(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Colonialism is a system of control by a country over a dependent area or people outside its borders. Some colonies have been established by the migration of settlers from the colonizing country, as in the British colonies in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Some colonies have been founded by religious groups fleeing persecution, such as the Pilgrims who settled in Massachusetts. Other colonies were organized by groups of merchants or businessmen, such as the British, Dutch, and French East India companies. European colonialism from the 15th to the 19th century was usually associated with economic aims; it was linked with the imperialism of the new nation-states and governed by the economic policies of mercantilism.

Colonialism began with the ancient Phoenicians, who established colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean as early as the 10th century B.C. The ancient Greeks and Romans were energetic colonizers. In the Middle Ages, Venice and Genoa had colonies on the banks of the Black Sea and on islands in the Aegean. Modern colonialism is thought of as beginning after the discovery of America and of the sea route to the Far East, when the new European states began to found colonies abroad.

Early Modern Colonialism

During the early modern period two distinct types of colonialism occurred in the Atlantic zone and in Asia. In the Atlantic zone, including North and South America and southern Africa, colonies of people were established; Europeans settled in the midst of indigenous populations. In Central and South America, which were colonized by Spain and Portugal, the native populations were quite numerous, and the population of that region today reflects the mingling of peoples. The so-called Indians are still found in large numbers in most of the former Spanish colonies. In Brazil they survive only in the forests of the Amazon, having been replaced in most of the country by descendants of the slaves imported from Africa. All of these countries have a considerable population of mixed descent. Their cultures combine Indian traditions with Spanish and Portuguese traditions and, in the case of Brazil, an African influence.

In North America the native population was far less numerous than in Latin America. As the English and French (and, to a lesser extent, Spanish, Dutch, and Swedish) colonists moved in, the Native Americans were pushed aside or eliminated. Consequently, the civilization of North America is almost entirely European. This is so despite the considerable U.S. black population, descendants of African slaves who provided the economic basis of the South until the 1860s.

In southern Africa in the 18th century, Dutch colonists (later called Afrikaners) drove the Khoikhoi and San back toward the desert zones but were not able to prevent the more numerous Bantu from occupying a great part of what is now the Republic of South Africa.

In its early phases, colonialism in India and Indonesia was different from that of the Atlantic area. There was no massive immigration of European colonists. The colonial powers—first Portugal, then Holland and England—dominated the sea without penetrating inland beyond the commercial agencies they established on the coasts. The civilizations of India and Indonesia felt little impact from Europe. In China and Japan, where the Portuguese and Dutch established some agencies, there was even less European influence; before the 19th century there was no European colonial empire in Asia.

Nineteenth-Century Colonialism

In America the colonial empires began to disintegrate at the end of the 18th century, when European colonists revolted against their mother countries. The American Revolution ended British rule in what is now the United States, and revolts in Latin America established the independence of most of that area by 1825. Spain held on to Cuba and the Philippines until 1898 but otherwise retired from the colonial field. Britain and other European nations, however, entered a new colonial era in the 19th century.

To replace its losses in North America, Britain soon acquired Australia and New Zealand, which, with Canada (the British North American provinces that remained loyal during the American Revolution), became Britain's chief colonies of settlement. In the course of the 19th century these colonies became self-governing, and in the 20th century they were recognized as dominions (autonomous units of equal status with Britain) within the Commonwealth of Nations.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century greatly increased the military and technological power of the European countries, enabling them to extend their rule over areas with large indigenous populations. To regions in Asia and Africa where previously there had been only European commercial posts, the European nations now sent troops along with commercial agents, officials, and Christian missionaries. These areas were turned into markets for Europe's industrial products and suppliers of its raw materials. By mid-century the British controlled virtually all of India, which was governed by a British viceroy from 1858; the Dutch asserted similar control over Indonesia, then known as the Netherlands East Indies; and the French controlled Indochina. The entire continent of Africa, except for Ethiopia and Liberia, was parceled out among the European powers after the Conference of Berlin in 1885. The French took over the areas north and south of the Sahara; the British had almost all of eastern and southern Africa, as well as substantial portions in the west; Germany acquired territories on the Atlantic coast and on the Indian Ocean; Portugal extended its coastal enclaves of Angola and Mozambique toward the interior; and Belgium obtained the Congo.

The colonial powers abolished slavery in the regions they controlled and laid the basis for economic development. The administration of both the economy and the government, however, remained in European hands, and this situation changed only gradually with the growth of a Western-educated class, often the product of Christian mission schools, among the ruled. The latter also fought in the armies of the colonial powers in both world wars.

The Coming of Independence

The weakening of the European imperial powers during World War II brought about the end of colonialism in Africa and Asia. The local elites sought to take power into their own hands and succeeded in doing so after political struggle and revolution that was sometimes, as in Algeria and Indochina, quite prolonged and bloody. The new states all wanted to industrialize and looked to other countries to furnish the necessary technology. The United States and the USSR offered large-scale economic assistance. Some former colonial powers also extended aid. The new relationship between the developing countries and those providing aid meant a degree of continued dependence even though the old political bonds had been severed. Sometimes aid was accompanied by strong political and military influence. This new state of affairs was sometimes called neocolonialism, usually by left-wing groups in the former colonies.

Charles Verlinden


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