What is Colonialism?
If you’ve heavily discussed imperialism, you might be asking yourself “well what is colonialism?” We wouldn’t blame you, the two terms are often conflated.
Quick overview of imperialism, it’s the policy of expansionism. It’s when a nation extends its power to encroach on other nations, exerting its resources on them to take control of that nation. Oftentimes this results in the subjugation of people native to that nation. On top of that, imperialists often claim a faux moral high ground to justify their actions.
Colonialism is more narrow in scope than its imperial counterpart. Generally speaking, colonialism can be seen as a manifestation of imperialism. Kind of like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Colonialism is definitively imperialist, but not all forms of imperialism result in colonialism.
If you’re reading closely, the word “colonialism” is derived from “colony,” and that’s no coincidence. Colonialism is the extension and exertion of power from one nation over another by establishing a colony in the second nation.
What Motivates Colonialism?
In our post about imperialism, we looked mostly through a 16th century-onwards lens. Basically, we looked mostly at European imperialism. We’re going to do the same here to stay parallel. That, and Europe is pretty infamous for both aggressive imperialism and colonialism (which may be why the two are conflated so often).
Early European colonization was motivated primarily by mercantilism. You don’t need to know much more than “Europe wanted to grow its economy.” Basically, these colonies were sort of “trade outposts” to boost the economies of the colony’s home nation. They served as a kind of “middle-man” to make things easier.
Of course, that isn’t the whole story. There’s a reason colonizers are historically categorized as invaders and not foreign ambassadors here to bring you goods. The economy boosting we were talking about earlier often came at the heavy expense of the indigenous region. This would often take the form of human labor. Just so we’re not beating around the bush; colonizers would come in and enslave the native population.
Colonizers would often bring with them customs and culture from their home nation. These customs, understandably, would likely not be shared by those native to the colonized region. What this often resulted in was conversion. Be it economic systems, language, religion, political systems, or otherwise.
People who actually study colonialism tend to break it down into four sub-types. Because motivations may differ, we’ve included them as a subheading under what we just discussed.
This is essentially immigration from the home nation to a new region. This can be for economic reasons like we just discussed, but it can be for others as well. Settler colonialism can seek religious conversion as a large-scale mission, or simply be to exert political control over a new region. The core here is that the invading colonists are seeking to replace the original populations of the region they colonize. Key examples include the USA and Australia.
This is more in line with early European colonialism. These colonies existed mostly to boost the economies of their home nations. As discussed, this would often result in the exploitation of not only natural resources, but human labor as well.
Surrogate colonialism isn’t exactly what it sounds like. It’s more like proxy colonialism. In short, a nation sponsors another group into colonizing somewhere else. Prime example being Zionism in Palestine. The Jewish movement to establish their own state in Palestine was largely supported by the British Empire, so we refer to this as surrogate colonialism on the part of the British and Jewish.
Surrogate colonialism is often associated with neocolonialism, or in short, it’s the form most colonialist policy takes the form of now.
This is basically colonial exploitation that’s internal within a sovereign state. So one state isn’t invading another.
Similar to imperialism, invading colonizers often see themselves as superior to the indigenous peoples of the region they invade. Oftentimes colonizers are acting in the best interests of their home nations. This can lead to the colonizers becoming convinced they have a right to rule over the region they colonize.
But it’s important to remember the difference in roots from both imperialism and colonialism. Imperialism is derived from the Latin “imperium,” which refers to an empire. Therefore, imperialism’s goal is to extend an empire. Colonialism is rooted in the Latin for “farmer.” So its origin is more rooted in establishing social hierarchies and economies than it is about a larger empire.
However, colonialism is still an extension of imperialism, and, as we’ve discussed, used to pursue imperialist goals.
There are some who argue on the side of colonialism (and by proxy imperialism). One of the primary arguments levied in favor colonialism is modernization. Those who are on the side of colonialism argue that colonialism has led to a more modernized world. However, there is a large caveat to this argument.
Arguing that colonialism has led to a modern world implicitly argues that the best form of governance and society is western. The whole idea of “modernization” was introduced by western European society. In that case arguing that colonialism and imperialism modernize regions becomes an entirely Eurocentric justification.