Colonialism Explained

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Relevance: Mains GS I- History of the World.


  • Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of a colony in one territory by a political power from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and often between the colonists and the indigenous population.
  • The European colonial period was the era from the 16th century to the mid-20th century when several European powers (particularly, Portugal, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and France) established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
  • It is a logical culmination of mercantilism and industrial as well as financial capitalism that grew in Europe after the 16th century.

Colonialism vs Imperialism

  • Colonialism and imperialism are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings.
  • Colony comes from the Latin word colonus, which means farmers. 
  • Imperialism also comes from the Latin word imperium, which means to command
  • Colonialism is where one nation assumes physical control over the other and Imperialism refers to political or economic control, either formally or informally.
  • Colonialism can be thought to be a practice and imperialism as the idea driving the practice.
  • Colonialism is a term wherein the long run, the traits of the conqueror are inherited by the conquered
  • In Colonialism, one can see a great movement of people to the new territory and living as permanent settlers. Though they lead a life as permanent settlers, they still maintain allegiance to their mother country. Eg- Australia and Canada. Imperialism is just exercising power over the conquered regions either through sovereignty or indirect mechanisms of control. Eg: American control over Philippine
  • Imperialism has a longer history than Colonialism. While the history of colonialism dates back to the 15th century, Imperialism has its origins dating back to the Romans

Capitalism and Colonization 

  • The discovery of new lands and the establishment of colonies had resulted in an unprecedented expansion of trade and accumulation of wealth by merchants.
  • The trade included also the trade in human beings, that is, the slave trade.
  • The colonization was accompanied by the plunder of the wealth of the people who were colonized. For example, the treasures of the Inca and the Aztec civilizations were plundered by the Spaniards.
  • Mines in the newly conquered areas in the Americas were also exploited for precious metals like gold and silver. Large numbers of native people were worked to death in these mines.
  • You have also read about the use of slave labour in the plantations in the Americas. The colonization of Asia caused similar havoc and devastation. During a few decades of Dutch rule, the population of a province of Java in Indonesia was reduced to less than one-fourth of its former size.
  • The defeat of the Nawab of Bengal by the English in 1757 was followed by years of naked plunder of the wealth of Bengal. According to estimates of the English government at that time, the English Company and its officials received 6,000,000 pounds as gifts during the period of 1757-1766.
  • The plunder by the English contributed to a famine in 1769-70 in which about a quarter of the population of Bengal perished. Thus a lot of wealth was accumulated in Europe for investment to make more profit.
  • In the words of Karl Marx, “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother country and were there turned into capital.”
  • Lenin has said that the Capitalist system cannot exist without extending its sphere of domination, without colonizing countries, and without drawing them into the whirlpool of the world economy.
Reasons for colonialism
  • Requirements of Raw Material: It is necessary to maintain low costs of production compared to competing nations in the market. The desire to create a monopoly in the market and the need to procure raw material at cheaper rates were two major factors, which made it essential for the European nations to establish clear supremacy.
  • Investing Surplus Capital: The Industrial revolution added to the wealth of the European capitalists, who were already rich. They started searching for secure markets to invest their surplus funds. The markets in the less developed countries were quite secure from this point of view. Thus, the availability of surplus capital facilitated the rise of colonialism.
  • Sources of Minerals: The countries in Asia and Africa had rich sources of minerals like gold, diamonds, silver, and coal, etc. This attracted European merchants to various regions of Asia and Africa.
  • Geographic Importance: European nations had realized that the geographic location of some regions in Asia and Africa are advantageous for trade. Malta, Gibraltar, Aden, Singapore, Andaman, and Nicobar were some such regions, where the British established their hold.
  • Availability of Labour: European merchants needed a large number of labourers at a very cheap rate. The colonies fulfilled this need. Later, it contributed to the boom in the slave trade.
  • Religious Reasons: Protestant groups, like the Pilgrims and Puritans, came to the Americas to establish their own communities, where they could worship God in their own way. Catholics, Quakers, and Jews later came to the colonies seeking freedom of worship.

The process

Latin America

  • Twenty republics from central America, Caribbean, and s. America is considered Latin America.
  • They were Colonized by Spain and the Portuguese majorly.
  • They were rich in natural resources like Cu, tin, gold, silver, nitrate, pampa the grassy land.
  • The relation was of full exploitation and control of native people, through a policy of mercantilism. Spain and Portugal squeezed all the wealth from here
  • The colony acted as a source of raw material and market for final goods from Spain.
  • Trade was strictly controlled and no freedom of self-rule or expression was given.


Differences between America and Latin America

  • Political:
    • The natives didn’t learn self-rule from their masters unlike north American
    • The history of Latin America is filled with wars, military revolts, and dictatorship, while stable administration in n America 
    • Latin America lost its resources in military and wars, while North America didn’t engage in destructive wars except for civil war
  • Cultural:
    • Latin Americans remained loyal to their tradition and not open to new changes in trade, commerce, culture, etc
  • Economy:
    • Ragged with poverty, illiteracy, and disease
    • Dependent on foreign capitals and aids



  • Indo china included present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. 
  • The region came under French control from 1747 onwards.
  • Prior that China was ruling Vietnam for hundreds of years, the Chinese army was badly routed in a fierce battle fought between both.
  • Beginning of France control:
    • France began its control from Annam then Tonkin.
    • 1st treaty with Annam was aimed at expanding the empire and preaching Catholicism. 
    • Annam gov didn’t like this and attacked them, thus french troops entered and established control.
    • Further, they entered Tonkin and besides trade expanded political control as well.
    • By 1874, disorder and riots spread in these areas.
    • Laos, Cambodia came under their control by end of the 19th century.


  • The British took control of India in 1763, after defeating the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). The British controlled India through the British East India Company, which ruled with an iron hand.
  • In 1857, an Indian revolt, led by native soldiers called sepoys, led to an uprising known as the Sepoy Mutiny. After suppressing the rebellion, the British government made India part of the empire in 1858, as mentioned previously.
  • The British introduced social reforms that advocated education and promoted technology. Britain profited greatly from India, which was called the “Crown Jewel of the British Empire.”
  • The Indian masses, however, continued to live close to starvation and the British had little respect for the native Indian culture.
  • The Dutch held the Dutch East Indies and extended their control over Indonesia, while the French took over Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).
  • The Russians also got involved and extended their control over the area of Persia (Iran).


  • Since the seventeenth century, China had isolated itself from the rest of the world and refused to adopt Western ways. The Chinese permitted trade but only at the Port of Canton, where the rights of European merchants were at the whim of the emperor.
  • Imperialism in China began with the First Opium War (1839–1842) when the Chinese government tried to halt the British from importing opium. This resulted in a war in which Britain’s superior military and industrial might easily destroy the Chinese military forces.
  • The Treaty of Nanking (1842) opened up five ports to the British, gave Britain the island of Hong Kong, and forced China to pay a large indemnity.
  • In 1858, China was forced to open up eleven more treaty ports that granted special privileges, such as the right to trade with the interior of China and the right to supervise the Chinese customs offices.
  • Foreigners also received the right of extraterritoriality, which meant that Western nations maintained their own courts in China, and Westerners were tried in their own courts.
  • Between 1870 and 1914, the Western nations carved China into spheres of influence, areas in which outside powers claimed exclusive trading rights.
  • France acquired territory in southwestern China, Germany gained the Shandong Peninsula in northern China, Russia obtained control of Manchuria and a leasehold over Port Arthur, and the British took control of the Yangzi valley.
  • The United States, which had not taken part in carving up China because it feared that spheres of influence might hurt U.S. commerce, promoted the Open Door Policy in 1899.
  • John Hay, the American Secretary of State, proposed that equal trading rights to China be allowed for all nations and that the territorial integrity of China is respected.
  • The imperial nations accepted this policy in principle but not always in practice. For the United States, however, the Open-Door Policy became the cornerstone of its Chinese policy at the beginning of the twentieth century.


  • Japan was the only Asian country that did not become a victim of imperialism. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Japanese expelled Europeans from Japan and closed Japanese ports to trade with the outside world, allowing only the Dutch to trade at Nagasaki.
  • In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry (1866–1925), an American naval officer, led an expedition to Japan. He convinced the shogun, a medieval-type ruler, to open ports for trade with The United States.
  • Fearful of domination by foreign countries, Japan, unlike China, reversed its policy of isolation and began to modernize by borrowing from the West.
  • The Meiji Restoration, which began in 1867, sought to replace the feudal rulers or the shogun, and increase the power of the emperor. The goal was to make Japan strong enough to compete with the West.
  • The new leaders strengthened the military and transformed Japan into an industrial society. The Japanese adopted a constitution based on the Prussian model with the emperor as the head.
  • The government was not intended to promote democracy but to unite Japan and make it equal to the West. The leaders built up a modern army based on a draft and constructed a fleet of iron steamships.
  • The Japanese were so successful that they became an imperial power. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, Japan defeated China and forced her to give up her claims in Korea.
  • Japan also gained control of its first colonies—Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands—and shocked the world by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Japan’s victory was the first time that an Asian country had defeated a European power in over 200 years.

Middle East

  • The importance of the Middle East to the new imperialists was its strategic location (the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa), vital waterways (canals and the Dardanelles), and valuable oil resources.
  • The Europeans divided up the Middle East in the following manner:
  • Great Britain: Britain’s control of the Suez Canal forced her to take an active role in Egypt as well as to acquire the militarily valuable island of Cyprus to secure oil resources for industrial and military needs.
  • The British also secured concessions in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Pipelines were built to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
  • Russia: Traditionally, Russia sought to gain control of the Dardanelles as an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and an area of expansion. Russia helped to dismember the Ottoman Empire and gain independence for several Balkan states.
  • Germany: In 1899, German bankers obtained the Ottoman Empire’s consent to complete the Berlin-Baghdad Railroad.


  • European nations had begun exploration of African nations during the beginning of the 15th century but this was confined mostly to the exterior or coastal regions. Even this contact was disastrous for Africans as Slave Trade emerged.
  • The Spanish and Portuguese had captured Central and Latin America and exterminated the local populations. There was a demand for slaves in such regions. Hence Portuguese captured slaves from Africa took them to the slave market in Lisbon and sold them for commodities or firearms. The slaves were taken to Latin America and sold to plantations.
  • The African chiefs participated in this trade for purchasing firearms of Europeans. However, this trade had disastrous consequences for Africans. Every month 5000 were transported to American plantations and half of them died en route. The Slave trade also created a technologically backward Africa to this day.
  • By the 19th century trade in slaves had lost its importance and had led to the start of the second type of exploitation – Colonies. The interior regions were explored and the war on tribal chiefs was made. The Africans were easily conquered as they lacked unity and arms to match the Europeans.

  • Columbian Exchange: The term Columbian Exchange refers to the widespread exchange of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas that occurred between the new world (Americas) and the Old World (Eurasia) in the 15th and 16th centuries, as a result of European colonization and trade.
  • Slave Trade: To effectively utilize the resources, colonizers needed an immense amount of labour. During the initial years, the European settlers met labour requirements by enslaving the native populations. However, the decline in the native population led to importing slaves from Africa which emerged as a lucrative alternative.
  • Boost to Mercantilism: Mercantilism, in a way, was both the cause as well as the effect of colonialism. Mercantile economic policies were definitely an impetus for the start of colonization. But subsequently, the benefits due to colonial exploitation further reinforced the ideology of mercantile capitalism and augmented its spread across Europe.
  • Military innovation: Conquering forces have throughout history applied innovation in order to gain an advantage over the armies of the people they aim to conquer. Greeks developed the phalanx system, which enabled their military units to present themselves to their enemies as a wall, with foot soldiers using shields to cover one another during their advance on the battlefield.
  • Introduced diseases: Encounters between explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced new diseases, which sometimes caused local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. For example, smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, and others were unknown in pre-Columbian America.

Regardless of these apprehensions, it is established that decolonization involves a fundamental change in the structures regulating international exchange, especially in the post-World War II period. Contemporary states are equipped with broadly accepted rights to control economic activity within their boundaries, including rights to nationalize foreign-owned industries and renegotiate contracts with multinational corporations (Lipson 1985). Third World nations mobilize around these rights (Krasner 1985), and the negative impact of economic dependency seems to fall when the bordering state is strong (Delacroix and Ragin 1981).

To summarize, the process of colonialism typically involved the relocation of the populace to a new terrain, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political fidelity to their country of origin. Colonialism is a practice of authority, which involves the suppression of one person to another. Decolonization is the opposing of colonialism. In this process, one nation establishes itself as self-governing and separate from the state it had emerged from.

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