The early modern English concept of ‘native’ arose in part from long standing legal perceptions surrounding a person’s status from birth, either as an individual born into bondage, to servants, or one inheriting a status. In Scotland, the term dates back as early as 1381, but is first used in England in the fifteenth century to denote the particular status of local people as being either ‘bondmen or natifis’.[1] ‘Native’ not only related to local and national geography, but to the status of an individual’s parents. The status was an inheritable right that entitled an individual, through feudal ideas of fealty and allegiance to the Crown, to certain rights and privileges that were withheld from others.[2]

The 1608 Calvin’s case decided that Scottish children, known as the postnati (born after the Scottish King James VI inherited the throne of England in 1603), had the legal right under English law to be considered native English subjects, whilst also clearly outlining who would be excluded from obtaining and inheriting the rights and privileges of native English subjects.[3] The ruling affirmed ideas of jus soli, based around an enduring and personal bond between subjects and the monarch, in which children of immigrants were granted, as a natural birth right, the privileges of natives through their connection to the same monarch. If a child born in Scotland after the union pledged allegiance to the Scottish Crown, then they also pledged allegiance to the English crown by proxy. The decision blurred the boundary between ‘status and place of origin’, and meant that within the British Isles, the status of ‘native’ became fully portable between the England and Scotland.[4] Although Calvin’s case settled some of the concerns surrounding who was entitled to the status of native in early Stuart England, a substantial group were still excluded from native rights, in particular those who were born, or whose parents were born, outside of the British Isles.

Only through naturalization or denization could and alien ‘do as the King’s native subjects do’, which included being allowed to ‘purchase, and to possess lands’ as well as ‘be capable of any office or dignity’.[5] However, foreign-born aliens, even once naturalized or made denizens, could not call themselves ‘native-born’, nor could their children. Even individuals born in England, despite inheriting the privileges from their naturalized or denizen parents, were not always considered native-born. The son of a Dutch merchant, Sir William Courten, despite being born in England, petitioned to the Privy Council to be relieved from customs duties as an alien. In his petition Courten drew on his reputation, wealth, and achievements, but also those of his Dutch father who had been made a ‘free denizen’ of London.[6] Courten had been born in England and therefore believed himself to be legitimately English.[7] Although successful, Courten’s petition highlights the complexities of the status of ‘native’, one that could be granted through either, both or neither inheritance or location of birth.

Despite its complexities in assigning status to particular individuals, the word ‘native’ was also used to appeal to commonalities, such as a shared loyalty to the monarch and to England as a nation. In the pitch of loyal fervour to Queen Elizabeth in the preparations leading to the Spanish Armada of 1588, subjects related the ‘defence of Queene Elizabeth’ to a love of one’s ‘native country’.[8] One poem began by contrasting Spain, ‘that forraine foe’, to ‘your sacred faith, and countries soile defend’, where all English subjects became guardians of ‘[o]ur native countrie so long kept’.[9] The appeal to Englishness was closely related to Protestantism -- to the English as an ‘elect’ nation, favoured by God - but it was also an emotive one, urging English men and women to display a ‘true English hart’.[10]

The idea of ‘native’ as ‘local’ also pertained to English understandings of other peoples and the places they inhabited. The mistrust of travellers as being corrupted by their journeys in Europe and further east suggested that Englishness might be tainted by an exposure to other customs and fashions. The soldier and author Barnabe Rich warned his readers that ‘the sinnes of all those countries and of all the world besides are every day ingrossed and transported into England’, in ways that domesticated the foreign and complicated English identity.[11] By imitating the ‘ambitious’ Spanish, the ‘false’ French, the ‘deceitful’ Italian, the ‘drunken’ German, the ‘idolatrous’ Turk, and ‘superstitious’ Romans, Rich expounded, ‘[t]his propagation of sinne…[is] transported into England, [and] are now there resident and all entertained, not like strangers, but as natives that had been both borne and bred in the countrey’.[12] Rich drew on the legal language of ‘native’ and ‘stranger’ to critique the English fascination with other places, and censured the English for adopting what was ‘native’ to other parts of the world in a process of cultural naturalization.

The term ‘native’ is further complicated by the fact that it cannot be disentangled from colonialism. While ‘native’ peoples in colonial contexts continued to refer to local inhabitants, English assumptions about the inferiority of those indigenous societies they sought to ‘civilize’ rooted the ‘native’ with issues of subjugation and unequal balances of power. Early arguments in favour of colonization in Virginia, for example, established that ‘[o]ur enemies must bee eyther the Natives, or Strangers [Spanish]; Against the first the war would be as easie as the argument’.[13] Pro-imperial tracts repeatedly associated ‘native’, in an American context, with ‘savage’: in seeking to establish ‘the West Empire’, the English commonly iterated that ‘[t]he Savages’ were ‘the natives of the countrie’.[14] In the case of Ireland, too, the lawyer and colonist John Davies argued in 1612 that the realm had not yet been ‘subdued and reduced to Obedience to the Crowne of England’ because the English had not maintained a sustained military effort to support their civilizing initiatives.[15] Those ‘as are descended of our English race, would bee found more in number, then the ancient Natives’, Davies insisted, but to truly secure the region, ‘the Husbandman must first breake the Land, before it bee made capeable of good seede...So a barbarous Country must be first broken by a warre’.[16] Since colonization required the English to establish a permanent presence in Ireland and America through plantation, they often used the language of husbandry and cultivation of the soil to argue for regeneration. This would supplant the ‘ancient [n]atives’ with ‘our English race’, where the subjugation of native peoples relied on a reformation of the landscape itself. While ‘native’ potentially tied inhabitants to the soil, the English promoted a western empire by explicitly de-legitimizing Gaelic and Native American ties to their lands, articulating that these territories had been left to degenerate into wilderness.

The English were aware of the ideologically weighted use of equivalent terms in the Iberian colonial world, where ‘native’ (por. nativo; spa. nativo), or the synonymous ‘natural’ (por. natural, naturaes/naturais; spa. natural, naturales) featured heavily in discussions. Modelled on classical literature and their own expansionist activity, the Iberians identified ‘savage’, ‘barbarous’, ‘heathen’ or ‘infidel’ communities that lived outside the colonial apparatus, as well as the populations of different ethnicities and religions whose social and political status within the colonial apparatus differed according to their allegiance to the Iberian crowns and the Catholic Church. The often ambiguous position and identity of these local populations, even when they conformed to the Iberian colonial and religious order, made the term ‘native’ tantamount to subjugated non-European individuals of perceived inferior ethnic, political and social status, who were also most vulnerable to abuses of power. In colonial Peru, the Jesuit Ludovico López wrote to Father Francisco Borgia on 29 December 1569, that the Spanish settlers and the colonial officials were ‘very cruel to the natives [naturales], treating them not as human beings, but as beasts [bestias], because this is the way they use them to get their goal which is silver’.[17] A 1611 memorandum on the Portuguese occupation of Ceylon exposed the fragile status of the Singhalese naturaes (‘natives’ or ‘naturals’), noting the ‘little rewards we give to the natives who serve us in the war, being them Singhalese captains and soldiers, and they only have a handful of land, and many of them, to speak honestly, live in destitution after doing to His Majesty many services with great loyalty’.[18] The Iberian context highlights crossovers, but also differences, between English and Spanish attitudes towards the ‘native’ in the context of empire. While indigenous groups in Iberian colonial empires were confined to marginal status for their ethnic origins, non-European cultural background, and perception as conquered peoples, those who converted were integrated in Iberian monarchies in ways the English never attempted with Native Americans in North America.

The concept of ‘native’ further developed as English people moved abroad in the wake of English territorial and commercial expansion. In the Atlantic world, English men and women operated within a complex legal arrangement that saw them as natives of both the colonies and England. A bill was introduced in the House of Lords in 1648 ‘for making the Planters that are born in New England free denizens of England’.[19] This act did not pass, since many believed it unnecessary: the rights of English settlers were covered in many colonial charters, which stipulated that settlers and their children would ‘have and enjoy all liberties and Immunities of free and naturall Subjects within any of the Domynions of Us.’[20] The act does reveal that English authorities did worry about the ‘native’ status of English settlers in America. Although the 1648 act failed, the status of English settlers was established through other means. The Navigation Acts from 1651 stipulated that ships in the colonies were considered the ships of ‘native’ subjects. As the legal historian Clive Parry suggested, ‘between England and the plantations or colonies there seems to have been no distinction of nationality in general’.[21] However, settlers in the colonies were granted substantial levels of autonomy to naturalize and endenize individuals. The particular migration patterns to different colonies created substantial regional diversity in how English subjects identified with their rights and privileges in England.[22] Colonial communities developed their own legal perception of a ‘native’ that was unique to their territory. In doing so, settlers in America both operated within contemporary English ideas of ‘native’ while developing their own.
The Abduction of Pocahontas(1618)[23]
1. Andrew Clark (ed), The English register of Godstow Nunnery, near Oxford, written about 1450, (London: Early English Text Society, 1906), p. 130; William Fraser (ed), Douglas Book, Vol. III, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1885), p. 29.
2. Polly J. Price, ‘Natural Law and Birthright Citizenship in Calvin’s Case (1608)’, Yale Journal of Law and Humanities, 9 (1997), 73-145 (p. 92).
3. 'The Case of the Postnati (1608)', 7 Coke Report 1a, 77 ER, pp. 403-4; Jacob Selwood, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern London (Farnham: Ashgate, 2000), p. 91.
4. Christopher Tomlins, Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580—1865 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), p. 90.
5. John Cowell, The interpreter (Cambridge, 1607, STC 5900), p. 59.
6. 'Whereas by an order made the 26th of October last (for reasons therein expressed, and according to auncient usage) the sonnes of strangers till the second discent are to pay strangership customes, 30 May 1628', The National Archives, PC 2/38.
7. Selwood, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern London, pp. 109-11.
8. An exhortacion to als [sic] English subjects to joine for the defence of Queen Elziabeth [sic], and their native country (London, 1588; STC 7582).
9. Ibid., no pagination.
10. Ibid.
11. Barnabe Rich, My ladies looking glasse (London, 1616; STC 20991.7), sig. A4v.
12. Ibid, sigs. A4v-Br.
13. Council for Virginia, A true and sincere declaration of the purpose and ends of the plantation begun in Virginia (London, 1610; STC 24832), sig. C4r.
14. Robert Johnson, Nova Britannia (London, 1609; STC 14699.5), sig. A4v.
15. John Davies, A discoverie of the true causes why Ireland was never entirely subdued (London, 1612; STC 6348), sig. A4r.
16. Ibid., sigs. A4r-B2r.
17. 'Doc. 68, Pater Ludovicus Lopez to Patri Francisco Borgiae, Lima 29 Decembris 1569’, in Monumenta Peruana, vol. I, ed. Antonio de Egaña (Rome: Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, 1954), p. 327.
18. 'Doc. 195, Apontamento sobre as cousa da ilha de Ceilão, March 1611’, in Documentos Remettidos da Índia ou Livro das Monções, Vol. II, ed. Raymundo António de Bulhão Pato (Lisbon: Academia Real das Sciencias, 1884) pp. 83, 86.
19. William Shaw (ed), Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England and Ireland (Lymington: Huguenot Society of London, 1911), p. Xxvii.
20. Francis Newton Thorpe, Federal and State Constitution, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, Volume III (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), p. 1857.
21. Clive Parry, British Nationality Law and the History of Naturalisation (Milano, 1954) [accessed 8th January 2017].
22. Ibid.
23. Copper engraving of The Abduction of Pocahontas by Johann Theodore de Bry (1618)
Usage Examples
'…do as the King’s native subjects do … purchase, and to possess lands [and] be capable of any office or dignity'