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Colonialism is usually understood as a political doctrine promoting and justifying the exploitation by a colonizing power of a territory under its control either for its own benefit or for the benefit of the colons settled in this territory. In this sense, colonialism refers mainly to the unequal relationships developed between European colonizers and their respective colonial empires. This conventional definition has been considered too restrictive by some scholars who, in the past 20 years, have stretched the notion. Colonialism has come to include many different kinds of unequal power relationships between two countries (e.g., between Israel and Palestine) and between the West and the world (the concept of colonialism replacing to some extent that of imperialism). Colonialism can also refer to unequal relationships between a dominant majority group and a minority group that is an indigenous group or considered to be not autochthonous (internal colonialism). Colonialism has also been used in association with larger modern political and economic processes such as the economic world system since the 16th century or, more generally, with a vision of European “modernity.” The polysemy of colonialism is largely due to the renewed interest, since the 1980s, in the colonial and postcolonial periods among literary critics, historians, anthropologists, and political scientists. In this research paper, colonialism is analyzed only as a set of complex, unequal, and past relationships linking European colonizing powers to colonies (for other meanings, see the entry on postcolonial-ism). It is, thus, useful to dissociate colonialism as a political doctrine forged by those writing during the colonial period from colonialism as a paradigm reexamined by scholars since the 1980s. In the last section of this research paper, the way postcolonial thinkers have portrayed colonialism is briefly explored before other approaches examining colonialism from a more political, social, and economic angle are examined.
Colonialism as a Political Doctrine
The word colonialism is created from the words colonial and colony, which have a longer history. English and French terms for colonial and colony derive from colonus, the Latin word for “farmer.” The founding of colonies was one of the strategies the ancient Romans employed in establishing their empire. During the Renaissance and the 16th-century European expansion, the words colon and colony gradually took on their current meaning: The word colon referred to a person living in a colony, as opposed to an inhabitant of a European colonial power; the world colony designated a territory dominated and administrated by a foreign power or a group of settlers; the verb to colonize gradually came to mean “to conquer a territory.” At different periods but mainly in the second half of the 18th century, the words colonial, colonize, and colonization appeared in English and were then translated into French.
The term colonialism obviously derived from colonial, but it appeared later, in the framework of 19th-century imperialism. It first appeared in English around the middle of the 19th century and was used to mean practices or idioms peculiar to, or characteristic of, a colony. In 1886, it was used to mean the colonial system or principle, thus referring to colonialism as a systematic and wide-ranging phenomenon. In France, it also followed the pace of overseas expansion. The word colonist, common after the conquest of Algeria in 1830, referred specifically to a partisan of the colonization of Algeria, while anticolonist referred to opponents of this process of colonization. This specific use did not last, however, and colonialism/ anticolonialism came to replace the terms colonist/ anticolonist in the early 20th century.
It is thus not really surprising that colonialism became a political doctrine promoted by theorists and defended by interest groups only in the 19th century, during the heyday of imperialism. Colonialism can hardly be understood without the element of self-legitimation inherent in it. The most powerful form of self-legitimating was the colonizer’s claim of improving the conquered country and bringing the fruits of progress and modernity to the subject peoples. All European powers claimed to pursue a civilizing project in their colonies, but they used different terminologies to this end. In the 19th century, it was called improvement, betterment, or moral and material progress. All these terms were then subsumed under the term civilizing mission, which became the imperial ideology and official doctrine from the late 19th century onward. Parallel to this historical trend, there was an increasing feeling of racial superiority in European nations, along with the development of a positivist approach in the natural and human sciences associated with an increasing obsession with classifying people, plants, and animals. Some Western philosophers, academics, writers, and politicians developed a new vision of the world. There were continents with history and those without history (Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831); there were superior and inferior races to colonize (Jules Ferry, 1832-1893), fortunate and less fortunate races to educate (Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936), inferior and superior languages (Ernest Renan, 1823-1892), and a primitive or prelogical mode of thought and a logical one (Lucien Levy-Bruhl, 1857-1939).
In the 19th century, however, colonialism as a political ideology was not yet a unifying body of knowledge. In the British Empire, the aim for moral improvement and material betterment of society became common among a generation of administrators guided by the 18th-century legal reforms of Warren Hastings (1732-1818), Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805), and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Gradually, British historiography started to describe colonization as a history of progress. This is well exemplified by James Mill’s History of British India, an early and influential piece of colonial historiography that was published in 1818. In contrast, a specific doctrine of modern colonization emerged in France only in the early years of the Third Republic (1871-1940). Following Germany’s defeat of France in 18701871 and France’s loss of the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, some disparate groups developed a common set of arguments to justify overseas expansion. In 1874, the economist Paul
Leroy-Beaulieu (1843-1916) advanced the view in his famous book De la colonisation chez les peuples modernes (Colonization among modern nations) that investing in colonies was the best business for an old and rich country such as France. The most influential Republican leaders, Leon Gambetta (1838-1882) and Jules Ferry, also defended colonial expansion as a way to recover from the events of the 1870s. While colonization initially divided monarchists, republicans, and radicals in France, no political parties in Europe opposed colonization prior to World War I.
The making of 20th-century colonialism was a process driven by a set of intellectuals, writers, and academics and by a new administrative machinery (the colonial office) assisted by experts (ethnographers, ethnologists, and later on anthropologists and sociologists) and increasingly after World War II by technicians (medical officers, educationists, town planners, welfarists, etc.). While the idea of progress was very common in justifications of colonial conquest in the 19th century, a considerable debate emerged in the early colonial days of administration concerning what kind of colonial rule was desirable. Assimilation, association, and indirect rule are generally considered to be the three major colonial doctrines that emerged between the end of the 19th century and the 1920s. This debate became most intense in France and Germany; it was more restricted in the United Kingdom, where there was general agreement that indirect rule should be the underlying philosophy of the system of government. The doctrine of assimilation was based on the heritage of the French Revolution and the belief in the equality of all people irrespective of their racial origin or cultural background. Colonized people had to prove themselves worthy of assimilation by demonstrating to the authorities that they had the attributes needed for citizenship. Practically, however, access to full rights of French citizenship was highly restricted, mainly to the inhabitants of four communes in Senegal (Dakar, Goree, Rufisque, and Saint-Louis) and to a limited number of educated people (evolues) before World War II. In contrast, the doctrine of indirect rule was inspired by the idea that Europeans and Africans were culturally distinct, and indigenous political institutions were necessary for the purposes of local government. This was conceptualized by Lord Frederick Lugard, Governor General of Nigeria from 1914 to 1919, in his Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa, published in 1922. Rather than preserving the precolonial polity, indirect rule largely modified the public authority of traditional chiefs to ensure the exploitation of the country through means such as the introduction of taxes and forced labor and the modification of customary law. The differences in colonial doctrines should not be overstated. For instance, association was mainly another word for indirect rule in French colonial theory. In the administrative offices within the colonies themselves, colonial theory was less important than in European capitals; most of the time, colonial administration used indirect rule without acknowledging it as the cheapest way to govern colonies.
The participation of soldiers from European colonies in the two World Wars, the multiplication of colonial exhibitions all over Europe, the increasing number of colonial magazines, and the teaching of the history and geography of the empires in schools generated popular support for European colonization between the two wars. The legitimacy of colonialism was little contested at the time. Anticolonialism was limited to a few writers and to the extreme left (although the Communist Party in general was not really anticolonial when it was in government). It was only during and after World War II, with the rise of nationalism in Asian and African countries, that colonialism became radically contested both in colonizing and in colonized countries. Providing different rights to different peoples on the basis of their racial classification became illegitimate after the defeat of the Nazis and the rise of a bipolar world. In addition to the revolutionary anticolonialism of the far left, there was a broader moral opposition to violence arising in the colonial context, such as that in Madagascar, Kenya, and Algeria.
The various European colonial powers reacted differently to the new postwar order. Portugal decided not to concede independence or freedom to its African colonies, while other European governments granted new political and social rights and tried to reshape a more legitimate colonialism under the new ideology of development through technology, public health, and economic and local government reforms. Subjects were transformed into citizens, and they began to demand the same social and political rights as those in the European colonizing countries. The cost of this new dispensation, however, was too high for postwar European budgets; these economic concerns, together with the rise of nationalism, convinced European leaders to give up formal political ties with their former colonies. In less than 15 years, colonialism ceased to be a legitimate political doctrine and ultimately disappeared in the early 1960s. It survived only in Portugal, in Portuguese colonies and in settler colonies, where it was described sometimes as internal colonialism (as, e.g., in South Africa or Rhodesia). Elsewhere, the notion of colonialism and anticolonialism was replaced by neocolonialism, a neologism used to describe, and more often to denounce, the conditions under which former colonies continued to serve the economic, political, military, and other interests of powerful, mostly Western, countries. The concept of neocolonialism was popularized by the new independent leader of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, in his 1964 book Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism.
Colonialism as a Contested Paradigm
When colonialism was a highly contested political issue in the 1950s, the French sociologist Georges Balandier wrote a pioneering article on the colonial situation (1951), in which he explained the necessity of understanding colonization as both a social phenomenon and a specific historical process. Balandier’s recommendation was not followed, however, as researchers in the 1960s and 1970s were no longer interested in a political ideology that had been banished from the realm of legitimate forms of political organization. As mentioned by Frederick Cooper, there is something strange about the writing of colonialism: Scholarly interest in colonialism arose when colonial empires had already lost their international legitimacy. This rediscovery is partly explained by the rise, in academic institutions of the English-speaking world, of what has been labeled as postcolonial studies.
During the first decades after independence, the ideology of progress and modernization (then perceived to be Western) was largely shared by the political and intellectual elites of former colonies. However, the various projects of modernization of the state and the economy implemented after independence were seen by critics as inefficient and socially unjust. It is against this background that a critique of colonialism reemerged within a group of intellectuals from the former colonial world, who were mostly educated in Western academic institutions. Edward Said’s book Orientalism, published in 1978, is often considered to be a starting point for the analysis of colonialism as a specific configuration of knowledge and power. Influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, Said argues that the intellectual construction of the Orient by Western scholars has served as an implicit justification for the colonial and imperial ambitions of European nations and the United States. Valentin Mudimbe, 10 years later, proposed a similar textual and cultural reading of the colonial domination of Africa, asserting that Africa was invented by a colonial and anthropological discourse and this process was a way for Europeans to build their own identity. Also important in the critique of the European colonial ideology was the initiative launched by a group of Indian historians such as Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Gyanendra Pandey, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, who contested the nationalist historiography of India. In 1982, they initiated a series of edited books titled Subaltern Studies, which focused on the subaltern groups (or oppressed people) of colonial India. The central notion of Subaltern Studies is the notion of “agency,” which includes autonomy of the subaltern in the political arena and a consciousness of self that is not controlled by the Western elites and their nationalist counterparts, who have supposedly adopted the values of their colonizers. This agency can be particularly understood in the words and knowledge of subaltern people.
The major aim of postcolonial studies was to deconstruct a Western epistemology associated with colonialism that reified the non-Western world in an ahistorical moment. The result was a critique of the civilizing-mission discourses; the works of Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism (1953); Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957); and Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) received new attention from the 1980s onward as texts that pioneered the denunciation of the pernicious cultural and psychological effects of colonialism. This rediscovery has largely popularized the idea that colonized people have no other story than that of colonial oppression.
According to the historian Frederick Cooper, a significant part of postcolonial thought has taken colonial studies out of its historical context, treating colonialism abstractly, generically, as located somewhere between 1492 and the 1970s, and as something to be juxtaposed with an equally flat vision of European “modernity.” Moreover, colonial societies should not be understood merely in terms of a “European versus indigenous” dichotomy, and the actions of former colonized people should not be reduced to merely resistance to colonialism or collaboration with the colonial order. Similarly, when colonialism is portrayed as a power-demarcating and racializing space, the complexities of the colonial situation are ignored or one tends to neglect the internal divisions within European and indigenous communities alike.
The analysis of the relationship between colonialism and biomedicine can be used as an example to explain the capacity of colonialism to produce both a contradictory and a generic discourse on colonized people. According to Megan Vaughan, who traced the emergence of various medical discourses in Africa, there was, on the one hand, a long tradition, elaborated by Christian missionaries, that viewed the “primitiveness” of African societies as a factor predisposing them to certain diseases. On the other hand, research on the relationship between colonialism and biomedicine from the interwar period indicated that Africans got sick because they forgot who they were: Urbanization, industrialization, and deculturation were seen as factors leading to insanity, sexually transmitted diseases, or leprosy. Taken together, these contradictory viewpoints show, however, a fundamental difference in the emergence of bio-medical discourse in Europe: Africans were always conceived of as members of a collectivity—as colonial people—and beyond that as members of collectivities—in the form of tribes or cultural groups— and this led to different views in tracing the relationship between colonialism and biomedicine.
This reification of groups by colonialism has been contested by social historians and anthropologists. Groups and categories under colonial rule (chiefs, the educated elite, traders, peasants, workers, and also women, youth, and elders) pursued their own agendas, defended their own interests, and consequently changed the limits of subordination within the colonial system. In this sense, opposing too markedly the “bourgeoisie” and the “working class” or the “elite” and the “people” includes the risk of reproducing the old colonial dichotomy as well as creating new ones (opposing the modern to the traditional). A large part of African and Indian historiography in the past 3 decades has tried to overcome this vision present in colonialism by looking at the agency of individuals and groups, the contingent nature of their connections and networks, and their respective roles in shaping power relations. Actually, colonialism did not produce only differences between colonizers and the colonized. It also produced individuals with varying investments in a range of identities, sexual identities, class identities, religious identities, and ethnic identities. Similarly, colonialism not only led to conflicts between colonizers and the colonized, it was also decisive in shaping new roles, divisions, and conflicts between elders and youth, men and women, and migrants and urban dwellers.
The understanding of conflicting colonial repertoires helps explain why colonialism was not pervasively efficacious in implementing modernization. According to Nicholas Thomas (1994), “colonialism was not a unitary project but a fractured one, riddled with contradictions and exhausted as much by its internal debates as by the resistance of the colonized” (p. 51). Colonized people were able to turn the discourse of modernization into a language of claims concerning the obligations of colonial powers. For instance, when development emerged as a colonial project with aid from the former colonial power, it did so in the face of serious objective challenges from the West Indies and Africa in the 1930s and the 1940s.
The various forms of present-day oppressions in some former colonies have sometimes been regarded as a legacy of colonialism. For instance, Mahmood Mamdani (1996) argues that colonial rule created a “bifurcated state” that distinguished between a despotic tribal power in rural areas and a democratic civil society based in towns and cities. According to Mamdani, this duality of power has been a major obstacle to democratization in postindependence Africa. However, historians have shown that colonial power was limited by tribal chiefs’ obligation to ensure the well-being of their community to maintain the legitimacy on which colonial authorities depended. As mentioned by Thomas Spear (2003), colonial dependence on chieftaincy often limited colonial power as much as facilitating it. The reification by colonialism of categories of citizen/subject and urban/rural overstates the role of urban and elite power and undervalues the strategic place of rural constituencies and the importance of urban-rural links in the making of African politics. Eventually, drawing a direct causal connection between the indirect rule of the 1920s and 1930s and the politics of authoritarianism and ethnicity in the 1980s and 1990s fails to see what lies in between, especially the explosion of citizenship in the final years of colonial rule.
Historians, anthropologists, and political scientists interested in understanding the everyday practices of colonialism have changed their framework of analysis to take account of these issues. They today insist on the necessity of looking simultaneously at the colonizing countries and the colonies and the process by which each entity affected the political transformation of the whole empire. This marks an important break with former imperial historiography, which had long treated colonies as marginal to a history that remained national or as a projection of national culture and power. Empirical evidence now suggests that new forms of administration, town planning, architecture, policing, and medical practice, to mention just a few examples, were not only a one-way imposition of norms coming from the metropolis but were also coproduced in the colonies and contribute to larger debates about the nature of colonialism and its impact. Colonialism profoundly shaped both colonized and colonizers’ society.
- Balandier, G. (1951). La situation coloniale: Approche theorique [The colonial position: Theoretical approach]. Cahiers internationaux de sociologie [International Sociology Notebooks], 11, 44-79.
- Cooper, F. (2005). Colonialism in question: Theory, knowledge, history. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Cooper, F., & Stoler, A. L. (Eds.). (1997). Tensions of empires: Colonial cultures in a bourgeois world. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Fischer-Tine, H., & Mann, M. (Eds.). (2004). Colonialism as civilising mission. London: Wimbledon.
- Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Mudimbe, V. I. (1988). The invention of Africa: Gnosis, philosophy and the order of knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Pouchepadass, J. (2007). Le projet critique des postcolonial studies entre hier et demain [The critical postcolonial studies project between yesterday and tomorrow]. In M. C. Smouts (Eds.), La situation postcoloniale: Les postcolonial studies dans le debat francais [The postcolonial position: The postcolonial studies in the French debate] (pp. 173-218). Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques.
- Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
- Spear, T. (2003). Neo-traditionalism and the limits of invention in British colonial Africa. Journal of African History, 44, 29-50.
- Thomas, N. (1994). Colonialism’s culture: Anthropology, travel and government. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
- Vaughan, M. (1991). Curing their ills: Colonial power and African illness. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.