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About colonialism

William Blake, Europe Supported By Africa and America, 1796

Colonialism is the process of expansion and dominance in which a metropole builds and maintains colonies in another territory. Although the form of colonies themselves are influenced by local features and histories, the metropole typically claims full ownership and sovereignty over the social structure, government and economics within the colony. This produces a set of unequal relationships between metropole and colony as well as between colonists and the indigenous population.

The most common use of the term refers to a historical period from the 15th to the 20th century when people from Europe established colonies in the Americas, Africa, Oceania, Asia. The process was typically violent and involved population displacement and the institution of race-based categories of rule. The types of expansion and overseas colonization took many forms, including exploitation colonies to gain natural resources, areas of European population settlement, and smaller maritime enclaves based around trade. Motives for colonialism were also diverse, and included the promise of monetary gain, the desire to expand the power and influence of the metropole, efforts to escape persecution, as well as the wish to spread religious and political philosophies. People, states, and societies that were displaced or destroyed resisted and accommodated the imposition of colonial rule in a variety of ways, ultimately leading to a wave of decolonization in the mid twentieth century through which most (although not all) colonies gained national independence.

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Map of the Jaffna kingdom circa 1619

The Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna kingdom occurred after Portuguese traders arrived at the rival Kotte Kingdom in the southwest of modern Sri Lanka in 1505. The initial forays were against the southwestern coastal Kotte kingdom, which enjoyed a lucrative monopoly on the spice trade, which was also of interest to the Portuguese. Many kings of Jaffna, such as Cankili I, initially confronted the Portuguese in their attempts at converting the locals to Roman Catholicism, but eventually made peace with them. By 1591, the king of Jaffna Ethirimanna Cinkam was installed by the Portuguese. Although he was nominally a client, he resisted missionary activities and helped the interior Kandyan kingdom in its quest to get military help from South India. Eventually, a usurper named Cankili II, resisted Portuguese overlordship only to find himself ousted and hanged by Phillippe de Oliveira in 1619. The subsequent rule by the Portuguese saw the population convert to Roman Catholicism. Over the next forty years, starting from 1619 until the Dutch capture of Jaffna fort in 1658, there were three rebellions against Portuguese rule. Two were led by Migapulle Arachchi, during that period, Portuguese destroyed every Hindu temple and the Saraswathy Mahal library in Nallur, the royal repository of all literary output of the kingdom. Due to excessive taxation, population decreased and many people moved to Ramanathapuram in India and the Vanni Districts further south. External commerce was negatively impacted, though elephants, Jaffna's principal export, were traded for saltpetre with various kingdoms in India and sent to Lisbon. Thus, decline in trade made it difficult to pay for essential imports, and such items ceased to be imported. In the words of Fernão De Queirós, the principal chronicler of Portuguese colonial exploits in Sri Lanka, the people of Jaffna were "reduced to the uttermost misery" during the Portuguese colonial era.


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Punch Rhodes Colossus.png
Credit: Edward Linley Sambourne

The Rhodes Colossus, an iconic editorial cartoon of the Scramble for Africa period, depicting British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes as a giant standing over the continent.

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John Horden

Selected biography

Pieter Nuyts in Taiwan in 1629 (Japanese artist).

Pieter Nuyts (1598 – 11 December 1655) was a Dutch explorer, diplomat, and politician. He was part of a landmark expedition of the Dutch East India Company in 1626–27, which mapped the southern coast of Australia. He became the Dutch ambassador to Japan in 1627, and he was appointed Governor of Formosa in the same year. Later he became a controversial figure because of his disastrous handling of official duties, coupled with rumours about private indiscretions. Nuyts acquired some notoriety while Governor for apparently taking native women to his bed, and having a translator hide under the bed to interpret his pillow-talk. He was also accused of profiting from private trade, something which was forbidden under company rules. Some sources claim that he officially married a native Formosan woman during this time, but as he was still legally married to his first wife Cornelia, this seems unlikely. His handling of relations with the natives of Formosa too was a cause for concern, with the residents of Sinkan contrasting his harsh treatment with the "generous hospitality of the Japanese". Nuyts had a low opinion of the natives, writing that they were "a simple, ignorant people, who know neither good nor evil". He was disgraced, fined and imprisoned, before being made a scapegoat to ease strained Dutch relations with the Japanese. He returned to the Dutch Republic in 1637, where he became the mayor of Hulster Ambacht and of Hulst. He is chiefly remembered today in the place names of various points along the southern Australian coast, named for him after his voyage of 1626–27. During the early 20th century, he was vilified in Japanese school textbooks in Taiwan as an example of a "typical arrogant western bully".


Colonialism's rise and fall over the past 500 years.


This map shows Colonization's rise and fall over the past 500 years.


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