Conjuring the Colonial Frontier


Review of Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State, by Benjamin D. Hopkins 

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020


“The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization,” wrote Frederick Jackson Turner, that most prominent historian of westward expansion, in 1893. “The wilderness masters the colonist…It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin,” and yet, “little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe…The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.” 

In his new book, Ruling the Savage Periphery, Benjamin Hopkins references Turner’s famous thesis, juxtaposing it with related arguments made by the failed British colonial administrator Henry Bartle Frere and the Argentinian politician Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. All three men saw the frontier as a space where savagery and civilization were entangled, but where civilization would ultimately win out—either through the victory of European imperial superiority or through the formation of a distinctly new world culture, rising above its European origins.  

But, according to Hopkins, the frontier was less a real place to be conquered by states and empires than it was a space conjured up by imperial administrators themselves. His book grapples with the nebulous phenomenon of the imperial frontier in a wide-ranging historical analysis that spans from the Afghan border of colonial India to the deserts of Argentina and the American Southwest. Focusing on the latter half of the nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, Hopkins makes a persuasive argument for a connection between these disparate places and their influence on imperial rule more broadly. Administrators attempting to control the periphery developed new logics of legal and political order, with consequences lasting well into the present day.

The major theoretical contribution of the book lies in the concept of frontier governmentality. This is the framework through which imperial administrators ruled their frontiers, but also through which they produced and reproduced those frontiers. It is a specific set of practices, made up of four key features: “indirect rule, sovereign pluralism, imperial objecthood, and economic dependence” (6). Each of these features can be found in other spheres of imperial rule, but they come together in a unique way within the framework of frontier governmentality, casting the frontier as a zone of partial governability— too valuable to give up entirely but too nomadic, savage, or simply unruly to integrate into the colonial state.

By invoking governmentality, Hopkins is clearly writing in the Foucauldian vein popular in the subfield of South Asian history, but his work also engages a variety of other literatures, namely recent developments in legal history and historical international relations. The focus on practices as constitutive of spatial categories stands out as both a highly productive move and, at times, a slightly limiting one—a point to which I will return later. 

In various guises and through different pathways the model of frontier governance proved extraordinarily transportable, perhaps best exemplified by the Frontiers Crime Regulation (FCR) initially enacted in 1872. This legal code was first drafted as a tool to administer the Afghan frontier of British India, the inhabitants of which “were to be governed by their own ‘traditions,’ authentic cultural practices considered such by the state” (37). The sentiment mirrors the remarks made by Jan Smuts as part of his Rhodes Memorial Lecture at Oxford in 1929 presaging apartheid, and indeed the FCR would have a remarkable life and afterlife. The ordinance meant to govern Afghan tribesmen was thus implemented, with slight modifications, at various frontier zones across the empire over the next fifty years, as far away as Kenya and Transjordan. 

But the spread of frontier governmentality was not contained to the British Empire alone, and Hopkins tells what is a remarkably trans-imperial story, highlighting the spread of practices across and between imperial polities. As wide-ranging as this circulation of governmental practices was, there is ultimately a finite number of cases of this type of frontier space, many of which are covered in the book. But the ideal type influenced imperial governmentality well beyond this limited set of cases, by projecting a particular attitude towards the periphery of political order and by delineating the very boundaries of governability. 

This is a book in part about colonial states’ attempts at taming the frontier, but also about the limits of that project. By delineating the boundaries of state power over the peoples of the frontier and by implementing structures of self-policing and economic dependency, these states managed to rule over peripheral spaces with a minimum of actual governance involved. Rather than fully “taming” the frontier, civilization was deemed too lofty an ideal to be implemented in such zones of savagery and their inhabitants were instead left with a sort of “qualified independence,” in the words of Lord Lansdowne (32-33). This meant that while political independence existed nominally, economic dependency was in fact cultivated and went hand-in-hand with various schemes of institutionalized self-policing, as frontier peoples were dragooned into military or police service—from the tribal police on United States reservations to the so-called indios amigos in Argentina to tribal militias in Afghanistan. Such practices not only provided the means of policing the frontier with a minimum of direct imperial involvement, but also created large numbers of migrant laborers—in the form of the family members of underpaid police officers and militiamen—who came to depend on imperial economies for their survival.

Taming the Savage Periphery is not a story of the peoples of the frontier eluding the rule of imperial administrators, in the vein of the Zomia highlands so famously described in James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. In fact, Hopkins’ account is almost the reverse of the one that Scott offers. This is a self-declared state-centric story, a “history of what states did to those people, rather than how those people escaped, resisted, or ultimately succumbed to the state” (8). Calling it a top-down history would not be accurate either, however, as the real focus is on the level between metropolitan governments and indigenous peoples. The actors here are more often than not the men attempting to carry out the objectives of the imperial state, engaging in practices of governing—or not governing—the outer reaches of those states.

The book also builds on the newer literatures on empire, sovereignty, and territoriality, and in particular the work of legal historians such as Lauren Benton. These historians have shown that the colonial peripheries of the nineteenth century were not spheres of exception, as imagined by social theorists like Giorgio Agamben, or indeed zones of lawlessness somehow existing outside the normal scope of empire, but rather reflections of a wider system of complex legality. Rather than rehashing by-now well-established arguments concerning the divisible and layered nature of colonial sovereignty, Hopkins instead adds to this literature by honing in on the particular legal formation of the frontier. The frontier is delineated as a specific type of qualified independent realm, not exactly under the same type of suzerainty as, say, the Princely States, but still existing as both a space of independent frontier tribes and as part of the “all-encompassing pretensions to power” harbored by colonial empires (19).  In this way the frontier is at once outside the formal structures of colonies and within the spheres of imperial power. 

Hopkins is not just responding to established theorists of the field, like Scott and Agamben, but also to certain attitudes that are (or at least used to be) widespread in US policy circles, perhaps best exemplified by the work of Thomas Barnett. This particular line of thinking divides the world into governed and ungoverned territories—the “core” and the “gap.” In the book The Pentagon’s New Map and in a multitude of PowerPoint presentations, Barnett explains how globalization has bound together countries in the “functioning core” through webs of interdependence, while those regions where globalization has yet to penetrate are caught in a “non-integrating gap,” stuck in a perpetual cycle of violence, conflict, and poverty which ultimately threatens to spill over and destabilize the core. The task facing governments of the core, and the US in particular, is thus a relatively straightforward one: To “export security,” through the barrel of a gun if necessary, and where viable to integrate the gap into the core via gradual state-building. The echoes of Frere, Samiento, and other turn-of-the-century thinkers are likely to be clear to Hopkins’ readers. 

The takeaway from Hopkins’ book is not that the violence in the so-called “gap” is not real, as he frequently references both historical and contemporary massacres and acts of terror. Rather, that violence is in no small part a consequence of 150 years of imperial rule of the region in a way that created—and continues to perpetuate—the conditions of this systemic violence, from the FRC to the War on Terror. This continual cycle of violence is not just due to the continued interventionist policies of great powers but is in fact deeply embedded in the structures of postcolonial states themselves, such as Pakistan where the FCR was not appealed until 2018 (59). These countries have inherited the scaffolding of frontier governmentality, including the categorization of certain populations as frontier peoples, and by extension as second-class citizens, and of certain groups as existing beyond the state, thereby posing a threat to it by their very presence. As Hopkins concludes rather bleakly, the “colonial order was founded on violence. The postcolonial order is maintained by it” (205).

What criticism I do have of Ruling the Savage Periphery has more to do with the book’s framework than with its historical analysis, which is both fascinating and impressive. Yet as impressive as the historical work here is, I think the conceptual framing could be expanded. There are three themes in particular on which the book could have done more: space, agency, and scope of comparison.

While casting the frontier as governmentality leads to an analytically rich account that foregrounds the activities of men on the ground and the malleability of the regions they attempted to administer, this conceptual move risks eluding the spatial characteristics of frontiers. One wonders if geography did not after all play a considerable role here. Spatiality is part of the story told by Hopkins, but its importance seems overshadowed by the role of practices and institutions. Yet a more thorough comparison between the spaces studied as physical spaces might have been revealing. To give one example, which Hopkins himself lays out, the San Carlos reservation in Arizona had parts of its territory carved out and “returned to the public domain” on multiple occasions in the nineteenth century in order for US economic interests to extract their natural resources, most famously in the form of the Phelps Dodge Corporation’s Morenci copper mine (125). The ability to define and redefine a frontier region like San Carlos on the basis of natural resource deposits is a good indication of the importance of the physical environment, and there are likely similar stories to be told of the other regions discussed in the book. The officials involved in this history clearly operated from a perspective of rather naked environmental determinism, but in order to avoid reifying that type of crude analysis Hopkins arguably veers too far towards the opposite end of the spectrum, at times avoiding talking about the geographical or environmental elements that make up these frontier regions or assigning them much explanatory power.

Although the agency of the people governed (or not governed) by frontier governmentality comes through in several of the case studies, the book presents what is overall a rather state-centric account. This is particularly apparent in the conceptual framework, which perhaps moves too far away from Scott’s emphasis on the ungoverned peoples of the periphery towards a more unidirectional view of governmentality.  The state-centric focus leads to less attention being paid to practices of subversion than to the efforts to mitigate or control such subversion. It is not that Hopkins does not recognize the importance of resistance, but rather that it plays a comparatively small role in the story he tells. He acknowledges as much in the introduction, and one book cannot do everything, but the consequence is that Governing the Savage Frontier is fruitfully read alongside other accounts more focused on the other side of the coin.

At the risk of demanding that a book which is already remarkably expansive be even more global, I am left wondering what would happen if the scope was widened further. What would happen if the focus on European and American empires was broadened out to include comparisons to Qing, Ottoman, or Japanese frontier rule? Hopkins himself hints at interesting comparisons to Tibet and Central Asia but leaves at least this reader wanting more (17). Pursuing these threads further might illuminate two things. First, it would show that similar practices of early frontier rule developed in parallel across Eurasia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as indicated by the pioneering work done by new Qing historians like Peter Perdue and James Millward. And second, it would reveal that the spread of perceived best practices between empires taking place at the turn of the twentieth century was not limited to European and American polities but extended to non-western states like early republican China and possibly imperial Japan. This latter point in particular seems to fit well with the story Hopkins is interested in telling and indicates that the legacies of frontier governmentality might not just be influential in the United States or the former colonies of the British Empire, but also in certain regions of the People’s Republic of China. 

Despite these minor criticisms, Ruling the Savage Periphery is a truly excellent and ambitious work demanding the attention of those interested in borderlands, colonial governance, and ongoing debates over orderly and disorderly spaces in international affairs. It arguably has as much to say to policy makers as to academics, although the latter group is no doubt more inclined to engage with a work as historically textured and nuanced as this.



Posted on 18 March 2021

JEPPE MULICH is lecturer in modern history at City, University of London. He is the author of In a Sea of Empires: Networks and Crossings in the Revolutionary Caribbean (Cambridge University Press, 2020).