FROM THE ONSET of trade, the merchant traders established colonies in the foreign places where they did business. Those early merchant colonies were not colonialist in the strict sense. The merchants resided in foreign cities by the grace of the city officials. More commonly, colonialists dominated the indigenous peoples. The Greeks and Romans established military posts in the territory they conquered. The Greeks had most of the eastern Mediterranean islands, and the Romans had control of ISTANBUL, TURKEY, and North Africa to Gaul and Britain. The Roman garrisons included women for working in the fields and increasing the population to the point that the post could become a self-sustaining settlement. The English tried the same philosophy in IRELAND and VIRGINIA, with initial failures giving way to eventual success.

Another case of losing some and winning others came late in the first millennium. The Vikings colonized GREENLAND and Newfoundland, but the colonies failed for lack of support from home. The Norsemen, during their heyday when much of Europe was dark and isolated, enjoyed greater success in colonizing France, Sicily, Ireland and England, establishing a permanent presence as Normans.

Colonizing efforts were also part of the Crusades from the 11th to 13th centuries. And the Mongols of Central Asia established an empire in the 13th and 14th centuries that stretched from the URAL MOUNTAINS to RUSSIA. The Mongols were cavalry, as were the Ottomans who established an empire that included North Africa, the MIDDLE EAST, and the Balkans. The OTTOMAN EMPIRE lasted from the 13th into the 20th century. African and American indigenous peoples were also builders of empires—the Fulani and Zulu of Africa and the Inca and Aztec of the Americas.



Under colonialism, a state claims the right to rule territory and people outside its boundaries. The purposes for this rule may include a desire to control resources, markets, or labor. Colonies may also serve as an outlet for home surpluses of population or goods. Colonialists commonly believe that they are superior in some respect to those colonized. Colonialism can be rationalized as fulfillment of an obligation to lift up the lesser peoples, by whatever means. And defenders of colonialism often cite the economic and political, perhaps even social, benefits that the colonized received from the colonizers.

Modernization and democracy are among the greatest benefits advocates of colonization often claimed. Sometimes colonies did flourish. Success stories included SINGAPORE and INDIA. Countering the benefits argument are dependency theorists such as Andre Gundar Frank, who emphasize that colonialism is a process whereby the colonizer takes resources that would otherwise have allowed the colony to develop on its own. Another criticism, represented by postcolonialist Franz Fanon, is that the mere fact of colonialism promotes psychological and moral and political damage to the colonized.

Historical examples of colonialism abound. Generally, the colonizer uses aggressive acts, commonly military in nature, to acquire territory occupied by others. Colonialism may be used interchangeably with imperialism, but there is also a distinction—colonialism assumes political control, while imperialism may include political or economic domination, either of which can be either informal or formal.

Colonial types include colonies of settlement, colonies of exploitation, and contested colonies. Empires routinely included more than one type. Colonies of settlement included NEW ZEALAND and Virginia, while NIGERIA and JAMAICA were colonies of exploitation. Contested colonies included KENYA, and the British Empire also included a sphere of influence in ARGENTINA and a preexisting empire in INDIA. FRANCE’s empire included settlement colonies in ALGERIA and Quebec, exploitation colonies in South America and Africa and a preexisting empire in Indochina.

Colonies of settlement were the result of migration, expulsion of indigenous people, and the assimilation of foreign crops and animals as well as a foreign culture. The colonial settlement of British North America was of this type. So was the settlement of AUSTRALIA. In colonies of exploitation, the European presence was small. Generally, the Europeans were administrators or military officials or merchants. They used whatever means necessary, including force, to establish sufficient political control to achieve the benefits they sought, perhaps strategic location against other European powers or economic advantage.

Colonies of exploitation took advantage of the local economy, using local labor to generate export crops under a plantation system. This type of colony prevailed in Asia and Africa. In the Caribbean and parts of South America, exploitation of the indigenous peoples was so harsh that the labor force literally died away. In these cases, the colonialists resorted to importing plantation labor from other regions where they had some semblance of a colonial presence. The use of African slaves on European-run plantations in Jamaica and the BAHAMAS is an example. A similar approach is the use of convict labor in the French and English penal colonies.

Contested settlement colonies were the ones in which European settlement was pronounced but not sufficient to exclude locals. The Europeans set up their own governments and societies in the midst of the coexisting society. European whites dominated an indigenous population that actually flourished because it remained the basis for economic survival and growth. Eventually the indigenous populations ousted the colonials. This process occurred in Algeria and Rhodesia. The example of India also applies.

At its peak in 1939, European colonialism spanned 20.3 million square mi (52 million square km) with a population of 629 million. The five colonial powers—Great Britain, France, BELGIUM, the NETHERLANDS, and GERMANY (by 1939 noncolonial, but its possessions were mandates and protectorates of the others)—had a combined home population of 172 million people in a space of 1.4 million square km (541,000 square mi).

Economies of the settlements and exploitive colonies were different (in this context the contested settlement colonies were handled similarly to the exploitive colonies). Settlements initially produced raw materials such as wool, gold, agricultural products, ships’ stores—their primary markets were the home countries.

As the colonies grew and matured, they came to resemble the European nations economically, with diversified agriculture and manufactures. These colonies acquired self-rule early, which allowed them to use protective tariffs to nurture infant industries. Protection allowed high wages and standards of living. In colonies of exploitation, the home country’s influence and control lasted longer.

The colonies remained underdeveloped, often even after independence. Their economies had two sectors—export and subsistence. Exports included sugar, rubber, gold, tin, and other raw products. Capital investment in these colonies was in exports. Another sector was that of the small native middle class and semiskilled or unskilled labor.

This was the traditional economy, with a low and lowering standard of living as colonial resources left the country via railroads and other infrastructure intended to expedite exports rather than intercolonial commerce and communication. This sector had to make up the social costs of the export sector, characterized by low wages and few benefits.

The squeeze intensified over time as subsistence economy populations grew and the export economy took increasing amounts of wealth for the home country. The postcolonial situation in these colonies was one of dependence on the former colonizer, continued investment in the export sector, and lagging economic development beyond the subsistence level.


A major period of European colonialism occurred from 1492 to 1776. During this time Europeans spread through the rest of the world. PORTUGAL, SPAIN, Holland, France, and England competed in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Each sought to establish mercantile trade arrangements at the expense of the others. The style was exploitive as each subordinated the indigenous population and established a presence that included military, traders, and plantation managers.

For Spain, the goal was extraction and export of America’s gold. The English sought to intercept the gold shipments through piracy. The Dutch specialized in banking and other commercial services. Gold was but the first raw material—where it was unavailable, colonialists exploited whatever resource they found—sugar, tobacco, furs. And they settled as necessary to control their possessions and the transfer of colonial material to Europe. With the INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, they also used the colonies as suppliers of raw material and as outlets for their finished goods.

Commonly during the first imperial era, the Europeans found themselves confronted by stronger forces. They had small numbers and only limited technological superiority. They sometimes failed, as in the early efforts in the Americas. Success came when they enlisted indigenous allies—in MEXICO, or Virginia, or CANADA. When the natives resisted in force—in Africa and Asia early on—the conquest was more tenuous. Effective use of the divide-and-conquer technique and a slight technological superiority allowed Spanish conquest in Mexico, and the introduction of European diseases helped the process considerably. Once in power, the Spanish began establishing the extractive export economy. In Asia, conquest was a matter of Europeans sitting on the coasts as merchants, adapting to local custom, politics, and trading patterns, slowly moving inland as indigenous resistance weakened. Dependence never became dominance, though, because the Europeans lacked numerical or technological superiority.

When possible, the European governments encouraged migration. The French failed to achieve a large enough presence in North America and eventually lost an empire. The English established colonies that grew with natural increase and immigration, taking more land in a slow and methodical conquest of “empty” lands.

The increased European population created a larger export of raw materials, a greater demand for finished goods, and a larger fleet—all within a system that was purely European to European—no local elites to pander to. The only aliens were the slaves imported to make the agricultural economy flourish after Europeans balked at the harshness of the indenture system. The system was unshakable and highly profitable until the American Revolution.

Overall, though, the mercantile effort was a time of harsh rivalry that slowly drained the weaker competitors as they lost markets and gold and the ability to compete against the British system. Portugal, Spain, Holland—all faded as their exploitive empires weakened in the face of England’s settlements. Even though France lasted through four colonial wars, it too failed from lack of adequate population to control its territories and feed wealth to the home country. England made political mistakes after the French wars, and the result of its attempt to extract more from the American colonies, now close to mature and certainly not inclined to be exploited, was the loss of the jewel of its empire—the UNITED STATES. Also, the sugar islands became less profitable as the sugar beet became an alternative to slave-harvested cane. Empires went out of fashion for more than a century.

During the hiatus there was sporadic colonial activity, with the British establishing outposts in the Cape Colony (1815), Hong Kong (1842), and New Zealand (1840), while the French entered Algiers and attempted an empire in Mexico. But the rivalry was weak during this period of free-trade imperialism abroad and protection at home.

With European markets closed, Britain especially sought overseas markets. And as the dominant economy in the world, Britain preferred free trade wherever possible. This imperialism was by trade agreement rather than by treaty of surrender (the tool of choice when occupation was desired, as in the U.S. Native American wars).


In the mid-19th century, the race for colonies revived. Rather than entering a great unknown as had the first colonialists, the 19th-century venturers knew what they were looking for and had a good idea of what they would find. And the world map showed that there were only limited areas left to colonize for national prestige and geopolitical influence and maybe the chance to spread the Christian gospel. Markets were the target, not living space.

Triggering factors were the economic depression of 1873, which raised specters of mass unemployment, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which revived nationalism, and the reports from Africa of Dr. David Livingstone (1813–73) that encouraged the reformers, Christianizers, and humanitarians.

Russia entered Persia. AustriaHungary took a bit of the Balkans. ITALY acquired a hold in North Africa. Germany moved toward Baghdad (present-day Iraq) and took a bit of southwest Africa. Britain expanded from the Cape in SOUTH AFRICA to Cairo, EGYPT, took the Suez Canal, and grew its settlements in Canada. Even the United States jumped into the race, taking former Spanish possessions after the war of 1898 and inserting its presence into Canada and Mexico.

This time, the technological advantage was all with the outsiders—railroad tracks and steam engines and the telegraph—as well as vastly more sophisticated weapons and medicines, such as quinine, which allowed Europeans in malarial regions they could not have entered in the first phase. As before, the initial approach was divide and conquer, establish plantations and subordinate the locals, and extract and exploit to fuel the industries at home and increase the national wealth and power.

In Africa, the Europeans failed to recognize that the region was not as primitive as they thought. Trade routes ranged across the SAHARA DESERT north and west. Eastern Africans traded from MOZAMBIQUE to SOMALIA. Inland empires such as Mwene Matapa and Great ZIMBABWE were in the trade network too. With trade came cultural and social interchange. The European intrusion of the first colonialism weakened the fringes of the network, but the 19th-century inroads destroyed the whole thing, to the core of the continent. The British entered Africa with a touch of guilt about their slave-trading history and more than a touch of desire for African products such as groundnuts and palm oil. To get raw materials for oiling machines and making margarine and soap, the British co-opted local political leaders. Their main interests in the continent were at Suez and South Africa.

With the Suez Canal open, India became 6,000 mi or 9,656 km closer to Britain. When the British bought out the Khedive of Egypt’s French canal stock, they had control of the route to India. In South Africa, the attraction was diamonds. After discovery of the Kimberley field in 1870, the British annexed it in 1871. In 1877, they took the Transvaal, leading to a Boer uprising and a British backing off—until the discovery of Transvaal gold. Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) tried to overthrow the Boers in 1895, and the British fought a second Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Having won South Africa, the British granted home rule in 1906, forcing the colony to take care of financial and moral issues raised by the conquest.

But the discoveries of diamonds and gold mattered more than just to the Boers and British. Europeans wanted a share of the non-European world, no matter its value, just in case. If nothing else, it was a matter of national pride—and having a possession meant that a European rival could not get it. The competition was so fierce that the Europeans met at Berlin in 1884–85 to divide Africa. They agreed no nation would try to take another’s territory. By 1914, only LIBERIA and ETHIOPIA were without European control. Elsewhere, peanut, rubber, cocoa, and palm oil plantations appeared, as did gold and diamond mines in South Africa and copper and tin mines in the Congo.

Europeans unseated difficult indigenes but allowed great leeway in matters such as keeping slaves, to those who guaranteed stable labor and good output for export to Europe. The result was a new exploitive economy, and an alteration of internal social and economic relations as the subsistence economy replaced the traditional pan-African one.


By the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, but it had assets that the others wanted. Russia wanted access to the Mediterranean via the BLACK SEA. Egypt broke away and became a cotton exporter as well as home to the Suez Canal—and eventually a subset of the British Empire. Persia had oil; Britain and Russia wanted oil. Britain and Russia split Persia at the turn of the century.
Britain had been in India (or at least the BritishEast India Company had been) since the mercantile era. As the indigenous Mughal Empire faded in the early 18th century, the company took territory after territory. Britain forced enactment of a law requiring India to supply coffee, tea, indigo, cotton, and plantation crops at the expense of internal consumption crops. And Indians were prohibited by law from developing manufactures. The company built railways to the coast, making exports easier.

On the other hand, the British did give India a decent infrastructure—dams, roads, communications, educational system, sanitation—and Indians did show improvements in health and literacy. The lack of adequate agriculture for home consumption did increase the risk of famine and death, and British paternalism weakened Indian culture and exacerbated racial tensions and nationalism. The company lost its franchise in the 19th century, and Britain lost India in the 20th.

The pattern was the same in Southeast Asia, the pathway to the Chinese market as well as a natural area for plantations producing rubber, cocoa, coffee, and sugar. Colonialists progressed from trading post to negotiations with local rulers to control of the local economy to shifting from internal to external crops to increased investment that required a military presence to ensure stability. The Dutch took over INDONESIA’s economy and government. Britain acquired MALAYSIA, Singapore, and Burma/MYANMAR.

Frequently, the British used the skills and networks of the overseas Chinese merchants instead of sending Englishmen. Aside from ensuring profitability, this tactic also diverted indigenous hostility away from the British and onto the Chinese. French Indochina was rich with rice plantations. In the area, Siam/THAILAND managed to dodge the colonialists. Colonialism brought schools, sanitation, better health, and outsiders to manage and sometimes to work in the mines and on the plantations. The cultural mix was unstable, changing from the traditional one. And the economic balance was in favor of Europe.

The carving up of China into spheres of influence was a classic case of exploitation without obligation: the open door. China didn’t want what Europeans had to offer. But Europeans wanted Chinese tea and porcelain. When the Chinese tried to eradicate their opium trade, the British went to war to preserve the right of free trade in opium. That war (1839–42) ended in the first concessions and the opening of China to European and American exploitation. The end came at the turn of the century with spheres of influence under the open door.

Matthew C. Perry opened JAPAN in 1854 as the United States sought links to Asia for trade. The momentum halted during the American Civil War, but post-Reconstruction industrialization spurred demands for raw materials and markets and some stability for an unstable economy. Military and missionary impulses were strong too, as was the “white man’s burden” to remake the world in the Euro-American image. And national ego was on the line. Imperialist successes came with the purchase of ALASKA, the annexation of the Midway Islands, and finally Samoa (a naval base on Pago Pago in 1878; formal partition in 1899) and HAWAII (annexed 1898), both on the trade routes—Samoa on the route to Australia, Hawaii to the broad Asian market. And the PHILIPPINES, insignificant for trade, but a stepping stone to the Asian markets, was also acquired. Other stepping stones to Asia included Guam, Wake, and Johnston Atoll. When China opened, the United States was ready.

There was also the matter of Latin America, another victim of free trade with European and American businesses backed by government pressure forcing their way into a peasant economy, working with local elites to make market economies. Eventually, German and American control came to indigenous industries. U.S. interest included the mid-1850s filibusters of William Walker, the repeated talk about annexing CUBA and the attempts to buy it. After Spain lost the war of 1898, the United States kept bases and controlled internal affairs, foreign policy, and the economy until 1934 under the Platt Amendment; Cuba was a de facto protectorate.

Eventually, prior to nationalization in Mexico, American interests controlled 70 percent of Mexico’s oil and 80 percent of its railroads. In Canada, American companies were strong in the automobile industry as well as electrical and forest products. This was the precursor to the post-World War II economic colonialism.

Japan modeled itself on the colonialist model instead of letting itself become colonized. It became militarily strong and modern, industrialized, and adapted what worked from Western ideas, and discarded the rest. Nationalist and disciplined, Japan became a regional imperialist after it defeated Russia. The Japanese carved out their section of China and expanded the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere until it clashed with U.S. aspirations in Asia.


The colonial experience brought progress to the colonized, but it also brought greater prosperity to the colonizers. At the beginning of the first colonial era, wealth was distributed more equitably than it was at the end of the second. The disparities continued to grow. Global empires covering 8.75 million square mi (22.6 million square km) did not last. After World War II, the colonial Europeans were discredited and debilitated by the costs of the war. Their empires crumbled as country after country in Africa and Asia won or received independence. Some emerged more easily than others; all faced major difficulties, being mostly economically backward with inadequate experience in determining their own futures. They may have been politically free, but they remained export-oriented economies with subsistence populations with marginal skills and education and no serious prospects of equal competition in a free trade world. The new buzzword was neocolonialism.

Neocolonialism is a product of the postwar economic arrangements made by the European winners at the Bretton Woods economic conference. Critics point to the World Bank and World Trade Organization, created at the conference, as the tools of neocolonialists, as is the American business and popular entertainment component.

Neo-colonialism entails simple influence over a sector of an undeveloped country by a more developed one. From imposition of English as the language of commerce everywhere, to imposing Coca-Cola and Disney and McDonald’s as popular culture, to requiring that developing economies mimic the mature economies of the West or allowing multinational corporations access to compete with nascent indigenous ones—to the critics it all seems to be a matter of the Eurocentric world gaining advantage at the expense of the weaker partner in the third world, culturally or economically. It is the old, old colonialism, just under a new guise.