Sovereigns and Subjects: Indigenous Nations within the British Atlantic Empire


Project Abstract 


This project examines Indigenous nations that exerted a subtle but profound influence on the evolution of the British empire from within. It focuses on “tributary” nations: those who accepted (though often through coercion and violence) a status as subjects of the king. Even Native nations that experienced violent subjugation could exert power by embracing the “subject” category, using the rights it conferred to defend their communities against the ravages of colonialism.

Through their engagement with British political culture, Indigenous peoples transformed it. Native leaders articulated creative new possibilities for divided sovereignty and pluralist empire, staking a claim for an Indigenous future. Imperial administrators, already overseeing a composite empire of diverse peoples, could embrace such visions as viable forms of imperial governance. However, Native articulations of sovereignty provoked reactions from settlers, who came to view the rights of Indigenous subjects as intolerable assaults on their rights and articulated their own visions of the imperial body politic that were strikingly at odds with those of their countrymen in Britain.

Spanning the early modern British empire from the Caribbean to Canada, this project recovers the accomplishments of Indigenous intellectuals in shaping the terms of their subjection. It will illuminate the influence of Native political thought on the revolutionary remaking of British subjects into American citizens and on the evolution of modern concepts of sovereignty.

Matthew Kruer is Assistant Professor of Early North American History and the College at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015. His first book, Time of Anarchy: Indigenous Power and the Crisis of Colonialism in Early America (Harvard University Press, 2022), is based on a doctoral dissertation that was awarded the 2016 Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians. Kruer has received funding from the American Council of Learned Societies, Library Company of Philadelphia, University of Oxford, American Philosophical Society, American Historical Society, Virginia Historical Society, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Huntington, and the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard. He has been invited to give talks about this work at the Rothermere Center for American Studies at the University of Oxford, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Washington Area Early American Seminar, and Boston Area Early American History Seminar. His publications include “Bloody Minds and Peoples Undone: Emotion, Family, and Political Order in the Susquehannock-Virginia War,” William and Mary Quarterly 74 (2017) and “Indigenous Subjecthood and White Populism in British America,” in Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories (Columbia University Press, 2022).