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Colonialism is the extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory beyond its borders by the establishment of either settler colonies or administrative dependencies in which indigenous populations are directly ruled or displaced. Colonising nations generally dominate the resources, labor, and markets of the colonial territory, and may also impose socio-cultural, religious and linguistic structures on the conquered population (see also cultural imperialism). Though the word colonialism is often used interchangeably with imperialism, the latter is sometimes used more broadly as it covers control exercised informally (via influence) as well as formal military control or economic leverage.

The term colonialism may also be used to refer to a set of beliefs used to legitimize or promote this system. Colonialism was often based on the ethnocentric belief that the morals and values of the colonizer were superior to those of the colonized; some observers link such beliefs to racism and pseudo-scientific theories dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. In the western world, this led to a form of proto-social Darwinism that placed white people at the top of the animal kingdom, "naturally" in charge of dominating non-European indigenous populations.

Due to the colonization of the Americas and Oceania by Europeans, the cultural, ethnic and linguistic makeup of the Americas and Oceania has been irreversibly changed. This is most visible in settler colonies such as the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Argentina, New Zealand and Uruguay, where the traditional indigenous population has been overtaken demographically by non-indigenous settlers. This demographic takeover in settler countries has often resulted in the linguistic, social, and cultural marginalization of indigenous peoples.However, even in countries where large populations of indigenous peoples remain or the indigenous peoples have mixed considerably with European settlers, such as Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Ecuador, marginalization still exists.

Due to colonization, the prevalent languages in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand are now: Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (the rest of Latin America), French (Quebec in Canada, French Guiana), and English (USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand). Many indigenous languages are on the verge of becoming extinct. However, some settler countries have gone to great lengths to preserve and expand indigenous languages, for example, in New Zealand the Maori language is official.

colonialism 1914

This map of the world in 1914 shows the large colonial empires that powerful nations established across the globe

This map of the world in 1914 shows the large colonial empires that powerful nations established across the globe

Types of colonies

Several types of colonies may be distinguished, reflecting different colonial objectives. Settler colonies, such as Hungary and Thailand and the later United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina were established by the movement of large numbers of people from a mother country to the new colony. The local people or tribes, such as the Aboriginal people in Canada and the United States, were usually far overwhelmed numerically by the settlers and were thus moved forcibly to other regions or exterminated. These forcible population transfers, usually to areas of poorer-quality land or resources often led to the permanent detriment of indigenous peoples. In today's language, such colonization would be called illegal immigration, and in most aforementioned cases, crime and terrorism.
In some cases, for example the Vandals, Matabeles and Sioux, the colonizers were fleeing more powerful enemies, as part of a chain reaction of colonization.
Settler colonies may be contrasted with dependencies, where the colonizers did not arrive as part of a mass emigration, but rather as administrators over existing sizable native populations. Examples in this category include the British Raj, Egypt, the Dutch East Indies, and the Japanese colonial empire.In some cases large-scale colonial settlement was attempted in substantially pre-populated areas and the result was either an ethnically mixed population (such as the mestizos of the Americas), or racially divided, such as in French Algeria or Southern Rhodesia.

With plantation colonies such as Barbados, Saint-Domingue and Jamaica, the white colonizers imported black slaves who rapidly began to outnumber their owners, leading to minority rule, similar to a dependency. Trading posts, such as Hong Kong, Macau, Malacca, Deshima and Singapore constitute a fifth category, where the primary purpose of the colony was to engage in trade rather than as a staging post for further colonization of the hinterland.

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

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


World Colonization 1492-2007

World Colonization 1492-2007

Territories which have been part of an European colony

Territories which have been part of an European colony

History of colonialism

The historical phenomenon of colonisation is one that stretches around the globe and across time, including such disparate peoples as the Hittites, the Incas and the British, although the term colonialism is normally used with reference to discontiguous European overseas empires rather than contiguous land-based empires, European or otherwise, which are conventionally described by the term imperialism. Examples of land-based empires include the Mongol Empire, a large empire stretching from the Western Pacific to Eastern Europe, the Empire of Alexander the Great, the Umayyad Caliphate, the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire was created across Mediterranean, North Africa and into South-Eastern Europe and existed during the time of European colonization of the other parts of the world.
European colonialism began in the 15th century, with Portugal's conquest of Ceuta. Colonialism was led by Portuguese and Spanish exploration of the Americas, and the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, India, and East Asia. Despite some earlier attempts, it was not until the 17th century that England, France and the Netherlands successfully established their own overseas empires, in direct competition with each other and those of Spain and Portugal.

The end of the 18th and early 19th century saw the first era of decolonization when most of the European colonies in the Americas gained their independence from their respective metropoles. Spain and Portugal were irreversibly weakened after the loss of their New World colonies, but Britain (after the union of England and Scotland), France and the Netherlands turned their attention to the Old World, particularly South Africa, India and South East Asia, where coastal enclaves had already been established. Germany, after being united under Prussia also sought colonies in Deutsch Ost Afrika.

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

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

The industrialization of the 19th century led to what has been termed the era of New Imperialism, when the pace of colonization rapidly accelerated, the height of which was the Scramble for Africa. During the 20th Century, the overseas colonies of the losers of World War I were distributed amongst the victors as mandates, but it was not until the end of World War II that the second phase of decolonization began in earnest.


Despite the decolonization in the 1960s-70s, former colonies still are today for the most part under strong Western influence. Critics of this continued Western influence talk of neocolonialism. The exception to this rule being in particular the East Asian Tigers (mainly Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), and the emerging Indian and Chinese powers.

colonialism image

1900 Campaign poster for the Republican Party. "The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity's sake.", president William McKinley, July 12, 1900. On the left hand, we see how the situation allegedly was in 1896, before Mc Kinley's victory during the elections: "Gone Democratic: A run on the bank, Spanish rule in Cuba". On the right hand, we see how the situation allegedly is in 1900, after four years of McKinley's rule: "Gone Republican: a run to the bank, American rule in Cuba" (the Spanish-American War took place in 1898). The USA is becoming, as other European powers, an imperialist power. As did France before with its universalist doctrine, it claims that it acts for "Humanity".

U.S. foreign intervention

On the other hand, because of the Cold War, which led Moscow and Beijing to support anti-imperialist movements, the US (as well as other NATO countries) interfered in various countries, by issuing an embargo against Cuba after the 1959 Cuban Revolution—which started on February 7, 1962—and supporting various covert operations (the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Project, etc.) for example. Theorists of neo-colonialism are of the opinion that the US—and France, for that matter—preferred supporting dictatorships in Third World countries rather than having democracies that always presented the risk of having the people choose being aligned with the Communist bloc rather than the so-called "Free World".

For example, in Chile (see United States intervention in Chile) the Central Intelligence Agency covertly spent three million dollars in an effort to influence the outcome of the 1964 Chilean presidential election; supported the attempted October 1970 kidnapping of General Rene Schneider (head of the Chilean army), part of a plot to prevent the congressional confirmation of socialist Salvador Allende as president (in the event, Schneider was shot and killed; Allende's election was confirmed); the U.S. welcomed, though probably did not bring about the Chilean coup of 1973, in which Allende was overthrown and Augusto Pinochet installed and provided material support to the military regime after the coup, continuing payment to CIA contacts who were known to be involved in human rights abuses; and even facilitated communications for Operation Condor, a cooperative program among the intelligence agencies of several right-wing South American regimes to locate, observe and assassinate political opponents.

The proponents of the idea of neo-colonialism also cite the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada and the 1989 United States invasion of Panama, overthrowing Manuel Noriega, who was characterized by the U.S. government as a druglord. In Indonesia, Washington supported Suharto's New Order dictatorship.
This interference, in particular in South and Central American countries, is reminiscent of the 19th century Monroe doctrine and the Big stick diplomacy codified by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. Left-wing critics have spoken of an "American Empire", pushed in particular by the military-industrial complex, which president Eisenhower warned against in 1961. On the other hand, some Republicans have supported, without much success since World War I, isolationism. Defenders of U.S. policy have asserted that intervention was sometimes necessary to prevent Communist or Soviet-aligned governments from taking power during the Cold War.

Most of the actions described in this section constitute imperialism rather than colonialism, which usually involves one country settling in another country and calling it their own. U.S. imperialism has been called neocolonial because it is a new sort of colonialism: one that operates not by invading, conquering, and settling a foreign country with pilgrims, but by exercising economic control through international monetary institutions, via military threat, missionary interference, strategic investment, so-called "Free trade areas," and by supporting the violent overthrow of leftist governments (even those that have been democratically elected, as detailed above).

French foreign intervention

France wasn't inactive either: it supported dictatorships in the former colonies in Africa, leading to the expression Françafrique, coined by François-Xavier Verschave, a member of the anti-neocolonialist Survie NGO, which has criticized the way development aid was given to post-colonial countries, claiming it only supported neo-colonialism, interior corruption and arms-trade. The Third World debt, including odious debt, where the interest on the external debt exceeds the amount that the country produces, had been considered by some a method of oppression or control by first world countries; a form of debt bondage on the scale of nations.



Post-colonialism (aka post-colonial theory) refers to a set of theories in philosophy and literature that grapple with the legacy of colonial rule. In this sense, postcolonial literature may be considered a branch of Postmodern literature concerned with the political and cultural independence of peoples formerly subjugated in colonial empires. Many practitioners take Edward Said's book Orientalism (1978) to be the theory's founding work (although French theorists such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon made similar claims decades before Said).
Edward Said analyzed the works of Balzac, Baudelaire and Lautréamont, exploring how they were both influenced by and helped to shape a societal fantasy of European racial superiority. Post-colonial fictional writers interact with the traditional colonial discourse, but modify or subvert it; for instance by retelling a familiar story from the perspective of an oppressed minor character in the story. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's Can the Subaltern Speak? (1998) gave its name to the Subaltern Studies.

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

Impact of colonialism and colonization

Debate about the perceived positive and negative aspects of colonialism has occurred for centuries, amongst both colonizer and colonized, and continues to the present day. The questions of miscegenation; the alleged ties between colonial enterprises, genocides — see the Herero Genocide — and the Holocaust; and the questions of the nature of imperialism, dependency theory and neocolonialism (in particular the Third World debt) continues to retain their actuality.

More on Colonialism....


The Unholy Sriptures

Author: Saladin F.

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SEE ALSO:  British Colonisation of the Americas | Crown Colnies  | DecolonisationDivide and Conquer | Cash Crop | European Colonial Powers

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