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Indigenizing the Metropolis: Natives in Urban History

On February 21st, Coll Thrush, a professor of history at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, painted a very different picture of early London in a talk drawn from his latest book: Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire. Responding to a call to “make the indigenous world bigger,” Thrush seeks to expand the territory of indigenous studies by revealing how indigenous people weren’t hidden in urban spaces at all; in fact, they were highly visible. Indeed, Coll links urban and Indigenous histories to reframe “the metropolis and its history through the experiences of Indigenous people who travelled there, willingly or otherwise, from territories that became the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, beginning in 1502.”

Indigenous London covers a vast period of time, spanning from the 16th- to the late 19th-century. Thrush’s goal was to craft a narrative highlighting the indigenous presence in London at various points in its history. He admits that his approach gives the book a mile-wide and inch-deep quality in a few respects, and thus he hopes future scholars will hone in on some of the instances of indigeneity he discovered in London’s history.

Some of the Native Americans highlighted in Thrush’s narrative include well-known figures such as Pocahontas and King Kamehameha II. Others include the more obscure “four kings,” three Mohawks and one Mohican who visited London in 1710 to meet Queen Anne. Londoners were apparently so fascinated with the kings that they were more interested in watching their reaction to Macbeth rather than Macbeth itself. It reached the point where the kings were placed in seats on stage so that Londoners could get a better view of them.

Part of Thrush’s primary source research came in the form of travel accounts written by Native visitors to London. In these accounts, a common theme was their critique of the “ecology of the city,” that is, how it fed itself when there were no hunting grounds, how it existed as a sustainable space, and how it didn’t collapse despite the presence of such inequality of wealth. Some Natives, like Pauline Johnson, wrote about how hypocritical it was for such a seemingly confused people as the British to try and missionize “heathenous” Natives.

Moving towards the late 19th century, Thrush revealed how the indigenous presence in London led to anxiety over the negative effects of over-civilization. That is, British leaders worried that British citizens were becoming too comfortable, and as a result, physically weaker than their indigenous counterparts. This led to the promotion of sports and exercise in order to prevent “indigenous bodies from out-performing British bodies.”

Thrush ended by reinforcing that settler colonialism and the “indigenous London” it created is an ongoing story. Colonialism still exists, and the presence of indigeneity itself continues to stoke anxieties that provide the impetus for further efforts to subordinate other people.  


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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