Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Colonialism & Imperialism

(colonial world maps)

Oxford English Dictionary: 2. The colonial system or principle. Now freq. used in the derogatory sense of an alleged policy of exploitation of backward or weak peoples by a large power. the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people.

Empires have controlled, conquered, and colonized lands, nations, or peoples throughout human history. When Postcolonial Studies refers to colonialism, the typical reference is to modern colonialism by European nations or empires of non-Western lands or peoples. This historical epoch began in the Renaissance and peaked in the late 1800s to early 1900s, until widespread anti-colonial independence movements of the mid-20th century. In many regards colonialism continues today as Neo-Colonialism.

American students are familiar with colonialism or colonization in relation to the USA's pre-history as "thirteen colonies" ruled by England (the British Empire or Great Britain). This connection leads American students to associate all colonialism with the British Empire, but other European nations also practiced colonialism: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and others.

The United States is unlike most colonized countries for two reasons:

1. In most colonizations, the native population survives or even multiplies but is ruled by the colonizers—India, for example, or many African nations. When colonization ends in such colonies, the native population resumes political dominance, though sometimes much business continues as before in terms of Neo-Colonialism.

In the case of the United States, the native population of American Indians was decimated by disease, warfare, economic disruption, and relocation. Therefore, when the United States declared Independence from England, most colonists did not return to their countries of origin. In these regards, the United States resembles "settler colonies" like Australia or South Africa.

2. Most colonized countries remain underdeveloped or exploited by First-World nations or empires. The United States itself became a First-World nation that may still be involved in Neo-Colonialism. (The cultural right resists descriptions of the USA as empire because of the nation's origins in Independence from an empire and dislike of comparisons to empires such as Rome, England, or France on behalf of American exceptionalism.)

Therefore "colonized countries" more often refers to lands whose resources and labor have been controlled not by themselves but by externally imposed rules. Historical examples:

  • India and adjoining nations of South Asia;

  • African nations including Nigeria, Algeria, or Kenya

  • Caribbean nations like Haiti, Trinidad, the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico.

  • Pacific Island-Nations like Samoa, Guam, the Philippines

  • East Asian nations like China and Vietnam. (Japan and China may also be considered empires in their own right at different periods of history.)

Significance of colonialism / imperialism:

Western Civilization may have earned its world dominance through progress in science, democracy, and education, but in many respects such advances are "built on the backs of slaves" and supported by exploitation of non-native resources.

Competition for colonial labor and resources was among the primary causes of the first World War (1914-18), which led directly to the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism, Fascism, totalitarian Communism, World War 2,, and the creation of Israel, seen by Arabs as more colonialism or imperialism.

Colonialism permanently disrupted traditional ways of life in the developing world, forced incompatible ethnic groups into nation-states, and fueled runaway population growth. 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

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.

Ronald J. Horvath, "A Definition of Colonialism." Current Anthropology 13.1 (Feb. 1972), 45-57.

"People feel strongly about colonialism—it has either been a dirty business engaged in by evil people or a praiseworthy endeavor undertaken by fine gentlemen for the noble purpose of saving the wretched, the savage, the unfortunate. We can hardly talk about colonialism without referring to the way people feel about it, because this feeling has given the word myriad connotations." (45)