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See colony and colonization for examples of colonialism which do not refer to Western colonialism. Also see Colonization

Colonialism is the building and maintaining of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. Sovereignty over the colony is claimed by the metropole. 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:
  • The profits to be made.
  • To expand the power of the metropole.
  • To escape persecution in the metropole.
  • To convert the indigenous population to the colonists' religion.

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

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 and 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 Rhodesiamarker.

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

World map of colonialism in 1800.
This map of the world in 1900 shows the large colonial empires that powerful nations established across the globe
World map of colonialism at the end of the Second World War in 1945.
Activity which could be called colonialism has a long history. Colonies in antiquity were built by the Egyptians, Phoeniciansmarker, Greeks and Romans. The word metropole comes from the Greek metropolis - mother city. The word colony comes from the Latin colonia – a place for agriculture.

Modern colonialism started with the Age of Discovery. Portugalmarker and Spainmarker 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 .

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 Empiremarker 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 Japanmarker modelled itself on European colonial Empires. The United States of Americamarker 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.


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. The United Nations' Special Committee on Decolonization, often called the Committee of 24, has been actively involved in the elimination of colonialism in the world since its creation in 1962.

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. 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.

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.” 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.


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.

Impact of colonialism and colonisation

Debate about the perceived negative and positive aspects (spread of virulent diseases, unequal social relations, exploitation, enslavement, infrastructures, medical advances, new institutions, technological advancements etc.) of colonialism has occurred for centuries, amongst both colonizer and colonized, and continues to the present day. The questions of miscegenation; the alleged ties between colonial enterprises, genocides — see the Herero Genocide and the Armenian Genocide — and the Holocaust; and the questions of the nature of imperialism, dependency theory and neocolonialism (in particular the Third World debt) continue to retain their actuality.

Impact on health

Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Disease killed the entire native (Guanches) population of the Canary Islandsmarker in the 16th century. Half the native population of Hispaniolamarker in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Smallpox also ravaged Mexicomarker in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Perumarker in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors. Measles killed a further two million Mexican natives in the 1600s. In 1618–1619, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Baymarker Native Americans. Smallpox epidemics in 1780–1782 and 1837–1838 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians. Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases. Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the indigenous peoples had no such immunity.

Smallpox decimated the native population of Australia, killing around 50% of Indigenous Australians in the early years of British colonisation. It also killed many New Zealandmarker Māori. As late as 1848–49, as many as 40,000 out of 150,000 Hawaiiansmarker are estimated to have died of measles, whooping cough and influenza. Introduced diseases, notably smallpox, nearly wiped out the native population of Easter Islandmarker. In 1875, measles killed over 40,000 Fijiansmarker, approximately one-third of the population. Ainu population decreased drastically in the 19th century, due in large partto infectious diseases brought by Japanese settlers pouring into Hokkaidomarker.

Researchers concluded that syphilis was carried from the New World to Europe after Columbus's voyages. The findings suggested Europeans could have carried the nonvenereal tropical bacteria home, where the organisms may have mutated into a more deadly form in the different conditions of Europe. The disease was more frequently fatal than it is today. Syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance. The first cholera pandemic began in Bengalmarker, then spread across India by 1820. 10,000 British troops and countless Indians died during this pandemic. Between 1736 and 1834 only some 10% of East India Company's officers survived to take the final voyage home. Waldemar Haffkine, who mainly worked in India, was the first microbiologist who developed and used vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague.

As early as 1803, the Spanishmarker Crown organized a mission (the Balmis expedition) to transport the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies, and establish mass vaccination programs there. By 1832, the federal government of the United Statesmarker established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans. Under the direction of Mountstuart Elphinstone a program was launched to propagate smallpox vaccination in India. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the elimination or control of disease in tropical countries became a driving force for all colonial powers. The sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa was arrested due to mobile teams systematically screening millions of people at risk. In the 20th century, the world saw the biggest increase in its population in human history due to lessening of the mortality rate in many countries due to medical advances. World population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to an estimated 6.7 billion today.

A discussion on the nature of how diseases were spread has often been scuttled by descendants of colonialists in order to conceal the actual origins of the how certain indigenous populations were inoculated with these new diseases. The argument here is that once European colonists discovered that indigenous populations were not immune to certain diseases, they attempted to further the spread of diseases in order to gain military advantages and subjugate local peoples. The most famous is that of Jeffery Amherst. Many scholars have argued that the body of evidence which sees this practice as having been executed on a larger scale across north America is weak. Yet growing evidence is showing that other indigenous communities were purposefully inoculated citing oral history from the descendants of said peoples. It has been regarded as one of the first instances of bio-terrorism or use of biological weapons in the history of warfare. For further information see and

Food security

After 1492, a global exchange of previously local crops and livestock breeds occurred. Key crops involved in this exchange included the tomato, maize, potato and manioc going from the New World to the Old. At the founding of the Ming dynastymarker in 1368, Chinamarker's population was reported to be close to 60 million, and toward the end of the dynasty in 1644 it might have approached 150 million. New crops that had come to Asia from the Americas via the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, including maize and sweet potatoes, contributed to the population growth. Although it was initially considered to be unfit for human consumption, the potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Maize (corn) was introduced to Europe in the 15th century. Due to its high yields, it quickly spread through Europe, and later to Africa and India. Maize was probably introduced into Indiamarker by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Since being introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, maize and manioc have replaced traditional African crops as the continent’s most important staple food crops. Manioc (cassava) is sometimes described as the ‘bread of the tropics'. Alfred W. Crosby speculated that increased production of maize, manioc, and otherAmerican crops "enabled the slave traders drew many, perhaps most, of their cargoes from the rain forest areas, precisely those areas where American crops enabled heavier settlement thanbefore."

Slave trade

Slavery has existed to varying extents, forms and periods in almost all cultures and continents. Between the 7th and 20th centuries, Arab slave trade (also known as slavery in the East) took approximately 18 million slaves from Africa via trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean routes. Between the 15th and the 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade took up to 12 million slaves to the New World.

From 1654 until 1865, slavery for life was legal within the boundaries of the present United Statesmarker. According to the 1860 U.S. census, nearly four million slaves were held in a total population of just over 12 million in the 15 states in which slavery was legal. Of all 1,515,605 families in the 15 slave states, 393,967 held slaves (roughly one in four), amounting to 8% of all American families.

In 1807, the United Kingdommarker became one of the first nations to end its own participation in the slave trade. Furthermore, between 1808 and 1860, the British West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard. This was done to "to sweep the African and American Seas of the atrocious Commerce with which they are now infested". Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against "the usurping King of Lagosmarker", deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers. In 1827, Britain declared the slave trade piracy, punishable by death.

Non-canonical colonialism

Colonialism is not a modern phenomenon. A variety of ancient and more recent examples whereby ethnically distinct groups settle in areas other than their original settlement that are either adjacent or across land or sea. From about 750 BC the Greeks began 250 years of expansion, settling colonies in all directions. Phoenicianmarker 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 empire like the Roman Empire, the Arab Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire or small movements like ancient Scots moving from Hiberniamarker to Caledoniamarker and Magyars into Pannonia (modern-day Hungarymarker). Turkic peoples spread across most of Central Asia into Europe and the Middle East between the 6th and 11th centuries. Recent research suggests that Madagascarmarker was uninhabited until Malay seafarers from Indonesiamarker 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.

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 Kalaharimarker and the forest of Central Africa. By about 1000 AD Bantu migration had reached modern day Zimbabwemarker and South Africa. The Banu Hilal and Banu Ma'qil were a collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula who migrated westwards via Egyptmarker 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).

More recent examples of internal colonialism are the movement of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet and Xinjiang, ethnic Javanese into Western New Guineamarker and Kalimantan (see Transmigration program), Brazilians into Amazonia, Israelis into the West Bankmarker and Gazamarker, ethnic Arabs into Iraqi Kurdistanmarker, and ethnic Russians into Siberiamarker and Central Asia. The local populations or tribes, such as the aboriginal people in Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Siberia and the United States, were usually far overwhelmed numerically by the settlers.

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

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

See also



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