Impact of Western European colonialism and colonisation

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This article is about the evaluation of Western European colonialism. For other examples of colonialism, see colonisation.

Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. Historically, this has often involved killing or subjugating the indigenous population. With the spread of Hellenic and Roman culture and technology by the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of the world has at some point been colonised by a European country.

The most notable colonial powers were Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, whose combined empires covered at various times the whole of North, Central and South America, Africa, Australia, much of Indonesia, the countries lying in the Levant, much of the Indian subcontinent as well as most of the countries lying in between. In short, most of the world. Germany as a colonial power is often considered a minor aspect of Europe's imperialist expansion. And still, its colonial past is something the country has to deal with until today.[1] It is interesting to note that all of these colonial powers have a large coastline. Historically, the settlements of new lands and the maintenance of trade and prosperity have depended heavily on naval power.

Debate about aspects of colonialism[edit]

Debate about the perceived positive and negative aspects of colonialism has taken place for centuries, amongst both coloniser and colonised, and continues to the present day. Different types of colonialism must first be distinguished, as they were spread in time and thus did not represent the same historic phenomenon. Starting in the 16th century, the School of Salamanca, gathering theologians such as Francisco Suarez, theorized natural law, thus limiting the domination of Charles V's imperial powers by according natural rights to indigenous people.

The School of Salamanca also created a casuistry justifying legitimate cases of conquests, thus legitimizing the colonisation project itself. The Valladolid controversy opposed the famous Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas to the dominant beliefs of his times, which considered that the Native Americans had no souls and could thus be freely enslaved. In the 18th century, Diderot criticized ethnocentrism and the colonisation of Tahiti in Supplément au voyage de Bougainville ("Supplement to Bougainville's Travel", 1772).

Academic debate about the process of colonialism itself is increasingly using the Stranger King concept.


Main article: Pigmentocracy

In the Portuguese colonies, miscegenation was commonplace and even supported by the court as a way to boost low populations and guarantee a successful settlement. Thus, settlers often released African slaves to become their wives. Some of the children were guaranteed full Portuguese citizenship, possibly based on lighter skin color, but not race. Some former Portuguese colonies have large mixed-race populations, for instance Brazil, Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe. Miscegenation was still common in Africa until the independence of the former Portuguese colonies in the 1970s, which succeeded the 1974 Carnation Revolution. To the present day, Angolan, Brazilian and Cape Verdian societies are defined by the degree of melanin (lighter skin).

In Cape Verde the population is often differentiated by lighter and darker skin (known as pele de chocolate or "chocolate skin"). Because of white supremacist institutions and the values they inculcated among the populace, many such miscegenated societies were and remain to this day heavily stratified by color, with darker-skinned citizens assigned the lowest economic and social status. This was demonstrated by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre's famous Casa-Grande & Senzala ("The Great House and the Slave Quarters" - 1933). Eduardo Galeano also showed how the profusion of Spanish words to design various types of skin color demonstrated a very precise racial hierarchy in Latin America. In the United States, anti-miscegenation laws were passed and racial segregation enforced.

Concerning the scramble for Africa, most historians tend to describe both positive aspects (infrastructures, education, emancipation) and potentially negative aspects (racism, exploitation and, in some cases, even extermination - see for example the Herero genocide between 1904 and 1907).

Imperialism and dependency theory[edit]

Dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank argue that colonialism leads to the net transfer of wealth from the colonised to the coloniser and inhibits successful economic development. Critics such as Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth,[2] the Négritude movement (gathering Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor) argue that colonialism does political, psychological and moral damage to the colonised as well.

Critics of the alleged abuses of economic and political advantages accruing to developed nations via globalised capitalism have referred to them as neocolonialism, seeing them as a continuation of the domination and exploitation of ex-colonial countries, merely utilizing different means. Neocolonialism is in this sense a new form of imperialism, which had first been theorized by Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg thought that the necessary economic expansion of capitalism automatically led to territorial expansion, in order to find new resources and markets.

However, the dependency theory and theories of economic underdevelopment of the Third World by colonial powers are contested by many economic historians. Bill Warren, a Marxist historian, disagreed with the dependency theorists:[3]

There is no evidence of a process of underdevelopment…The evidence rather supports a contrary thesis: that process of development has been taking place…and that this has been a direct result of the west.

Other economists, such as Celso Furtado, have widely theorized on the specificities of third world economies, forming a concise theory of underdevelopment which understands it not simply as an early stage of a nation's economic history, but as a specific sort of modernized macroeconomic structure (a point of view which corroborates dependency theory, from a different perspective).

Health impacts of colonialism[edit]

European colonialism had the inevitable result of spreading contagious disease, both towards Europe and towards the colonies, from as early as Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean.

Countering disease[edit]

The Dutch Public Health Service provides medical care for the native people of the Dutch East Indies, May 1946

As early as 1803, the Spanish Crown organised a mission (the Balmis expedition) to transport the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies, and establish mass vaccination programs there.[4] By 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans.[5] Under the direction of Mountstuart Elphinstone a program was launched to propagate smallpox vaccination in India.[6]

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the elimination or control of disease in tropical countries became a driving force for all colonial powers.[7] The sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa was arrested due to mobile teams systematically screening millions of people at risk.[8] In the 20th century, the world saw the biggest increase in its population in human history due to lessening of the mortality rate in many countries due to medical advances.[9] The world population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 7 billion today.

Colonial policies contributing to indigenous deaths from disease[edit]

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, Canada, 1901. This school was part of the Canadian Indian residential school system.

Historians such as John S. Milloy and Roland Chrisjohn have published documented evidence that discussion of how diseases were spread was concealed by colonialists to conceal actual origins of how indigenous populations were infected with these new diseases. Evidence has been presented at Canada's current Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Trent University historian John S. Milloy has written about criticism of government policy raised by contemporary doctors and others regarding tubercolosis among native people, showing that medical professionals were aware that government policy was resulting in a higher death rate among indigenous people. (A National Crime: the Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879-1986, University of Manitoba Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-88755-646-3).

Documents from the RG 10 series on Canadian residential school system, written by Canada's federal Department of Indian Affairs (Vols. R 7733) (reproduced in Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust (2005) by Indigenous rights activist Kevin Annett), show many examples of a deliberate policy of non-intervention in preventing the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox that were devastating native populations; at worst, there is evidence that the Canadian government was adopting policies that had the inevitable result of encouraging the rapid spread of deadly diseases among the native population.

Government officials, including the heads of Indian Affairs, authorized these practices through a policy that legitimated lack of care and widespread deaths on the grounds that “a high death rate from tuberculosis and other diseases is to be expected … among Indian children” (DIA Superintendent D.C. Scott, 1918).

Government policy by officials such as Department of Indian Affairs Superintendent D.C. Scott (quote above) was not to treat natives infected with tuberculosis or smallpox, and native children infected with smallpox and tuberculosis were deliberately sent back to their homes and into native villages by residential school administrators. Within the residential schools, there was no segregation of sick students from healthy students, and students infected with deadly illnesses were frequently admitted to the schools, where infections spread among the healthy students and resulted in deaths; death rates were at least 24% and as high as 69%.[10]

Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in Europe and North America in the 19th century, accounting for about 40% of working-class deaths in cities,[11] and by 1918 one in six deaths in France were still caused by tuberculosis. European governments, and medical professionals in Canada,[12] were well aware that tuberculosis and smallpox were highly contagious, and that deaths could be prevented by taking measures to quarantine patients and inhibit the spread of the disease. They failed to do this, however, and imposed laws that in fact ensured that these deadly diseases spread quickly among the indigenous population. Despite the high death rate among students from contagious disease, in 1920 the Canadian government made attendance at residential schools mandatory for native children, threatening non-compliant parents with fines and imprisonment.

Some historians argue that some European colonists, having discovered that indigenous populations were not immune to certain diseases, deliberately spread diseases to gain military advantages and subjugate local peoples. Historian Roland Chrisjohn, Director of Native Studies at St. Thomas University (New Brunswick), has argued in The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (Theytus Books, 1997. ISBN 0-919441-85-8) that the Canadian government followed a deliberate policy amounting to genocide against native populations. A documented case supporting official consideration of germ warfare against natives involves British commander Jeffrey Amherst during the Siege of Fort Pitt.[13]

It is uncertain whether this documented British attempt successfully infected the Native Americans.[14] Letters show that British authorities discussed the possibility of deliberately distributing blankets infected with smallpox among enemy tribes in 1763.[15] It has been regarded as one of the first instances of use of biological weapons in the history of warfare.[16][17][page needed] Others, such as John S. Milloy, argue that these colonial policies regarding disease were not conventional genocide, but rather policies of neglect aimed at assimilating natives.[10] Some contemporary Europeans voiced such perspective towards native deaths from contagious disease; Governor Winthrop of colonial Massachusetts declared, "God hath therefore cleared our title to this place".[18]

Benign colonialism[edit]

Dutch colonial administrator of the South Moluccas, picture taken 1940.

Benign colonialism is a term that refers to a supposed form of colonialism in which benefits outweighed risks for indigenous populations whose lands, resources, rights and freedoms were preempted by a colonising nation-state. The historical source for the concept of benign colonialism resides with John Stuart Mill who was chief examiner of the British East India Company dealing with British interests in India in the 1820s and 1830s. Mill's most well-known essays on benign colonialism are found in "Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy."[19]

Mill's view contrasted with Burkean orientalists. Mill promoted the training of a corps of bureaucrats indigenous to India who could adopt the modern liberal perspective and values of 19th century Britain. Mill predicted this group's eventual governance of India would be based on British values and perspectives. For a discussion of Mill's arguments see Doyle (2006).[20]

Advocates of the concept cite improved standards of health and education,[21] employment opportunities, liberal markets, developed natural resources and introduced improved governance. The first wave of benign colonialism lasted from c. 1790-1960. The second wave included neocolonial policies exemplified in Hong Kong,[22] where unfettered expansion of the market created a new form of benign colonialism. Political interference and military intervention in independent nation-states, such as Iraq,[20][23] is also discussed under the rubric of benign colonialism in which a foreign power preempts national governance to protect a higher concept of freedom. The term is also used in the 21st century to refer to US, French and Chinese market activities in African countries with massive quantities of underdeveloped nonrenewable natural resources.

These views have support by some academics. Economic historian Niall Ferguson has argued that empires can be a good thing provided that they are "liberal empires". He cites the British Empire as being the only example of a "liberal empire" and argues that it maintained the rule of law, benign government, free trade and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour.[24] Historian Rudolf von Albertini agrees that, on balance, colonialism can be good. He argues that colonialism was a mechanism for modernisation in the colonies and imposed a peace by putting an end to tribal warfare.[25]

Historians L.H Gann and Peter Duignan have also argued that Africa probably benefited from colonialism on balance. Although it had its faults, colonialism was probably "one of the most efficacious engines for cultural diffusion in world history".[26] These views, however, are controversial and are rejected by some who, on balance, see colonialism as bad. The economic historian David Kenneth Fieldhouse has taken a kind of middle position, arguing that the effects of colonialism were actually limited and their main weakness wasn't in deliberate underdevelopment but in what it failed to do.[27] Niall Ferguson agrees with his last point, arguing that colonialism's main weaknesses were sins of omission.[24] Marxist historian Bill Warren has argued that whilst colonialism may be bad because it relies on force, he views it as being the genesis of Third World development.[3]

Exemplary in the Dutch Empire of what was intended to be benign colonialism is the Dutch Ethical Policy applied in the Dutch East Indies (now: Indonesia) of the early 20th century.

Post-colonialism and post-colonial literature[edit]

Historical debate in France[edit]

Main articles: Abolitionism and Negationism

On May 10, 2001, the Taubira law officially recognized slavery and the Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. Between various propositions, May 10 was finally chosen as day dedicated to the recognition of the crime of slavery. Anticolonialist activists also want the African Liberation Day to be recognized by France. Although slavery was recognized by this law, four years later, the vote of the February 23, 2005 law by the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), asking teachers and textbooks to "acknowledge and recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa", was met with public uproar and accusations of historic revisionism, both inside France and abroad.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henning Melber. "Colonial shadows". D+C Development and Cooperation/ 
  2. ^ Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, Maspero Publishing house, Pref. by Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Constance Farrington. London : Penguin Book, 2001
  3. ^ a b Warren, Bill (1980). Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism. Verso. p. 113. 
  4. ^ Dr. Francisco de Balmis and his Mission of Mercy, Society of Philippine Health History
  5. ^ Lewis Cass and the Politics of Disease: The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832
  6. ^ Smallpox History - Other histories of smallpox in South Asia
  7. ^ Conquest and Disease or Colonialism and Health?, Gresham College | Lectures and Events
  8. ^ WHO Media centre (2001). "Fact sheet N°259: African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness". 
  9. ^ The Origins of African Population Growth, by John Iliffe, The Journal of African HistoryVol. 30, No. 1 (1989), pp. 165-169
  10. ^ a b Curry, Bill and Karen Howlett (April 24, 2007). "Natives died in droves as Ottawa ignored warnings". Globe and Mail. Retrieved February 25, 2012. 
  11. ^ Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922. The Harvard University Library, Open Collections Program: Contagion.
  12. ^ Milloy, John S. (1999). A National Crime: the Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879-1986. University of Manitoba Press. ISBN 978-0-88755-646-3. 
  13. ^ Thornton, Russel (1987). American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History : Since 1492. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-8061-2220-5. 
  14. ^ Dixon, Never Come to Peace, 152–55; McConnell, A Country Between, 195–96; Dowd, War under Heaven, 190. For historians who believe the attempt at infection was successful, see Nester, Haughty Conquerors", 112; Jennings, Empire of Fortune, 447–48.
  15. ^ White, Matthew (2012). The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities. London: W.W. Norton and Co. pp. 185–6. ISBN 978-0-393-08192-3. 
  16. ^ Ann F. Ramenofsky, Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987):
  17. ^ Robert L. O'Connell, Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
  18. ^ White, Matthew (2012). The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities. London: W.W. Norton and Co. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-393-08192-3. 
  19. ^ Mill, John Stuart. 1844. "Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy."
  20. ^ a b Doyle, Michael W. 2006. "Sovereignty and Humanitarian Military Intervention." Columbia University.
  21. ^ Robert Woodberry- The Social Impact of Missionary Higher Education
  22. ^ Liu, Henry C. K. 2003. "China: a Case of Self-Delusion: Part 1: From colonialism to confusion." Asia Times. May 14.
  23. ^ Campo, Juan E. 2004. "Benign Colonialism? The Iraq War: Hidden Agendas and Babylonian Intrigue." Interventionism. 26:1. Spring.
  24. ^ a b Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
  25. ^ Albertini, Rudolph von, and Wirz, Albert. European Colonial Rule, 1880-1914: The Impact of the West on India, South East Asia and Africa
  26. ^ Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan, The Burden of Empire: A Reappraisal of Western Colonialism South of the Sahara
  27. ^ D. K. Fieldhouse, The West and the Third World