What Is Colonialism? Definition and Examples

World map showing the British Empire in 1902. British possessions colored red.
World map showing the British Empire in 1902. British possessions colored red.

The Print Collector/Getty Images

Colonialism is the practice of one country taking full or partial political control of another country and occupying it with settlers for purposes of profiting from its resources and economy. Since both practices involve the political and economic control of a dominant country over a vulnerable territory, colonialism can be hard to distinguish from imperialism. From ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century, powerful countries openly scrambled to expand their influence through colonialism. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, European powers had colonized countries on virtually every continent. While colonialism is no longer so aggressively practiced, there is evidence that it remains a force in today’s world.

Key Takeaways: Colonialism

  • Colonialism is the process of a country taking full or partial political control of a dependent country, territory, or people.
  • Colonialism occurs when people from one country settle in another country for the purpose of exploiting its people and natural resources.
  • Colonial powers typically attempt to impose their own languages and cultures on the indigenous peoples of the countries they colonize.
  • Colonialism is similar to imperialism, the process of using force and influence to control another country or people.
  • By 1914, a majority of the world’s countries had been colonized by Europeans. 

Colonialism Definition

In essence, colonialism is an act of political and economic domination involving the control of a country and its people by settlers from a foreign power. In most cases, the goal of the colonizing countries is to profit by exploiting the human and economic resources of the countries they colonized. In the process, the colonizers—sometimes forcibly—attempt to impose their religion, language, cultural, and political practices on the indigenous population.

circa 1900: A British family celebrating Christmas in India.
circa 1900: A British family celebrating Christmas in India. Rischgitz/Getty Images

While colonization is typically viewed negatively due to its often-disastrous history and similarity to imperialism, some countries have benefited from having been colonized. For example, leaders of modern Singapore—a British colony from 1826 to 1965—credit the “valuable aspects of colonial heritage” with the independent city-state’s impressive economic development. In many cases, being colonized gave underdeveloped or emerging countries immediate access to the burdening European trade market. As the major European nations’ need for natural resources grew ever greater during the industrial revolution, their colonized countries were able to sell them those materials for substantial profits.

Especially for many of the European, African, and Asian countries affected by British colonialism, the advantages were numerous. Besides lucrative trade contracts, English institutions, such as common law, private property rights, and formal banking and lending practices provided the colonies a positive basis for economic growth that would propel them to future independence.

In many cases, however, the negative effects of colonialism far outweighed the positive.

The governments of the occupying countries often imposed harsh new laws and taxes on the indigenous people. Confiscation and destruction of native lands and culture were common. Due to the combined effects of colonialism and imperialism, scores of indigenous people were enslaved, murdered, or died of disease and starvation. Countless others were driven from their homes and scattered across the globe.

For example, many members of the African diaspora in the United States trace their roots to the so-called “Scramble for Africa,” an unprecedented period of imperialism and colonialism from 1880 to 1900 that left most of the African continent colonized by European powers. Today, it is believed that only two African countries, Ethiopia and Liberia, escaped European colonialism.

Imperialism vs. Colonialism

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, colonialism and imperialism have slightly different meanings. While colonialism is the physical act of dominating another country, imperialism is the political ideology that drives that act. In other words, colonialism can be thought of as a tool of imperialism.

Imperialism and colonialism both imply the suppression of one country by another. Similarly, through both colonialism and imperialism, the aggressor countries look to profit economically and create a strategic military advantage in the region. However, unlike colonialism, which always involves the direct establishment of physical settlements in another country, imperialism refers to the direct or indirect political and monetary dominance of another country, either with or without the need for a physical presence.

Countries that undertake colonialism do so mainly to benefit economically from the exploitation of the valuable natural and human resources of the colonized country. In contrast, countries pursue imperialism in hopes of creating sprawling empires by extending their political, economic, and military dominance over entire regions if not entire continents.  

A few examples of countries generally considered to have been affected by colonialism during their histories include America, Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, and Brazil—countries that came to be controlled by a large number of settlers from European powers. Typical examples of imperialism, cases in which foreign control is established without any significant settlement, include the European dominance of most African countries in the late 1800s and the domination of the Philippines and Puerto Rico by the United States.

History

The practice of colonialism dates to around 1550 BCE when Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, and Phoenicia began extending their control into adjacent and non-contiguous territories. Using their superior military power, these ancient civilizations established colonies that made use of the skills and resources of the people they conquered to further expand their empires.

The first phase of modern colonialism began in the 15th century during the Age of Exploration. Looking for new trading routes and civilizations beyond Europe, Portuguese explorers conquered the North African territory of Ceuta in 1419, creating an empire that would endure until 1999 as the longest-lived of the modern European colonial empires.

After Portugal further grew its empire by colonizing the populated central Atlantic islands of Madeira and Cape Verde, its arch-rival Spain decided to try its hand at exploration. In 1492, Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus sailed searching for a western sea route to China and India. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas, marking the beginning of Spanish colonialism. Now battling each other for new territories to exploit, Spain and Portugal went on to colonize and control indigenous lands in the Americas, India, Africa, and Asia.

Colonialism flourished during the 17th century with the establishment of the French and Dutch overseas empires, along with the English overseas possessions—including the colonial United States—which would later become the sprawling British Empire. Spanning the globe to cover nearly 25% of the Earth’s surface at the peak of its power in the early 1900s, the British Empire was justifiably known as “the empire on which the sun never sets.”

The end of the American Revolution in 1783 marked the beginning of the first era of decolonization during which most of the European colonies in the Americas gained their independence. Spain and Portugal were permanently weakened by the loss of their New World colonies. Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany made the Old World countries of South Africa, India, and Southeast Asia the targets of their colonial efforts.

Between the opening of the Suez Canal and the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 1870s and the start of World War I in 1914, European colonialism became known as “New Imperialism.” In the name of what was termed “empire for empire’s sake,” the Western European powers, the United States, Russia, and Japan competed in acquiring vast areas of overseas territory. In many cases, this new hyper-aggressive brand of imperialism resulted in the colonization of countries in which the subjugated majority indigenous populations were denied basic human rights through the enforcement of doctrines of racial superiority such as the White minority-ruled system of apartheid in British-controlled South Africa.

A final period of decolonization began after World War I, when the League of Nations divided the German colonial empire among the victorious allied powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States. Influenced by the famous 1918 Fourteen Points speech by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the League mandated that the former German possessions be made independent as soon as possible. During this period, the Russian and Austrian colonial empires also collapsed.

Decolonization sped ahead after the end of World War II in 1945. The defeat of Japan spelled the end of the Japanese colonial empire in the Western Pacific and East Asian countries. It also showed still subjugated indigenous people around the world that colonial powers were not invincible. As a result, all remaining colonial empires were greatly weakened.  

During the Cold War, global independence movements such as the United Nations’ 1961 Non-Aligned Movement led to successful wars for independence from colonial rule in Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria, and Kenya. Pressured by the United States and the then Soviet Union, the European powers accepted the inevitability of decolonization.   

Types of Colonialism

Colonialism is generally classified by one of five overlapping types according to the practice’s particular goals and consequences on the subjugated territory and its indigenous peoples. These are settler colonialism; exploitation colonialism; plantation colonialism; surrogate colonialism; and internal colonialism.

Settler

'The Settlers', an engraving of the American Colonial period, circa 1760.
'The Settlers', an engraving of the American Colonial period, circa 1760. Archive Photos/Getty Images

The most common form of colonial conquest, settler colonialism describes the migration of large groups of people from one country to another country to build permanent, self-supporting settlements. Remaining legal subjects of their native country, the colonists harvested natural resources and attempted to either drive the indigenous peoples away or force them to assimilate peacefully into colonial life. Typically supported by wealthy imperialistic governments, settlements created by settler colonialism tended to last indefinitely, except in rare cases of total depopulation caused by famine or disease.

The mass migration of Dutch, German, and French settlers—the Afrikaners—to South Africa and the British colonialism of America are classic examples of settler colonialism.

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established an outpost in South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope. These early Dutch settlers were soon joined by French Protestants, German mercenaries, and other Europeans. Despite having been associated with the oppressive atrocities of White apartheid rule, millions of Afrikaners remain a vital presence in a multiethnic South Africa after four centuries.

The systematic European colonization of the Americas began in 1492, when Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing for the Far East inadvertently landed in the Bahamas, declaring he had discovered the “New World.” During the subsequent Spanish explorations, repeated efforts were made to either exterminate or enslave the indigenous population. The first permanent British colony in what is now the United States, Jamestown, Virginia, was established in 1607. By the 1680s, the promise of religious freedom and cheap farmland had brought scores of British, German, and Swiss colonists to New England.

Jamestown Colony, Virginia, 1607
Jamestown Colony, Virginia, 1607. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The early European settlers shunned the indigenous people, viewing them as threatening savages incapable of being assimilated into colonial society. As more European colonial powers arrived, avoidance turned to outright subjugation and enslavement of the indigenous population. The Native Americans were also vulnerable to new diseases, like smallpox, brought by the Europeans. By some estimates, as much as 90% of the Native American population was killed by disease during the early colonial period.

Exploitation

Exploitation colonialism describes the use of force to control another country for purposes of exploiting its population as labor and its natural resources as raw material. In undertaking exploitation colonialism, the colonial power sought only to increase its wealth by using the indigenous people as low-cost labor. In contrast to settler colonialism, exploitation colonialism required fewer colonists to emigrate, since the indigenous people could be allowed to remain in place—especially if they were to be enslaved as laborers in service to the motherland.

Historically, countries settled through settler colonialism, such as the United States, experienced far better post-colonial outcomes than those that experienced exploitation colonialism, such as the Congo.

circa 1855: The arrival of British explorer, David Livingstone and party at Lake Ngami.
circa 1855: The arrival of British explorer, David Livingstone and party at Lake Ngami. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Potentially one of the richest countries in the world, years of exploitation colonialism have turned the Congo into one of the poorest and least stable. In the 1870s, Belgium’s infamous King Leopold II ordered the colonization of the Congo. The effects were and continue to be devastating. While Belgium, and Leopold personally, realized a vast fortune from exploiting the country’s ivory and rubber, millions of the Congo's indigenous people starved to death, died of disease or were executed for failing to meet work quotas. Despite gaining its independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo remains largely impoverished and consumed by bloody internal ethnic wars.  

Plantation

Plantation colonialism was an early method of colonization in which settlers undertake the mass production of a single crop, such as cotton, tobacco, coffee, or sugar. In many cases, an underlying purpose of the plantation colonies was to impose Western culture and religion on nearby indigenous peoples, as in the early East Coast American colonies like the lost colony of Roanoke. Established in 1620, the Plymouth Colony plantation in what is today Massachusetts served as a sanctuary for English religious dissenters known as the Puritans. Later North American plantation colonies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Dutch Connecticut Colony, were more openly entrepreneurial, as their European backers demanded better returns on their investments.

Settlers roll barrels of tobacco up a ramp and onto a ship in preparation for export, Jamestown, Virginia, 1615.
Settlers roll barrels of tobacco up a ramp and onto a ship in preparation for export, Jamestown, Virginia, 1615. MPI/Getty Images

An example of a successful plantation colony, Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent British colony in North America, was shipping over 20 thousand tons of tobacco per year back to England by the end of the 17th century. The South Carolina and Georgia colonies enjoyed similar financial success from the production of cotton.

Surrogate

In surrogate colonialism, a foreign power encourages and supports, either openly or covertly, the settlement of a non-native group on territory occupied by an indigenous population. Support for surrogate colonialism projects might come in the form of any combination of diplomacy, financial aid, humanitarian materials, or arms.

Many anthropologists consider the Zionist Jewish settlement inside the Islamic Middle Eastern state of Palestine to be an example of surrogate colonialism because it was established with the urging and assistance of the ruling British Empire. The colonization was a key factor in negotiations that resulted in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which facilitated and legitimized the still-controversial Zionist settlement in Palestine. 

Internal

Internal colonialism describes the oppression or exploitation of one racial or ethnic group by another within the same country. In contrast to traditional types of colonialism, the source of the exploitation in internal colonialism comes from within the county rather than from a foreign power.

The term internal colonialism is often used to explain the discriminatory treatment of Mexicans in the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. As a result of the war, many Mexicans who had been living in what is now the southwestern United States became subjects of the U.S. government, but without the rights and freedoms associated with U.S. citizenship. Viewing these people as having been effectively “colonized” by the United States, many scholars and historians use the term internal colonialism to describe the ongoing unequal economic and social treatment of Chicanx peoples in the United States through a de-facto system of subordination.

Does Colonialism Exist Today?

Though the traditional practice of colonialism has ended, over 2 million people in 17 “non-self-governing territories,” scattered around the globe continue to live under virtual colonial rule, according to the United Nations. Rather than being self-governed, the indigenous populations of these 17 areas remain under the protection and authority of former colonial powers, such as the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.

For example, the Turks and Caicos Islands is a British Overseas Territory in the Atlantic Ocean midway between the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. In 2009, the British government suspended the Islands’ 1976 constitution in response to reports of widespread corruption in the territory. Parliament imposed direct rule over the democratically elected local governments and removed the constitutional right to trial by jury. The territorial government was disbanded and its elected premier was replaced by a British-appointed governor. 

While British authorities defended the action as essential to restoring honest government in the territory, the deposed former premier called it a coup d’etat that he said put Britain “on the wrong side of history.”

The years following World War II saw the rise of “neocolonialism,” a term describing the post-colonialism practice of using globalization, economics, and the promise of financial aid to gain political influence in less-developed countries instead of the traditional methods of colonialism. Also referred to as “nation building,” neocolonialism resulted in colonial-like exploitation in regions like Latin America, where direct foreign colonial rule had ended. For example, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was criticized for practicing neocolonialism in the 1986 Iran-Contra affair involving the illegal sale of U.S. arms to Iran in order to secretly fund the Contras, a group of rebels fighting to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the true eradication of colonialism remains an “unfinished process,” that has been with the global community for too long.

Sources and Reference

  • Veracini, Lorenzo. “Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview.” Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, ISBN 978-0-230-28490-6.
  • Hoffman, Philip T. “Why Did Europe Conquer the World?” Princeton University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1-4008-6584-0.
  • Tignor, Roger. “Preface to Colonialism: a theoretical overview.” Markus Weiner Publishers, 2005, ISBN 978-1-55876-340-1.
  • Rodney, Walter. “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” East African Publishers, 1972, ISBN 978-9966-25-113-8.
  • Vasagar, Jeevan. “Can colonialism have benefits? Look at Singapore.” The Guardian, January 4, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/04/colonialism-work-singapore-postcolonial-british-empire.
  • Libecap, Gary D. “The Bright Side of British Colonialism.” Hoover Institution, January 19, 2012, https://www.hoover.org/research/bright-side-british-colonialism.
  • Atran, Scott. “The Surrogate Colonization of Palestine 1917–1939.” American Ethnologist, 1989, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5090131_the_surrogate_colonization_of_Palestine_1917-1939.
  • Fincher, Christina. “Britain suspends Turks and Caicos government.” Reuters, August 14, 2009, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-turkscaicos/britain-suspends-turks-and-caicos-government-idUSTRE57D3TE20090814.
  • “International Decades for the Eradication of Colonialism.” The United Nations, https://www.un.org/dppa/decolonization/en/history/international-decades 
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Colonialism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/colonialism-definition-and-examples-5112779. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 8). What Is Colonialism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/colonialism-definition-and-examples-5112779 Longley, Robert. "What Is Colonialism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/colonialism-definition-and-examples-5112779 (accessed October 24, 2021).