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See colony and colonization for examples of colonialism that do not refer to Western colonialism. Also see Colonization (disambiguation)
The pith helmet (in this case, of the Second French Empire) is an icon of colonialism in tropical lands

Colonialism is the building and maintaining of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. Colonialism is a process whereby sovereignty over the colony is claimed by the metropole and the social structure, government, and economics of the colony are changed, by colonists - people from the metropole. Colonialism is a set of unequal relationships: between the metropole and the colony; between the colonists and the indigenous population.

Colonialism normally refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the 20th century when European nation states established colonies on other continents. The reasons for colonialism at the time include:

  • The profits to be made;
  • Expansion of the power of the metropole;
  • Escaping persecution in the metropole; and
  • Spreading the colonists' way of life, religious and political beliefs, culture and technology.

Colonialism and imperialism were ideologically linked with mercantilism.[1]


Definitions of colonialism

Collins English Dictionary defines colonialism as "the policy of acquiring and maintaining colonies, especially for exploitation."[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".[3]

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "uses the term 'colonialism' to describe the process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world, including Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia." It discusses the distinction between colonialism and imperialism and states that "Given the difficulty of consistently distinguishing between the two terms, this entry will use colonialism as a broad concept that refers 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."[5] In the book, Osterhammel asks, "How can 'colonialism' be defined independently from 'colony'?" [6] 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 colonized 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 colonized population, the colonisers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.[7]

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 applies more to the 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.

These models of colonialism overlap. 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 culturally mixed population (such as the mestizos of the Americas), or a racially divided population, such as in French Algeria or Southern Rhodesia.

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

History of colonialism

World map of colonialism in 1800
File:World 1914 empires colonies
This map of the world in 1914 shows the large colonial empires that powerful nations established across the globe
File:Colonialism in 1945 updated
World map of colonialism at the end of the Second World War in 1945

Activity that could be called colonialism has a long history. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans all built colonies in antiquity. The word "metropole" comes from the Greek metropolis [Greek: "μητρόπολις"] - "mother city". The word "colony" comes from the Latin colonia – "a place for agriculture".

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

The 17th 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 18th and early 19th centuries by the American Revolutionary War and the Latin 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 19th century, many European powers were involved in the Scramble for Africa.

The Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire existed at the same time as the above empires, but these are often not considered[by whom?] colonial because they did not expand over oceans. Rather, these empires expanded through the more traditional route of conquest of neighbouring territories. There was, though, some Russian colonization of the Americas across the Bering Strait. The Empire of Japan modelled itself on European colonial empires. The United States of America gained overseas territories after the Spanish-American War and the term "American Empire" was coined.

After the First World War, the victorious allies divided up the German colonial empire and much of the Ottoman Empire between themselves 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.[8] However, decolonisation outside the Americas lagged until after the Second World War. In 1962 the United Nations set up a Special Committee on Decolonization, often called the Committee of 24, to encourage this process.


Some think-tanks such as the CEE Council have argued that early 20th century progressive US academics such as Reverend James Augustin Brown Scherer and Rabbi Judah Magnes were contrarian thinkers who foresaw the eventual decline of European colonialism in the Middle-East and Asia and the correlated rise of America- notably through the development of US institutions of higher learning abroad.[9]


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 - residual effects or aftershocks of old colonialism or a contemporary extension thereof in more subtle and seemingly unobtrusive ways. Specifically, the accusation that the relationship between stronger and weaker countries is similar to exploitation colonialism, without the stronger country having to build or maintain colonies. Such accusations typically focus on economic relationships and interference in the politics of weaker countries by stronger countries.

Colonialism and the history of thought

Colonialism and geography

Settlers acted as the link between the natives and the imperial hegemony, bridging the geographical gap between the colonizers and colonized. Painter, J. and Jeffrey, A. affirm that certain advances aided the expansion of European states. With tools such as cartography, shipbuilding, navigation, mining and agricultural productivity colonizers had an upper hand. Their awareness of the Earth's surface and abundance of practical skills provided colonizers with a knowledge that, 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 beliefs 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.[10] 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.[11]

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. In 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, he thought. It is an “instrument of wholesale destruction, dependency and systematic exploitation producing distorted economies, socio-psychological disorientation, massive poverty and neocolonial dependency.” [12] 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 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." [13]

Liberalism, capitalism and colonialism

Classical liberals generally opposed colonialism and imperialism, including Adam Smith, Frederik Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, Henry Richard, Herbert Spencer, H. R. Fox Bourne, Edward Morel, Josephine Butler, W. J. Fox and William Ewart Gladstone. Moreover, American revolution was the first anti-colonial rebellion, inspiring others.[1][14]

Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations that Britain should liberate all of its colonies and also noted that it would be economically beneficial for British people in the average, although the merchants having mercantilist privileges would lose.[1]

The farmers in India under British colonial rule were also forced to grow certain crops, sell them to Britain, to pay oppressive taxes etc.[14][15]


Post-colonialism (a.k.a. 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.

"Robert Clive and his family with an Indian maid", painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1765.

Impact of colonialism and colonization

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.[16] 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 explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced new diseases, which sometimes caused local epidemics of extraordinary virulence.[17] For example, Smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, and others were unknown in pre-Columbian America.[18]

Disease killed the entire native (Guanches) population of the Canary Islands in the 16th century. Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Smallpox also ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán 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.[19] Smallpox epidemics in 1780–1782 and 1837–1838 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians.[20] Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[21] Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the indigenous peoples had no such immunity.[22]

Smallpox decimated the native population of Australia, killing around 50% of Indigenous Australians in the early years of British colonisation.[23] It also killed many New Zealand Māori.[24] 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.[25] In 1875, measles killed over 40,000 Fijians, approximately one-third of the population.[26] Ainu population decreased drastically in the 19th century, due in large part to infectious diseases brought by Japanese settlers pouring into Hokkaido.[27]

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.[28] The disease was more frequently fatal than it is today. Syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance.[29] The first cholera pandemic began in Bengal, then spread across India by 1820. 10,000 British troops and countless Indians died during this pandemic.[30] Between 1736 and 1834 only some 10% of East India Company's officers survived to take the final voyage home.[31] 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 Spanish Crown organized a mission (the Balmis expedition) to transport the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies, and establish mass vaccination programs there.[32] By 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans.[33] Under the direction of Mountstuart Elphinstone a program was launched to propagate smallpox vaccination in India.[34] 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.[35] The sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa was arrested due to mobile teams systematically screening millions of people at risk.[36] 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.[37] World population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to an estimated 6.7 billion today.[38]

Some believe that discussion of how diseases were spread has been scuttled by descendants of colonialists to conceal actual origins of how indigenous populations were inoculated with these new diseases. An argument here is that once European colonists discovered indigenous populations were not immune to certain diseases, they deliberately spread diseases to gain military advantages and subjugate local peoples. The most infamous case involves suggestions by Lord Jeffery Amherst,[39] though history is mute on whether his barbaric suggestions were carried out. Many scholars have argued that evidence that supports 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[40] and [41] There is, however, only one documented case of germ warfare, involving British commander Jeffrey Amherst.[42] It is uncertain whether this documented British attempt successfully infected the Indians.[43]

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 dynasty in 1368, China'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.[44] 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.[45] Although it was initially considered to be unfit for human consumption, the potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe.[46] 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 India by the Portuguese in the 16th century.[47]

Since being introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century,[48] maize and manioc have replaced traditional African crops as the continent’s most important staple food crops.[49] Manioc (cassava) is sometimes described as the ‘bread of the tropics'.[50] Alfred W. Crosby speculated that increased production of maize, manioc, and other American 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 than before."[51]

Slave trade

Slavery has existed to varying extents, forms and periods in almost all cultures and continents.[52] 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.[53] Between the 15th and the 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade took up to 12 million slaves to the New World.[54]

From 1654 until 1865, slavery for life was legal within the boundaries of the present United States.[55] 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.[56] Of all 1,515,605 families in the 15 slave states, 393,967 held slaves (roughly one in four),[56] amounting to 8% of all American families.[57]

In 1807, the United Kingdom became one of the first nations to end its own participation in the slave trade.[58] Furthermore, between 1808 and 1860, the British West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard.[59] This was done "to sweep the African and American Seas of the atrocious Commerce with which they are now infested".[60] 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 Lagos", deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.[61] In 1827, Britain declared the slave trade piracy, punishable by death.[62]

Non-canonical colonialism

Colonialism is not a modern phenomenon.[63] 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. Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread across the Mediterranean during the period 1550 BC to 300 BC. Other examples range from large empire like the Achaemenid Empire, the Roman Empire, the Arab Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire or small movements like ancient Scots moving from Hibernia to Caledonia and Magyars into Pannonia (modern-day Hungary). Turkic peoples spread across most of Central Asia into Europe and the Middle East between the 6th and 11th centuries. Recent research suggests that Madagascar was uninhabited until Malay seafarers from Indonesia arrived during the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Subsequent migrations from both the Pacific and Africa further consolidated this original mixture, and Malagasy people emerged.[64]

Before the expansion of the Bantu languages and their speakers, the southern half of Africa is believed to have been populated by Pygmies and Khoisan speaking people, today occupying the arid regions around the Kalahari and the forest of Central Africa. By about 1000 AD Bantu migration had reached modern day Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Banu Hilal and Banu Ma'qil were a collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries. Their migration strongly contributed to the arabization and islamization of the western Maghreb, which was until then dominated by Berber tribes. Ostsiedlung was the medieval eastward migration and settlement of Germans. The 13th century was the time of the great Mongol and Turkic migrations across Eurasia. Between the 11th and 18th centuries, the Vietnamese expanded southward in a process known as nam tiến (southward expansion).[65]

More recent examples of internal colonialism are the movement of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet[66][67] and Xinjiang,[68] ethnic Javanese into Western New Guinea and Kalimantan[69] (see Transmigration program), Brazilians into Amazonia,[70] ethnic Arabs into Iraqi Kurdistan, and ethnic Russians into Siberia and Central Asia.[71] The local populations or tribes, such as the aboriginal people in Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan,[72] Siberia and the United States, were usually far overwhelmed numerically by the settlers.

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

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

See also



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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary





colonialism (uncountable)

  1. The colonial domination policy pursued by the powers of Europe, from the second half of the XIX century to the years following World War II. A colonial system.
  2. A colonial linguistic expression. Term or expression of colonial origin entered in a language.
  3. Colonial life.


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.

Simple English

Colonialism occurs when a country (nation) takes control of other lands, regions, or territories outside of its borders (boundaries of the country) by turning those other lands, regions, or territories into a colony. Usually, it is a more powerful, richer country that takes control of a smaller, less powerful region or territory. Sometimes the word "imperialism" is also used to refer to colonialism.

In the 1700s and 1800s, many of the richer, more powerful European] countries (such as Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands) established colonies in the continents of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.

Some countries use colonialism to get more land for their people to live in. When countries are using colonialism to get more land for their people to live in, the country will help settlers move to the new region or territory. The local people living in the land or territories were usually moved away by using force and violence from armies. To protect these settlers from the local residents who were pushed aside, colonial nations often set up a military fort or colonial police system.

Other countries use colonialism to get more land so that they can use the land for farming or to extract (take out) resources such as trees (wood), coal, or metals. or creating a local government or military fort

Other countries use colonialism so that they can get workers from the poorer country to work in factories or farms (either in the richer country, or in the poorer country). In the past, powerful countries that were colonizing poorer countries or regions often forced the people from the poorer countries to work as slaves.



Ancient colonies

The Phoenicians the Ancient Greeks expanded their territories by using colonialism. Ancient Greece was not a country. It was made of many cities. Each city was a country of its own, with a government in place. Some city-states were monarchies, others elected (part of) the people who governed by (part of) the people who were citizens of that city, and who lived there. This is called democracy.

Those cities also fought wars against each other and traded goods. To get more influence, or to secure a trade route, the city would send people called settlers to a new place. These people would then make a new city called a colony . The cities had to pay some form of taxes to the old city, in exchange for protection, for example.

If the settlers found a local tribe living in the new territory, they would wage war against it to force them to leave. The local tribe was usually made into slaves. The new colony would exploit the land it found, by growing crops or by raising cattle.

Types of colonialism

There are several different types of colonialism. Some countries that expanded their territory used Settler colonies. Some countries that started out as settler colonies include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. In all of these countries, people from European countries moved to the new region, and forced the local people )(the indigenous peoples, such as Indians, Maori, etc.) to move. When the local people or tribes had to move, it caused a lot of problems.

In some regions which were colonized, the settlers married the local people and had children with them. An example is Mexico, where a new people called the mestizos came from the marriages of the settlers and the local tribes. In other regions which were colonized, the settlers and the local people lived in separate areas, without living together or marrying. An example of this situation is French Algeria (when France colonized the African country of Algeria) or Southern Rhodesia.

Another type of colonialism is when a powerful country sets up (establishes) dependencies. With a dependency, the colonizing country does not send over thousands of settlers to the new territory. Indstead, the colonizing country sets up administrators (a governing organization) that controls the existing local (native) populations or tribes. Examples include the British Raj,(geraldine) in which the British government controlled India; the Dutch East Indies, in which the Netherlands controlled parts of the East Indies; and the Japanese colonial empire, in which Japan controlled Asian territories.

With the plantation colony, the powerful, rich country use the poorer country's land to grow crops. The local people are forced to become slaves and work on the farms. Examples of plantation colonies include Barbados, Saint-Domingue and Jamaica.

Another type of colony is the trading post colony. Rich and powerful countries set up trading post colonies so that there would be a territory where trading, selling, and business could be conducted. The rich and powerful countries usually set up military forts or police forces to enforce the rules and laws of the colonizing country. Examples of trading colonies include Macau, Malacca, Deshima and Singapore.

World map of colonialism at the end of the Second World War in 1945.


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