Colonialism Research Paper

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Colonialism, which involves the domination and exploitation of a native population, has been spurred by economic need or greed and political rivalries. Most historians contend that its costs— including loss of life through disease, relocations, and slavery; inhibition of local economic growth; psychological damage to colonized people; and cultural domination—outweigh any benefits, such as the development of an infrastructure for postcolonial modernization and democratization.

Colonialism, broadly defined as “a system of political, economic, and cultural domination forcibly imposed by a technologically advanced foreign minority on an indigenous majority” (Gellar 1995, 140), is a component of empire building, European expansion, and the creation of the modern world system. Its root word, colony, comes from the Latin word colonie, which referred to agricultural communities that produced food for the Roman Empire.

Colonialism probably goes back some six thousand years in human history to when humans first established settlements large enough to require more food than the surrounding area could provide to support their numbers. The first colonies were probably neighboring peoples whose land or labor (or both) were exploited for food. All classic preindustrial states were colonial in that they often took the land and exploited the labor and resources of subjugated peoples.

Extent and Causes of Western Colonization

Interest in colonialism in the modern era has focused primarily on Western colonialism from about 1500 to the present. Western colonialism has drawn most of the attention because it was so widespread and was a major force in human history. To give some sense of its breadth, consider the German geographer Alexander Supan’s observation that in 1900 European nations and the United States exerted colonial control over 90.4 percent of the territory of Africa, 98.9 percent of the Pacific islands, 56.5 percent of Asia, 100 percent of Australia, and 27.2 percent of the Americas. The major European colonizers were Great Britain, France, Spain, and Germany, with Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy playing a lesser role.

South and Southeast Asia were colonized at first by the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British and French expanded into these regions as well. Africa was colonized by the British, French, Belgians, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Italians, and Spanish, with the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century being the period of most intense colonization.

Colonization of the Americas began at the close of the fifteenth century and did not end until the close of the nineteenth century. Some experts argue that the United States replaced European nations as the colonial power in the Americas through its taking of Native American territory and its dominance over the economies and, at times, governments, of nations such as Honduras, Haiti, and Cuba. This form of colonization is referred to as informal colonialism because the colonizing nation does not have official control over the colonized nation.

In some cases, colonies were placed under direct control of the colonizing nation’s government; in other cases trading companies acted as intermediaries. Still other colonies were organized as protectorates, while some nations remained nominally independent but were run by puppet governments whose policies were ultimately controlled by a Western power (as in informal colonization). In some cases, the method of governing the colony evolved over time: British India, for example, was initially governed through the English East India Company but was taken over by the British government in 1858.

Some experts stress economic factors as the root causes of European colonialism; others stress political factors, and still others a combination of factors. Economically, the expanding world system in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution created greater demand for raw materials and markets for products. Colonies met both needs, as they provided raw materials at low cost and monopoly markets for European-produced goods. Politically, the colonial expansion of the mid- to late 1800s was fueled by national rivalries in Europe, balance-of-power concerns, and national pride. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 provided a political rationale for colonization by stipulating that control of a territory rested on a colonial power’s occupation of that territory. The technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, especially steam ships, railroads, the telegraph, and more deadly weapons, made colonization quicker, cheaper, and easier. Finally, it should be noted that the ideas of social thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer were used or misused by colonists to portray colonized peoples as inferior and in need of Western civilization, education, democracy, and Christianity. Thus, colonialism was typically rationalized as being beneficial to those being colonized. It was, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden.”

Exploitative Colonialism

Exploitative colonialism is an economic system in which the colonizers seek to exploit the economic resources of the colony while incurring the lowest possible cost themselves. Agricultural plantations, mining operations, and manufacturing plants are typical of exploitative colonialism. Government and other institutions exist to support the economic endeavor.

Most nineteenth-century Asian and African colonies were run on the exploitative pattern. The colonial power established a new political, economic, and social structure in the colony in the service of economic exploitation. Colonial policy was set in the home nation for the home nation’s benefit and with little concern for the colony. The colony was ruled by a small elite group of Western officials, businessmen, farmers, and missionaries who lived apart from the indigenous population in urban enclaves designed and built in European style. In British Nigeria in the 1920s, for example, there was one British official for every 100,000 people. The colonizers often ruled indirectly through favored local leaders who were expected to maintain order, recruit laborers, and collect taxes and food for the colonists. The local leaders and their families, in turn, received preferential treatment. The colonizing power typically made use of a divide-and-rule strategy in which local ethnic groups were pitted against one another so as to forestall organized resistance to colonization.

Colonialism drew the colonies into the expanding world economic system. The colonizers sought land, the products of the land, mineral wealth, and cheap labor. They also sought to use the colonies as a market for goods produced in the home nation. This activity stimulated economic expansion in the colonies, but nearly all wealth flowed to the home nation. There was relatively little economic opportunity for the colonized peoples. Some might find employment as low-level civil servants or as domestics in European households, but most remained farmers or were forced to work in mines or factories. “Middleman minorities”—people from distant ethnic groups encouraged to settle in the colony to fulfill various roles—were employed. Asian Indians, for example, filled this role in British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

Settlers and Settler Colonies

In many colonies, there were some people from the home nation who chose to live in the colony and make it their home. Many in the first generation of settlers saw the new land as their home, and this feeling intensified with successive generations when the latter were permitted to grow up in the new land. In some colonies, such as the United States and New Zealand, the settlers became the largest and dominant group, displacing the indigenous peoples and taking their land. In many other colonies, such as the British colonies in Africa, settlers formed small enclaves, established large farming operations, and lived in relative peace with the indigenous population. Settlers supported independence movements as they, too, saw themselves as suffering from the home country’s economic exploitation. Once independence was achieved, however, settlers and indigenous populations often found themselves on opposite sides of issues such as land reform.


Colonized peoples rarely accepted colonization without a fight. Revolts, massacres, destruction of property, and the like were common in the first stages of colonization. Revolts were meet with force— the military and police were key enforcers of colonial rule—and were rarely successful. Later, more serious resistance took various forms, such as the civil disobedience led by Mohandas Gandhi that helped India achieve independence, the Ghost Dance movement in North America, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Zulu Wars in South Africa, the Mau Mau movement in Kenya, and the Maroon wars in Jamaica. Local Christian churches were often used as vehicles of resistance to oppression and inequality. Educated members of the local population often contributed to the struggle through poetry, literature, and the media.

Costs and Benefits of Colonialism

There is little dispute that the colonizing nations benefited from colonialism, while the colonies suffered— and often continued to suffer after independence. Nonetheless, some scholars argue that there were benefits to the colony. While colonizers depended on slavery in some regions, such as the Americas, they also ended it in many regions. Arguably, other benefits of colonialism included control of regional wars and the establishment of a political and economic structure and infrastructure that allowed for postcolonial modernization and democratization. But those claims are contentious: others argue that the economic and political structure and infrastructure of colonialism were meant to serve the colonists and had little positive impact on the local populations following decolonization.

The list of the costs of colonialism, on the other hand, is a long one. It includes massive loss of life through disease, relocations, and slavery; inhibition of local economic growth; new ethnic rivalries and conflicts; psychological damage to the colonized people, reflected in increased suicide and homicide rates; disruption of indigenous kinship and family relationships; a reduced role for women; and destruction of craft specializations as crafts were replaced by imported goods.


By the end of the twentieth century nearly all European colonies had become independent nations. The United States was among the first of the colonies to declare independence, which it achieved with its 1783 victory in the Revolutionary War. Many Spanish colonies in the Americas followed suit in the nineteenth century. For the African, Asian, and Pacific colonies of Britain, France, and Germany, decolonization came in the mid- to late twentieth century, most often as a result of disruptions and political realignments following World Wars I and II.

Decolonization typically takes one of two forms. In the first, exemplified by the United States and Canada, settlers, desiring political and economic independence, sought the end of colonial control. With the mother country no longer in power, the settlers were free to rule their own newly established nation. This independence generally had no benefits for the original inhabitants of the land, however, who continued to find themselves marginalized and pushed out of territories desired by the growing European-descended population. This was the general pattern throughout the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. The slave revolt in Haiti that led to independence in 1804 was one notable exception to that pattern.

The other form of decolonization was more common and involved the indigenous, colonized people retaking control of their territory. In most regions it was a long process that often involved violence. At first, requests for more autonomy were generally rejected by the colonizer; somewhat later limited reforms that provided a degree of home rule were often initiated. Finally, the colonial government would leave and the indigenous people would establish their own government and take control of the economy.

The period following decolonization was difficult for most new nations. Old ethnic rivalries for power surfaced, there were often conflicts between settlers and indigenous populations, the numbers of people with the education and experience necessary to run the government and economy were often insufficient to meet the need, and the newly independent countries often lacked the capital to support needed infrastructure and social-welfare development. For many colonies that achieved independence from the 1960s onward, political unrest, a succession of governments, dictatorial rule, poverty, population dislocations, and civil war have followed decolonization.

Decolonization also had a profound effect on many former colonial powers. The loss of low-cost raw materials and a ready market for products caused economic difficulties, although established economic relations between the colonizer and former colony rarely disintegrated entirely. Britain, the Netherlands, and Portugal all created unions of former colonies that helped keep those relations intact. Former colonial powers have also had to absorb millions of immigrants from their former colonies. Some were from favored ethnic groups who fell from favor in the new power structure; others came to the colonial home country in flight from civil wars, revolts, and poverty; many were simply seeking a better life. As a result of the influx of immigrants from former colonies, Britain, the Netherlands, and France have become multicultural nations with sizeable minority populations—and now face all the attendant questions and problems of racism, minority rights, diversity, cultural norms, and freedom of religion and expression.


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