How Colonialism Works

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Dutch colonies
This French postcard depicts the Dutch colonies of Borneo and Java. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

To Americans who live in a nation that began back in 1776 when 13 former British colonies declared their independence, the term colonialism might conjure up nostalgic mental pictures of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and having their first Thanksgiving feast with some friendly Native Americans. Americans may think of colonists as brave souls who ventured across the ocean and made a new life for themselves in an unfamiliar land.

But to people in much of the rest of the world — particularly countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that once were dominated by European powers — that same word may bring to mind the humiliation and cruelty that their ancestors suffered at the hands of invading soldiers and colonial overseers, the loss of ancestral homelands and lives spent toiling to amass wealth for some master in a faraway land. As Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the journal Current Affairs, explained in a 2017 essay, "Perhaps the easiest way to understand why colonialism was so horrific is to imagine it happening in your own country now."


We have these divergent impressions because colonialism is a complicated, provocative, often painful subject. At the most basic level of meaning, colonialism is the practice of taking control over another country, occupying its land with settlers and/or exploiting its resources for economic gain [source: Oxford].

The idea of colonialism dates back to ancient times, but the real age of colonialism began sometime around 1500, when European mariners first arrived at distant lands in Asia and the Americas. It reached its height in the mid-1900s, when a third of the world's population lived in places ruled by colonial powers. After World War II altered the global balance of power, the European colonial empires began to crumble, as countries they had controlled fought to gain independence. In 1960, the United Nations officially declared an end to colonialism, and today, only a handful of places around the world are ruled by other nations.

Even so, the legacy of colonialism remains — from prosperous former colonies that still feel a connection to the empires to which they once belonged, to struggling nations where years of exploitation has left lasting scars. In this article, we'll look at the different types of colonialism, the history of colonial empires, the forces that led to decolonization and colonialism's lingering impact.


Types of Colonialism and Colonies

Botany Bay, ships
The ships 'Supply' and 'Sirius' bring the first convict transports into Botany Bay, New South Wales, in 1787. This is an example of settler colonialism. Print Collector/Getty Images

Throughout history, there have been two main approaches to establishing a colonial empire.

In settler colonialism, people from one nation go off to live in another country, where they not only build settlements, till the soil, and harvest natural resources, but also strive to replace the indigenous people already living there. The colonists still remain subjects of the government in their native country.


The British colonists who made new homes in North America in the 1600s and Australia in the late 1700s were examples of settler colonialism. For those willing to take the risk of moving to a new country, it offered a chance for a fresh start and possibly a better life. The downside was that establishing a colony required a lot of people, and the land's original inhabitants either had to be killed off or driven away to less desirable areas to make room [sources: LeFevre, Mick].

Exploitation colonialism, in contrast, didn't require as many colonists to emigrate, and the native people could be allowed to stay where they were — especially if they could be pressed into service as workers. The goal was to exploit the weaker country's natural resources and extract as much wealth as possible [source: Mick].

A prime example of exploitation colonialism was Belgian King Leopold II's seizure of the Congo in the late 1800s. While he made a vast fortune in rubber and ivory, millions of the Congo's inhabitants starved to death or died of disease — or were killed by Leopold's colonial overseers for not meeting work quotas [sources: Riding, Diab].

Some political scientists have identified two other types of colonialism as well. In surrogate colonialism, a colonial power encourages one ethnic group or groups from the colonized country itself to take over land previously controlled by another group. This term was first used by anthropologist Scott Atran to describe the British allowing Zionist settlement in Palestine. In internal colonialism, the strongest part of a country might exploit other, less powerful regions or peoples. For instance in Sri Lanka, the Tamil population felt the Sinhalese majority oppressed them — hence the decades-long war between the Sri Lankan government and terrorist group the Tamil Tigers [sources: Mick, Atran, Sathananthan].


Colonialism in Ancient History

Alexander the Great, Babylon
This 18th century painting shows the city of Babylon (now in modern-day Iraq) surrendering to Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Colonialism's history dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who may have been the first people to establish colonies when they created settlements in southern Palestine 6,000 years ago. Though those were probably were more like trading posts than what we think today of as colonies.

The settlers peddled Egyptian manufactured products such as pottery to the indigenous population, and acquired raw materials such as copper, oil and asphalt that they sent back to Egypt. Archaeologists have found artifacts such as Egyptian seals for documents, heraldic symbols of the Egyptian monarchy and other items used by Egyptian elites, which indicates that the colonies were ruled by an Egyptian administration and were considered part of Egypt [source: Aubet].


Other ancient civilizations established similar outposts. Around 1200 B.C.E. the seafaring Phoenician civilization, which was based in what is now Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel, began building a network of trading posts along the shores of the Mediterranean, as far away as Spain. Many of those trading posts eventually evolved into cities. One of them, Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa, eventually developed into an imperial power in its own right, until it was conquered and destroyed by the Romans — who later rebuilt it and turned it into one of their colonies [sources: Cartwright, Mark].

Between 1000 and 500 B.C.E., the Greek city-states also began setting up colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, Turkey, North Africa, Spain and along the coasts of the Adriatic and Black seas — basically, wherever they could find a good harbor, fertile land and a local population that provided a market for Greek products such as pottery, metalwork and textiles. Eventually, the Greeks overpowered the locals and became their rulers, and turned the outposts into cities such as Syracuse in Sicily. More colonists moved in to extract natural resources such as timber and minerals, so that by 500 B.C.E., the colonies had 60,000 Greek citizens living in 500 colonies — about 40 percent of all the Greeks in the ancient world [source: Cartwright].

Unlike later European colonial empires, the Greeks didn't try to wipe out the cultures of the local people they dominated, or treat them as inferiors. But they did share their philosophical ideas, architecture and technology, so that Greek civilization spread throughout the ancient world.

The Romans had colonies too, but they utilized them more to protect their empire's borders and solidify their control of conquered territories. The colonies often were filled with veteran soldiers, who were given land in reward for their service. The Latin word for these settlements was colonia, from which the modern word colony is derived [source: Smith].


The First Wave of European Colonialism

Aztec slaves, Mexico City
The Spanish conquistadors enslaved the Aztec Indians into building Mexico City on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The great age of European colonialism began around 1500 C.E., after mariners reached the Americas. After the Spanish poked around in the Caribbean and failed to find riches there, they invaded and seized Mexico from the dominant Aztec people in a bloody war in the early 1500s, plundering the Aztec empire's gold and silver. A couple of decades later, they overthrew the Incas in Peru and seized even more riches.

Those lands eventually would become part of a far-flung Spanish colonial realm that would span the globe, from Cuba to the Philippines in Southeast Asia. They sent colonists across the water to found new settlements that grew into cities such as Veracruz and Lima.


As big as it was, though, the Spanish Empire was never as strong or profitable as it should have been. One problem was that Spain didn't produce enough manufactured goods to make money from trade. And their attempts to use the conquered people as a source of labor didn't work out too well. The Spanish created a system called encomienda, in which natives were entrusted to Spanish protectors, for whom they worked and provided tribute. But the Spanish were cruel taskmasters and spread diseases that wiped out the natives. In the Caribbean, the indigenous population decreased from 50 million in the 1500s to about 4 million a century later [source: Nowell, et al.].

Portugal, another seafaring power, grabbed Brazil, and set up outposts in India and the East Indies as well. By the 1600s, those countries had plenty of rivals. France, Great Britain and the Netherlands also began expanding their reach across the globe, and eventually battled one another for supremacy.

By the mid-1700s, the economics of colonialism had begun to shift. Originally, the Europeans saw colonies as sources of things they wanted, such as gold, silver and raw materials. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of machine-produced goods, the colonial powers still needed things like cotton and foodstuffs from their colonies. But they became even more interested in what they could sell to the colonists. Rulers saw colonies as markets for the products that their machines churned out, which could be sold to them (often using raw materials from these same colonies) at a profitable markup [source: Nowell, et al.]. In many ways, it was the beginning of the global economy that we have today [source: Aubet].

Not everybody in the colonies went along with being exploited in this way. In the 1770s, American colonists rebelled and overthrew British rule to establish their own nation, so they could trade with whomever they wanted, make their own goods and profits from their own natural resources. The U.S. grew so powerful and confident that in 1823, President James Monroe issued a warning to European nations that the Western Hemisphere was closed to further colonization [source: Gilder Lehrman].

Around that time, South American countries also freed themselves from Spanish and Portuguese rule, thanks to leaders like Simon Bolivar [source:, Britannica].


The Second Wave of European Colonialism

Indian troops, Cyprus
Troops from India (then under British rule) do manual labor during the British occupation of Cyprus in the early 1900s. De Agostini/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images

In the 1800s and early 1900s, colonial empires grew even more, and European countries made vast fortunes from them.

In British-controlled India, for example, where about 20,000 troops and colonial officials ruled over a native population of 300 million, that country became a captive market for 20 percent of British industrial exports. India also provided a cheap supply of cotton and the tea that the British habitually drank. Even with the money that the British invested on things like irrigation, railroads and starting a coal mining industry, Great Britain still ended up taking about 1 percent of India's wealth each year, and most ordinary Indians remained impoverished [source: UK National Archives].


So how were a relatively small group of Brits able to control such a large population of Indians? In the 1700s, India was not one united country, and the British made treaties with princes in many of these individual states. As the UK National Archives puts it, "The British were very effective at infiltrating these states and gradually taking control. They often left the local princes in charge of the various parts of India. These local princes were effective at maintaining British rule and gained much from being loyal to the British."

France established a similarly exploitive dominance over Vietnam and other nations in southeast Asia, which it called French Indochina. In Vietnam, the French seized vast tracts of land from small farmers and made them into massive rice and rubber plantations, which sometimes were cultivated by workers recruited at gunpoint. The French also profited from Vietnam's coal, tin and zinc, most of which they sold for export. The population had to pay heavy taxes to the colonial rulers, and could only buy certain products such as wine and salt from the French at inflated prices [source: Llewellyn et al.].

In Africa, European colonial powers were eager to seize control, in an era that became known as the "scramble for Africa." At the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, which ostensibly was convened to stamp out African slavery, 13 European countries basically carved up Africa among themselves. (There was a certain bitter irony to this excuse, since the Europeans once had eagerly bought African slaves to labor in their colonial empires.) In drawing borders, they didn't bother to pay any attention to the existing African cultures or ethnic groups, so that people from the same tribe ended up in different colonies. By 1900, the Europeans ruled 90 percent of the African continent — up from just 10 percent in 1870 [source: David].


Decolonization and the End of Empires

Workers Home Rule Party, Trinidad
Members of the British Empire Citizens and Workers Home Rule Party seen here in Port of Spain, Trinidad following a 1946 general strike in support of independence from Britain. George Greenwell/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

But colonialism also faced a lot of opposition, which proved to be its undoing. In India, for example, dislike of British rule united Hindu businesspeople and workers, and they formed the Indian National Congress, a political organization that began to push for independence. Confronted with increasingly strong resistance, the British tried a new system in which they gave some of their power to Indian ministers [source: Nowell, et al.].

But nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi pushed even harder, braving prison to lead non-violent resistance against the colonial regime. In 1930, he even led followers on a march to the sea where they collected water in jars and evaporated it to obtain salt without paying tax, in defiance of colonial law [source: New York Times].


At the end of World War II, 750 million people — almost a third of the world's population — still lived in territory ruled by colonial powers [source: U.N.]. But after that, European nations, weakened both financially and politically by the war, saw their colonial empires rapidly disintegrate. Shortly after the war's conclusion, Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch rule. A violent conflict ensued but in 1949, the Dutch formally recognized Indonesia's independence.

In 1947, India achieved independence and split into two nations, Hindu-dominated India and predominately Muslim Pakistan [source:]. After the costs associated with World War II and the loss of India, Britain grew less interested in and less able to maintain its global empire. The 1950s and 1960s saw many of its former colonies gain independence with little resistance from England [source: National Archives UK].

In 1954, the French were defeated militarily in Vietnam, and left after a treaty that split the country into communist and capitalist halves. Over the next decade, France, Belgium and Portugal lost hold of their remaining colonies in Africa.

In 1960, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for the end of colonialism "in all its manifestations." It proclaimed that people of every nation had the right to rule themselves, and instructed nations that still had colonies to take "immediate steps" toward transferring power to their subjects and granting them independence [source: U.N.].

But not every country wants independence.


The Legacy of Colonialism

Chris Patten, Hong Kong
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, meets Buddhist monks at Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin Temple shortly before the official handover of the territory to China in 1997. Bill Rowntree/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Colonialism always has been a tricky concept for nations to justify morally, since basically, it involves seizing control of someone else's land and resources. That conflict became strongest in the 1800s in Europe, when European societies began embracing liberal ideas about freedom and self-autonomy, even as they took over and exploited weaker, less-advanced countries in Africa and elsewhere. One way that countries rationalized that aggression was to argue that the inhabitants of those places weren't yet capable of self-government, and that colonial rule would help them to progress in that direction [source: Kohn and Reddy].

There were other rationalizations as well. One was what that these colonists were bringing "enlightenment" to dark places — showing underdeveloped civilizations better methods of agriculture, education and technology, for instance. Or they were bringing Christianity to the natives.


Of course, the motives were mixed. Many missionaries did establish needed schools and hospitals. Sometimes, the colonists stopped harmful practices. The Spanish, for instance, outlawed human sacrifice among the Aztecs. And some writers point out — as if this is an excuse — that these colonized countries often already had their own forms of slavery or imperialism. Or that the clash of civilizations was in the end good for mankind [source: Duke].

But was it? While some former colonies have become prosperous, democratic nations, others still struggle. Political scientists say that because colonies lived under authoritarian rule and had governments that were mostly concerned about extracting natural resources and as much wealth as possible, they created a template that was too easy for post-colonial dictatorships to follow [source: Acemoglu, et al.]. In Africa, the borders drawn by colonial powers, which don't reflect Africans' ethnic and cultural heritage, have led to disunity and political strife [source: Fisher].

According to the U.N., there are still 17 "non-self-governing territories" — essentially, colonies — left in the world, comprising less than 2 million people. They range from the Cayman Islands and Bermuda in the Caribbean, which remain under British rule, to French Polynesia.

Most of these remaining colonies may not necessarily want independence. In a 1995 referendum in Bermuda, 73 percent of the population voted against independence; in 2017, a former premier felt the matter should be revisited [source: Lagan]. In 2011, a year before Jamaica's 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, a poll showed 60 percent of Jamaicans felt that the country would be better off if it was still under British rule [source: Daily Gleaner]. The poor economy and high crime made many believe (rightly or wrongly) that these ills would not have happened with Britain in charge — perhaps when they consider how Bermuda remained a colony and is in much better shape financially. But in 2022, a trip by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to three former colonies that still retained the British monarch as head of state, was met with lukewarm reception or outright protests, perhaps signaling these countries were ready to become republics.

A 2020 YouGov survey of eight countries that used to have empires found that 32 percent of the British public saw their nation's former empire as something to be proud of, down from 59 percent in 2014. This put them in second place to the 50 percent of Dutch respondents who thought their former empire was something to be proud of. However, just a quarter of respondents in both countries wanted their nations to still have imperial status [source: Smith]. That's another sign that the era of colonialism has come to an end.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Colonialism Works

As a child in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War had just begun to escalate, I remember going to the local library and finding an outdated geography book that still showed a place called French Indochina. I think it was then that I first started to realize how colonialism had helped shape the world in which we live, and the extent to which it had left behind terrible problems that had yet to be resolved. Unfortunately, a half-century later, we're still dealing with many of those same problems.

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