The pith helmet (in this case, of the Second French Empire) is an icon of colonialism in tropical lands

Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colony in one territory by a political power from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and often between the colonists and the indigenous population.

The European colonial period was the era from the 16th century to the mid-20th century when several European powers (particularly, but not exclusively, Portugal, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and France) established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. At first the countries followed mercantilist policies designed to strengthen the home economy at the expense of rivals, so the colonies were usually allowed to trade only with the mother country. By the mid-19th century, however, the powerful British Empire gave up mercantilism and trade restrictions and introduced the principle of free trade, with few restrictions or tariffs.


  • Definitions 1
  • Types of colonialism 2
  • Socio-cultural evolution 3
  • History 4
    • European empires in 1914 4.1
      • British colonies and protectorates 4.1.1
      • French colonies 4.1.2
      • Russian colonies and protectorates 4.1.3
      • German colonies 4.1.4
      • Italian colonies 4.1.5
      • Dutch colonies 4.1.6
      • Portuguese colonies 4.1.7
      • Spanish colonies 4.1.8
      • Austro-Hungarian colonies 4.1.9
      • Danish colonies 4.1.10
      • Belgian colonies 4.1.11
      • Numbers of European settlers in the colonies (1500–1914) 4.1.12
    • Other non-European colonialist countries in 1914 4.2
      • United States colonies and protectorates 4.2.1
      • Chinese colonies 4.2.2
      • Ottoman colonies 4.2.3
      • Japanese colonies 4.2.4
    • Neocolonialism 4.3
  • Colonialism and the history of thought 5
    • Universalism 5.1
    • Colonialism and geography 5.2
    • Colonialism and imperialism 5.3
    • Marxist view of colonialism 5.4
    • Liberalism, capitalism and colonialism 5.5
    • Scientific thought in colonialism, race and gender 5.6
    • Post-colonialism 5.7
  • Impact of colonialism and colonization 6
    • Trade and commerce 6.1


1541 founding of Santiago de Chile

Collins English Dictionary defines colonialism as "the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker people or areas."[1] The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers four definitions, including "something characteristic of a colony" and "control by one power over a dependent area or people."[2]

The 2006 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."[3]

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."[4] In the book, Osterhammel asks, "How can 'colonialism' be defined independently from 'colony?'"[5] 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 colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.[6]

Types of colonialism

Dutch family in Java, 1927

Historians often distinguish between two overlapping forms of colonialism:

  • Settler colonialism involves large-scale immigration, often motivated by religious, political, or economic reasons.
  • Exploitation colonialism involves fewer colonists and focuses on access to resources for export, typically to the metropole. This category includes trading posts as well as larger colonies where colonists would constitute much of the political and economic administration, but would rely on indigenous resources for labour and material. Prior to the end of the slave trade and widespread abolition, when indigenous labour was unavailable, slaves were often imported to the Americas, first by the Portuguese Empire, and later by the Spanish, Dutch, French and British.

Plantation colonies would be considered exploitation colonialism; but colonizing powers would utilize either type for different territories depending on various social and economic factors as well as climate and geographic conditions.

Surrogate colonialism involves a settlement project supported by colonial power, in which most of the settlers do not come from the mainstream of the ruling power.

Internal colonialism is a notion of uneven structural power between areas of a nation state. The source of exploitation comes from within the state.

Socio-cultural evolution

As colonialism often played out in pre-populated areas, sociocultural evolution included the formation of various ethnically hybrid populations. 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 (see also Indos in Pre-Colonial History and Indos in Colonial History).[7][8]


Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1800
Map of colonial empires throughout the world in 1914
Map of colonial empires at the end of the Second World War, 1945

Activity that could be called colonialism has a long history, starting with the pre-colonial African empires which led to the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans who 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". Between the 11th and 18th centuries, the Vietnamese established military colonies south of their original territory and absorbed the territory, in a process known as nam tiến.[9]

Modern colonialism started with the Age of Discovery. Portugal and Spain discovered new lands across the oceans and built trading posts or conquered large extensions of land. 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).

This period is also associated with the Commercial Revolution. The late Middle Ages saw reforms in accountancy and banking in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. These ideas were adopted and adapted in western Europe to the high risks and rewards associated with colonial ventures.

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

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 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, Ottoman Empire and Austrian Empire existed at the same time as the above empires, but 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 for which 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.[10]

The colonial system was the major cause of the Second World War. The war in the Pacific was caused by Japan's efforts to create a colonial empire that sought th conquer the existing empires held by the British, French, Dutch and the United States. The war in Europe and North Africa was caused partially by Germany and Italy's efforts to create colonial empires that sought to conquer existing British, French and Russian colonial empires in these areas.

After World War II, decolonization progressed rapidly. This was caused for a number of reasons. First, the Japanese victories in the Pacific War showed Indians, Chinese and other subject peoples that the colonial powers were not invincible. Second, many colonial powers were significantly weakened by World War Two.

Dozens of independence movements and global political solidarity projects such as the Non-Aligned Movement were instrumental in the decolonization efforts of former colonies. These included significant wars of independence fought in Malaysia, Vietnam, Algeria, and Kenya. Eventually, the European powers - pressured by the United States—resigned themselves to decolonization.

In 1962 the United Nations set up a Special Committee on Decolonization, often called the Committee of 24, to encourage this process.

European empires in 1914

The major European empires consisted of the following colonies at the start of World War I (former colonies of the Spanish Empire became independent before 1914 and are not listed; former colonies of other European empires that previously became independent, such as the former French colony Haiti, are not listed).

Colonial Governor of the Seychelles inspecting police guard of honour in 1972
The defence of Rorke's Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

British colonies and protectorates

French colonies

Siege of Constantine (1836) during the French conquest of Algeria.

Russian colonies and protectorates

The Russian settlement of St. Paul's Harbor (present-day Kodiak, Alaska), Russian America, 1814

German colonies

Kamerun (by R. Hellgrewe, 1908)

Italian colonies

Italian troops firing on the Turks in Tripoli, 1911

Dutch colonies

The submission of Diponegoro to General De Kock at the end of the Java War in 1830; painting by Nicolaas Pieneman

Portuguese colonies

Portuguese women in Goa, India, 16th century

Spanish colonies

The Battle of Tétouan, 1860, by Marià Fortuny

Austro-Hungarian colonies

Muslim Bosniak resistance during the battle of Sarajevo in 1878 against the Austro-Hungarian occupation.

Danish colonies

Belgian colonies

Numbers of European settlers in the colonies (1500–1914)

Millions of Irish left Ireland for Canada and U.S. following the Great Famine in the 1840s

By 1914, Europeans had migrated to the colonies in the millions. Some intended to remain in the colonies as temporary settlers, mainly as military personnel or on business. Others went to the colonies as immigrants. British people were by far the most numerous population to migrate to the colonies: 2.5 million settled in Canada; 1.5 million in Australia; 750,000 in New Zealand; 450,000 in the Union of South Africa; and 200,000 in India. French citizens also migrated in large numbers, mainly to the colonies in the north African Maghreb region: 1.3 million settled in Algeria; 200,000 in Morocco; 100,000 in Tunisia; while only 20,000 migrated to French Indochina. Dutch and German colonies saw relatively scarce European migration, since Dutch and German colonial expansion focused upon commercial goals rather than settlement. Portugal sent 150,000 settlers to Angola, 80,000 to Mozambique, and 20,000 to Goa. During the Spanish Empire, approximately 550,000 Spanish settlers migrated to Latin America.[11]

Other non-European colonialist countries in 1914

Governor General William Howard Taft addressing the audience at the Philippine Assembly in the Manila Grand Opera House

United States colonies and protectorates

Chinese colonies

A scene depicting the Chinese campaign against the Miao people in Hunan in 1795

Ottoman colonies

Japanese colonies


The term neocolonialism has been used to refer to a variety of contexts since decolonization that took place after World War II. Generally it does not refer to a type of direct colonization, rather, colonialism by other means. Specifically, neocolonialism refers 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, created by former colonial powers were or are used to maintain control of their former colonies and dependencies after the colonial independence movements of the post–World War II period.

Colonialism and the history of thought


The conquest of vast territories brings multitudes of diverse cultures under the central control of the imperial authorities. From the time of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, this fact has been addressed by empires adopting the concept of universalism, and applying it to their imperial policies towards their subjects far from the imperial capitol. The capitol, the metropole, was the source of ostensibly enlightened policies imposed throughout the distant colonies.

The empire that grew from Greek conquest, particularly by Alexander the Great, spurred the spread of Greek language, religion, science and philosophy throughout the colonies. The Greeks considered their own culture superior to all others. They referred to people speaking foreign languages as barbarians, dismissing foreign languages as inferior mutterings that sounded to Greek ears like "bar-bar".

Romans found efficiency in imposing a universalist policy towards their colonies in many matters. Roman law was imposed on Roman citizens, as well as colonial subjects, throughout the empire. Latin spread as the common language of government and trade, the lingua franca, throughout the Empire. Romans also imposed peace between their diverse foreign subjects, which they described in beneficial terms as the Pax Romana. The use of universal regulation by the Romans marks the emergence of a European concept of universalism and internationalism. Tolerance of other cultures and beliefs has always been secondary to the aims of empires, however. The Roman Empire was tolerant of diverse cultures and religious practises, so long as these did not threaten Roman authority. Napoleon's foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, once remarked: "Empire is the art of putting men in their place".[12]

Colonialism and geography

Settlers acted as the link between the natives and the imperial hegemony, bridging the geographical, ideological and commercial gap between the colonisers and colonised. Advanced technology made possible the expansion of European states. With tools such as cartography, shipbuilding, navigation, mining and agricultural productivity colonisers had an upper hand. Their awareness of the Earth's surface and abundance of practical skills provided colonisers with a knowledge that, in turn, created power.[13]

Painter and Jeffrey argue that geography as a discipline was not and is not an objective science, rather it is based on assumptions about the physical world. Whereas it may have given "The West" an advantage when it came to exploration, it also created zones of racial inferiority. Geographical beliefs such as environmental determinism, the view that some parts of the world are underdeveloped, legitimised colonialism and created notions of skewed evolution.[13] 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.[14]:5

Colonialism and imperialism

Governor-General Félix Éboué welcomes Charles de Gaulle to Chad

A colony is a part of an empire and so colonialism is closely related to imperialism. Assumptions are that colonialism and imperialism are interchangeable, however Robert J. C. Young suggests that imperialism is the concept while colonialism is the practice. Colonialism is based on an imperial outlook, thereby creating a consequential relationship. 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. 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."[15] 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."[16] 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 the Russian imperialism and colonialism.

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

"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. In relations between peoples, the question of power determines manoeuvrability in bargaining, the extent to which one people respect the interests of another, and eventually the extent to which a people survive as a physical and cultural entity. 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.


Liberalism, capitalism and colonialism

Classical liberals generally opposed colonialism (as opposed to colonization) 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.[19]

Adam Smith wrote in 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.[19]

Scientific thought in colonialism, race and gender

The act of colonizing spread and synthesized social and political western ideas of a gender and racial hierarchy to colonized areas, as well as elicited the further development of ideas about the gender dichotomy and racial divisions in European society during the colonial era.[20][21][22] Popular political practices of the time were to support colonialism rule by legitimizing European male authority and female and non European inferiority through studies of Sarah Baartman.[22] Such cases embraced a natural superiority and inferiority relationship between the races based on European naturalists' observations; they gave rise to the perception that African women's anatomy, and especially genitalia, resembled those of mandrills, baboons, and monkeys, thus differentiating colonized Africans from what were viewed as the features of the evolutionarily superior, and thus rightfully authoritarian, European woman.[22]

In addition to what would now be viewed as pseudo-scientific studies of race which supported new racially hierarchical and evolutionary ideology of the time, new science based ideology about gender was also emerging in reaction to the colonial era of European history.[21] Female inferiority across all cultures was emerging as an idea based in craniology that led scientists to argue human women's brain size, based on skull measurements, was minuscule and therefore less developed and less evolutionarily advanced compared to men.[21] The influence that led to such studies was the establishment of comparative anatomy of humans that developed in response to European scientists' delving into the question of biological racial difference.

Thus Non Europeans and women faced invasive study by colonial powers in the interest of scientific ideology and theory that encouraged the political institution of colonialism.[22] Such studies of race and gender coincided with the era of colonialism and the introduction of foreign cultures, appearances, and gender roles into the line of vision of European scholars.


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, 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 Saïd's book Orientalism (1978) Familia: Limacidae
orists such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon made similar claims decades before Said).

Saïd analysed 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 civilization as the most accomplished of all, while Kant also had some traces of racialism in his work.

Impact of colonialism and colonization

The Dutch Public Health Service provides medical care for the natives of the Dutch East Indies, May 1946

The impacts of colonization are immense and pervasive.[24] Various effects, both immediate and protracted, include the spread of virulent diseases, unequal social relations, exploitation, enslavement, medical advances, the creation of new institutions, abolitionism,[25] improved infrastructure,[26] and technological progress.[27] Colonial practices also spur the spread of colonist languages, literature and cultural institutions, while endangering or obliterating those of native peoples. The native cultures of the colonized peoples can also have a powerful influence on the imperial country.

Trade and commerce

Economic expansion has accompanied imperial expansion since ancient times. Greek trade-networks spread throughout the Mediterranean region, while Roman trade expanded with the main goal of directing tribute from the colonized 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.[28]