Comparative Colonization in Asia

Edward VII receiving Maharajahs and Dignitaries Prior to his Coronation
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Several different Western European powers established colonies in Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each of the imperial powers had its own style of administration, and colonial officers from the different nations also displayed various attitudes towards their imperial subjects.

Great Britain

The British Empire was the largest in the world prior to World War II and included a number of places in Asia. Those territories include what is now Oman, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia (Malaya), Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo (now part of Indonesia), Papua New Guinea, and Hong Kong. The crown jewel of all of Britain's overseas possessions around the world, of course, was India.

British colonial officers and British colonists, in general, saw themselves as exemplars of "fair play," and in theory, at least, all of the crown's subjects were supposed to be equal before the law, regardless of their race, religion, or ethnicity. Nonetheless, British colonials held themselves apart from local people more than other Europeans did, hiring locals as domestic help, but rarely intermarrying with them. In part, this may have been due to a transfer of British ideas about the separation of classes to their overseas colonies.

The British took a paternalistic view of their colonial subjects, feeling a duty — the "white man's burden," as Rudyard Kipling put it — to Christianize and civilize the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the New World. In Asia, the story goes, Britain built roads, railways, and governments, and acquired a national obsession with tea.

This veneer of gentility and humanitarianism quickly crumbled, however, if a subjugated people rose up. Britain ruthlessly put down the Indian Revolt of 1857 and brutally tortured accused participants in Kenya's Mau Mau Rebellion (1952 - 1960). When famine struck Bengal in 1943, Winston Churchill's government not only did nothing to feed Bengalis, it actually turned down food aid from the US and Canada meant for India.


Although France sought an extensive colonial empire in Asia, its defeat in the Napoleonic Wars left it with just a handful of Asian territories. Those included the 20th-century mandates of Lebanon and Syria, and more especially the key colony of French Indochina — what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

French attitudes about colonial subjects were, in some ways, quite different from those of their British rivals. Some idealistic French sought not just to dominate their colonial holdings, but to create a "Greater France" in which all French subjects around the world truly would be equal. For example, the North African colony of Algeria became a department, or a province, of France, complete with parliamentary representation. This difference in attitude may be due to France's embrace of Enlightenment thinking, and to the French Revolution, which had broken down some of the class barriers that still ordered society in Britain. Nonetheless, French colonizers also felt the "White man's burden" of bringing so-called civilization and Christianity to barbaric subject peoples.

On a personal level, French colonials were more apt than the British to marry local women and create a cultural fusion in their colonial societies. Some French racial theorists such as Gustave Le Bon and Arthur Gobineau, however, decried this tendency as a corruption of Frenchmen's innate genetic superiority. As time went on, social pressure increased for French colonials to preserve the "purity" of the "French race."

In French Indochina, unlike Algeria, the colonial rulers did not establish large settlements. French Indochina was an economic colony, meant to produce a profit for the home country. Despite the lack of settlers to protect, however, France was quick to jump into a bloody war with the Vietnamese when they resisted a French return after World War II. Today, small Catholic communities, a fondness for baguettes and croissants, and some pretty colonial architecture are all that remains of visible French influence in Southeast Asia.

The Netherlands

The Dutch competed and fought for control of the Indian Ocean trade routes and spice production with the British, through their respective East India Companies. In the end, the Netherlands lost Sri Lanka to the British, and in 1662, lost Taiwan (Formosa) to the Chinese, but retained control over most of the rich spice islands that now make up Indonesia.

For the Dutch, this colonial enterprise was all about money. There was a very little pretense of cultural improvement or Christianization of the heathens — the Dutch wanted profits, plain and simple. As a result, they showed no qualms about ruthlessly capturing locals and using them as enslaved laborer on the plantations, or even carrying out a massacre of all the inhabitants of the Banda Islands to protect their monopoly on the nutmeg and mace trade.


After Vasco da Gama rounded the southern end of Africa in 1497, Portugal became the first European power to gain sea access to Asia. Although the Portuguese were quick to explore and lay claim to various coastal parts of India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and China, its power faded in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the British, Dutch, and French were able to push Portugal out of most of its Asian claims. By the 20th century, what remained was Goa, on the southwest coast of India; East Timor; and the southern Chinese port at Macau.

Although Portugal was not the most intimidating European imperial power, it had the most staying power. Goa remained Portuguese until India annexed it by force in 1961; Macau was Portuguese until 1999 when the Europeans finally handed it back to China, and East Timor or Timor-Leste formally became independent only in 2002. 

Portuguese rule in Asia was by turns ruthless (as when they began capturing Chinese children to sell into enslavement in Portugal), lackadaisical, and underfunded. Like the French, Portuguese colonists were not opposed to mixing with local peoples and creating creole populations. Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Portuguese imperial attitude, however, was Portugal's stubbornness and refusal to withdraw, even after the other imperial powers had closed up shop.

Portuguese imperialism was driven by a sincere desire to spread Catholicism and make tons of money. It was also inspired by nationalism; originally, a desire to prove the country's might as it came out from under Moorish rule, and in later centuries, the proud insistence on holding onto the colonies as an emblem of past imperial glory.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Comparative Colonization in Asia." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Comparative Colonization in Asia. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Comparative Colonization in Asia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).