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Colonialism is the practice of creating settlements in lands other than the parent land. Historically, this has often involved killing or subjugating the indigenous population. With the spread of Hellenic and Roman culture and technology by the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of the world has at some point been colonised by a European country. The most notable colonial powers were Rome, Greece, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, whose combined empires covered at various times the whole of North, Central and South America, Africa, Australia, much of Indonesia, the countries lying in the Levant, much of the Indian subcontinent as well as most of the countries lying in between. In short, most of the world. It is interesting to note that all of these colonial powers have a large coastline. Historically, the settlements of new lands and the maintenance of trade and prosperity have depended heavily on naval power.


Debate about aspects of colonialism

Debate about the perceived positive and negative aspects of colonialism has taken place for centuries, amongst both coloniser and colonised, and continues to the present day. Different types of colonialism must first be distinguished, as they were spread in time and thus didn't represent the same historic phenomenon. Starting in the 15th century, the School of Salamanca, gathering theologians such as Francisco Suarez, theorized natural law, thus limiting the domination of Charles V's imperial powers by according natural rights to indigenous people. However, the School of Salamanca also created a casuistry justifying legitimate cases of conquests, thus legitimizing the colonisation project itself. The Valladolid controversy opposed the famous Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas to the dominant beliefs of his times, which considered that the Native Americans had no souls and could thus be freely enslaved. In the 18th century, Diderot criticized ethnocentrism and the colonisation of Tahiti in Supplément au voyage de Bougainville ("Supplement to Bougainville's Travel", 1772).


In the Portuguese colonies, miscegenation was commonplace and even supported by the court as a way to boost low populations and guarantee a successful settlement. Thus, settlers often released African slaves to become their wives. Some of the children were guaranteed full Portuguese citizenship, possibly based on lighter skin color, but not race. Some former Portuguese colonies have large mixed-race populations, for instance Brazil, Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe. Miscegenation was still common in Africa until the independence of the former Portuguese colonies in the 1970s, which succeeded the 1974 Carnation Revolution. To the present day, Angolan, Brazilian and Cape Verdian societies are defined by the degree of melanin (lighter skin). In Cape Verde, the population is often differentiated by lighter and darker skin (known as pele de chocolate or "chocolate skin"). Because of white supremacist institutions and the values they inculcated among the populace, many such miscegenated societies were and remain to this day heavily stratified by color, with darker-skinned citizens assigned the lowest economic and social status. This was demonstrated by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre's famous Casa-Grande & Senzala ("The Great House and the Slave Quarters" - 1933). Eduardo Galeano also showed how the profusion of Spanish words to design various types of skin color demonstrated a very precise racial hierarchy in Latin America. In the US, anti-miscegenation laws were passed and racial segregation enforced.

Genocides and relation to the Holocaust

Concerning the scramble for Africa, most historians tend to describe both positive aspects (infrastructures, education) and negative aspects (racism, exploitation and, in some cases, even extermination - see for example the Herero genocide between 1904 and 1907). Several authors, such as Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist,[1] French historian Olivier LeCour Grandmaison or[2] in a more moderate way, Hannah Arendt have linked the possibility and the history of the Holocaust to colonialism.[3] In Exterminate All The Brutes (a sentence taken from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness), Sven Lindqvist argued that the techniques and inhumanity necessary to the Holocaust were indeed commonly practiced during colonial rule, in which several ethnic groups were exterminated. However, this thesis, linking the Holocaust to colonial genocides, has been harshly disputed by other authors.

Imperialism and dependency theory

Dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank argue that colonialism leads to the net transfer of wealth from the colonised to the coloniser and inhibits successful economic development. Critics such as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth,[4] the Négritude movement (gathering Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor) argue that colonialism does political, psychological and moral damage to the colonised as well. Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy likened debating the pros and cons of colonialism to "debating the pros and cons of rape".[5]

Critics of the alleged abuses of economic and political advantages accruing to developed nations via globalised capitalism have referred to them as neocolonialism, seeing them as a continuation of the domination and exploitation of ex-colonial countries, merely utilizing different means. Neocolonialism is in this sense a new form of imperialism, which had first been theorized by Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg thought that the necessary economic expansion of capitalism automatically led to territorial expansion, in order to find new resources and markets.

However, the dependency theory and theories of economic underdevelopment of the Third World by colonial powers are contested by many economic historians. Bill Warren, a Marxist historian, disagreed with the dependency theorists:[6]

There is no evidence of a process of underdevelopment…The evidence rather supports a contrary thesis: that process of development has been taking place…and that this has been a direct result of the west.

Other economists, such as Celso Furtado, have widely theorized on the specificities of third world economies, forming a concise theory of underdevelopment which understands it not simply as an early stage of a nation's economic history, but as a specific sort of modernized macroeconomic structure (a point of view which corroborates dependency theory, from a different perspective).

Benign colonialism

Benign colonialism is a term that refers to a supposed form of colonialism in which benefits outweighed risks for indigenous populations whose lands, resources, rights and freedoms were preempted by a colonising nation-state. The historical source for the concept of benign colonialism resides with John Stuart Mill who was chief examiner of the British East India Company dealing with British interests in India in the 1820s and 1830s. Mill's most well-known essays on benign colonialism are found in "Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy."[7] Mill's view contrasted with Burkean orientalists. Mill promoted the training of a corps of bureaucrats indigenous to India who could adopt the modern liberal perspective and values of 19th century Britain. Mill predicted this group's eventual governance of India would be based on British values and perspectives. For a discussion of Mill's arguments see Doyle (2006).[8]

Advocates of the concept cite improved standards of health and education[9], employment opportunities, liberal markets, developed natural resources and introduced improved governance. The first wave of benign colonialism lasted from c. 1790-1960. The second wave included neocolonial policies exemplified in Hong Kong,[10] where unfettered expansion of the market created a new form of benign colonialism. Political interference and military intervention in independent nation-states, such as Iraq,[8][11] is also discussed under the rubric of benign colonialism in which a foreign power preempts national governance to protect a higher concept of freedom. The term is also used in the 21st century to refer to US, French and Chinese market activities in African countries with massive quantities of underdeveloped nonrenewable natural resources.

These views have support by some academics. Economic historian Niall Ferguson has argued that empires can be a good thing provided that they are "liberal empires". He cites the British Empire as being the only example of a "liberal empire" and argues that it maintained the rule of law, benign government, free trade and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour.[12] Historian Rudolf von Albertini agrees that, on balance, colonialism can be good. He argues that colonialism was a mechanism for modernisation in the colonies and imposed a peace by putting an end to tribal warfare.[13] Historians L.H Gann and Peter Duignan have also argued that Africa probably benefited from colonialism on balance. Although it had its faults, colonialism was probably "one of the most efficacious engines for cultural diffusion in world history"[14]. These views, however, are controversial and are rejected by many who, on balance, see colonialism as bad. The economic historian D.K Fieldhouse has taken a kind of middle position, arguing that the effects of colonialism were actually limited and their main weakness wasn't in deliberate underdevelopment but in what it failed to do.[15] Niall Ferguson agrees with his last point, arguing that colonialism's main weaknesses were sins of omission.[12] Marxist historian Bill Warren has argued that whilst colonialism may be bad because it relies on force, he views it as being the genesis of Third World development.[6]

Robert Woodberry argues not for the benign nature of colonialism, in and of itself, rather the positive impact of Protestant and Catholic missionaries during colonialism[16]. Historically, the link between British colonization and democratization in former colonies has been troubling, but Woodberry writes that, in part, the divided British colonial elites and independent religious groups are responsible for the advances in former colonies[17]

Literature that challenges the assumptions of benign colonialism claiming the colonialist project as it actually unfolded placed First Nations, Inuit and Métis at higher risks of vulnerabilities to catastrophes, to social exclusion and human rights abuses, has not been as widely publicized.

Post-colonialism and post-colonial literature

Historical debate in France

On May 10, 2001, the Taubira law officially recognized slavery and the Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. Between various propositions, May 10 was finally chosen as day dedicated to the recognition of the crime of slavery. Anticolonialist activists also want the African Liberation Day to be recognized by France. Although slavery was recognized by this law, four years later, the vote of the February 23, 2005 law by the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), asking teachers and textbooks to "acknowledge and recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa", was met with public uproar and accusations of historic revisionism, both inside France and abroad. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria, refused to sign the envisioned "friendly treaty" with France because of this law. Famous writer Aimé Césaire, leader of the Négritude movement, also refused to meet UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy, leading the latter to cancel his visit to Martinique. The controversed law was finally repealed by president Jacques Chirac (UMP) at the beginning of 2006.

Philosopher Paul Ricœur has spoke of the necessity of a "decolonisation of memory", starting with the recognition of the 1961 Paris massacre during the Algerian war (1954-62) and the recognition of the decisive role of immigrated manpower in the Trente Glorieuses post-World War II economic growth period.


  1. ^ Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All The Brutes, 1992, New Press; Reprint edition (June 1997), ISBN 1-56584-359-2
  2. ^ LeCour Grandmaison, Olivier, Coloniser, Exterminer - Sur la guerre et l'Etat colonial, Fayard, 2005, ISBN 2-213-62316-3 ((French))
  3. ^ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951, second section on imperialism
  4. ^ Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, Maspero Publishing house, Pref. by Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Constance Farrington. London : Penguin Book, 2001
  5. ^ Roy, Arundhati (2004-02-09). "The New American Century". Retrieved 2008-03-15.  
  6. ^ a b Warren, Bill (1980). Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism. Verso. p. 113.  
  7. ^ Mill, John Stuart. 1844. "Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy."
  8. ^ a b Doyle, Michael W. 2006. "Sovereignty and Humanitarian Military Intervention." Columbia University.
  9. ^ Robert Woodberry- The Social Impact of Missionary Higher Education
  10. ^ Liu, Henry C. K. 2003. "China: a Case of Self-Delusion: Part 1: From colonialism to confusion." Asia Times. May 14.
  11. ^ Campo, Juan E. 2004. "Benign Colonialism? The Iraq War: Hidden Agendas and Babylonian Intrigue." Interventionism. 26:1. Spring.
  12. ^ a b Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
  13. ^ Albertini, Rudolph von, and Wirz, Albert. European Colonial Rule, 1880-1914: The Impact of the West on India, South East Asia and Africa
  14. ^ Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan, The Burden of Empire: A Reappraisal of Western Colonialism South of the Sahara
  15. ^ D.K. Fieldhouse, The West and the Third World
  16. ^ Project on religion and Economic Change
  17. ^ Christian Missions, Colonial Policy, and Democracy in Postcolonial Societies

See also



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