What is colonialism?

The history of colonialism is one of brutal subjugation of indigenous peoples.

Colonialism is defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” It occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people. By 1914, a large majority of the world's nations had been colonized by Europeans at some point.

The concept of colonialism is closely linked to that of imperialism, which is the policy or ethos of using power and influence to control another nation or people that underlies colonialism.

History of colonialism

In antiquity, colonialism was practiced by empires such as Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, and Phoenicia. These civilizations all extended their borders into surrounding and non-contiguous areas from about 1550 B.C. onward, and established colonies that drew on the physical and population resources of the people they conquered in order to increase their own power.

Modern colonialism began during what’s also known as the Age of Discovery. Beginning in the 15th century, Portugal began looking for new trade routes and searching for civilizations outside of Europe. In 1415, Portuguese explorers conquered Ceuta, a coastal town in North Africa, kicking off an empire that would last until 1999.

Soon the Portuguese had conquered and populated islands like Madeira and Cape Verde, and their rival nation, Spain, decided to try exploration, too. In 1492, Christopher Columbus began looking for a western route to India and China. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas, kicking off the Spanish Empire. Spain and Portugal became locked in competition for new territories and took over indigenous lands in the Americas, India, Africa, and Asia.

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England, the Netherlands, France, and Germany quickly began their own empire building overseas, fighting Spain and Portugal for the right to lands they had already conquered. Despite the growth of European colonies in the New World, most countries managed to gain independence during the 18th and 19th century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776 and the Haitian Revolution in 1781. However, the Eastern Hemisphere continued to tempt European colonial powers.

Starting in the 1880s, European nations focused on taking over African lands, racing one another to coveted natural resources and establishing colonies they would hold until an international period of decolonization began around 1914, challenging European colonial empires up to 1975.

Colonial rationale and resistance

Colonial powers justified their conquests by asserting that they had a legal and religious obligation to take over the land and culture of indigenous peoples. Conquering nations cast their role as civilizing “barbaric” or “savage” nations, and argued that they were acting in the best interests of those whose lands and peoples they exploited.

Despite the power of colonizers who claimed lands that were already owned and populated by indigenous peoples, resistance is an integral part of the story of colonialism. Even before decolonization, indigenous people on all continents staged violent and nonviolent resistance to their conquerors.

Benefits and harm

Colonial governments invested in infrastructure and trade and disseminated medical and technological knowledge. In some cases, they encouraged literacy, the adoption of Western human rights standards, and sowed the seeds for democratic institutions and systems of government. Some former colonies, like Ghana, experienced a rise in nutrition and health with colonial rule, and colonial European settlement has been linked to some development gains.

However, coercion and forced assimilation often accompanied those gains, and scholars still debate colonialism’s many legacies. Colonialism’s impacts include environmental degradation, the spread of disease, economic instability, ethnic rivalries, and human rights violations—issues that can long outlast one group’s colonial rule.