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British Empire c.1918.

Colonialism is the building and maintaining of colonies in one territory by people from another territory.[1] Sovereignty over the colony is claimed by the colonizing power. The term metropole, a synonym for occupying power, comes from the Greek metropolis - mother city. The word colony comes from the Latin colonia – a place for agriculture. Social structure, government and economics within the territory of the colony are changed by the colonists.

Colonialism normally refers to a period of history from the 15th to the 20th century when people from Europe built colonies on other continents. The reasons for the practice of colonialism at this time include:

  • Economic benefits to the colonizing power, which may or may not benefit the colony
  • To expand the power of the colonizer.
  • To escape persecution in the colonizer.
  • Obtaining military advantage, such as the creation of a buffer state or the removal of a threat
  • To convert the indigenous population to the colonists' religion.

It may be driven by economics, religion or militarism.

Some colonists also felt they were helping the indigenous population by bringing them religion and civilization. However, the reality was often subjugation, displacement or death.[2]

There are four common characteristics of colonialism:

  1. political and legal domination over an alien society
  2. relations of economics and political dependence
  3. exploitation between imperial powers and the colony
  4. racial and cultural inequality.

Types of colonialism

Historians often distinguish between two forms of colonialism, chiefly based on the number of people from the colonising country who settle in the colony:

  • Settler colonialism involved a large number of colonists, typically seeking fertile land to farm.
  • Exploitation colonialism involved fewer colonists, typically interested in extracting resources to export to the metropole. This category includes trading posts but it also includes much larger colonies where the colonists would provide much of the administration and own much of the land and other capital but rely on indigenous people for labour.

There is a certain amount of overlap between these models of colonialism. In both cases people moved to the colony and goods were exported to the metropole.

A plantation colony is normally considered to fit the model of exploitation colonialism. However, in this case there may be other immigrants to the colony - slaves to grow the cash crop for export.

In some cases, settler colonialism took place in substantially pre-populated areas and the result was either an ethnically mixed population (such as the mestizos of the Americas), or a racially divided population, such as in French Algeria or Southern Rhodesia.

A League of Nations mandate was legally very different from a colony. However, there was some similarity with exploitation colonialism in the mandate system.

History of colonialism

Activity which could be called colonialism has a long history.[1] Colonies in antiquity were settled by the Egyptians, Phoenicians (notably Carthage), Greeks (e g Syracuse) and Romans. From about 750 BC the Greeks began 250 years of expansion, settling colonies in all directions. Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread across the Mediterranean during the period 1550 BC to 300 BC. Other examples range from large empires like the Roman Empire, the Arab Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire or small movements like ancient Scots moving from Hibernia to Caledonia and Magyars into Pannonia (modern-day Hungary). Turkic peoples spread across most of Central Asia into Europe and the Middle East between the 6th and 11th centuries. Recent research suggests that Madagascar was uninhabited until Malay seafarers from Indonesia arrived during the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Subsequent migrations from both the Pacific and Africa further consolidated this original mixture, and Malagasy people emerged.[3]

Modern colonialism started with the Age of Discovery. Portugal and Spain discovered new lands across the oceans and built trading posts. For some people, it is this building of colonies across oceans that differentiates colonialism from other types of expansionism. These new lands were divided between the Portuguese Empire and Spanish Empire, first by the papal bull Inter caetera and then by the Treaty of Tordesillas and the Treaty of Zaragoza (1529).

The seventeenth century saw the creation of the British Empire, the French colonial empire and the Dutch Empire. It also saw the establishment of some Swedish overseas colonies and a Danish colonial empire.

The spread of colonial empires was reduced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the American Revolutionary War and the Hispanic American wars of independence. However, many new colonies were established after this time, including for the German colonial empire and Belgian colonial empire. In the late nineteenth century, many European powers were involved in the Scramble for Africa.

The Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire existed at the same time as the above empires, but these are often not considered colonial because they did not expand over oceans. Rather, these Empires expanded through the more traditional route of conquest of neighbouring territories. The Empire of Japan modelled itself on European colonial Empires. The United States of America gained overseas territories after the Spanish-American War and the term American Empire was coined.

After the first world war, the German colonial empire and much of the Ottoman Empire were divided between the victorious allies as League of Nations mandates. These territories were divided into three classes according to how quickly it was deemed that they would be ready for independence. However, decolonisation did not really get going until after the second world war.

See also: First European colonization wave (15th century–19th century) and Second European colonization wave (19th century–20th century)


The term neocolonialism has been used to refer to a variety of things since the decolonisation efforts after World War II. Generally it does not refer to a type of colonialism but rather colonialism by other means. Specifically, the accusation that the relationship between stronger and weaker countries is similar to exploitation colonialism, without the stronger country having to build or maintain colonies. Such accusations typically focus on economic relationships and interference in the politics of weaker countries by stronger countries.

Colonialism and the history of thought

Colonialism and geography

Settlers acted as the link between the natives and the imperial hegemony, bridging the geographical gap between the colonizers and colonized. Painter, J. and Jeffrey, A. affirm that certain advances aided the expansion of European states. With tools such as cartography, shipbuilding, navigation, mining and agricultural productivity colonizers had an upper hand. Their awareness of the earth's surface and abundance of practical skills provided colonizers with a knowledge which in turn created power.

Painter and Jeffrey argue that geography was not and is not an objective science, rather it is based on assumptions of the physical world. It may have given “The West” an advantage when it came to exploration, however it also created zones of racial inferiority. Geographical believes such as environmental determinism, the view that some parts of the world are underdeveloped because of the climate, legitimized colonialism and created notions of skewed evolution.[4] These are now seen as elementary concepts. Political geographers maintain that colonial behavior was reinforced by the physical mapping of the world, visually separating “them” and “us”. Geographers are primarily focused on the spaces of colonialism and imperialism, more specifically, the material and symbolic appropriation of space enabling colonialism.[5]

Colonialism and imperialism

A colony is part of an empire and so colonialism is closely related to imperialism. The initial assumption is that colonialism and imperialism are interchangeable however, Robert Young, suggests that imperialism is the concept while colonialism is the practice. Colonialism is based on an imperial outlook, thereby creating a consequential relationship between the two. Through an empire, colonialism is established and capitalism is expanded, on the other hand a capitalist economy naturally enforces an empire. The next section Marxists make a case for this mutually reinforcing relationship.

Marxist view of colonialism

Marxism views colonialism as a form of capitalism, enforcing exploitation and social change. Working within the global capitalist system, colonialism is closely associated with uneven development. It is an “instrument of wholesale destruction, dependency and systematic exploitation producing distorted economies, socio-psychological disorientation, massive poverty and neocolonial dependency.” [6] Colonies are constructed into modes of production. The search for raw materials and the current search for new investment opportunities is a result of inter-capitalist rivalry for capital accumulation. Lenin regarded colonialism as the root cause of imperialism, as imperialism was distinguished by monopoly capitalism via colonialism.[7]


For more information, see: Post-colonialism and Postcolonial literature.

Post-colonialism (aka post-colonial theory) refers to a set of theories in philosophy and literature that grapple with the legacy of colonial rule. In this sense, postcolonial literature may be considered a branch of Postmodern literature concerned with the political and cultural independence of peoples formerly subjugated in colonial empires. Many practitioners take Edward Said's book Orientalism (1978) to be the theory's founding work (although French theorists such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon made similar claims decades before Said).

Edward Said analyzed the works of Balzac, Baudelaire and Lautréamont, exploring how they were both influenced by and helped to shape a societal fantasy of European racial superiority. Post-colonial fictional writers interact with the traditional colonial discourse, but modify or subvert it; for instance by retelling a familiar story from the perspective of an oppressed minor character in the story. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's Can the Subaltern Speak? (1998) gave its name to the Subaltern Studies.

In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), Spivak explored how major works of European metaphysics (e.g., Kant, Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is famous for its explicit ethnocentrism, in considering the Western civilization as the most accomplished of all, while Kant also allowed some traces of racialism to enter his work.

The expansion of the Arab Empire under the Umayyads.


Before the expansion of the Bantu languages and their speakers, the southern half of Africa is believed to have been populated by Pygmies and Khoisan speaking people, today occupying the arid regions around the Kalahari and the forest of Central Africa. By about 1000 AD Bantu migration had reached modern day Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In North Africa, the Banu Hilal and Banu Ma'qil were a collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries. Their migration strongly contributed to the arabization and islamization of the western Maghreb, which was until then dominated by Berber tribes.

Ostsiedlung was the medieval eastward migration and settlement of Germans.

The 13th century was the time of the great Mongol and Turkic migrations across Eurasia.

Between the 11th and 18th centuries, the Vietnamese expanded southward in a process known as nam tiến (southward expansion).[8]

Internal colonialism

More recent examples of internal colonialism are the movement of ethnic Chinese into Tibet[9][10] and East Turkestan[11], ethnic Javanese into Western New Guinea and Kalimantan[12] (see Transmigration program), Brazilians into Amazonia[13], Israelis into the West Bank and Gaza, ethnic Arabs into Iraqi Kurdistan, and ethnic Russians into Siberia and Central Asia.[14] The local populations or tribes, such as the aboriginal people in Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan[15], Siberia and the United States, were usually far overwhelmed numerically by the settlers.

In some cases, for example the Vandals, Huguenots, Boers, Matabeles and Lakota, the colonizers were fleeing more powerful enemies, as part of a chain reaction of colonization.

The Empire of Japan was in some ways modelled on Western colonial Empires.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Colonialism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. Smallpox: Eradicating the Scourge. BBC - History.
  3. Malagasy languages, Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. "Painter, J. & Jeffrey, A., 2009. Political Geography 2nd ed., Sage. “Imperialism” pg 23 (GIC)
  5. Gallaher, C. et al., 2008. Key Concepts in Political Geography, Sage Publications Ltd. "Imperialism/Colonialism" pg 5 (GIC)
  6. Dictionary of Human Geography, "Colonialism"
  7. Young (2001)
  8. , The Le Dynasty and Southward Expansion, Country Studies: Vietnam, Library of Congress
  9. Han Chinese describe life in Tibet, April 29, 2006, BBC News
  10. Revolt in Tibet | A colonial uprising, March 19, 2008, The Economist
  11. Xinjiang: China's 'other Tibet', March 25, 2008, Al Jazeera
  12. Ethnic violence continues to rage in Central Kalimantan
  13. Scientists demand Brazil suspend Amazon colonization project
  14. Robert Greenall, Russians left behind in Central Asia, BBC News, 23 November 2005.
  15. Report on a New Policy for the Ainu: A Critique