Such places remain as states of nature: unhistorical, immobile in time as well as space.

The historical immobility of the indigenous populations of America and Africa underpins what Frank B. Wilderson identifies as the “black invisibility and namelessness” at the heart of slavery. Immobilising certain people so that others can travel means placing restrictions on some people’s agency, denying them the possibility of being protagonists and of generating their own historical categories of entitlement and sovereignty. ‘We are off the record’, says Wilderson of Black Americans, ‘We live in the world, but exist outside of civil society’. Something about this distinction, it seems to me, helps to explain the disturbing ambivalence of current reactions to the drowning of mobile African individuals in the Mediterranean.  It has made it possible for the British government and the EU to lament the tragedy for the world while withdrawing search and rescue operations in order to protect their own civil societies.

About the author

Laura Brace is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Leicester, and is author of The Politics of Property, published by Edinburgh University Press. She is currently working on a companion volume on the politics of slavery.


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