Imperialism vs. Colonialism: Similarities and Differences

imperialism vs colonialism, explained below

Both colonialism and imperialism refer to the political and economic dominance of one country over other countries, but there are some clear differences between imperialism and colonialism.

  • Imperialism refers to the policy of one country that is designed to influence other countries. One way to enact imperialism is to set up colonies in the nation.
  • Colonialism refers to one powerful country setting up colonies in other countries.

Nevertheless, both policies are often used in conjunction. For example, Britain colonized India, then spent centuries enforcing imperialist policies on India, even once they had developed limited self-rule by the 20th Century.

What is Imperialism?

Imperialism refers to a stronger nation taking over other nations by diplomacy or force.

In order to take over the land, they have to set up their own colonies within that country. However, this is only one of the imperialist policies you may see.

There are other types:

  • Economic imperialism – Where one country has economic control and power over another country and controls the private business sector.
  • Protectorate – Where the country is able to govern itself with its foreign government, but it is ruled or protected by another.
  • Sphere of influence – This occurs when an outside nation has power over a region and controls certain privileges and rights, which include investment and trade control. 

What is Colonialism?

Colonialism is expanding control over another region by setting up dependencies or colonies in the area.

It is used to take the economic power of the host country. Colonizers also propagate their language, religion, and culture to these colonies. 

An example of this is the British Empire in India from 1858 until the country finally achieved independence in 1947.

The different types are:

  • Internal colonialism – Where a powerful group in society controls the weaker group internally.
  • Surrogate colonialism – When a ruling power supports and encourages a nation to take over another nation.
  • Settler colonialism – When one country settles in another, where they plan to replace the native population of that land.
  • Exploitation colonialism – When a powerful country wants to exploit a weaker nation’s labor, natural resources, and other items by force. 

See also: Neocolonialism vs Colonialism

Imperialism vs. Colonialism: Similarities and Differences

The main similarity between imperialism vs. colonialism is that they both deal with exploitative relationships with the nations they want to take over and the people who do not have as much power and influence.

Both concepts like to dominate those of distant lands, who are people they disregard or see as culturally or racially inferior.

However, there are some marked differences between colonialism and imperialism.

1. Origin

  • Imperialism has its origins in ancient times, where there were empires such as Greece and Rome took over countries.
  • Colonialism has its origins in the Age of Discovery, where European powers started making colonies in other parts of the world.

2. Basic processes

  • Imperialism starts with the domination of one country over another.
  • Colonialism starts with a settler colony in a land occupied by another subordinated culture.

3. Settlement

  • With imperialism, settlers do not come to live in the country that they have control over.
  • With colonialism, the settlers live in the colony of the country they have control over.

4. Economic and political factors

  • In imperialism, the native people are allowed to keep their own way of life. However, they do not have much economic power.
  • In colonialism, the native people and their way of life are considered by the colonizer as null and void, and they have to adapt to the colony. They were usually enslaved as laborers to the mother country.

Reasons Given for Colonial and Imperialist Practices

The reasoning behind colonialism and imperialism are somewhat similar.

1. Economic reasons

  • In 1870, European industrialized nations extended their markets in order to sell their products that weren’t doing well in their own continent.
  • Bankers and businessmen had excess money to fund, and foreign investments meant more profits for them. This is economic imperialism.
  • They needed inexpensive labor and a constant influx of raw materials, such as rubber, oil and other materials. This made sure that they had steady control over less developed countries.

2. Humanitarian and religious goals

  • Westerners did not believe the natives and what they believed. They believed that Europe should civilize non-whites and bring medicine, law and Christianity.

3. Military force and political motivations

  • Powerful European nations felt that colonial powers were necessary for military force, nationalism and national security.
  • They also felt that a powerful, controlling navy was needed to control other nations. Therefore, naval crafts needed bases worldwide. This was especially needed during World War II.

Examples of Colonialism

There are many examples of colonialism throughout history.

  • Internal colonialism in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka is a great example of this. This conflict was between the Tamil Hindus, Buddhists, and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese were the controlling group in the population and government, and the Tamil people had to face persecution for years.
  • Settler colonialism in Algeria- In the history of Algeria, they were considered a French Department between 1830 and 1962. Unlike other French settlements, Algeria was officially made a domain of France in 1848.
  • Exploitation colonialism in the Congo – The Belgians took over the Congo from 1908 to 1960 to take their resources such as copper, chromium, rubber, ivory, gold, diamonds, and more.

See more examples of colonialism here.

Examples of Imperialism

Here are the different examples of imperialism from around the world.

  • Economic imperialism – Nations such as Honduras were economically manipulated by US companies, such as the United Fruit Company. Eventually, they became banana republics, countries that operated as private commercial places for the ruling power.
  • Sphere of influence – In the late 19th century, 8 powerful nations had trade right within Chinese territories, as well as the right to make a legation in Beijing (back then, it was Peking) and even had extraterritorial rights. Many Chinese people did not have a say in these arrangements. This caused the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, where they wanted all the foreigners out.
  • Protectorate – After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico became a US protectorate. This means that Puerto Rico is a US territory and its citizens are also US citizens since 1917.

See more examples of imperialism here.


When looking at imperialism vs. colonialism, you would see they are two very different things, although their aim is more or less the same. There are many examples of these throughout history, but luckily, modern-day imperialism and colonialism are less common.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

2 thoughts on “Imperialism vs. Colonialism: Similarities and Differences”

  1. Hi Chris,
    I think this phrase is highly problematic:
    • Colonialism starts with a colony in an unoccupied land.
    Often colonies were established in places where indigenous peoples lived. It supports a Eurocentric bias that such lands were simply “free for the taking” and ignores alternative systems of land use practiced by native groups.

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