the bible indigenous people and the british empire n.
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The Bible, Indigenous People and the British Empire

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  1. The Bible, Indigenous People and the British Empire • How did the British justify their claims to colonizing the land of indigenous people? For some years, scholars have assumed that the tradition of natural law provided the justifications the British needed in order to claim property rights in the land they colonized from the 17th to late 19th centuries. Natural law is a moral and legal tradition based upon the idea that through reason, man can objectively intuit the normative principles governing human behavior. Central to natural law was a theory of property that dictated that undeveloped land could be claimed as the property of whoever cultivated it. This idea was common to most Western cultures. The existing scholarship contends that when the British Empire invaded the Americas, Australasia and India, they used natural law to argue that indigenous people failed to cultivate the land, leaving it undeveloped in the state of nature, and thus the British could legitimately claim it as their own. My research project is based upon the hypothesis that it was not simply natural law but a series of Biblical traditions that the British used in order to dispossess indigenous people of their land. This is a contentious claim. The intellectual history of colonial dispossession is a matter of vigorous contemporary debate among historians, lawyers and philosophers. It is little wonder why. We live in a postcolonial moment in which the dispossession of indigenous people and the origins of nationhood animate popular consciousness. It is important to note, however, that my research does not involve the argument that Christianity or the Bible was in some way responsible for the British Empire’s treatment of indigenous people. I will make an argument about how Biblical ideas were used, and the ends for which they were used. I am not claiming that they contained an inherent command to dispossess people of their land, or even to colonize. Like all good intellectual history, my aim is to explore how texts and ideas were used and misused, and why. My research will involve exploring how the command in the book of Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28), was appropriated by the British to justify colonizing the land of indigenous people in the Americas and Australasia in the 18th and 19th centuries. This project will be the basis of my second book, which I will title The Bible, Indigenous People, and the British Empire. The book will form a second volume to my first book, Natural Science and the Origins of the British Empire, which was published in 2008 by Pickering and Chatto. Dr. Sarah Irving Religion Department Florida State University sirving@fsu.edu