• Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another.
  • One of the difficulties in defining colonialism is that it is hard to distinguish it from imperialism.
  • Frequently the two concepts are treated as synonyms. 
  • Like colonialism, imperialism also involves political and economic control over a dependent territory.
  • The etymology of the two terms, however, provides some clues about how they differ. The term colony comes from the Latin word ”colonus”, meaning farmer. This root reminds us that the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin. Imperialism, on the other hand, comes from the Latin term ”imperium”, meaning to command.
  • Thus, the term imperialism draws attention to the way that one country exercises power over another, whether through settlement, sovereignty, or indirect mechanisms of control.
  • The legitimacy of colonialism has been a longstanding concern for political and moral philosophers in the Western tradition.
  • At least since the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas, political theorists have struggled with the difficulty of reconciling ideas about justice and natural law with the practice of European sovereignty over non-Western peoples. In the nineteenth century, the tension between liberal thought and colonial practice became particularly acute, as dominion of Europe over the rest of the world reached its zenith. Ironically, in the same period when most political philosophers began to defend the principles of universalism and equality, the same individuals still defended the legitimacy of colonialism and imperialism.
  • One way of reconciling those apparently opposed principles was the argument known as the “civilizing mission,” which suggested that a temporary period of political dependence or tutelage was necessary in order for “uncivilized” societies to advance to the point where they were capable of sustaining liberal institutions and self-government.
  • The goal of this entry is to analyze the relationship between Western political theory and the project of colonialism.
  • After providing a more thorough discussion of the concept of colonialism, the third and forth sections of the entry will address the question of how European thinkers justified, legitimized, and challenged political domination. The fifth section briefly discusses the Marxist tradition, including Marx’s own defense of British colonialism in India and Lenin’s anti-imperialist writings.
  • The final section provides an introduction to contemporary “post-colonial theory.” This approach has been particularly influential in literary studies because it draws attention to the diverse ways that postcolonial subjectivities are constituted and resisted through discursive practices. 
  • The goal of the entry is to provide an overview of the vast and complex literature that explores the theoretical issues emerging out of the experience of European colonization.

Definition and Outline 

  • Colonialism is not a modern phenomenon. 
  • World history is full of examples of one society gradually expanding by incorporating adjacent territory and settling its people on newly conquered territory. 
  • The ancient Greeks set up colonies as did the Romans, the Moors, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the most famous examples. Colonialism, then, is not restricted to a specific time or place. 
  • Nevertheless, in the sixteenth century, colonialism changed decisively because of technological developments in navigation that began to connect more remote parts of the world. Fast sailing ships made it possible to reach distant ports and to sustain close ties between the center and colonies.
  • Thus, the modern European colonial project emerged when it became possible to move large numbers of people across the ocean and to maintain political sovereignty in spite of geographical dispersion.
  • This entry uses the term colonialism to describe the process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world, including the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia.
  • The difficulty of defining colonialism stems from the fact that the term is often used as a synonym for imperialism. Both colonialism and imperialism were forms of conquest that were expected to benefit Europe economically and strategically. 
  • The term colonialism is frequently used to describe the settlement of North America, Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, and Brazil, places that were controlled by a large population of permanent European residents. 
  • The term imperialism often describes cases in which a foreign government administers a territory without significant settlement; typical examples include the scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century and the American domination of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
  • The distinction between the two, however, is not entirely consistent in the literature.
  • Some scholars distinguish between colonies for settlement and colonies for economic exploitation.
  • Others use the term colonialism to describe dependencies that are directly governed by a foreign nation and contrast this with imperialism, which involves indirect forms of domination.
  • The confusion about the meaning of the term imperialism reflects the way that the concept has changed over time. 
  • Although the English word imperialism was not commonly used before the nineteenth century, Elizabethans already described the United Kingdom as “the British Empire.”
  • As Britain began to acquire overseas dependencies, the concept of empire was employed more frequently. Imperialism was understood as a system of military domination and sovereignty over territories.
  • The day to day work of government might be exercised indirectly through local assemblies or indigenous rulers who paid tribute, but sovereignty rested with the British.
  • The shift away from this traditional understanding of empire was influenced by the Leninist analysis of imperialism as a system oriented towards economic exploitation. 
  • According to Lenin, imperialism was the necessary and inevitable result of the logic of accumulation in late capitalism. Thus, for Lenin and subsequent Marxists, imperialism described a historical stage of capitalism rather than a transhistorical practice of political and military domination. 
  • The lasting impact of the Marxist approach is apparent in contemporary debates about American imperialism, a term which usually means American economic hegemony, regardless of whether such power is exercised directly or indirectly.
  • 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 century’s that ended with the national liberation movements of the 1960s.
  • Post-colonialism will be used to describe the political and theoretical struggles of societies that experienced the transition from political dependence to sovereignty.
  • This entry will use imperialism as a broad term that refers to economic, military, political domination that is achieved without significant permanent European settlement. 


  • Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. 
  • It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between the colonists and the indigenous population. 
  • The European colonial period was the era from the 1500s to the mid-1900s when several European powers established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Types 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 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.

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

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

History of Colonialism 

  • Activity that could be called colonialism has a long history, starting with the precolonial African empires which led to the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans who all built colonies in antiquity.
  • 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 tien (south marching).
  • 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 differentiate 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.
  • 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 modeled 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 them 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. 
  • However, decolonization outside the Americas lagged until after the Second World War. In 1962 the United Nations set up a Special Committee on Decolonization, often called the Committee of 24, to encourage this process.
  • Further, dozens of independence movements and global political solidarity projects such as the Non-Aligned Movement were instrumental in the decolonization efforts of former colonies. 


  • Imperialism as defined by the Dictionary of Human Geography, is “an unequal human and territorial relationship, usually in the form of an empire, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another.”
  • It is often considered in a negative light, as merely the exploitation of native people in order to enrich a small handful.
  • The term as such primarily has been applied to Western political and economic dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries. 
  • Some writers, such as Edward Said, use the term more broadly to describe any system of domination and subordination organized with an imperial center and a periphery. 
  • According to the Marxist historian, Walter Rodney, imperialism meant capitalist expansion.
  • It meant that European capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment.
  • It’s mostly accepted that modern day colonialism is an expression of imperialism and cannot exist without the latter. 
  • The extent to which “informal” imperialism with no formal colonies is properly described as such remains a controversial topic among historians.

History of Imperialism 

  • Imperialism has been found in the histories of Japan, the Assyrian Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Roman Empire, Greece, the Byzantine Empire, the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, ancient Egypt, and India. Imperialism was a basic component to the conquests of Genghis Khan during the Mongol Empire, and other war-lords.
  • Historically that recognized Muslim empires number in the dozens. Sub-Saharan Africa has also had dozens of empires that pre-date the European colonial era, for example the Ethiopian Empire, Oyo Empire, Asante Union, Luba Empire, Lunda Empire and Mustapa Empire. 
  • Although normally used to imply forcible imposition of a more powerful foreign government’s control on a weaker country, or over conquered territory that was previously without a unified government, “imperialism” is sometimes also used to describe loose or indirect political or economic influence or control of weak states by more powerful ones.
  • If the dominant country’s influence is felt in social and cultural circles, such as “foreign” music being popular with young people, it may be described as cultural imperialism. 
  • Imperialism has been subject to moral censure by its critics, and thus the term is frequently used in international propaganda as a pejorative for expansionist and aggressive foreign policy. 

Colonialism Vs Imperialism 

  • Colonialism and imperialism are often used interchangeably, but they are two different words having different meaning.
  • As both colonialism and Imperialism means political and economic domination of the other, scholars often find it hard to differentiate the two.
  • Though both the words underline suppression of the other, Colonialism is where one nation assumes control over the other and Imperialism refers to political or economic control, either formally or informally. 
  • In simple words, colonialism can be thought to be a practice and imperialism as the idea driving the practice.
  • Colonialism is a term where a country conquers and rules over other regions. It means exploiting the resources of the conquered country for the benefit of the conqueror. 
  • Imperialism means creating an empire, expanding into the neighboring regions and expanding its dominance far.
  • Colonialism is termed as building and maintaining colonies in one territory by people from another territory.
  • Colonialism can altogether alter the social structure, physical structure and economics of a region. It is quite normal that in the long run, the traits of the conqueror are inherited by the conquered. 
  • Colonialism is a term used to describe the settlement of places like India, Australia, North America, Algeria, New Zealand and Brazil, which were all controlled by the Europeans. 
  • Imperialism, on the other hand is described where a foreign government governs a territory without significant settlement.
  • The scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and the American domination of Puerto Rico and the Philippines can be cited as examples of Imperialism
  • In Colonialism, one can see great movement of people to the new territory and living as permanent settlers.
  • Though they lead the life as permanent settlers, they still maintain allegiance to their mother country. 
  • Imperialism is just exercising power over the conquered regions either through sovereignty or indirect mechanisms of control. 

Impact of Colonialism and Colonization 

  • The impacts of colonization are immense and pervasive.
  • Various effects, both immediate and protracted, include the spread of virulent diseases, the establishment of unequal social relations, exploitation, enslavement, medical advances, and the creation of new institutions, abolitionism, improved infrastructure, and technological progress.
  • Colonial practices also spur the spread of languages, literature and cultural institutions. 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.
  • With the development of trade routes under the Ottoman Empire, Gujarthi Hindus, Syrian Muslims, Jews, Armenians, Christians from south and central Europe operated trading routes that supplied Persian and Arab horses to the armies of all three empires, Mocha coffee to Delhi and Belgrade, Persian silk to India and Istanbul.
  • On the other hand, European colonial empires sometimes attempted to channel, restrict and impede trade involving their colonies, funneling activity through the metropole and taxing accordingly.

Slaves and indentured servants

  • European nations entered their imperial projects with the goal of enriching the European metropole.
  • Exploitation of non-Europeans and other Europeans to support imperial goals was acceptable to the colonizers.
  • Two outgrowths of this imperial agenda were slavery and indentured servitude. In the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of English settlers came to North America as indentured servants. 
  • African slavery had existed long before Europeans discovered it as an exploitable means of creating an inexpensive labour force for the colonies.
  • Europeans brought transportation technology to the practice, bringing large numbers of African slaves to the Americas by sail.
  • Spain and Portugal had brought African slaves to work at African colonies such as Cape Verde and the Azores, and then Latin America, by the 16th century.
  • The British, French and Dutch joined in the slave trade in subsequent centuries. Ultimately, around 11 million Africans were taken to the Caribbean and North and South America as slaves by European colonizers.
  • Abolitionists in Europe and America protested the inhumane treatment of African slaves, which led to the elimination of the slave trade by the late 18th century. 
  • The labour shortage that resulted inspired European colonizers to develop a new source of labour, using a system of indentured servitude. Indentured servants consented to a contract with the European colonizers.
  • Under their contract, the servant would work for an employer for a term of at least a year, while the employer agreed to pay for the servant’s voyage to the colony, possibly pay for the return to the country of origin, and pay the employee a wage as well. 
  • The employee was “indentured” to the employer because they owed a debt back to the employer for their travel expense to the colony, which they were expected to pay through their wages.
  • In practice, indentured servants were exploited through terrible working conditions and burdensome debts created by the employers, with whom the servants had no means of negotiating the debt once they arrived in the colony.
  • India and China were the largest source of indentured servants during the colonial era. 
  • Indentured servants from India travelled to British colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and also to French and Portuguese colonies, while Chinese servants travelled to British and Dutch colonies. Between 1830 and 1930, around 30 million indentured servants migrated from India, and 24 million returned to India. 
  • China sent more indentured servants to European colonies, and around the same proportion returned to China.
  • Following the Scramble for Africa, an early but secondary focus for most colonial regimes was the suppression of slavery and the slave trade.
  • By the end of the colonial period they were mostly successful in this aim, though slavery is still very active in Africa. 

Military innovation

  • Imperial expansion follows military conquest in most instances. Imperial armies therefore have a long history of military innovation in order to gain an advantage over the armies of the people they aim to conquer.
  • Greeks developed the phalanx system, which enabled their military units to present themselves to their enemies as a wall, with foot soldiers using shields to cover one another during their advance on the battlefield.
  • Under Philip II of Macedon, they were able to organize thousands of soldiers into a formidable battle force, bringing together carefully trained infantry and cavalry regiments.
  • Alexander the Great exploited this military foundation further during his conquests.

The end of empire 

  • The populations of some colonial territories, such as Canada, enjoyed relative peace and prosperity as part of a European power, at least among the majority; however, minority populations such as First Nations peoples and French-Canadians experienced marginalization and resented colonial practices. 
  • Francophone residents of Quebec, for example, were vocal in opposing conscription into the armed services to fight on behalf of Britain during World War I, resulting in the Conscription crisis of 1917.
  • Other European colonies had much more pronounced conflict between European settlers and the local population. Rebellions broke out in the later decades of the imperial era, such as India’s Sepoy Rebellion.
  • The territorial boundaries imposed by European colonizers, notably in central Africa and south Asia, defied the existing boundaries of native populations that had previously interacted little with one another. 
  • European colonizers disregarded native political and cultural animosities, imposing peace upon people under their military control.
  • Native populations were relocated at the will of the colonial administrators.
  • Once independence from European control was achieved, civil war erupted in some former colonies, as native populations fought to capture territory for their own ethnic, cultural or political group.

Post-independence population movement

  • In a reversal of the migration patterns experienced during the modern colonial era, posting dependence era migration followed a route back towards the imperial country.
  • In some cases, this was a movement of settlers of European origin returning to the land of their birth, or to an ancestral birthplace. 900,000 French colonists (known as the Pied-Noirs) resettled in France following Algeria’s independence in 1962. 
  • After WWII 300,000 Dutchmen from the Dutch East Indies, of which the majority were people of Eurasian descent called Indo Europeans, repatriated to the Netherlands.
  • A significant number later migrated to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Global travel and migration in general developed at an increasingly brisk pace throughout the era of European colonial expansion. Citizens of the former colonies of European countries may have a privileged status in some respects with regard to immigration rights when settling in the former European imperial nation.
  • For example, rights to dual citizenship may be generous, or larger immigrant quotas may be extended to former colonies.
  • In some cases, the former European imperial nations continue to foster close political and economic ties with former colonies.
  • The Commonwealth of Nations is an organization that promotes cooperation between and among Britain and its former colonies, the Commonwealth members.
  • A similar organization exists for former colonies of France, the Francophonie; the Community of Portuguese Language Countries plays a similar role for former Portuguese colonies, and the Dutch Language Union is the equivalent for former colonies of the Netherlands.
  • Migration from former colonies has proven to be problematic for European countries, where the majority population may express hostility to ethnic minorities who have emigrated from former colonies.
  • Cultural and religious conflicts have often erupted in France in recent decades, between immigrants from the Maghreb countries of North Africa and the majority population of France.

Effects of Imperialism:

  • The effects of Imperialism have been interpreted from a variety of viewpoints.
  • This major Imperialism occurred during the late 19th Century and early 20th century. 
  • It had more negative effects in the modern world today then positive effects. 
  • The positive effects are: the nations built them roads, canals, and railways. Showed them the telegraph, newspaper, established schools for them, gave them the blessing of their civilization, and overall made them economized. They were part of modern culture after this occurred.
  • Colonial governments introduced improved medical care, and better methods of sanitation.
  • There were new crops; tools and farming methods, which helped, increase food production.
  • These changes meant less death to smaller colonies, and overall improve the state of living.
  • They now could live longer and have better sanitation compared to the earlier imperialism.
  • A negative effect is seen that the colonies doing the mother country’s hard work did not civilize the smaller colonies.
  • They were put to work as cheap labor. They had no freedom, had to do what the mother country said since it has so much towering power over them, they were exploited and were taken advantage of.
  • Another negative is Missionaries. In this can see that when the white people came to the Africans they had nothing but power over them. 
  • They came with the Bible and no land, and instead took their land and forced the religion Christianity upon them.
  • The ‘White Man’, another negative effect occurs. In this little tale, David Diop talks about how the whites came and killed the innocent.
  • This had many negative effects on Africa such as the African’s were put to work as slaves but more like cheap labor. Many of them dies from this, they were resettled, exploited, weren’t taken at their free will and took all of their land.
  • The last negative effect is that the man in the machine is being forced to drink hard liquor and alcohol, they were corrupted and given evil minds, their money was all taken away, and most of all religion was forced upon them. 
  • Imperialism is never considered as a good cause and effect. At first when it occurs it may seem as a positive effect, but in the long run, for example in this case it was a negative effect.
  • All Africans and Asians were heavily exploited and were given no rights to do anything even though the mother countries gave them modern culture. Colonies inside colonies would fight because they wanted independence and have their own government and rule.
  • There were many ethnics group that had nationalistic feelings but could not accomplish anything and become a free nation because of Imperialism. The mother country’s that did the taking over were only after a few things and unfortunately did happen to accomplish what they were after.
  • They wanted raw materials, markets for goods, national glory, balance of power and they also felt as though they needed to help smaller nations as though it was their burden, which Europeans called “White Man’s Burden.”
  • In their point of view they thought they were helping people but really all they were doing was hurting the smaller colonies.
  • Mother countries were destroying ethnic groups and causing civil wars between smaller nations. This newer modern Imperialism was never productive.

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