Manitoba History: Reviews: A. A. den Otter, Civilizing the Wilderness: Culture and Nature in Pre-Confederation Canada and Rupert’s Land and Tolly Bradford, Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850-75

by Jamie Morton
Alberni Valley Museum, Port Alberni, BC

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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These books address a central aspect of Western Europe’s expansion into the rest of the world: the cultural and intellectual as well as physical restructuring of colonized regions. The authors classify this restructuring process, applied to both colonized lands and colonized people, as “civilizing” or “modernizing.” Reflecting recent historiographical trends, both authors recognize the agency of indigenous populations in engaging with the civilizing or modernizing imperative. The interpretations have shifted from a one-way imposition of culture, values, and economic systems by an imperial power, to a more nuanced one, in which indigenous people are active participants in determining how, and to what extent, their cultures and homelands were reconceptualised.

The overall project to develop North America within the framework of the liberal order relied on newcomer society imposing familiar forms, or “civilization,” on the unfamiliar places, or “wilderness,” which it encountered. Human populations as well as places had to conform to this model, so indigenous groups could be assimilated and “civilized,” or displaced and replaced by already-civilized immigrants. Both of the books under consideration deal with aspects of this process, although they approach it from different perspectives.

A. A. den Otter describes his book as a collection of essays connected by a common theme, intended as a second volume to his earlier book Civilizing the West: The Galts and the Development of Western Canada (Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 1982). The introduction, “Civilizing the Wilderness,” and the conclusion, “The Wilderness Civilized,” suggest the arc of the current work. Broadly, den Otter seems to contend that the 19th-century resettling of the Canadian Prairies reflected a particular mentalité; one that saw the cultural restructuring, or reimagining, of the region to be inextricably linked to its economic and physical transformation. Den Otter examines the overall transformation of his study region—as it applied to place, as well as to populations.

Although his methodology is different, Tolly Bradford offers complementary insights into the processes of colonization in his study of two 19th-century indigenous missionaries: one in South Africa, and one in the Canadian Prairies. Bradford’s preface states that the intent of his study is to demonstrate that his subjects, Henry Budd (also featured in den Otter’s book) and Tiyo Soga, “articulated new ways of thinking about indigeneity: that is, they fashioned new definitions of their own ‘nativeness,’ given their status as Christian missionaries with ties to a global British Empire” (p. xi). Their historical importance rises from their advocacy of civilizing or modernizing the indigenous populations that produced them—they acted as local agents of the global Anglo-imperial project.

Similar questions are examined by both authors, and in places they even apply the same terminology—such as the “civilizing mission”—but their explanatory approaches differ. Den Otter emphasizes the overall Anglo-North American project of “civilizing” places and people to explain colonization, and offers a series of historical vignettes to support his contentions. On the other hand, Bradford approaches the civilizing mission from the perspective of a pair of very specific biographical case histories, to extend from the experiences of two indigenous missionaries into some conclusions about the larger processes of cultural hybridity and colonization.

To examine the civilizing process, den Otter presents a number of case study essays, which form the chapters of the book. The first chapter discusses the Anglo-North American mentalité surrounding concepts of wilderness and the challenges it presented (pp. 1–30). The next section is comprised of three chapters dealing with missionary activity and cultural transformation in Rupert’s Land, the Hudson’s Bay Company trade territory extending across the Prairies. Within this, den Otter examines the range of attitudes exhibited by British-born Methodist missionaries in the region, using William Mason and Robert Rundle as examples. He then reviews the careers and expressed ideology of two Aboriginal missionaries active in Rupert’s Land. One was a Methodist, the Upper Canadian-born Ojibwe Henry Steinhauer (Sowengisik), and the other an Anglican, the Rupert’s Land-born Cree Henry Budd (Sakacewescam), one of Bradford’s protagonists. Then den Otter reflects on the attitudes and approach of David Anderson, the first Anglican Bishop of Rupert’s Land (pp. 31–134).

The next three-chapter section deals principally with mid-19th century power relations in the region. It discusses the Sayer trial to illustrate the negotiation between the rising influence of the Métis population and the economic power of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The “civilizing mission” of George Simpson, the Governor of the HBC, is presented, followed by reflections on the findings of the 1857 Parliamentary Select Committee, as the British government balanced the competing interests of the Aborigines Protection Society and the HBC (pp. 135–227).

The book ends with a look at Peter Jones, a pro-assimilation Upper Canadian Ojibwe Methodist missionary, who saw the selective adoption of newcomer culture and economy as a way for First Nations to survive and maintain distinct identities. A final historiographical chapter discusses approaches over the years in respect of the Red River Métis, before suggesting the important role of the Métis in “civilizing the wilderness” (pp. 229–301).

The essays in this book deal with topics previously addressed by scholars, so tend toward a more interpretive approach. Den Otter’s stated intent was to “explore, more fully than the current secondary literature does, the drive to civilize not only the Natives but also the wilderness in which they lived” (p. xxi). In other words, he has constructed essays that frame narratives of Prairie resettlement within the larger project of “civilizing the wilderness” that he considers central to understanding North American history.

It is probably significant that den Otter locates his examples in the mid-19th century, the era in which liberal ideology was naturalized in the Anglo-North American world. In his introduction, he alludes explicitly to liberalism as an “all-embracing, comprehensive way of life that powered the civilizing-the-wilderness imperative.” In this model, the liberal order is defined by a belief in liberty, equality, and property. [1] Consistent with the values of newcomer society, the liberal order was understood to create opportunity for progress and improvement, which could be expressed also as “civilizing” of both places and people.

Bradford, working from his two case histories, alludes less explicitly to the liberal order, but in his Introduction notes that the “civilizing mission” of his protagonists was based on two imperatives: first, an evangelistic approach to Christianity focused on the messages of individual sin and individual conversion; second, a firm belief in the value of modernity or civilization, directly linked to the individualism emphasized in evangelism. Bradford notes three central traits or values that typify modernity, individualism, rationalism, and progress. [2] In some respects Bradford’s “modernity” seems consistent with den Otter’s liberal ideology. The “civilizing mission” in both interpretations involves the transformation of culture, and, thus, culturally-defined perceptions of place, and how it should be occupied and used.

Bradford reports an instance of Tiyo Soga referring to the “certain ruin” of traditionalists to demonstrate how his protagonist saw cultural transformation (or modernization) as the mechanism that would ensure the ongoing survival of the Xhosa people (p. 1). His structural position as a member of an aristocratic Xhosa family that was an early adopter of Christianity, combined with his Scottish education and his Scottish wife, provided him with the legitimacy required to mediate between Xhosa and British colonial interests. A belief in cultural transformation, and a background that gave his opinions authority, made Soga an influential figure in South African development (Bradford, pp. 35–51.)

Perhaps because Henry Budd was not involved in political activities in the same way as Soga, Bradford does not emphasize Budd’s structural position in fur trade society. In spite of being identified as an “Aboriginal orphan,” Budd’s maternal grandfather was Matthew Cocking, a Chief Factor of the HBC at York Factory, and he married a mixed-blood daughter of John Work, another HBC Chief Factor. These connections to men at the top of the HBC hierarchy would provide Budd with a place among the elite of the “middle ground” of Rupert’s Land society (pp. 16–27). They would grant him a level of authority with both HBC employees and First Nations, making him a natural mediator between groups. In Budd’s case, this was sometimes compromised by the attitudes of newcomer missionary supervisors, who saw him primarily as the ‘other’—a missionary of Aboriginal origin.

An important difference between the social environments of South Africa and Rupert’s Land in the 19th century was the role of race in defining social divisions. Bradford contends that as the British Empire devolved power to its settler colonies, it led to the practice of racial exclusion in Africa, and racial inclusion in Canada (p. 106). This point could be argued—in South Africa, the concept of race was certainly central to group definition, particularly as it applied to indigenous and newcomer populations. In the smaller populations and more fluid conditions of HBC-era Rupert’s Land, race was blurred by the nature of fur trade society, so that identity relied on other factors, such as status and relationship to the HBC hierarchy. However, when HBC hegemony was superseded by Canadian hegemony in the Prairies, Aboriginal, Metis, and mixed-blood populations clearly were viewed as the other by Anglo-Canadian newcomers, and racially-organized exclusion became more apparent.

The transformation of populations and places as part of colonization, and the 19th-century expansion of world systems into new places, is central to understanding the development of countries such as Canada. These books provide a complementary pair, in that den Otter is attempting to establish larger patterns within the “civilizing” imperative, as applied to both culture and place. On the other hand, Bradford’s more closely defined study examines two representatives of those at the centre of the process—indigenous people that chose to act as agents of the Anglo-imperial world in “modernizing” the populations around them.

Both authors recognize that indigenous populations were active agents in the process of civilizing or modernizing their homelands. However, perhaps due to their respective macro and micro-focus, agency assumes a different look in the two books. Den Otter gives the impression that a binary distinction existed between civilization and wilderness. Because of this, once they were “converted,” indigenous missionaries saw their identities as less “native” and more “Christian” or “British”—distinct from their unconverted countrymen. Bradford, dealing only with two subjects, is able to introduce more nuances concerning identity. This lets him incorporate concepts such as hybridity and his notion of “modern indigeneity”—introducing the idea that there was a more complex blending of cultural values, rather than simple replacement of one culture by another.

Both authors allude in places to the ideas of improvement and progress that were central to civilizing or modernizing. Further developing this motif of progress may have helped to explain more fully how the liberal order, and linked Anglo-imperial values, were naturalized among both immigrant and indigenous populations. Although Bradford, in particular, identifies factors in the background of his subjects that made them potential agents of modernity, why did they choose to devote their lives to this cause? Was it altruism, or was it some other more complex combination of factors? In his discussion of the Métis historiography and the role of that group in civilizing the Prairies, den Otter notes the willing adoption of liberal values as an economic choice. Being an early adopter of dominant or hegemonic cultural values probably would provide some non-economic advantages—status and power—to the individual, as they became mediators between traditional and introduced cultures.

The studies of A. A. den Otter and Tolly Bradford, looking at the process through opposite ends of the telescope, provide a complementary view of aspects of colonization. They also raise the question of power relations within the transformation of culture and place—how it was manifested, how the balance of power changed, and how it influenced the decisions of indigenous and immigrant populations as they engaged with the civilizing or modernizing of “settler” nations such as Canada.


1. Den Otter, Civilizing the Wilderness, xxii. For his model of liberalism, den Otter relies largely on Ian McKay, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 81, no. 4 (December 2000), 617-645.

2. Tolly Bradford, Prophetic Identities, 7-8. For his definition of modernism, Bradford relies principally on Alberto Martinelli, Global Modernization: Rethinking the Project of Modernity, London, Sage, 2005.

Page revised: 7 January 2018