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This research paper begins with an exploration of the semantic field of ‘colony’ and its theoretical implications. On this basis, an outline of the history of colonization and colonialism hints first at analogous cases in antiquity and elsewhere in world history, then describes European expansion since the early Middle Ages down to twentieth-century imperialism. Next, a typology of expansion processes, of individual motives of participants and of colonies is presented. Finally, after the history of decolonization, the consequences of colonialism in the postcolonial world are discussed, postcolonialist theory included.
- The History and Geography of Colonization and Colonialism
- Typology of Colonization and Colonialism
- The Consequences of Colonialism and the Postcolonial World
“Colonization is [.] a phenomenon of colossal vagueness” (Osterhammel, 1995: p. 4), because it covers large and rather different parts of the world and its history. Therefore, a convincing theory of colonization and colonialism in general or of European colonialism in particular does not exist and will probably never exist, because it is not feasible. But scholars have still to define the concepts they use, because an agreement upon their meaning makes communication possible. Colonization has to do with migration, because it describes the movement of people from one part of the world to another to establish a settlement, quite often an agrarian one. In this sense, the term has a neutral connotation. In contrast, colonialism has become a general invective against Western policy, especially since the Bandung conference of recently decolonized Asian countries in 1955. In the nineteenth century, however, it was used more or less neutrally to characterize the condition of colonies and the (speech) habits of colonials (Fieldhouse, 1981: p. 6). One has no choice but to accept the change of meaning that colonialism has undergone, although one can try to neutralize political emotions. In this sense, colonialism can be defined as the control of one people by another culturally different one, an unequal relationship that exploits differences of economic, political, and ideological development between the two (Reinhard, 2008: p. 1). Even in European countries, unbalanced internal group relations as in the case of Britain’s ‘Celtic fringe’ were qualified as internal colonialism (Hind, 1984). People instead of nation or state is used because basically no sophisticated political organization is necessary on either side. And the terms difference and development are used in a strictly descriptive sense and without any value judgment. They do not suggest that it is more desirable to have nuclear weapons instead of bow and arrow or that there exists a general and ‘normal’ path of human development with the West at the end. But differences of development are essential to distinguish colonial rule from empire in general. Roman rule over ancient Greece and Russian control of East Germany were imperial, not colonial.
Nevertheless, colonial empires are still a variety of empire in general. One uses empire worldwide to designate any large political unit before the modern state reached its maturity in Europe and started to expand from there. In contrast to the state’s homogenous structure and consequential outstanding concentration of power, empires remained loosely structured and more often than not organized in concentric circles of decreasing control by the center. The Ottoman Empire, China, Siam, Madagascar, and initially also Japan remained empires in that sense, whereas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries their European counterparts became powerful modern states. Their notorious superiority enabled them to build up additional colonial empires around the hard core of European national power states. Only this exceptional unbalanced constellation made ephemeral European world hegemony possible. In addition, Western colonies in the Americas, in South Africa, and in Australia established a secondary colonialism in their parts of the world.
Colonialism, as an unequal relationship between human groups, very often was the outcome of imperialism, defined as a political activity with the intention to establish colonialism, in other words, a colonial empire. But if the meaning of imperialism is limited to expansive policy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, colonial expansion has to be used to designate earlier policies. Only the similarly unbalanced power relations between Amerindian stone age empires and Iberian monarchies allowed the formation of colonial empires in the New World as early as the sixteenth century.
During nineteenth-century European world hegemony colonialism changed, under certain conditions, into the varieties of informal control or even of informal empire. Semicolonies such as China or the Ottoman Empire about 1900 were formally independent but in reality under the economic and therefore also political control of the West. In contrast, in the nineteenth century, West Africa under British paramountcy was a case of informal empire. After decolonization, colonialism as a form of political dependency has become a mere phenomenon of history. But economic and cultural domination by former colonial powers such as Britain and France on the one hand, and by the United States and the US-controlled world economy on the other, still exists. It has been labeled neocolonialism. In the 1960s and 1970s, theories of structural dependency explained economic underdevelopment as a consequence of Western economic domination and as self-reproducing without chance of escape because of Western control of the world economy. Several success stories of former colonies such as Brazil or Taiwan have falsified these theories, but their lesson on informal control as an element of colonialism remains.
The History and Geography of Colonization and Colonialism
The expansion of Europe between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries was one of the most momentous processes of history. World history in the sense of global history became possible only through that process, because no part of the world escaped the direct or indirect impact of Europe. In 1914, half of the land surface of the earth and one-third of its population were still under direct colonial rule. But this was only the last chapter of a long story, because colonization and colonialism are essential components of history in general, especially, if one does not omit continental expansion in Russia, the Americas, and elsewhere in favor of overseas colonialism. Colonization in the sense of expansion of settlement and agrarian land use could even be considered the quintessence of human history before industrialization. Chinese colonialism is perhaps the most remarkable case because of the relative continuity of Han- Chinese expansion starting from the lower Huang basin thousands of years ago and leading to the present penetration of Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang. The ancient world of the Mediterranean was full of Phoenician, Greek, and Roman settlement colonies.
Europe was expansive right from the outset; it was a creation of its own expansion. To a large extent, European history consists of successive waves of expansion. The Vikings were followed by colonization in Eastern Europe. People from central and Western Europe settled in the East, a process to be continued by Russia in Siberia until the Pacific Ocean was reached. The French who were excluded from the colonization of the East became protagonists of the crusades instead. The first European colonies established by the crusaders in today’s Middle East were a failure. But in the same context, Italians developed a system of maritime trade and factories combined with the colonial production of high-value commodities such as sugar. For some time, they participated in a world trading system extending from Greenland to China. On the other hand, Spain and Portugal colonized the reconquered South of the Iberian Peninsula and the Canaries, whereas England did the same in Wales and Ireland. Such experiences of the Middle Ages became predecessors and models of the later expansion of Europe. Not by chance America was ‘discovered’ by a Genoese and ‘baptized’ after a Florentine in the service of Castile.
Beginning in 1415, the Portuguese followed the coast of Africa until they found their way to India in 1498. To control the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, they established a trade empire based on fortified ports, factories, and colonial rule over spice producers such as Ceylon and the Moluccas, extending from East Africa to China and Japan with Goa in the center. During the European conflicts of the early seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company, in contrast to Portuguese crown capitalism a privileged private corporation of shareholders, conquered most of the Portuguese system, but established a new capital in Batavia on Java. Arriving at the same time, the French and English East India Companies created their bases on the coast of India, a comparative advantage when European demand changed in the seventeenth century and Indian textiles became the leading commodity. In the eighteenth century, they were replaced by tea and coffee with the China trade as core business. But trade remained under strict control of the Chinese and Japanese empires and ‘Western barbarians’ were only tolerated until the middle of the nineteenth century when China and Japan were ‘opened’ for free trade by Western military aggression. On Java and in India, however, the Mataram and Mughal empires began to disintegrate in the eighteenth century. This led to the control of Java by the Dutch and the conquest of all India by the British. Already in the later eighteenth century “the parallels with today’s corporate leviathans soon became overpowering, with the Company outstripping Wal-Mart in terms of market power, Enron for corruption and Union Carbide for human devastation” (Robins, 2006: p. XI). Most of it was the result of contingency, but besides the interest in profits the ambition of local European military, the ‘men on the spot,’ was a constant factor. For some time, they could also rely on the superiority of soldiers drilled in the European way.
Discovery and colonialism went hand in hand down to the twentieth century. Since 1492, Castilians competing with the Portuguese discovered and conquered their India in the West. Spaniards emigrated to live in the cities of a New World. But despite a tremendous loss of native population, mostly through infectious diseases imported by the conquerors, the labor force consisted mostly of Amerindians, especially when, after the discovery of silver mines in northern Mexico and highland Peru, America became the treasure house of the Spanish monarchy. A protobureaucratic system of colonial government was established instead of traditional feudal lordship desired by the conquerors. In theory, the Spanish empire consisted of territories with equal legal status. The term colony was not used for overseas possessions before the eighteenth century. But Iberian America was to remain a racially stratified society. Metropolitan Spain did not profit much from American silver, which, because of differential inflation rates and overambitious policy, flowed out of the country to feed the Asian trade of the Dutch and the English. Via Europe and directly via the Philippines, much of the American silver ended up in India and China and favored economic and political growth there. A kind of world trade system originated, but probably with rather marginal economic impact on Europe and on Asia. Brazil became a Portuguese colony almost by chance, economically important only in the later sixteenth century when sugar cane was grown on its abundant fertile soils. Indian labor was scarce here but the Portuguese controlled the opposite coast and therefore were able to provide the sugar industry with African slaves. When the sugar cycle reached its end, gold and diamonds created a new boom in Brazil during the eighteenth century, but with similar negative consequences for Portugal as for Spain 200 years earlier.
In the seventeenth century, the Dutch transferred the Brazilian plantation economy to the Caribbean where the English, French, and Dutch had conquered several islands from Spain. No Amerindian labor force was left there, but the Dutch had occupied some of the Portuguese strongholds on the West African coast with the British and the French to follow. Thus, the West Indies could be provided with African slaves. The English were the leading slave traders of the eighteenth century when the sugar business reached its culmination point. Large parts of the Caribbean were converted into an agroindustrial complex with a completely artificial society of black slaves, white lords, and an increasing number of mulattos.
In the meantime, another type of artificial new world had originated in North America, which in the long run became a white man’s country, the first and most successful of several ‘new Europes’ created by about 60 million Europeans who emigrated between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. North American Indians were few in number and not able to defend the land white immigrants desired. French Canada with its small settler population could at least attempt their integration, whereas British North America had no room for them. They were removed, marginalized, or wiped out. Around 1780, British North America had more than 2.6 million inhabitants, compared with about 8 million inhabitants of England and Wales.
In 1775–1823, Europe lost most of her American colonies. But Britain, which dominated the colonial scene for most of the nineteenth century, compensated for the loss with the conquest of India and with several new colonies, some of them acquired during the wars against France, like Canada and South Africa, others new foundations in Australia and New Zealand, which had been explored during the late eighteenth century. But they were accepted rather reluctantly, because in an age of British-dominated free trade colonial rule was considered unnecessary and too expensive. Therefore, self-financed self-government of white settler-colonies was now welcome. Between 1840 and 1931, these British ‘dominions’ became quasi-independent. This was the age of the so-called free trade imperialism when political pressure and military violence were used only exceptionally where free trade relations had to be enforced as in the cases of China and Japan (Gallagher and Robinson, 1953).
This relaxed attitude was to change in the age of imperialism, when steamships, deep sea cables, telegraph, and finally wireless transmission improved worldwide communication and Western superiority increased tremendously with military technology such as the machine gun (Maxim gun). Now, nervous competition of old and new powers under the ideological impact of nationalistic social Darwinism led to the division of Africa within a few decades based upon the legal fiction of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) and the right to take possession of such supposedly unoccupied territory. Most of what was left of Asia was also occupied or at least controlled economically. Governments were now much more engaged in colonial activities than ever before. Besides Britain’s notorious rival France and the old colonial powers Portugal and Spain, new competitors entered the stage: Russia and the King of Belgium, Germany and Italy, the United States and Japan, the first non-Western imperialist power, which a few decades earlier had been close to becoming a semicolony. After World War I, the German colonial empire and the Ottoman Empire were divided among the victors. The formal qualification as mandates of the League of Nations did not make much difference. Neither was the League of Nation able to prevent the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931–32 and the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935. Ethiopia had defended herself successfully against Italian aggression in 1896, but as the last African country had to yield to colonialism – if only for a few years. Times were beginning to change.
Less spectacular than expansion overseas, and therefore often ignored by historians of colonialism, was the ‘quiet’ continental expansion of Russia and the United States; of Canada, Australia, and South Africa; and of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. This expansion was possible only at the expense of indigenous populations and through the exploitation of differences of development. This turned out a very effective variety of colonialism, because the result was most often a white man’s country, another ‘new Europe,’ where the former population was marginalized or wiped out. Only in few cases such as South Africa, Russian Central Asia, and Caucasia, non- Western groups were numerically and culturally strong enough for later successful decolonization.
Typology of Colonization and Colonialism
There was no master plan for colonial expansion. Quite often, it happened as unintentional consequence of some other action. Nevertheless, typical sequences of actions occurred again and again, for instance, preventive occupation to keep out possible competitors. The Portuguese used this in sixteenth-century Brazil, as did most European powers in nineteenth-century Africa. Military intervention in Africa was sometimes not intended as permanent occupation, because it was much too expensive. But when African resistance made a retreat impossible without loss of national prestige, the temporary occupation became a permanent colony. If not a matter of prestige, colonial policy was always based on a kind of cost-benefit analysis. Colonies were expected to be profitable. At least they had to finance their own government. The famous British model of indirect rule did originate much less from political wisdom or respect for other civilizations than from the necessity to keep administration costs down. In reality, national budgets only profited from colonial empires in exceptional cases, because infrastructural costs were considered the responsibility of the government, whereas colonial profits remained private.
The most common individual motives for participating in colonial activities were indeed the desire for extra profits and the improvement of social status. These were certainly not the only motives, but they were almost never absent. Of course, their character changed over time. The conquerors of British India were capital accumulating profit seekers, but like those of Spanish America still with the intention to invest in social status and not in capitalist enterprise in the way of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second most common motive, missionary zeal, also changed over time. Instead of spreading the gospel and European civilization, modern colonizers followed the urge of a civilizing mission to educate barbarians. They fought slavery and tried to transform ‘lazy natives’ into industrious workers. In the age of imperialism, however, it became common conviction that inferior races could not be ‘improved,’ but were doomed to serve or to die. Thus, colonial adventurers could feel entitled to pose without restraint as the master race.
From the fifteenth to the twentieth century, colonies usually represented one of three basic types, sometimes as a mixture.
- Trade and/or military bases such as the stronghold system of the Portuguese trade empire or Britain’s naval bases in the nineteenth century or the frontier forts of the United States. Spanish ecclesiastical missions such as the Jesuit reductions of Paraguay sometimes served a similar purpose. Of course, systems of bases were also an essential part of informal empires.
- Colonies of settlement, probably the primitive type of colony, especially when combined with a kind of stronghold as in the case of the Roman ‘Colonia.’ Larger settlement colonies could only be founded at the expense of indigenous people who were either removed (New England) or transformed into a dependent labor force for an ‘improved’ economy (Spanish America and South Africa) or replaced by workers of foreign origin (Africans in the Caribbean and East Indians in Guyana).
- Colonies of exploitation with only a small number of members of the ruling people present most of them only temporarily, to run business, administration, and defense. Parts of colonial Latin America resembled that type, but it became the dominating type during nineteenth- and twentieth- century colonialism with British India as the prototype and much of Africa to follow. The administrative penetration of this type of colony tended to be rather limited.
In consequence, colonies of exploitation could not be ruled without massive collaboration from the indigenous people (Robinson, 1974). But collaboration had already been a necessary precondition for the Spanish conquest. In colonial wars, natives quite often fought on both sides. To consider such collaborators as traitors, however, is an anachronistic value judgment of modern nationalist historiography. People like the Tlazcaltecans quite rationally served their own interest regardless of a Mexican nation that did not yet exist. Recent research on the colonial situation from the perspective of people under colonial rule has corrected such simplifications. Non-European history no longer looks just like an inversion of the eurocentric pattern when the colonialist image of benevolent Western heroes ruling inferior races for their own benefit is simply inverted in the anticolonial story of Western rascals systematically abusing helpless non-Western victims. To some extent, the image of the helpless native itself is a creation of latent racism. In reality, a broad range of options to cope quite successfully with colonial domination was available to indigenous people, to some extent even to African slaves. The traditional contrast between colonial lords as active initiators of colonial processes and colonial subjects who had no choice but to suffer passively or at best to react against the actions of their betters has been questioned. But to believe after decolonization that colonial rule was only a short episode without much impact on the colonies seems to be an anticolonialist oversimplification, even in Africa.
The term decolonization was created in 1932 (Albertini, 1966: p. 28) but the process is much older. A first wave of decolonization, the independence movements of most American settler colonies and of the Afro-Americans of Haiti 1775–1823, reduced European colonial empires drastically. But Britain at least knew how to compensate for these losses. On the other hand, some lessons of the first wave were learned and made the second wave, the gradual increase of self-government in Britain’s white dominions 1840–1931 much more easy going. Between the World Wars, anticolonial movements emerged in several exploitation colonies, with British India in the lead. Japanese occupation of Asian colonies during World War II fostered independence movements that were successful after the war in a third wave of decolonization in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, Africa was apparently not yet ready for decolonization. Colonial powers once again tried instead to compensate for their losses in Asia by economic development of their possessions in Africa. However, under growing political pressure, some African countries became independent in the 1950s, and most in what was the fourth wave of decolonization during the 1960s. A fifth wave began in the Portuguese colonies in 1974–75 and accelerated political change in South Africa. But the sixth wave of decolonization in the 1990s, this time internal, included not only the end of South Africa’s white minority regime, but also quite unexpectedly the breakdown of Soviet rule in Central Asia and Caucasia and Israel’s first attempted arrangements with her Arabs.
Decolonization was a truly dialectical process, because colonial rule produced its own contradiction, which is politically frustrated new indigenous elites. Everywhere, Westernized groups and not the traditional authorities were in the lead of independence movements. But an independence movement or even an independence war was not enough. In most cases, a triangular constellation of political factors was the essential precondition; besides an internal independence movement, favorable international conditions such as allies, anticolonial policies of the world powers, and the United Nations, and the willingness of the colonial power to accept the unavoidable were also necessary.
The Consequences of Colonialism and the Postcolonial World
It is simply not true that colonial processes left no impact on former colonies. The postcolonial world is not the same as before, even in Europe. Several American plants, the potato in particular, became essential for Europe’s population and economic growth. Colonial bullion and colonial profits contributed to the rise of Europe, if rather marginally and indirectly. They were certainly not the sufficient precondition of industrialization. Colonial problems influenced European power relations, but rarely dominated them. Europe assimilated new cultural elements from all over the world, but without changing her character. In the colonies, however, ecology, economy, politics, society, and culture often changed more thoroughly, sometimes even fundamentally. However, this does not imply a one-sided modernization directed by Europe but rather processes of interaction.
Intentionally or unintentionally, colonial rule has transformed ecological systems. After new plant foods had been introduced, American savannahs changed into corn fields suffering from soil erosion and new weeds. Domesticated animals formerly unknown in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand revolutionized working and eating habits, transportation systems, and even the whole way of life of such groups as the Indians of the North American plains. Unknown infectious diseases killed millions who were replaced by an artificial population of immigrants and imported slaves.
The deliberate diffusion of European and especially American cultivated plants such as maize and manioc over Asia and Africa created a new agriculture and allowed an expansion of food production, a necessary precondition of modern population growth in the colonies. But colonial economies were first of all based upon the systematic exploitation of mineral resources such as American silver, African diamonds, gold and other ores, and more recently of oil in the Middle East and other parts of the world. In addition, they specialized in the production of high-value agrarian products such as sugar, coffee, and tea on large plantations. Colonial railways were a harbor-centered instrument of this export economy. Mines and plantations more often than not ruthlessly exploited a colonial labor force of slaves and contract and forced laborers. Because, as a rule, colonies could not industrialize, their independent successor states remained dependent on the world market price of their raw materials, which only in the case of oil took a turn to their advantage with lasting consequences.
The essential political heritage of colonialism is the modern state with its legislative, administrative, judicial, military, and educational apparatuses. Every former colony has changed into a modern nation-state, but strictly within the arbitrary and sometimes absurd colonial border lines. Therefore, some are extremely poor and very few are powerful enough for an independent foreign policy. But in contrast to former periods of history, weak states today have their existence guaranteed by the international community (Jackson, 1990). Internally, only few of them can build upon the tradition of a historical community. And instead of a modern civil society, their colonial heritage is ethnic fragmentation, to some extent artificially created by colonialism. Quite often, they had no alternative to the language of the former colonial power as national language. Under these circumstances, the modern state in general and Western democracy in particular could not become a success and were replaced by the parastateliness of self-organizing groups based on remarkable combinations of traditional and modern elements. Without generally accepted legitimacy and reliable civil servants, the political leaders had little other choice but to rely upon a neopatrimonial system of clients and upon the military.
Everywhere, colonialism has created new social groups living in Western-style urban environments: workers and employers, school teachers and professionals, and civil servants and professional soldiers. Women have found new roles and quite often emancipated themselves from traditional restrictions. All this is based on Western science and technology, on Western ideas and ideologies like rationalism and individualism, the rule of law and human rights, and Christianity and socialism. From this state of things, so-called postcolonialists have drawn the conclusion that political decolonization may be more or less finished and economic decolonization well under way, whereas mental or cultural decolonization has not even begun because nowadays nobody outside Europe is able to think in a non-European way. Even attempts to deconstruct this state of things have no choice but to employ intellectual instruments of European origin. However, paradoxically their very assessment of the interaction of colonizers and colonized in terms of hybridity, of third space, of in-between demonstrates that it is completely inadequate to assume a lingering continuity of mental colonialism. Because this state of things no longer implies cultural dependency, but rather the opposite: non-Western people in the meantime have appropriated a cultural heritage of Western origin. For example, the role of English as common language of the world stems from historic British and American dominance. Increasingly, however, the acceptance of ‘new Englishes’ all over the world indicates that the Anglo-Saxons have been expropriated of their language.
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