Colonialism is a social and political system of domination, whereby one political entity (usually called an empire) dominates another one (usually called a colony) completely. This is separate, though somewhat overlapping with, imperialism, which is a less complete form of domination.
Examples of colonialism include:
- The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of Latin America
- British and French conquest of North America
- The Scramble for Africa
- Russia in Serbia
- The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East
- China in Tibet
- New Zealand
- New Caledonia
Examples of colonialism
1. Spanish and Portuguese conquest of Latin America
The Iberian nations of Spain and Portugal were the first to colonize the American continents.
While there had been Viking settlement in Northern Canada, this was not colonialism as it did not involve the domination of the local population.
The first colonizer from the two nations was Christopher Columbus, who was leading a Spanish mission to find a sea route to India, though he was actually Italian.
His voyage ended up in the Caribbean. They named the local inhabitants ‘Indians’ in the mistaken belief that they had found India, and then proceeded to enslave and slaughter many of them in order to find gold.
Other expeditions followed, and these turned into military invasions.
For example, the so-called conquistadors were mercenaries acting for the Spanish crown in the conquest of the vast new lands. The main motivation for these conquests was to find precious metals (gold and silver) and spread Christianity.
Both the Portuguese and Spanish homelands had been invaded and occupied by Muslim conquerors in the centuries preceding Columbus’ voyage. They had fought a long campaign to regain control of their territories, called the Reconquista (reconquest).
This drive to fight for Christianity then easily translated into the zeal for spreading it into the Americas.
2. British and French conquest of North America
In the Northern continent of the Americas, it was the French and the British who led the campaign to colonize.
This happened later than in South America, starting in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The British established colonies on the coast of what became known as New England. Many small settlements were set up, such as Jamestown and Plymouth. These were often places of refuge for religious minorities escaping intolerance.
Many of the British colonies would in 1776 rise up and declare their independence, forming the United State of America.
However, to the north, many would stay under British rule and eventually form the country of Canada, which still holds the British Queen as their symbolic leader. Other former British colonies in the Caribbean have also done this.
The French, meanwhile, settled in the more interior parts of the country, ranging from down south in Louisiana to up north in Quebec, with the Mississippi and other great rivers connecting their vast colony.
However, most of it was sparsely populated, and the French Empire ended up selling this piece of land to the United States, while Quebec with a more substantial population ended up as part of Canada.
3. The Scramble for Africa
The next major face in European colonialism was when the great powers turned their eyes to Africa.
While having avoided extensive European conquest in the earlier centuries, Africa was completely colonialised during the 19th century.
Previously European empires had been limited to establishing trade ports and naval bases on the African coast, which were used to transport bought slaves into the American colonies for work.
As land to conquer was running out elsewhere, the powers decided in the Berlin Conference of 1884 to divide up the great continent.
Unlike in North America, there was a very mixed bunch of countries involved in the colonization of Africa. These included the British, the French, the Belgians, the Germans, the Portuguese, and the Spanish.
And unlike in the Americas, very few settlers ended up moving to Africa due to its tropical climate (except the southernmost parts, see below).
The colonisation of Africa was instead a way to extract valuable resources, such as minerals and timber, as well as a point of national pride during the era of rising nationalism preceding the First World War.
Eventually, the continent’s colonies were given independence, mainly during the 1960’s, though Portugal held on to its holdings until 1974.
Another form of colonialism involves a small minority which has settled from elsewhere ruling over the Indigenous majority, instead of having an overseas empire be dominant.
In South Africa, the white settlers dominated the black majority under a racist system known as the Apartheid until fairly recently.
While other parts of Africa could not be settled by large numbers of Europeans due to the heat and diseases caused by the tropical climate, those in modern-day South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe offered a more temperate climate that was also easier to farm using European techniques.
This led to those areas receiving more immigration from Europe.
There was eventually a clash with the locals. The Europeans were never enough in their numbers to actually have a majority, causing them to worry about losing power once they would no longer be part of the British Empire.
As a result, the Apartheid system was devised in 1948. The Apartheid took away the political rights of non-whites, and even treated them as subhuman a lot of the time. This secured white domination, but eventually led to international condemnation.
The system was finally abolished in the early 1990’s, and South Africa has been democratic ever since.
5. Russia in Siberia
Colonialism doesn’t always have to be the result of overseas conquest, either. The Russian Empire is a notable example of Europeans conquering via land crossing in Asia.
The Russian state started to expand eastwards from Europe during the 18th century.
It eventually ended up swallowing up the massive land area known as Siberia. The reason for going east was that Russia has limited access to ports useful for overseas exploration.
Whereas countries such as Britain and France have around-the-year access to the Atlantic Ocean, most of the Russians ports in the Arctic and Baltic Seas are either too remote or will freeze in the winter. Even their ports in the warmer waters of the Black Sea are cur off from the Atlantic by two tight passages: the Turkish Straits and the Strait of Gibraltar.
The limited access to the oceans meant that the Russians had to expand eastwards for their empire. This resulted in the colonization of Siberia, which is still part of the Russian Federation.
Because the Arctic environment could not support large populations, the vast land mass was open for Russian settlement. Because of this most inhabitants are ethnically Russian, and therefore not opposed to being part of the country.
6.The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East
Another empire with a foothold in both Europe and Asia was the Ottoman Empire.
Over centuries, the Ottomans colonised parts of Southeast Europe and the Middle East. The Ottomans had originally come from Central Asia, from where they migrated to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).
From there they went on to conquer the Byzantine Empire to their west, with the defining moment being the surrender of Constantinople in 1453, which has ever since been known as Istanbul.
The Ottomans continued their conquests towards the west, taking over Greece and most of the Balkans, and even making it as far as Vienna in Austria. While this was the limit of their European colonisation, they also went on to take over most of the Middle East and North Africa.
The Ottoman Empire lasted until the First World War. It had been suffering from considerable weaknesses in the decades before that, becoming known as the ‘sick man of Europe’.
During the war, the Arabs under their rule rebelled against them. The empire fell apart and the modern-day state of Turkey emerged.
7. China in Tibet
Colonialism does not need to be either Western or centuries old. The Chinese colonisation of Tibet is an example of a very recent colonial conquest in a completely non-Western context.
The Chinese have had ancient traditional links to the Tibet region. Nevertheless, the area has been usually ruled by a fairly independent local ruler, called a Dalai Lama, who also plays an important role in the Tibetan version of Buddhism.
In the 1950’s, the People’s Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong, invaded and annexed the Tibetan region.
The Dalai Lama was forced into exile, where he has remained ever since.
After their invasion, the Chinese have tried to change the local culture of Tibet through settlement of outsiders. This has all the hallmarks of traditional colonialism.
Australia was established as a colony in 1788, after the First Fleet brought the first outside settlers to the continent.
This followed the ‘discovery’ of Australia in 1770 by James Cook, though Indigenous Australians had been living there for tens of thousands of years already.
The new colony of New South Wales expanded rapidly, followed by other colonies around the continent.
The locals lost their lands as settler farms grew, causing a conflict known as the Australian Frontier Wars. Eventually, the situation of the Indigenous ended up miserable, with many working on farms for food or lingering in government reservations until the 1960’s.
Since then, there has been a strong and widely supported movement to establish reconciliation between the two people.
9. New Zealand
Another example of British colonialism in the Pacific has been the neighbouring country to Australia, New Zealand.
New Zealand was settled later in the 19th century, even though James Cook had also visited there.
Unlike in Australia, the Indigenous people (called the Maori) were able to fight a more successful war against the British. This was possibly because they were farmers and had more organised societies at the time.
As a result, the New Zealand colony was established on a more equal footing between the two cultures.
While New Zealand certainly has had its issues, it is often heralded as one of the most successful examples of how to establish reconciliation following colonisation.
10. New Caledonia
New Caledonia is still part of France. It is an example of French colonialism in the Pacific
The country has had a long-time independence movement, which has also been at times violent.
As there are many French settlers and their descendants in the island, not all of the population wishes for independence.
Successive referendums on the matter have not supported it.
Hawaii is also an island group on the Pacific. It used to be an independent nation with its own monarch, but this was changed in 1893 with a coup led by local and international business leaders.
The United States then made Hawaii into one of its few colonies in 1898.
At first Hawaii was ruled as a pure colony until 1959, when it was admitted as an equal state into the United States.
Whether Hawaii then stopped being a colony is an interesting question. While it now has a high degree of self-determination, independence was never given as an option, and the Indigenous people have none of their traditional rights.
Colonialism has long-lasting effects to this day. While it saw its heyday in the 16th to 18th Centuries, local Indigenous populations continue to suffer from their ancestors’ disenfranchisement.
Furthermore, neocolonialism continues as an indirect form of colonialism that continues to be perpetrated against Indigenous groups and weaker geopolitical actors today. To learn more about neocolonialism, check out our article on colonialism vs neocolonialism.