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A factory entrepôt, a basic example of colonialism illustrating its different elements, hierarchies and impact on the land and people (the Dutch V.O.C. factory in Hugli-Chuchura, Bengal, in 1665)

Colonialism is the pursuing, establishing and maintaining of control and exploitation of people and of resources by a foreign group.[1][2][3][4][5] Colonizers monopolize political power and hold conquered societies and their people to be inferior to their conquerors in legal, administrative, social, cultural, or biological terms.[6][7] While frequently advanced as an imperialist regime, colonialism can also take the form of settler colonialism, whereby colonial settlers invade and occupy territory to permanently replace an existing society with that of the colonizers, possibly towards a genocide of native populations.[8][9]

Colonialism developed as a concept describing European colonial empires of the modern era, which spread globally from the 15th century to the mid-20th century, spanning 35% of Earth's land by 1800 and peaking at 84% by the beginning of World War I.[10] European colonialism employed mercantilism and chartered companies, and established coloniality, which keeps the colonized socio-economically othered and subaltern through modern biopolitics of sexuality, gender, race, disability and class, among others, resulting in intersectional violence and discrimination.[11][12] Colonialism has been justified with beliefs of having a civilizing mission to cultivate land and life, based on beliefs of entitlement and superiority, historically often rooted in the belief of a Christian mission.

Because of this broad impact different instances of colonialism have been identified from around the world and in history, starting with when colonization was developed by developing colonies and metropoles, the base colonial separation and characteristic.[8]

Decolonization, which started in the 18th century, gradually in waves led to the independence of colonies, with a particular large wave of decolonizations happening in the aftermath of World War II between 1945 and 1975.[13][14] Colonialism has a persistent impact on a wide range of modern outcomes, as scholars have shown that variations in colonial institutions can account for variations in economic development,[15][16][17] regime types,[18][19] and state capacity.[20][21] Some academics have used the term neocolonialism to describe the continuation or imposition of elements of colonial rule through indirect means in the contemporary period.[22][23]


Colonialism is etymologically rooted in the Latin word "Colonus", which was used to describe tenant farmers in the Roman Empire.[4] The coloni sharecroppers started as tenants of landlords, but as the system evolved they became permanently indebted to the landowner and trapped in servitude.


The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, painted by Spiridione Roma for the boardroom of the British East India Company

The earliest uses of colonialism referred to plantations that men emigrated to and settled.[24] The term expanded its meaning in the early 20th century to primarily refer to European imperial expansion and the imperial subjection of Asian and African peoples.[24]

Collins English Dictionary defines colonialism as "the practice by which a powerful country directly controls less powerful countries and uses their resources to increase its own power and wealth".[3] Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary defines colonialism as "the system or policy of a nation seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories".[2] The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers four definitions, including "something characteristic of a colony" and "control by one power over a dependent area or people".[25]

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy uses the term "to describe the process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world, including the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia". It discusses the distinction between colonialism, imperialism and conquest and states that "[t]he difficulty of defining colonialism stems from the fact that the term is often used as a synonym for imperialism. Both colonialism and imperialism were forms of conquest that were expected to benefit Europe economically and strategically," and continues "given the difficulty of consistently distinguishing between the two terms, this entry will use colonialism broadly to refer to the project of European political domination from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries that ended with the national liberation movements of the 1960s".[4]

In his preface to Jürgen Osterhammel's Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, Roger Tignor says "For Osterhammel, the essence of colonialism is the existence of colonies, which are by definition governed differently from other territories such as protectorates or informal spheres of influence."[1] In the book, Osterhammel asks, "How can 'colonialism' be defined independently from 'colony?'"[26] He settles on a three-sentence definition:

Colonialism is a relationship between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonised people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonised population, the colonisers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.[27]

According to Julian Go, "Colonialism refers to the direct political control of a society and its people by a foreign ruling state... The ruling state monopolizes political power and keeps the subordinated society and its people in a legally inferior position."[6] He also writes, "colonialism depends first and foremost upon the declaration of sovereignty and/or territorial seizure by a core state over another territory and its inhabitants who are classified as inferior subjects rather than equal citizens."[7]

According to David Strang, decolonization is achieved through the attainment of sovereign statehood with de jure recognition by the international community or through full incorporation into an existing sovereign state.[28]

Types of colonialism

Dutch family in Java, 1927

The Times once quipped that there were three types of colonial empire: "The English, which consists in making colonies with colonists; the German, which collects colonists without colonies; the French, which sets up colonies without colonists."[29] Modern studies of colonialism have often distinguished between various overlapping categories of colonialism, broadly classified into four types: settler colonialism, exploitation colonialism, surrogate colonialism, and internal colonialism. Some historians have identified other forms of colonialism, including national and trade forms.[30]

  • Settler colonialism involves large-scale immigration by settlers to colonies, often motivated by religious, political, or economic reasons. This form of colonialism aims largely to supplant prior existing populations with a settler one, and involves large number of settlers emigrating to colonies for the purpose of establishing settlements.[30] Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China,[31] New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, United States, Uruguay, and (controversially) Israel, are examples of nations created or expanded in their contemporary form by settler colonization.[32][33][34][35][36]
  • Exploitation colonialism involves fewer colonists and focuses on the exploitation of natural resources or labour to the benefit of the metropole. This form consists of trading posts as well as larger colonies where colonists would constitute much of the political and economic administration. The European colonization of Africa and Asia was largely conducted under the auspices of exploitation colonialism.[37]
  • Surrogate colonialism involves a settlement project supported by a colonial power, in which most of the settlers do not come from the same ethnic group as the ruling power, as it has been (controversially) argued was the case of Mandatory Palestine and the Colony of Liberia.[38][39]
  • Internal colonialism is a notion of uneven structural power between areas of a state. The source of exploitation comes from within the state. This is demonstrated in the way control and exploitation may pass from people from the colonizing country to an immigrant population within a newly independent country.[40][41]
    Harbour Street, Kingston, Jamaica, c. 1820
  • National colonialism is a process involving elements of both settler and internal colonialism, in which nation-building and colonization are symbiotically connected, with the colonial regime seeking to remake the colonized peoples into their own cultural and political image. The goal is to integrate them into the state, but only as reflections of the state's preferred culture. The Republic of China in Taiwan is the archetypal example of a national-colonialist society.[42]
  • Trade colonialism involves the undertaking of colonialist ventures in support of trade opportunities for merchants. This form of colonialism was most prominent in 19th-century Asia, where previously isolationist states were forced to open their ports to Western powers. Examples of this include the Opium Wars and the opening of Japan.[43][44]

Socio-cultural evolution

When colonists settled in pre-populated areas, the societies and cultures of the people in those areas permanently changed. Colonial practices directly and indirectly forced the colonized peoples to abandon their traditional cultures. For example, European colonizers in the United States implemented the residential schools program to force native children to assimilate into the hegemonic culture.

Cultural colonialism gave rise to culturally and ethnically mixed populations such as the mestizos of the Americas, as well as racially divided populations such as those found in French Algeria or in Southern Rhodesia. In fact, everywhere where colonial powers established a consistent and continued presence, hybrid communities existed.

Notable examples in Asia include the Anglo-Burmese, Anglo-Indian, Burgher, Eurasian Singaporean, Filipino mestizo, Kristang, and Macanese peoples. In the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia) the vast majority of "Dutch" settlers were in fact Eurasians known as Indo-Europeans, formally belonging to the European legal class in the colony.[45][46]

American Progress (1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the idea of manifest destiny. Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads settler civilization westward, bringing light, stringing telegraph wire, holding a book,[47] and highlighting different stages of economic activity and evolving forms of transportation,[48] while on the left, displacing Native Americans in the United States from their homeland



Activity that could be called colonialism has a long history, starting at least as early as the ancient Egyptians. Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans founded colonies in antiquity. Phoenicia had an enterprising maritime trading-culture that spread across the Mediterranean from 1550 BC to 300 BC; later the Persian Empire and various Greek city-states continued on this line of setting up colonies. The Romans would soon follow, setting up coloniae throughout the Mediterranean, in North Africa, and in Western Asia.


Beginning in the 7th century, Arabs colonized a substantial portion of the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia and Europe. From the 9th century Vikings (Norsemen) such as Leif Erikson established colonies in Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, North America, present-day Russia and Ukraine, France (Normandy) and Sicily.[49] In the 9th century a new wave of Mediterranean colonisation began, with competitors such as the Venetians, Genovese and Amalfians infiltrating the wealthy previously Byzantine or Eastern Roman islands and lands. European Crusaders set up colonial regimes in Outremer (in the Levant, 1097–1291) and in the Baltic littoral (12th century onwards). Venice began to dominate Dalmatia and reached its greatest nominal colonial extent at the conclusion of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, with the declaration of the acquisition of three octaves of the Byzantine Empire.[50]


Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal between 1580 and 1640

The European early modern period began with the Turkish colonization of Anatolia.[51] After the Ottoman Empire colonialised Constantinople in 1453, the sea routes discovered by Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) became central to trade, and helped fuel the Age of Discovery.[52]

The Crown of Castile encountered the Americas in 1492 through sea travel and built trading posts or conquered large extents of land. The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the areas of these "new" lands between the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire in 1494.[52]

The 17th century saw the birth of the Dutch Empire and French colonial empire, as well as the English overseas possessions, which later became the British Empire. It also saw the establishment of Danish overseas colonies and Swedish overseas colonies.[53]

A first wave of separatism started with the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), initiating the Rise of the "Second" British Empire (1783–1815).[54] The Spanish Empire largely collapsed in the Americas with the Spanish American wars of independence (1808–1833). Empire-builders established several new colonies after this time, including in the German colonial empire and Belgian colonial empire.[55] Starting with the end of the French Revolution European authors such as Johann Gottfried Herder, August von Kotzebue, and Heinrich von Kleist prolifically published so as to conjure up sympathy for the oppressed native peoples and the slaves of the new world, thereby starting the idealization of native humans.[56]

Map of colonial empires in 1800

The Habsburg monarchy, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire existed at the same time but did not expand over oceans. Rather, these empires expanded through the conquest of neighbouring territories. There was, though, some Russian colonization of North America across the Bering Strait. From the 1860s onwards the Empire of Japan modelled itself on European colonial empires and expanded its territories in the Pacific and on the Asian mainland. The Empire of Brazil fought for hegemony in South America. The United States gained overseas territories after the 1898 Spanish–American War, hence, the coining of the term "American imperialism".[57]

In the late 19th century, many European powers became involved in the Scramble for Africa.[58]

20th century

The Harmsworth atlas and Gazetter 1908 European colonization map

The world's colonial population at the outbreak of the First World War (1914) – a high point for colonialism – totalled about 560 million people, of whom 70% lived in British possessions, 10% in French possessions, 9% in Dutch possessions, 4% in Japanese possessions, 2% in German possessions, 2% in American possessions, 3% in Portuguese possessions, 1% in Belgian possessions and 0.5% in Italian possessions. The domestic domains of the colonial powers had a total population of about 370 million people.[59] Outside Europe, few areas had remained without coming under formal colonial tutorship – and even Siam, China, Japan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Persia, and Abyssinia had felt varying degrees of Western colonial-style influence – concessions, unequal treaties, extraterritoriality and the like.

Asking whether colonies paid, economic historian Grover Clark (1891–1938) argues an emphatic "No!" He reports that in every case the support cost, especially the military system necessary to support and defend colonies, outran the total trade they produced. Apart from the British Empire, they did not provide favoured destinations for the immigration of surplus metropole populations.[60] The question of whether colonies paid is a complicated one when recognizing the multiplicity of interests involved. In some cases colonial powers paid a lot in military costs while private investors pocketed the benefits. In other cases the colonial powers managed to move the burden of administrative costs to the colonies themselves by imposing taxes.[61]

Map of colonial and land-based empires throughout the world in 1914
Imperial powers in 1945

After World War I (1914–1918), the victorious Allies divided up the German colonial empire and much of the Ottoman Empire between themselves as League of Nations mandates, grouping these territories into three classes according to how quickly it was deemed that they could prepare for independence. The empires of Russia and Austria collapsed in 1917–1918, [62] and the Soviet empire started.[63] Nazi Germany set up short-lived colonial systems (Reichskommissariate, Generalgouvernement) in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s.

In the aftermath of World War II (1939–1945), decolonisation progressed rapidly. The tumultuous upheaval of the war significantly weakened the major colonial powers, and they quickly lost control of colonies such as Singapore, India, and Libya.[64] In addition, the United Nations shows support for decolonisation in its 1945 charter. In 1960, the UN issued the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which affirmed its stance (though notably, colonial empires such as France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States abstained). [65]

The word "neocolonialism" originated from Jean-Paul Sartre in 1956,[66] to refer to a variety of contexts since the decolonisation that took place after World War II. Generally it does not refer to a type of direct colonisation – rather to colonialism or colonial-style exploitation by other means. Specifically, neocolonialism may refer to the theory that former or existing economic relationships, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or the operations of companies (such as Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria and Brunei) fostered by former colonial powers were or are used to maintain control of former colonies and dependencies after the colonial independence movements of the post–World War II period.[67]

The term "neocolonialism" became popular in ex-colonies in the late 20th century.[68]


While colonies of contiguous empires[69] have been historically excluded, they can be seen as colonies.[70] Contemporary expansion of colonies is seen by some in case of Russian imperialism[71] and Chinese imperialism.[72] There is also ongoing debate in academia about Zionism as settler colonialism.


A 1904 cartoon by Bob Satterfield about the brutality committed by Western nations: the personifications of England, the United States, and Germany carrying spears topped by the severed heads of Tibet, the Philippines, and Southwest Africa respectively. The caption describes this as "The advance guard of civilization".
The Dutch Public Health Service provides medical care for the natives of the Dutch East Indies, May 1946.

The impacts of colonisation are immense and pervasive.[73] Various effects, both immediate and protracted, include the spread of virulent diseases, unequal social relations, detribalization, exploitation, enslavement, medical advances[broken anchor], the creation of new institutions, abolitionism,[74] improved infrastructure,[75] and technological progress.[76] Colonial practices also spur the spread of conquerers' languages, literature and cultural institutions, while endangering or obliterating those of Indigenous peoples. The cultures of the colonised peoples can also have a powerful influence on the imperial country.[77]

With respect to international borders, Britain and France traced close to 40% of the entire length of the world's international boundaries.[78]

Economy, trade and commerce

Economic expansion, sometimes described as the colonial surplus, has accompanied imperial expansion since ancient times.[citation needed] Greek trade networks spread throughout the Mediterranean region while Roman trade expanded with the primary goal of directing tribute from the colonised areas towards the Roman metropole. According to Strabo, by the time of emperor Augustus, up to 120 Roman ships would set sail every year from Myos Hormos in Roman Egypt to India.[79] With the development of trade routes under the Ottoman Empire,

Gujari Hindus, Syrian Muslims, Jews, Armenians, Christians from south and central Europe operated trading routes that supplied Persian and Arab horses to the armies of all three empires, Mocha coffee to Delhi and Belgrade, Persian silk to India and Istanbul.[80]

Portuguese trade routes (blue) and the rival Manila-Acapulco galleons trade routes (white) established in 1568

Aztec civilisation developed into an extensive empire that, much like the Roman Empire, had the goal of exacting tribute from the conquered colonial areas. For the Aztecs, a significant tribute was the acquisition of sacrificial victims for their religious rituals.[81]

On the other hand, European colonial empires sometimes attempted to channel, restrict and impede trade involving their colonies, funneling activity through the metropole and taxing accordingly.

Despite the general trend of economic expansion, the economic performance of former European colonies varies significantly. In "Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-run Growth", economists Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson compare the economic influences of the European colonists on different colonies and study what could explain the huge discrepancies in previous European colonies, for example, between West African colonies like Sierra Leone and Hong Kong and Singapore.[82]

According to the paper, economic institutions are the determinant of the colonial success because they determine their financial performance and order for the distribution of resources. At the same time, these institutions are also consequences of political institutions – especially how de facto and de jure political power is allocated. To explain the different colonial cases, we thus need to look first into the political institutions that shaped the economic institutions.[82]

Dutch East India Company was the first-ever multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange.

For example, one interesting observation is "the Reversal of Fortune" – the less developed civilisations in 1500, like North America, Australia, and New Zealand, are now much richer than those countries who used to be in the prosperous civilisations in 1500 before the colonists came, like the Mughals in India and the Incas in the Americas. One explanation offered by the paper focuses on the political institutions of the various colonies: it was less likely for European colonists to introduce economic institutions where they could benefit quickly from the extraction of resources in the area. Therefore, given a more developed civilisation and denser population, European colonists would rather keep the existing economic systems than introduce an entirely new system; while in places with little to extract, European colonists would rather establish new economic institutions to protect their interests. Political institutions thus gave rise to different types of economic systems, which determined the colonial economic performance.[82]

European colonisation and development also changed gendered systems of power already in place around the world. In many pre-colonialist areas, women maintained power, prestige, or authority through reproductive or agricultural control. For example, in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa[where?] women maintained farmland in which they had usage rights. While men would make political and communal decisions for a community, the women would control the village's food supply or their individual family's land. This allowed women to achieve power and autonomy, even in patrilineal and patriarchal societies.[83]

Through the rise of European colonialism came a large push for development and industrialisation of most economic systems. When working to improve productivity, Europeans focused mostly on male workers. Foreign aid arrived in the form of loans, land, credit, and tools to speed up development, but were only allocated to men. In a more European fashion, women were expected to serve on a more domestic level. The result was a technologic, economic, and class-based gender gap that widened over time.[84]

Within a colony, the presence of extractive colonial institutions in a given area has been found have effects on the modern day economic development, institutions and infrastructure of these areas.[85][86]

Slavery and indentured servitude

European nations entered their imperial projects with the goal of enriching the European metropoles. Exploitation of non-Europeans and of other Europeans to support imperial goals was acceptable to the colonisers. Two outgrowths of this imperial agenda were the extension of slavery and indentured servitude. In the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of English settlers came to North America as indentured servants.[87]

European slave traders brought large numbers of African slaves to the Americas by sail. Spain and Portugal had brought African slaves to work in African colonies such as Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe, and then in Latin America, by the 16th century. The British, French and Dutch joined in the slave trade in subsequent centuries. The European colonial system took approximately 11 million Africans to the Caribbean and to North and South America as slaves.[88]

Slave traders in Gorée, Senegal, 18th century
European empire Colonial destination Number of slaves imported between 1450 and 1870[88]
Portuguese Empire Brazil 3,646,800
British Empire British Caribbean 1,665,000
French Empire French Caribbean 1,600,200
Spanish Empire Latin America 1,552,100
Dutch Empire Dutch Caribbean 500,000
British Empire British North America 399,000

Abolitionists in Europe and Americas protested the inhumane treatment of African slaves, which led to the elimination of the slave trade (and later, of most forms of slavery) by the late 19th century. One (disputed) school of thought points to the role of abolitionism in the American Revolution: while the British colonial metropole started to move towards outlawing slavery, slave-owning elites in the Thirteen Colonies saw this as one of the reasons to fight for their post-colonial independence and for the right to develop and continue a largely slave-based economy.[89]

British colonising activity in New Zealand from the early 19th century played a part in ending slave-taking and slave-keeping among the indigenous Māori.[90][91] On the other hand, British colonial administration in Southern Africa, when it officially abolished slavery in the 1830s, caused rifts in society which arguably perpetuated slavery in the Boer Republics and fed into the philosophy of apartheid.[92]

Planting the sugar cane, Antigua, 1823

The labour shortages that resulted from abolition inspired European colonisers in Queensland, British Guaiana and Fiji (for example) to develop new sources of labour, re-adopting a system of indentured servitude. Indentured servants consented to a contract with the European colonisers. Under their contract, the servant would work for an employer for a term of at least a year, while the employer agreed to pay for the servant's voyage to the colony, possibly pay for the return to the country of origin, and pay the employee a wage as well. The employees became "indentured" to the employer because they owed a debt back to the employer for their travel expense to the colony, which they were expected to pay through their wages. In practice, indentured servants were exploited through terrible working conditions and burdensome debts imposed by the employers, with whom the servants had no means of negotiating the debt once they arrived in the colony.

India and China were the largest source of indentured servants during the colonial era. Indentured servants from India travelled to British colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and also to French and Portuguese colonies, while Chinese servants travelled to British and Dutch colonies. Between 1830 and 1930, around 30 million indentured servants migrated from India, and 24 million returned to India. China sent more indentured servants to European colonies, and around the same proportion returned to China.[93]

Following the Scramble for Africa, an early but secondary focus for most colonial regimes was the suppression of slavery and the slave trade. By the end of the colonial period they were mostly successful in this aim, though slavery persists in Africa and in the world at large with much the same practices of de facto servility despite legislative prohibition.[74]

Military innovation

The First Anglo-Ashanti War, 1823–1831

Conquering forces have throughout history applied innovation in order to gain an advantage over the armies of the people they aim to conquer. Greeks developed the phalanx system, which enabled their military units to present themselves to their enemies as a wall, with foot soldiers using shields to cover one another during their advance on the battlefield. Under Philip II of Macedon, they were able to organise thousands of soldiers into a formidable battle force, bringing together carefully trained infantry and cavalry regiments.[94] Alexander the Great exploited this military foundation further during his conquests.

The Spanish Empire held a major advantage over Mesoamerican warriors through the use of weapons made of stronger metal, predominantly iron, which was able to shatter the blades of axes used by the Aztec civilisation and others. The use of gunpowder weapons cemented the European military advantage over the peoples they sought to subjugate in the Americas and elsewhere.

End of empire

Gandhi with Lord Pethwick-Lawrence, British Secretary of State for India, after a meeting on 18 April 1946

The populations of some colonial territories, such as Canada, enjoyed relative peace and prosperity as part of a European power, at least among the majority. Minority populations such as First Nations peoples and French-Canadians experienced marginalisation and resented colonial practices. Francophone residents of Quebec, for example, were vocal in opposing conscription into the armed services to fight on behalf of Britain during World War I, resulting in the Conscription crisis of 1917. Other European colonies had much more pronounced conflict between European settlers and the local population. Rebellions broke out in the later decades of the imperial era, such as India's Sepoy Rebellion of 1857.

The territorial boundaries imposed by European colonisers, notably in central Africa and South Asia, defied the existing boundaries of native populations that had previously interacted little with one another. European colonisers disregarded native political and cultural animosities, imposing peace upon people under their military control. Native populations were often relocated at the will of the colonial administrators.

The Partition of British India in August 1947 led to the Independence of India and the creation of Pakistan. These events also caused much bloodshed at the time of the migration of immigrants from the two countries. Muslims from India and Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan migrated to the respective countries they sought independence for.

Post-independence population movement

The annual Notting Hill Carnival in London is a celebration led by the Trinidadian and Tobagonian British community.

In a reversal of the migration patterns experienced during the modern colonial era, post-independence era migration followed a route back towards the imperial country. In some cases, this was a movement of settlers of European origin returning to the land of their birth, or to an ancestral birthplace. 900,000 French colonists (known as the Pied-Noirs) resettled in France following Algeria's independence in 1962. A significant number of these migrants were also of Algerian descent. 800,000 people of Portuguese origin migrated to Portugal after the independence of former colonies in Africa between 1974 and 1979; 300,000 settlers of Dutch origin migrated to the Netherlands from the Dutch West Indies after Dutch military control of the colony ended.[95]

After WWII 300,000 Dutchmen from the Dutch East Indies, of which the majority were people of Eurasian descent called Indo Europeans, repatriated to the Netherlands. A significant number later migrated to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.[96][97]

Global travel and migration in general developed at an increasingly brisk pace throughout the era of European colonial expansion. Citizens of the former colonies of European countries may have a privileged status in some respects with regard to immigration rights when settling in the former European imperial nation. For example, rights to dual citizenship may be generous,[98] or larger immigrant quotas may be extended to former colonies.[citation needed]

In some cases, the former European imperial nations continue to foster close political and economic ties with former colonies. The Commonwealth of Nations is an organisation that promotes cooperation between and among Britain and its former colonies, the Commonwealth members. A similar organisation exists for former colonies of France, the Francophonie; the Community of Portuguese Language Countries plays a similar role for former Portuguese colonies, and the Dutch Language Union is the equivalent for former colonies of the Netherlands.[99][100][101]

Migration from former colonies has proven to be problematic for European countries, where the majority population may express hostility to ethnic minorities who have immigrated from former colonies. Cultural and religious conflict have often erupted in France in recent decades, between immigrants from the Maghreb countries of north Africa and the majority population of France. Nonetheless, immigration has changed the ethnic composition of France; by the 1980s, 25% of the total population of "inner Paris" and 14% of the metropolitan region were of foreign origin, mainly Algerian.[102]

Introduced diseases

Aztecs dying of smallpox, (Florentine Codex, 1540–1585)

Encounters between explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced new diseases, which sometimes caused local epidemics of extraordinary virulence.[103] For example, smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, and others were unknown in pre-Columbian America.[104]

Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Smallpox also ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlan alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors. Measles killed a further two million Mexican natives in the 17th century. In 1618–1619, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans.[105] Smallpox epidemics in 1780–1782 and 1837–1838 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians.[106] Some believe[who?] that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[107] Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the indigenous peoples had no time to build such immunity.[108]

Smallpox decimated the native population of Australia, killing around 50% of indigenous Australians in the early years of British colonisation.[109] It also killed many New Zealand Māori.[110] As late as 1848–49, as many as 40,000 out of 150,000 Hawaiians are estimated to have died of measles, whooping cough and influenza. Introduced diseases, notably smallpox, nearly wiped out the native population of Easter Island.[111] In 1875, measles killed over 40,000 Fijians, approximately one-third of the population.[112] The Ainu population decreased drastically in the 19th century, due in large part to infectious diseases brought by Japanese settlers pouring into Hokkaido.[113]

Conversely, researchers have hypothesised that a precursor to syphilis may have been 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.[114] The disease was more frequently fatal than it is today; syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance.[115] The first cholera pandemic began in Bengal, then spread across India by 1820. Ten thousand British troops and countless Indians died during this pandemic.[116] Between 1736 and 1834 only some 10% of East India Company's officers survived to take the final voyage home.[117] Waldemar Haffkine, who mainly worked in India, who developed and used vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague in the 1890s, is considered the first microbiologist.

According to a 2021 study by Jörg Baten and Laura Maravall on the anthropometric influence of colonialism on Africans, the average height of Africans decreased by 1.1 centimetres upon colonization and later recovered and increased overall during colonial rule. The authors attributed the decrease to diseases, such as malaria and sleeping sickness, forced labor during the early decades of colonial rule, conflicts, land grabbing, and widespread cattle deaths from the rinderpest viral disease.[118]

Countering disease

As early as 1803, the Spanish Crown organised a mission (the Balmis expedition) to transport the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies, and establish mass vaccination programs there.[119] By 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans.[120] Under the direction of Mountstuart Elphinstone a program was launched to propagate smallpox vaccination in India.[121] 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.[122] The sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa was arrested due to mobile teams systematically screening millions of people at risk.[123] 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[broken anchor].[124] The world population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to over seven billion today.[citation needed]


Colonial botany refers to the body of works concerning the study, cultivation, marketing and naming of the new plants that were acquired or traded during the age of European colonialism. Notable examples of these plants included sugar, nutmeg, tobacco, cloves, cinnamon, Peruvian bark, peppers, Sassafras albidum, and tea. This work was a large part of securing financing for colonial ambitions, supporting European expansion and ensuring the profitability of such endeavors. Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus were seeking to establish routes to trade spices, dyes and silk from the Moluccas, India and China by sea that would be independent of the established routes controlled by Venetian and Middle Eastern merchants. Naturalists like Hendrik van Rheede, Georg Eberhard Rumphius, and Jacobus Bontius compiled data about eastern plants on behalf of the Europeans. Though Sweden did not possess an extensive colonial network, botanical research based on Carl Linnaeus identified and developed techniques to grow cinnamon, tea and rice locally as an alternative to costly imports.[125]


British Togoland in 1953

Settlers acted as the link between indigenous populations and the imperial hegemony, thus bridging the geographical, ideological and commercial gap between the colonisers and colonised. While the extent in which geography as an academic study is implicated in colonialism is contentious, geographical tools such as cartography, shipbuilding, navigation, mining and agricultural productivity were instrumental in European colonial expansion. Colonisers' awareness of the Earth's surface and abundance of practical skills provided colonisers with a knowledge that, in turn, created power.[126]

Anne Godlewska and Neil Smith argue that "empire was 'quintessentially a geographical project'".[clarification needed][127] Historical geographical theories such as environmental determinism legitimised colonialism by positing the view that some parts of the world were underdeveloped, which created notions of skewed evolution.[126] Geographers such as Ellen Churchill Semple and Ellsworth Huntington put forward the notion that northern climates bred vigour and intelligence as opposed to those indigenous to tropical climates (See The Tropics) viz a viz a combination of environmental determinism and Social Darwinism in their approach.[128]

Political geographers also maintain that colonial behaviour was reinforced by the physical mapping of the world, therefore creating a visual separation between "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.[129]: 5 

Comparison of Africa in the years 1880 and 1913

Maps played an extensive role in colonialism, as Bassett would put it "by providing geographical information in a convenient and standardised format, cartographers helped open West Africa to European conquest, commerce, and colonisation".[130] Because the relationship between colonialism and geography was not scientifically objective, cartography was often manipulated during the colonial era. Social norms and values had an effect on the constructing of maps. During colonialism map-makers used rhetoric in their formation of boundaries and in their art. The rhetoric favoured the view of the conquering Europeans; this is evident in the fact that any map created by a non-European was instantly regarded as inaccurate. Furthermore, European cartographers were required to follow a set of rules which led to ethnocentrism; portraying one's own ethnicity in the centre of the map. As J.B. Harley put it, "The steps in making a map – selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and 'symbolisation' – are all inherently rhetorical."[131]

A common practice by the European cartographers of the time was to map unexplored areas as "blank spaces". This influenced the colonial powers as it sparked competition amongst them to explore and colonise these regions. Imperialists aggressively and passionately looked forward to filling these spaces for the glory of their respective countries.[132] The Dictionary of Human Geography notes that cartography was used to empty 'undiscovered' lands of their Indigenous meaning and bring them into spatial existence via the imposition of "Western place-names and borders, [therefore] priming 'virgin' (putatively empty land, 'wilderness') for colonisation (thus sexualising colonial landscapes as domains of male penetration), reconfiguring alien space as absolute, quantifiable and separable (as property)."[133]

Map of the British Empire (as of 1910). At its height, it was the largest empire in history.

David Livingstone stresses "that geography has meant different things at different times and in different places" and that we should keep an open mind in regards to the relationship between geography and colonialism instead of identifying boundaries.[127] Geography as a discipline was not and is not an objective science, Painter and Jeffrey argue, rather it is based on assumptions about the physical world.[126] Comparison of exogeographical representations of ostensibly tropical environments in science fiction art support this conjecture, finding the notion of the tropics to be an artificial collection of ideas and beliefs that are independent of geography.[134]

Ocean and space

With contemporary advances in deep sea and outer space technologies, colonization of the seabed and the Moon have become an object of non-terrestrial colonialism.[135][136][137][138]

Versus imperialism

The term "imperialism" is often conflated with "colonialism"; however, many scholars have argued that each has its own distinct definition. Imperialism and colonialism have been used in order to describe one's influence upon a person or group of people. Robert Young writes that imperialism operates from the centre as a state policy and is developed for ideological as well as financial reasons, while colonialism is simply the development for settlement or commercial intentions; however, colonialism still includes invasion.[139] Colonialism in modern usage also tends to imply a degree of geographic separation between the colony and the imperial power. Particularly, Edward Said distinguishes between imperialism and colonialism by stating: "imperialism involved 'the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory', while colonialism refers to the 'implanting of settlements on a distant territory.'[140] Contiguous land empires such as the Russian, Chinese or Ottoman have traditionally been excluded from discussions of colonialism, though this is beginning to change, since it is accepted that they also sent populations into the territories they ruled.[140]: 116 

Imperialism and colonialism both dictate the political and economic advantage over a land and the indigenous populations they control, yet scholars sometimes find it difficult to illustrate the difference between the two.[141]: 107  Although imperialism and colonialism focus on the suppression of another, if colonialism refers to the process of a country taking physical control of another, imperialism refers to the political and monetary dominance, either formally or informally. Colonialism is seen to be the architect deciding how to start dominating areas and then imperialism can be seen as creating the idea behind conquest cooperating with colonialism. Colonialism is when the imperial nation begins a conquest over an area and then eventually is able to rule over the areas the previous nation had controlled. Colonialism's core meaning is the exploitation of the valuable assets and supplies of the nation that was conquered and the conquering nation then gaining the benefits from the spoils of the war.[141]: 170–75  The meaning of imperialism is to create an empire, by conquering the other state's lands and therefore increasing its own dominance. Colonialism is the builder and preserver of the colonial possessions in an area by a population coming from a foreign region.[141]: 173–76  Colonialism can completely change the existing social structure, physical structure, and economics of an area; it is not unusual that the characteristics of the conquering peoples are inherited by the conquered indigenous populations.[141]: 41  Few colonies remain remote from their mother country. Thus, most will eventually establish a separate nationality or remain under complete control of their mother colony.[142]

The Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin suggested that "imperialism was the highest form of capitalism", claiming that "imperialism developed after colonialism, and was distinguished from colonialism by monopoly capitalism".[140]: 116 


Marxism views colonialism as a form of capitalism, enforcing exploitation and social change. Marx thought that 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".[143] Colonies are constructed into modes of production. The search for raw materials and the current search for new investment opportunities is a result[according to whom?] of inter-capitalist rivalry for capital accumulation.[citation needed] Lenin regarded colonialism as the root cause of imperialism, as imperialism was distinguished by monopoly capitalism via colonialism and as Lyal S. Sunga explains: "Vladimir Lenin advocated forcefully the principle of self-determination of peoples in his "Theses on the Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination" as an integral plank in the programme of socialist internationalism" and he quotes Lenin who contended that "The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. Specifically, this demand for political democracy implies complete freedom to agitate for secession and for a referendum on secession by the seceding nation."[144] Non-Russian Marxists within the RSFSR and later the USSR, like Sultan Galiev and Vasyl Shakhrai, meanwhile, between 1918 and 1923 and then after 1929, considered the Soviet regime a renewed version of Russian imperialism and colonialism.

In his critique of colonialism in Africa, the Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney states:[145][146]

The decisiveness of the short period of colonialism and its negative consequences for Africa spring mainly from the fact that Africa lost power. Power is the ultimate determinant in human society, being basic to the relations within any group and between groups. It implies the ability to defend one's interests and if necessary to impose one's will by any means available ... When one society finds itself forced to relinquish power entirely to another society that in itself is a form of underdevelopment ... During the centuries of pre-colonial trade, some control over social political and economic life was retained in Africa, in spite of the disadvantageous commerce with Europeans. That little control over internal matters disappeared under colonialism. Colonialism went much further than trade. It meant a tendency towards direct appropriation by Europeans of the social institutions within Africa. Africans ceased to set indigenous cultural goals and standards, and lost full command of training young members of the society. Those were undoubtedly major steps backwards ... Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called 'mother country'. From an African view-point, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labour out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped. Colonial Africa fell within that part of the international capitalist economy from which surplus was drawn to feed the metropolitan sector. As seen earlier, exploitation of land and labour is essential for human social advance, but only on the assumption that the product is made available within the area where the exploitation takes place.

According to Lenin, the new imperialism emphasised the transition of capitalism from free trade to a stage of monopoly capitalism to finance capital. He states it is, "connected with the intensification of the struggle for the partition of the world". As free trade thrives on exports of commodities[according to whom?], monopoly capitalism thrived on the export of capital amassed by profits from banks and industry. This, to Lenin, was the highest stage of capitalism. He goes on to state that this form of capitalism was doomed for war between the capitalists and the exploited nations with the former inevitably losing. War is stated to be the consequence of imperialism. As a continuation of this thought, G.N. Uzoigwe states, "But it is now clear from more serious investigations of African history in this period that imperialism was essentially economic in its fundamental impulses."[147]

Liberalism and capitalism

Classical liberals were generally in abstract opposition to colonialism and imperialism, including Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, Henry Richard, Herbert Spencer, H.R. Fox Bourne, Edward Morel, Josephine Butler, W.J. Fox and William Ewart Gladstone.[148] Their philosophies found the colonial enterprise, particularly mercantilism, in opposition to the principles of free trade and liberal policies.[149] Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations that Britain should grant independence to all of its colonies and also argued that it would be economically beneficial for British people in the average, although the merchants having mercantilist privileges would lose out.[148][150]

Race and gender

During the colonial era, the global process of colonisation served to spread and synthesize the social and political belief systems of the "mother-countries" which often included a belief in a certain natural racial superiority of the race of the mother-country. Colonialism also acted to reinforce these same racial belief systems within the "mother-countries" themselves. Usually also included within the colonial belief systems was a certain belief in the inherent superiority of male over female. This particular belief was often pre-existing amongst the pre-colonial societies, prior to their colonisation.[151][152][153]

Popular political practices of the time reinforced colonial rule by legitimising European (and/ or Japanese) male authority, and also legitimising female and non-mother-country race inferiority through studies of craniology, comparative anatomy, and phrenology.[152][153][154] Biologists, naturalists, anthropologists, and ethnologists of the 19th century were focused on the study of colonised indigenous women, as in the case of Georges Cuvier's study of Sarah Baartman.[153] Such cases embraced a natural superiority and inferiority relationship between the races based on the observations of naturalists' from the mother-countries. European studies along these lines gave rise to the perception that African women's anatomy, and especially genitalia, resembled those of mandrills, baboons, and monkeys, thus differentiating colonised Africans from what were viewed as the features of the evolutionarily superior, and thus rightfully authoritarian, European woman.[153]

In addition to what would now be viewed as pseudo-scientific studies of race, which tended to reinforce a belief in an inherent mother-country racial superiority, a new supposedly "science-based" ideology concerning gender roles also then emerged as an adjunct to the general body of beliefs of inherent superiority of the colonial era.[152] Female inferiority across all cultures was emerging as an idea supposedly supported by craniology that led scientists to argue that the typical brain size of the female human was, on the average, slightly smaller than that of the male, thus inferring that therefore female humans must be less developed and less evolutionarily advanced than males.[152] This finding of relative cranial size difference was later attributed to the general typical size difference of the human male body versus that of the typical human female body.[155]

Within the former European colonies, non-Europeans and women sometimes faced invasive studies by the colonial powers in the interest of the then prevailing pro-colonial scientific ideology of the day.[153]


Othering is the process of creating a separate entity to persons or groups who are labelled as different or non-normal due to the repetition of characteristics.[156] Othering is the creation of those who discriminate, to distinguish, label, categorise those who do not fit in the societal norm. Several scholars in recent decades developed the notion of the "other" as an epistemological concept in social theory.[156] For example, postcolonial scholars, believed that colonising powers explained an "other" who were there to dominate, civilise, and extract resources through colonisation of land.[156]

Political geographers explain how colonial/imperial powers "othered" places they wanted to dominate to legalise their exploitation of the land.[156] During and after the rise of colonialism the Western powers perceived the East as the "other", being different and separate from their societal norm. This viewpoint and separation of culture had divided the Eastern and Western culture creating a dominant/subordinate dynamic, both being the "other" towards themselves.[156]


Queen Victoria Street in the former British colony of Hong Kong

Post-colonialism (or post-colonial theory) can refer to a set of theories in philosophy and literature that grapple with the legacy of colonial rule. In this sense, one can regard post-colonial literature as a branch of postmodern literature concerned with the political and cultural independence of peoples formerly subjugated in colonial empires.

Many practitioners take Edward Saïd's book Orientalism (1978) as the theory's founding work (although French theorists such as Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) and Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) made similar claims decades before Saïd). Saïd analyzed the works of Balzac, Baudelaire and Lautréamont, arguing that they helped to shape a societal fantasy of European racial superiority.

Writers of post-colonial fiction 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 Subaltern Studies.

In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), Spivak argued that major works of European metaphysics (such as those of Kant and 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), famous for its explicit ethnocentrism, considers Western civilisation as the most accomplished of all, while Kant also had some traces of racialism in his work.

The 2014 YouGov survey found that British people are mostly proud of colonialism and the British Empire:[157]

A new YouGov survey finds that most think the British Empire is more something to be proud of (59%) than to be ashamed of (19%). 23% don't know. Young people are least likely to feel pride over shame when it comes to the Empire, though about half (48%) of 18–24 year old's do. In comparison, about two-thirds (65%) of over 60's feel mostly proud. ... A third of British people (34%) also say they would like it if Britain still had an empire. Under half (45%) say they would not like the Empire to exist today. 20% don't know.[158]


The field of colonistics studies colonialism from such viewpoints as those of economics, sociology and psychology.[159]


Indigenous Tibetans protesting the Sinicization of Tibet
Irish leaving Ireland, many in response to the Great Famine in the 1840s

Nations and regions outside Northern China with significant populations of Han Chinese ancestry:

Nations and regions outside Europe with significant populations of European ancestry[165]

Boer family in South Africa, 1886
Russian settlers in Central Asia, present-day Kazakhstan, 1911

See also


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Further reading

  • Albertini, Rudolf von. European Colonial Rule, 1880–1940: The Impact of the West on India, Southeast Asia, and Africa (1982) 581 pp
  • Benjamin, Thomas, ed. Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism Since 1450 (2006)
  • Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (2005)
  • Cotterell, Arthur. Western Power in Asia: Its Slow Rise and Swift Fall, 1415–1999 (2009) popular history; excerpt
  • Getz, Trevor R. and Heather Streets-Salter, eds.: Modern Imperialism and Colonialism: A Global Perspective (2010)
  • Jensen, Niklas Thode; Simonsen, Gunvor (2016). "Introduction: The historiography of slavery in the Danish-Norwegian West Indies, c. 1950–2016". Scandinavian Journal of History. 41 (4–5): 475–494. doi:10.1080/03468755.2016.1210880.
  • LeCour Grandmaison, Olivier: Coloniser, Exterminer – Sur la guerre et l'Etat colonial, Fayard, 2005, ISBN 2-213-62316-3
  • Lindqvist, Sven: Exterminate All The Brutes, 1992, New Press; Reprint edition (June 1997), ISBN 978-1-56584-359-2
  • Morris, Richard B. and Graham W. Irwin, eds. Harper Encyclopedia of the Modern World: A Concise Reference History from 1760 to the Present (1970) online
  • Ness, Immanuel and Zak Cope, eds. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism (2 vol 2015), 1456 pp
  • Nuzzo, Luigi: Colonial Law, European History Online, Mainz: Institute of European History, 2010, retrieved: December 17, 2012.
  • Osterhammel, Jürgen: Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, Princeton, NJ: M. Wiener, 1997.
  • Page, Melvin E. et al. eds. Colonialism: An International Social, Cultural, and Political Encyclopedia (3 vol 2003)
  • Petringa, Maria, Brazza, A Life for Africa (2006), ISBN 978-1-4259-1198-0.
  • Prashad, Vijay: The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, The New Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-56584-785-9
  • Resendez, Andres (2016). The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 448. ISBN 978-0544602670.
  • Rönnbäck, K. & Broberg, O. (2019) Capital and Colonialism. The Return on British Investments in Africa 1869–1969 (Palgrave Studies in Economic History)
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External links