Political Aspects of Colonialism Research Paper

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Colonialism in the English language originally indicated a practice or idiom associated with British colonies (e.g., the phrase ‘the place was going ahead’ was described in 1887 as a ‘colonialism’) and was only recently applied to the relationships between metropolitan states and their colonial possessions. Its modern usage dates from the 1950s, although the relationships it embraces have a very long history indeed.

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The word is derived from the Latin colonia, which was a synonym for the Greek αποικια, meaning a settlement of people from home, and it should, therefore, properly apply to the process of establishing and governing such settlements. It is now closely linked, and often interchangeable, with imperialism, but it is a particular form of the latter. The ideas that the term embraces have shifted in line with the shift in the idea of a colony.

1. The Classic Colony

The classical Greek colony was a new community, originating from an existing πολιc, and, apart from the Corinthian colonies, was independent, although tied to the mother country by sentimental and religious affinities. The high era of Greek colonization lasted from the middle of the eighth century BC until the early sixth century BC, by when Greeks had ‘colonized’ much of southern Italy, Sicily, and the Black Sea littoral. The motives were a mixture of land shortage and traded expansion (Boardman 1980).

Roman colonies generally had greater strategic purposes. They were settlements of Roman citizens, normally veterans, who garrisoned a new town in a hostile country and thus extended Rome’s imperium or rule. Similar expansionist activities occurred in many other parts of the world, as with the Mogul and Ottoman Empires or the Vijayanagara Empire in southern India.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, European powers extended their physical occupation of land to settle in the Americas, later in Australasia and parts of Africa. Colonialism involved settlement in areas non-contiguous to the motherland and should be carefully distinguished from conquest per se which involves physical incorporation into the parent state. Settlers left their homes for many reasons. Some fled religious and other forms of persecution; some were risk-takers, seeking opportunities to better themselves; some were sent abroad by families to resolve domestic difficulties or by the state to penal colonies.

Governing such distant possessions has always been problematic. Initially, the local, or native, populations were subdued forcibly or persuaded to sign agreements, and administrative authority passed to the new immigrants and their successors. Financial and military strength ensured metropolitan dominance at first. Over time, as the colonies grew in population and economic strength, their immigrant inhabitants sought a much greater degree of self-governance. Initially, the European powers opposed such aspirations and anti-colonial wars took place that ultimately wrested much of South America from Spanish and Portuguese control and part of North America from British control.

The American War of Independence, which gave birth to United States of America composed of 13 ex-colonies, persuaded British governments to treat more sympathetically the demands of their surviving colonies. Following Lord Durham’s 1839 Report, the North America Act granted Canada considerable autonomy. In 1867, Canada became a Dominion, a term adopted by the major self-governing British colonies in 1907 and sought unsuccessfully by others, such as Southern Rhodesia. Genuine devolution of powers kept Australia and, after the Anglo-Boer War, South Africa within the British Empire. These countries still remained constitutionally subject to the British Parliament and it was not until the Statute of Westminster in 1930 that they acquired sovereignty.

The metropolitan states were largely successful in twentieth century in managing the transition of their possessions from an inferior ‘colonial’ status to an independent state attached emotionally to the mother-land. The British failed in Ireland as did the French in Algeria. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand retained the monarch of the United Kingdom as their head of state, although vocal groups challenged this relation-ship in the latter part of the twentieth century. In South Africa, where the original Dutch immigrants (the Afrikaners) were dominant, this link was broken in 1961.

Colonies, in the sense of territories largely peopled, and certainly controlled, by descendants from the motherland, developed political cultures of their own, closely related to the specific circumstances that generated the initial settlements (Hartz 1964).

2. Modern Colonialism

Modern colonialism was not characterized by settlements but by external control. As a practice it dates, with a few exceptions (e.g., the Indian subcontinent), from the end of the nineteenth century, when the major European powers laid claim to, and attempted to rule over, enormous tracts of the globe—mostly in Africa and Asia—without establishing permanent settlements in them. In the twentieth century, Japan, Russia, and the USA joined the major European powers in such colonial activity. The term thus came to refer to a condition of unequal relations in which a strong ‘colonial’ state controls, and usually exploits, an alien and weaker people in the latter’s ‘homeland.’ The senior administrators were nonresidents.

While the practice has a long pedigree, the word itself, with its pejorative overtones, only appeared in the aftermath of the World War II. President Harry S. Truman used the word ‘imperialism’ in 1949 to cover all forms of external control over indigenous in-habitants, but by 1955, when the first volume of his Autobiography was published, he used the term colonialism to describe such relations. At this time, colonialism was limited to the practices of the Western European powers, the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union and China still being subsumed under the umbrella of imperialism.

This was short-lived. The term ‘colonial power,’ referring to any state dominating another, was soon extended to the Soviet Union and the USA, and even in Pakistan, to India where Kashmir was concerned.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles generated the League of Nations, which introduced a new type of colony, by granting to certain imperial powers (and Dominions like Australia and South Africa) mandates to rule over what had been the German and Italian empires. In theory, the recipient countries were obliged to ensure the paramountcy of ‘native interests.’ With the creation of the United Nations, mandated territories became trust territories and more attention was given, through its standing Trusteeship Council, to the responsibilities of the colonial powers. By the 1950s, ‘native interests’ (except in South West Africa where South Africa was the trustee) came to embrace the right to self-determination and independence.

The major colonial powers, Britain and France, organized their relations with their settler colonies, their modern colonies, and other states through different departments or offices (e.g., the Dominions Office or the India Office in Britain) to reflect their distinct relationships.

3. Colonialism In Practice

3.1 Administration

Ruling modern colonies presented difficult problems. Metropolitan states had neither had personnel nor the resources to administer them closely. Occasionally they relied upon chartered companies to act on their behalf. Some parts were intensively controlled; much was ignored altogether for many years; most were administered through the acquiescence of local leaders. This British principle of indirect rule, with roots in the Indian experience, was ideologically based (Lugard 1922) as well as pragmatically required. Other European powers emphasized direct rule. In fact, all powers practised both models as needs demanded.

The debate on the nature of colonial political rule continues. While the exercise of power was crude and excessive on occasions, recent scholarship has emphasized how local peoples sometimes took the initiative in crafting political strategies that limited colonial opportunities. After World War I, colonial administrators lacked the military support or the will to impose unwelcome policies on subjects accepted the paternalistic assumptions of trusteeship (Robinson 1965) but worked, in the British empire, towards economic and political development (Kirk-Greene 2000) and, in the French, towards assimilation. The idea that colonialism was unacceptable arose with the growth of democracy in the metropolitan states and the changing intellectual climate after World War II.

3.2 Anticolonialism

Throughout the modern colonial period some individuals and groups campaigned for independence, most notably in India, but the real pressure to end colonial rule came immediately after 1945. This reflected a number of seismic shifts in the context of international affairs. The arrival of internal democracy in the colonial states themselves challenged the un-democratic politics of the colonies; the battle against Nazism virtually destroyed the legitimacy of a racial hierarchy; both the Soviet Union and the USA, linked by the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War, yet representing quite different ideologies, shared an antipathy to overt colonial empires; the financial and military costs of retaining overseas possessions became politically prohibitive in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Most colonies obtained a negotiated independence peacefully. Violence—both civil and military—was sometimes apparent, most especially in the Portuguese empire and where white settlers (classical colonists) were entrenched. The logic of colonialism worked itself out as the motives for occupation disappeared and the costs of continued rule escalated. The British colonies became independent seriatim. With their emphasis on retaining the initiative in the ‘transfer of power,’ officials sought the kind of educated professionals who were calling for independence (on India, see Mansergh and Moon 1970–83). In contrast, the French absorbed that elite into metropolitan organisations until the logic dictated a rapid and almost simultaneous decolonisation in 1961 (Mortimer 1969). Colonialism had effectively come to an end by the middle of the 1960s.

However, postmodernists such as Edward Said have argued that colonialism was neither a finite era nor a particular institutional structure of super-ordination and subordination. Both the departing colonialists and the triumphant nationalists failed to appreciate the enduring consequences of colonial rule. Cultures, economies, and institutions were so deeply embedded in the new states that their futures remained dependent upon the heritage of colonial overrule (Said 1978).

3.3 Neocolonialism

Political independence, however, was not matched by full local control. At the Bandung Conference of non-aligned states in April 1955, the Indonesian president, Ahmed Sukarno, claimed that colonialism ‘has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control…by a small but alien community within a nation.’ This perspective, similar to Said’s, gave birth to the idea of ‘neocolonialism’ and fitted well with the growing strength of Marxist scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s.

The word itself probably first appeared in 1961 in the pages of the radical journals The New Statesman and The New Left review, but it was soon common usage in most European languages. Lord Home, when British Foreign Secretary, attempted at the United Nations in October 1961 to answer ‘the charge of neo-colonialism.’ With the end of formal control over most of the empires, scholars and activists still perceived a decisive degree of control exercized by the metropolitan powers, essentially through economic, technological, and cultural dominance (Crozier 1964). Francophone scholars spoke of the Philippines as being ‘entierement neocolonises par les Etats Unis.’

Charges of neocolonialism were not limited to the great colonial powers but were extended to any state from the rich and developed world exerting influence over the policies of poor and less developed countries. Several forms have been identified. Political, economic, and cultural forces have been said so to constrain the choices available to such countries that they are determined by the interests of the stronger states. Further, it has been argued that the rapid de-colonization was a calculated policy to move from overt colonial rule to indirect control through political superiority in the international community, economic dominance, and cultural influences. While the evidence for such a conscious policy is weak, the poorer ex-colonies were undoubtedly constrained by their political, economic, and cultural inheritances. Some states responded more robustly and effectively than others to their weaknesses.

3.4 Internal Colonialism

There has been a further recent refinement of the term. Whereas it had been used to describe a particular relationship between countries (originally metropolitan states and colonies, later sovereign states), it is sometimes used to describe broadly similar processes at work within a single state. Thus, particular groups, through their dominance of political and economic power, ensured that other groups are kept in long-term subservience. It has been used in the context of East Bengal in Pakistan and in South Africa, where the ‘colonial’ people were the white minority and the ‘subject’ people the black majority.

4. Conclusion

Colonialism is now normally used in a pejorative sense and is associated with crude exploitation. Few would deny the reality at times of oppression, economic exploitation and an unconcern for human and civil rights. The colonial powers’ primary interests were usually selfish and largely economic. But alongside was a genuine commitment to the principles of trusteeship and paternal development. Attempts to evaluate the costs and benefits of colonialism coincided with its formal ending (Perham 1962), but a growing revisionist literature, in part reflecting the reduced status of Marxist scholarship, is emphasizing the advantages for the modern state of the enlargement of scale, modern educational and economic practices, and the opportunities provided for some (but not all) by integration into the world economy. Nevertheless, it is equally important to acknowledge the relative short period of colonial rule. Davidson (1964) was right to observe: ‘Looking back, one may see now that the colonial period was no more than a large episode in the onward movement of…life; in another sense, it was an unexampled means of revolutionary change.’


  1. Boardman J 1980 The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade, 3rd edn. Thames and Hudson, London
  2. Crozier B 1964 Neo-colonialism. Dufour Editions, Bodley Head, London
  3. Davidson B 1964 The African Past: Chronicles from Antiquity to Modern Times. Little Brown, Boston
  4. Hartz L 1964 The Founding of New Societies. Harcourt, Brace and World, New York
  5. Kirk-Greene A H M 2000 Britain’s Imperial Administrators 1858–1966. St. Martins, New York
  6. Lugard F 1922 The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. Edinburgh, UK
  7. Mansergh N, Moon P (eds.) 1970–1983 The Transfer of Power. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London
  8. Mortimer E 1969 France and the Africans. Faber, London
  9. Perham M 1962 The Colonial Reckoning, 1st edn. Knopf, New York
  10. Robinson K 1965 The Dilemmas of Trusteeship. Oxford University Press, London
  11. Said E W 1978 Orientalism. Pantheon, New York
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