Colonialism I


In recent years, there has been an enormous body of work which tries to understand modern European colonialism in all of its economic, social, and cultural dimensions, and to grapple with its legacies. The focus of this article is especially on British and, to a lesser extent, on French colonialism up to about 1870.

The terms ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ are closely interrelated. They are both concerned with the actions of people based in, or traveling out of, the world’s most powerful polities located in metropolitan spaces, who attempt to dominate people elsewhere in the world. The main difference between the two terms is that ‘colonialism’ refers largely to the actions of those who migrate from metropolitan space to pursue various projects as colonists within subordinated territories. ‘Imperialism’ refers more often to a kind of ‘remote control’ exercised over other parts of the globe by powerful agents within metropolitan space, especially by the state. In practice, however, colonists tend to maintain dense networks of communication and exchange with metropolitan agents, and so it is easy to see why the two terms are often conflated. Both will be used in what follows. A Brief Historical Geography of Modern.

European Colonialism

Empires, constructed as comprising metropolitan ‘centers’ and colonial ‘peripheries’, have been characteristic of social and political organization since historical records began. They are in part the result, and in part the cause, of uneven distributions of resources and they strongly influence the spatial transactions in such resources at scales from the local to the global. But they are also configured by, and help to reconfigure, movements of people, ideas, knowledge, and culture. The geographically extensive networks of communication and exchange that empires facilitate help determine the ways that collective social identities are re created in both metropolitan and colonial spaces. They do so by inscribing distinctions in power between colonists and colonized, governors and governed, and citizens and subjects. Although the precise terms of these distinctions are always contested within metropolitan cultures, since at least the eighteenth century and the rise of the modern European empires, they tend to have been strongly racialized, as well as gendered and sexualized.

The ancient and medieval empires founded for example in Greece, Rome, Peru, China, and Persia were based on a metropolitan polity’s domination of contiguous land based territories. Distinctions of inherited status, religion, and gradations on a scale of civility operated as the axes of difference between colonizing and colonized populations in these empires, rather than the more modern concept of ‘race’. From the fifteenth century, however, Western Europe became the locus of a number of new metropolitan polities that created empires in tandem with the dissolution of feudalism and the rise of mercantile capitalism, and which coexisted with continuing land based empires such as that of China and, later, Russia. Following Portuguese navigational innovation in the fifteenth century, these western European empires were largely maritime rather than land based, allowing them to span trans continental distance and connect more diverse peoples living in more dispersed places. These modern empires brought populations that had previously been entirely separated, into unequal relations with each other, forging new webs of longdistance trade, fostering new movements of people and ideas, and bringing about new cultural formations.

The early modern Portuguese and Spanish empires were based on relations of tribute and plunder, especially in South America, where some historians have argued that the first genocides of indigenous peoples were carried out by the conquistadors in their pursuit of gold and other resources. From their very beginning these imperial ventures were the subject of moral debate and critique within the European metropoles, with Bartolome De Las Casas, for instance, campaigning against the atrocities that Spanish authorities were carrying out against indigenous peoples. Like the European humanitarians who later emulated him, De Las Casas had no objection to colonization per se, but rather to the irreligious manner in which it was being carried out. His injunction to the Spanish during the 1540s to use their influence in South and Central America in order to convert Indians to Christianity and thus bestow benefit upon them, rather than simply to exploit their land, labor, and resources, was an antecedent to both the British ‘civilizing mission’ and the French mission civiisatrice of the nineteenth-century.

From the sixteenth century, the English state was licensing privateers to destabilize the Iberian powers’ monopoly of South and Central American resources. By the seventeenth century, with new sea routes allowing Europeans to travel around Africa and into the Indian Ocean, Dutch and English trading companies were able to vie for control of the lucrative trade in spices and silks with East and Southeast Asia as well. While Dutch, English, and French rivals established supply and trading depots in what are now South Africa, India, and Indonesia, French and British planters in the Caribbean and North America initiated what would become an enduring trade in enslaved people across the Atlantic from the coast of Africa. By the late eighteenth century, the material cultures of Britain and France were conditioned by well developed circuits of exchange connecting Western Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. Within British and French ships, for example, Indian calicoes were transported to Africa to purchase slaves, Tahitian breadfruit was taken to the Caribbean to feed those slaves, Caribbean molasses was transported to New England where it was made into rum for trade with Native Americans, and tea, coffee, chocolate, tobacco, sugar, rice, and potatoes converged from sites distributed across the globe on the British and French cities and provinces.

The rivalry between the British and French states in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought geopolitical considerations into line with these extensive mercantile operations, especially in Asia and North America. Governmental intervention helped to transform small trading settlements into state supported colonies. The fiscal revenue to be exacted from their subjects’ economic transactions with indigenous peoples (the fur trade in North America and tea, spices, and increasingly land rental in India) was vital to the maintenance of the military, and of the state itself, in both European countries. Control of trade routes was thus a motivation for governments to colonize, for example, when the British state seized the Cape Colony (and its vital port at Cape Town) from Republican France’s ally, the Batavian Republic, in 1806. Similarly, the British state colonized New South Wales in Australia not just as a penal settlement but also in order to deter the French state from claiming it as a base for operations in the Pacific. In both places, British governments subsequently secured their strategic interests by promoting the emigration of British colonists, giving, renting, or selling them land regardless of prior indigenous occupation. Largely as a result of the wars with France, by 1820 the British Empire had already absorbed almost a quarter of the world’s population.

However, modern colonization was by no means always the result of either trading opportunities or geostrategy. Although a trade in flax and concern about possible French pre emption were certainly considerations in Britain’s colonization of New Zealand in 1840, for instance, its annexation was primarily the result of an evangelical humanitarian lobby wishing to minimize the supposed deleterious effect on Maori of Britons who had already emigrated there. Again, humanitarian concern over colonization manifested itself as a drive for morally charged, benevolent imperialism, rather than imperial withdrawal.

Colonial Projects and Outcomes

Imperial historians have persistently attempted to devise models of imperial expansion based on a single ‘driving force’, such as the deliberations of an official mindset, the imperatives of industrial capitalism, or the financial and cultural demands of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. But there was never one overriding reason why modern European colonialism extended in the ways that it did. Its emergence by the late nineteenth-century was the product of geographical contingency, rival state deliberations, and warfare and a proliferation of different colonial agendas as Europeans realized the opportunities that diverse colonial spaces provided, for example, for material gain, enhanced family security, escape from the constraints of European gender and sexual mores, the acquisition of scientific knowledge, new careers, or Christian proselytization.

These different agendas or colonial projects often coalesced. For example, the geostrategic desire of the state to secure a particular colony from imperial rivals meant that settlers were given land and an opportunity for a new life. But colonial projects also diverged and could come into conflict, for instance when humanitarians agitated against settler brutality and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, and insisted on the moral purpose of colonialism outweighing its material value. The Europeans pursuing these multiple projects also constructed varying discourses of difference. Many settlers, for instance, represented ‘racial’ difference as immutable, developing biologically determinist notions of ‘race’ which justified the appropriation of indigenous peoples’ land and on occasion even their ‘extermination’. Humanitarians insisted upon a contrasting universalist view of humanity in which ‘racial’ differences were cultural rather than innate, and thus subject to erasure once Christianity had been successfully proselytised.

Colonial relations ‘on the ground’ were yet more complicated than colonial discourses of difference, because European colonial projects could never simply be imposed upon empty terrains. Colonists’ projects were always either reinforced or more commonly deflected or undermined by the actions of those who already inhabited colonized spaces. In settings such as India, the selective cooperation of indigenous elites was necessary if a British administration was to be superimposed upon or coexisted with indigenous hierarchies. In South Africa and New Zealand, British authorities were able to forge alliances with some indigenous chiefdoms against others, enhancing the status of allies at the expense of those who resisted colonial expansion. Convergences between European and indigenous structures, however, went deeper than just the deals struck by elites. To give just one example, systems of colonial labor extraction, which enabled businesses such as the mining industry in South Africa to grow, were themselves the product of a coincidence between dynamic European and African patriarchal structures. These meant that African men could be absent from their rural homesteads for extended periods to fulfill the mine owners’ insatiable demand for cheap migrant labor, while African women were expected by both British and African men to take care of social reproduction in segregated ‘reserves’. The existence of these reserves was itself in large part due to the relative success of African resistance to the appropriation of their lands during the numerous colonial wars of the nineteenth-century. Colonial outcomes in any given imperial site, then, were the result of the uneven relationships forged between Britons and indigenous peoples along a spectrum from collaboration through negotiation, appropriation, and resistance, rather than the fulfillment of metropolitan devised and imperially driven agendas.

Colonial Legacies: Economy, Governance, Education

Although decolonization led to the dissolution of the modern European Empires from the 1940s to the 1970s, it is widely recognized that these empires’ reconfigura tion of relations between peoples across the globe over the preceding 300 years still has profound consequences. The benefits and costs of these consequences are the subject of fierce political and historiographical contestation.

Perhaps the most immediately obvious legacies of the modern European empires are the material inequalities between former metropoles and colonies. At the onset of European colonial involvement in any given place, there were not necessarily great disparities between the economic resources available to colonizer and colonized. English East India Company entanglement in the government of India, for instance, was a piecemeal and gradual process, reliant as much on the fragmentation of an initially far more powerful Mughal empire as it was on the growing resources and governmental connections of the company itself. Historians argue over the economic effects of British rule thereafter. Niall Ferguson, for instance, suggests that British investment and free trade policies helped to restructure the modern Indian economy (as well as the economies of other former colonies) broadly in ways that are favorable for post independence governments. By contrast, Marxist historians emphasize the exploitative nature of colonial economic relations, pointing, for example, to British taxation policies which discriminated against Indian textile producers and in favor of British exports, and to colonial agricultural regimes which skewed production away from the indigenous population’s subsistence needs and toward a vulnerable dependence on metropolitan consumers’ fickle tastes.

Even broadly pro empire historians have admitted that policies of free trade and the commercialization of agriculture in parts of Africa and Asia often militated against redistributionist measures that had formerly been in place, thus contributing to mass starvation in the famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is also beyond doubt that in settler colonies (those where large numbers of Britons migrated and stayed), the most fertile land and the most valuable resources were invariably wrested from indigenous peoples and taken into the hands of settlers. It was overwhelmingly these settlers, rather than the prior inhabitants, who benefited from the economic opportunities of colonialism. They were able to engage profitably in a trade with metropolitan consumers of the resources that they extracted from or cultivated on ‘their’ new lands, in order to create the modern states, for instance, of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa.

The effects of modern European colonialism on modes of governance and education are also contested. In each of the territories colonized by British interests, governmental structures and schooling systems were established that bore resemblances to British models. Some historians see them as examples of the progressive ‘modernization’ that the British Empire brought to large swathes of the world, and evidence of the Empire’s assimilationist tendencies. However, there was considerable variation in the adaptations that colonial officials made to British models in colonial spaces, and ‘British’ ways of thinking about education and governance were affected in turn by colonial experiences.

In the settler colonies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a British model of education was often adopted for white settlers but no formal state education at all, or only a more restricted and utilitarian form of training, offered to indigenous peoples. Besides importing elements of the educational curriculum from Britain, settler educationalists were able to export their ‘knowledge’ of indigenous peoples back to Britain. Thus, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the geography syllabus in British schools included biologically determinist ‘explanations’ of the limited intellectual capacities of indigenous peoples drawn from the examination of ‘specimens’ supplied, and often analyzed, by colonial scientists. A Department of Geography was founded at the University of Sydney by Griffith Taylor, who expounded his theory that ‘racial evolution’ had left the ‘Negro far behind’ in the main British Geography journals, and was influential in the British university curriculum during the 1920s. Aside from cementing racist discourses of difference between colonizer and colonized and enduring notions of civilised/developed and barbaric/undeveloped parts of the world, these formal lessons about ‘other races’ helped inscribe a hierarchy of knowledge in the consciousness of European people. White Europeans, largely men, were understood to be the producers of knowledge and indigenous peoples its subjects. This was despite the fact that exploratory, cartographic, and scientific understandings were invariably shaped in colonial spaces only with the collaboration of indigenous informants.

Outside of the governmental education systems in settler colonies, mission societies ran Christian schools which offered a more complete curriculum to indigenous converts, and took the lead in disseminating English as a language of indigenous subjects, as well as colonial citizens of Empire. From the late nineteenth-century, it was in these establishments that indigenous leaders learned and appropriated the discourse of nationalism in order to found movements such as the African National Congress in South Africa and the Congress Party in India. Although they usually began by making claims for the extension of colonial privileges to indigenous elites, these movements ultimately developed into broad based alliances between extremely diverse indigenous groups. In the twentieth century they helped bring the British Empire to an end.

What spurred such nationalist movements to transform themselves from polite, elitist pressure groups to mass movements of colonized peoples was the fact that, in most political systems modeled on Britain’s Westminster pattern, the franchise was actually limited overwhelmingly to white settlers. Generally only a small minority of indigenous subjects, if any at all, were qualified to vote by virtue of their exceptional education or property. With mission schools helping to produce increasing numbers of such potentially qualified black voters by the 1890s however, franchise criteria were progressively tightened in a number of settler colonies, so as to prevent indigenous voters ever outnumbering whites. Different colonial governments frequently shared ideas for procedures which would maintain white supremacy and limit indigenous peoples’ capacity to participate in colonial citizenship, without the need for explicitly racist legislation. For instance, when the southern African colony of Natal devised an English language dictation test which would restrict further immigration from India in the 1890s, the idea was disseminated via a meeting of heads of colonial governments in London and adopted by Australian and other administrations. In Australia, it became a central plank of the subsequent ‘White Australia policy’.

Even outside of the settler colonies, the Westminster political system tended to be applied selectively. In the British colonies of Africa, which included Crown colonies and Protectorates as well as the settler colonies to the south, limited forms of citizenship had been extended to urban African elites by the mid twentieth century. But indirect rule through the ossifying of ‘traditional’ chiefly authorities characterized the rural ‘reserves’. These left a legacy of kinship and clientship based forms of authority that were inherited by post colonial African governments, and which have continued to facilitate corruption and anti democratic practices. When conservative modern historians proclaim the virtue of the Empire in leaving a legacy of British liberal notions of democracy and inclusive education, such exclusions, that were built into the very fabric of colonial life, and that helped to maintain its fundamental ‘rule of difference’, are often overlooked.

Colonial Cultures

From the late 1970s, the history of modern colonialism ceased to be the preserve of imperial historians concerned to locate the economic, political, or military ‘root causes’ of European expansion. The social, and above all, cultural relations and legacies of colonialism began to be tackled much more systematically within literary criticism, and a body of work known as postcolonial theory was developed. Of course, this work had its own antecedents, many of them drawn from the French colonial experience. There was Franz Fanon’s analysis of the psychological results of colonialism in French Algeria, for instance, and C. L. R. James’ classic account of the ways that French revolutionaries resorted to inscribing racial limits around the ‘European’ concepts of liberty, egality, and fraternity, when responding to the rebellion of slaves in Haiti. But it is Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978) which has galvanized the analysis of colonial identities and discourses from new cultural perspectives over the last 20 years.

Said’s book was essentially an analysis of the ways that multiple European, and more recently American, writers had configured ‘Oriental’ spaces (the Middle and Far East in their world view) over a period of some 400 years. What was remarkable was the enduring and repetitive nature of the binary opposites between Occident and Orient that these texts established. In persistently defining the West as civilized and the Orient as savage, the West as enlightened, the Orient as ignorant, the West as democratic and the Orient as despotic, Western texts had brought into being a discourse that not only defined Western knowledge about the East, but also constituted the identity of the West itself, as the Orient’s opposite. For Said, himself a Palestinian exile, colonial relations were not only about the diplomatic, military, and political mechanisms through which the British among other empires expanded, but more pertinently about the enduring tropes of cultural difference that, as Gregory has shown with reference to ongoing wars in AfghanistanIraq, and Palestine, still characterize and legitimate Western interventions overseas.

Other postcolonial critics have sympathetically critiqued Said’s work, for instance, for paying insufficient attention to the intersections between ‘race’ and gender in colonial discourses, and for evading the issue of how inhabitants of the ‘Orient’ have constructed both themselves and the West as they return the West’s ‘gaze’. Homi Bhabha has complicated Said’s notion of a discourse of binary differences between colonizing and colonized cultures, emphasizing instead those ‘third spaces’ in which cultural hybridities, psychological ambivalences, and subversive mimicry emerge as a result of colonial encounters. These proliferating postcolonial interventions tend to be preoccupied with the past in the present – the ways that modern European colonialism created not just enduring material imbalances across the globe, but also patterns of identity formation and discourse that continue to affect our understandings of what is civilized and what is not, for instance. These understandings continue to mean that some groups’ representations of the world are empowered at the expense of others.

The ‘cultural turn’ that postcolonial scholars across a number of disciplines have brought to the field of colonial studies has been criticized by many imperial historians. They point to the sweeping theoretical generalizations that mark some of this work, its analysis of text devoid of temporal and spatial context. But a growing body of work, often referred to as ‘new imperial history’, has recently sought to bridge the divide between traditional imperial history and postcolonial scholarship. It does so by recognizing that colonialism was fundamentally constitutive of, as well as constituted by, culture, but also by acknowledging the need to ground such insight in contextual and critical archival enquiry. New imperial history also brings a more gendered analysis of colonial relations, and a more spatially sensitive mode of enquiry than either traditional imperial history (with its focus on white male elites and its metropolitan bias) or much of the foundational postcolonial scholarship (with its lack of gender differentiation and its aspatial theorization).

For example, Catherine Hall’s work has focused attention on the ways that Victorian definitions of those social groups eligible for inclusion in the British body politic were both gendered and ‘raced’ with continual reference to colonial forms of exclusion and dominance rehearsed and practiced in Jamaica. Mrinalini Sinha and Antoinette Burton have focused on similar circuits of discussion over the definition of manliness and of feminism that connected India and Britain within what Sinha calls an ‘imperial social formation’. Each of these authors has also been at pains to demonstrate the ways in which British culture has been fundamentally imbricated with imperial assumptions and colonial knowledges, and to point to the postcolonial dicscussions over ‘racial’ and cultural difference ‘at home’ in Britain that are one of the empire’s most obvious legacies.

Colonial Geographies

Recent historical geographies of colonialism have intersected quite closely with these tendencies in new imperial history. There has been a similar determination to specify particular colonial projects, rather than derive general models of the driving forces of colonial expansion. There have been similar attempts to track these projects across both metropolitan and colonial spaces, showing how they helped, through their interaction with indigenous projects, to constitute colonial and metropolitan societies reciprocally. A few examples are given as follows.

Daniel Clayton has analyzed different discursive modes through which Vancouver Island was understood, both locally and in Britain. These modes of narration ranged from ‘neutral’, scientific accounts of exploration and contact with indigenous society in the late eighteenth century, through records of trading encounters founded on a degree of reciprocity, to metropolitan-based geostrategic planning, which inclined to write indigenous agency out of the picture in the nineteenth-century. Alan Lester has examined the ways in which the contested colonial projects of governmentality, humanitarianism, and settler capitalism were pursued through communicative networks that linked the Cape Colony and Britain during the early nineteenth-century. Together with David Lambert, who has examined forms of whiteness that were constructed during the moral struggle over slavery in Barbados, he argues that the trans imperial contests between proponents of such different colonial projects helped to structure debates around Britishness and ‘race’ across the Empire as a whole. Moving from public and political (masculinized) debates to the more intimate relations that underpinned colonial cultures, Alison Blunt has been concerned with the ways that conceptions of ‘home’ are stretched across imperial terrain when colonists settle elsewhere, and when colonized peoples move to other imperial sites, and Richard Phillips has studied the ways in which debates about prostitution, homosexuality, and the age of consent circulated between different sites within the British Empire. Stephen Legg situates the discourses and practices of urban governmentality in colonial New Delhi in the context of broader bundles of relationships both between Britons and Indians, and between Britons in India, and those elsewhere in the Empire.

These networked historical–geographical approaches to empire also include studies of the trajectories that individual subjects, such as governors, missionaries, and consorts, took across imperial space, transforming both their own subjectivities and, to a greater or lesser extent, each colonial society in which they dwelt. In part, their purpose is to understand the colonial past on its own terms, but in part also they are intended to encourage more spatially informed accounts of the multiple and diverse legacies of modern European colonialism, and of the potential for anti colonial practice that colonial interconnections allow.

Colonialism in the Present

It is not just in relation to the current ‘war on terror’ that colonialism is now being debated widely again. In various sites of the former British Empire, the relations that settlers forged with indigenous peoples in the nineteenth-century are being re examined in the light of current political projects. In Britain, Niall Ferguson’s recently published and televised survey of the Empire establishes it as a model of progressive, orderly, modernization of the globe. Ferguson argues that the current US administration would be wise to emulate it. For him the problem with the USA’s overseas interventions is that they do not demonstrate the level of imperialist commitment to the long term restructuring of other societies that Britain accomplished over a hundred years ago.

In Australia, the bicentenary celebrations of the British First Fleet’s landing in 1988 prompted both historians and aboriginal peoples’ representatives to argue for the inclusion of Aborigines’ experiences of genocide in the nation’s official histories. A right wing backlash ensued. Keith Windschuttle has been the most uncompromising participant in the ongoing ‘history wars’, accusing Australia’s professional historians of ‘fabricating’ histories of colonial brutality against aboriginal people to fit in with their general left wing bias. Windschuttle seeks to minimize estimates of the violent aboriginal death toll during the early nineteenth-century, to exonerate British settlers of blame for what deaths occurred, and to blame nineteenth-century humanitarians instead, for inventing separatist policies that have failed aboriginal and white Australians ever since. In New Zealand, the judicial process administered by the Waitangi Tribunal has had recourse to the greatest triumph of the early nineteenth-century British humanitarians, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty, or rather the various versions of it, are now seen as the foundation of a pact between Maori and the Crown, representing Pakeha (British settlers, their descendants and other nonindigenous New Zealanders) to which contemporary Maori can appeal in their claims for the restoration of land and resources.

What debates in each of these postcolonial states, and in others, have in common is a discussion of the essential morality or justice of relations between colonists and indigenous peoples in the past, and their implications for the present. Ferguson’s narrative of the British Empire reads like a moral balance sheet designed to aid contemporary Britons coming to terms with their imperial past. The slave trade, the tolerance of famine, and the Amritsar massacre in India, for instance, count on the debit side, while the abolition of slavery, the construction of educational and industrial infrastructures, and above all the facilitation of free trade are credits that in the end swing the moral balance in Britain’s favor. Overall, Ferguson suggests, British colonialism was ‘a good thing’ for the world and for its indigenous subjects.

For Windschuttle and his supporters in Australia, Britons and their descendants need to acknowledge no moral responsibility for the destruction of aboriginal societies. Indeed, the liberal ideas and institutions that British settlers brought to the continent, suggests Windschuttle, actually saved many aboriginal people from the inherent vices of their own society. Windschuttle argues that where Australia has gone wrong is in listening to humanitarians and aboriginal representatives who encouraged the perpetuation of aboriginal cultural difference despite the settlers’ invitation of assimilation. In New Zealand, the existence of the Treaty of Waitangi and the general acceptance that its provisions were frequently breached by British colonists have not prevented a much more restrained but nevertheless detectable Pakeha backlash against the Maori assertiveness associated with the Tribunal and its attempts to make redress and reparation.

Finally, it is worth noting that each of these struggles over the colonial past (and it would be possible to proliferate the examples), whether they adopt a local, national, or global frame of reference, takes place in a context in which those groups formerly placed at a lower point in the hierarchy of civilization within European colonial discourses are still placed on the lowest strata of various indices of welfare today.