In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 5. Colonialism

How the power-thirsty West redrew the global map

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on colonialism:

Colonialism in 60 seconds

Empires have existed throughout human history, established by imperialist civilisations including the Romans, Mongols and Assyrians.

In practice, the term colonialism is generally used to mean the empires controlled by European powers between the 16th and 20th centuries, largely in countries now considered part of the global south.

Colonialism refers not just to the logistical process of empire-building, but also to the ideology that emerged to justify such behaviour.

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 1520s gave rise to a “religious discourse that legitimised military conquest as a way to facilitate the conversion and salvation of indigenous people”, says Stanford University’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The notion that colonialism was beneficial because it exposed “primitive” and “savage” peoples to Christianity and Western civilisation would become the central tenet of colonialist ideology.

In the 19th century, this argument was further reinforced by the rise of “scientific racism”, which taught that white Europeans were a superior race, genetically suited to rule over “inferior” races.

By the late 20th century, almost all of the former colonies had won their independence, but the legacy of colonialism and colonial thought continues to influence geopolitics to this day.

How did it develop?

Western colonialism arose during the Age of Exploration, the period in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries when European powers embarked on long-distance sea voyages to previously unexplored areas of Asia, the Americas and the Pacific.

Motivated by the economic potential of these untapped territories, colonists raced to establish trading posts and settlements. 

Over time, through a combination of economic leverage, population replacement and military force, European powers turned these territories into colonies, where they could rule as they pleased and freely harness the natural resources.

Many of the New World colonies - notably the US - won their independence in the 18th century, causing European powers to focus their attentions on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Stretching from the Caribbean to the Far East via Africa and India, the British Empire was by far the largest of its kind. At its territorial peak in 1921 (see map below), almost 14 million square miles of territory - about 25% of the world’s total land - was under British sovereignty.

Even at the height of Western imperialism, however, the policy of colonialism had vocal critics - both from the colonies and within the West. And in the aftermath of the Second World War, the tide would turn definitively against colonialism.

Three main factors motivated the change in attitudes, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. First, the major postwar powers, the US and the Soviet Union, took up an anti-colonialist stance. Second, “mass revolutionary movements” gathered momentum in colonies desperate for self-rule. Finally, “the war-weary public of Western Europe eventually refused any further sacrifices to maintain overseas colonies”.

In 1947, India - the so-called jewel in the British Empire’s crown - gained its independence, a watershed moment in the anti-colonial movement. 

Over the next two decades, Britain and other colonial powers including France and Portugal lost their grip on nation after nation in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Some former colonies were allowed to split off in peace, while other independence struggles - such as those in Algeria and Kenya - were accompanied by bloody violence.

In 1997, Britain formally handed back control of Hong Kong - an imperial possession since 1842 - to China, a moment seen by many observers as the symbolic setting of the Sun on the British Empire.

How did it change the world?

Apologists for Western imperialism point to examples of colonial governments who “invested in infrastructure and trade… encouraged literacy, the adoption of Western human rights standards, and sowed the seeds for democratic institutions and systems of government”, says National Geographic.

However, any gains of colonial rule must be seen alongside a formidable list of negative impacts of which the consequences are still felt, including “environmental degradation, the spread of disease, economic instability, ethnic rivalries, and human rights violations”, the magazine continues.

By its very nature, colonialism involves eroding and sometimes completely displacing indigenous cultures, including social and legal systems, traditions, religions and languages.

Colonial powers frequently carved out territorial borders based on their own interests, without regard for the religious, ethnic, political or cultural affiliations of local populations.

So it is hardly surprising that “the world’s postcolonial areas often have been scenes of protracted and violent conflicts”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Colonialism impacts even more directly on the “overseas territories” administered by former colonial powers including the UK, France and the Netherlands.

The UK still exercises sovereignty over 14 British Overseas Territories, including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

This “residual colonialism” enables former colonial powers to continue to “exercise top-down authority through modernised dependency governance models”, says John Quintero, from the United Nations University’s Institute for Sustainability and Peace.

Such arrangements, “while perhaps ensuring sustained economic progress, create a democratic deficit and political vulnerability based on unequal status”, he concludes. 

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