Colonialism – an introductory lecture for an INTL 101 class

Colonial architecture, Macau, China. Photo by Shawn Smallman. August 2017

Even though I no longer teach face to face classes, I’ve always loved lecturing. Here I want to share an introductory class lecture that covers colonialism. If you are a faculty member, please feel free to use this lecture in your classes. Please note that this lecture is about eight years old as I post this, so you will likely want to update it.

Shawn Smallman, 2020



Settler Colonialism




John Stuart Mill






Edward Said, Orientalism



Lecture Outline:

The Importance of Colonialism/Post-Colonialism


Different Forms of Colonialism

Early History and Expansion

Population Movements 

Ideologies Supporting and Undermining Imperialism

The End of Colonialism



The Revenge of the Colonies

Small Group Work

Before we begin, I want to do a small group assignment. Take five minutes first, as an individual assignment. Write down three to five historical events or trends that have shaped your family’s history. After this time, I will ask you to break into groups of three to five and share these events. What do you notice about them? Are there common themes?

Introduction to the Lecture:

  • The international order as we understand it today is a relatively new phenomenon
  • May seem hard to believe, but many aspects of our world that we take for granted –such as nation-states- are relatively new phenomenon
  • In the past, peoples allegiances might be defined by religion or kinship
  • The past 500 years have been a period of profound social change
  • But that history has deep legacies, that continue to impact our world today
  • I want to discuss this today by talking about colonialism and neocolonialism, and how they have shaped our world
  • The goal of today’s lecture is to get you to see continuities between the present and the past
  • To understand the political context that shapes how developing countries perceive the political order
  • In the developed world, we don’t think much about colonialism and imperialism
  • Some of you may watch TED talks
  • If you look at tags, there are no tags for imperialism or colonialism in TED
  • Yet I would argue that the legacy of colonialism underpins our modern world order
  • This is a harder lecture than most in the class: trying to cover a great deal of time
  • Don’t worry if at times it’s a little hard to follow
  • The key point: history essential to understanding our modern world, and the problems that we face



  • Colonialism is the creation and control of colonies in one part of the world by people from another
  • The colony is dominated by an imperial power
  • The relationship between this power and its colony is defined by inequality
  • The economic, political and social life of the colony is managed for the benefit of the mother country
  • Colonialism and imperialism two aspects of the same process
  • Normally when we think of colonialism, we think about the period after 1492, when European countries dominated almost the entire planet
  • But colonialism is much older
  • Practiced by imperial powers everywhere you find states from ancient Latin America to Asia. The Aztecs and the Incas were imperial powers
  • In every case, you find an invasion from the outside, in which one power displaces indigenous peoples, and manages the territory in the interests of the imperial power


Different Forms of Colonialism

  • There are different kinds of colonialism
  • If you think about Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, for example, you had settler colonialism
  • An external power, Britain, took over the land. Indigenous peoples were settled on small reservations, and replaced by large scale immigration from the mother country
  • There are many other examples of this, such as the Dutch and English in South Africa
  • These societies were often ethnically white
  • Settler countries tend to acquire independence without violence
  • This is not always the case, as the example of the United States shows
  • These countries also tend to have more positive relationships with the former imperial power after independence
  • You also have traditional imperialism in other regions, such as India
  • There the British sent a relatively small number of people who controlled the state, and extracted resources for the benefit of the mother country, not only economically, but also politically
  • In other words, Britain not only benefited by wealth and trade, but also through the political power that controlling India represented
  • This form of imperialism more common
  • It was possible to have imperialism without much colonization; that is without large numbers of settlers coming from the imperial heartland


Early History and Expansion

  • Both of these forms of colonialism have deep roots in history
  • The Greeks and Phoenicians all created colonies in history
  • Justified their conquests by arguing that they were culturally superior to surrounding peoples, whom they defined as barbarians
  • The Arabs founded colonies across northern Africa and Central Asia as they expanded out from Arabia
  • The Aztecs founded colonies as far south as Central America, which is why you still find people there who speak the Aztec language, Nahuatl, a thousand miles from what is now Mexico City, which was then the capital of the ancient empire
  • The Chinese expanded into Tibet, the Mongols conquered China
  • Many historical examples of powerful states establishing colonies
  • But it was with the discovery of the New World in 1492 that the modern era of colonialism was truly born
  • Portugal and Spain were the first imperial powers
  • In the 17 century northern European powers, in particular the British, Dutch and French states began to create their own empires
  • At the same time, the Russian and Ottoman Empires began to expand in Eurasia
  • They did not cross oceans to do so, because they did not have to
  • The Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East, from Northern Africa to Central Asia
  • It competed with Russia, which had influenced from Eastern Europe through Siberia
  • A complex set of forces, which I describe in the history chapter, drove this huge expansion
  • Military changes critical to Europe’s expansion, according to some historians
  • The most important change was probably the development of gunpowder. 
  • There were other critical changes: the emergence of capitalism, rapid advances in sailing technology and the development of mechanization
  • The wealth of colonies helped to fuel the process
  • To some extent, a feedback loop
  • The more colonies you had, the more wealthy you had to build infrastructure and armies, so that you could control more colonies
  • By 1914, European nations dominated the entire globe
  • Very few nations –such as Thailand and Japan- escaped being colonies


Population Movements

  • One of the characteristics of colonialism was mass population movements
  • People living abroad, who are from a common origin, are called a diaspora
  • The word conveys a sense of displacement
  • People from a common homeland now live abroad
  • Not a new phenomenon
  • After the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD there was a Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire
  • Imperialism led to mass population movements, which created multiple diasporas.
  • Millions of Europeans lived overseas
  • We don’t think of it now, but more than a million French people lived in Northern Africa during colonial rule
  • In the 1960s over 900,000 people of French descent returned to France when it lost control of its former colony of Algeria
  • Over 300,000 people of Dutch descent returned to Holland from Indonesia after Indonesia achieved independence
  • 150,000 Portuguese lived in Angola
  • most of these people returned home during the colony’s wars of independence
  • many of them still remember Angola with nostalgia and think of it as their true home
  • my conversation with a Portuguese professor who had fled Africa when she was a child, and told me: “Eu quero morrir na Angola”
  • of course, large numbers of Europeans had moved to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand
  • large numbers of African slaves had been brought to many American countries, such as Brazil
  • there was a huge African diaspora in the Americas
  • somewhere between nine and twelve million people brought from Africa to the Americas during the centuries of the slave trade
  • process not over
  • there was a Tibetan diaspora to India and Nepal during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, as Tibetans sought to preserve their culture and religious independence, and fled to South Asia to do so
  • Chinese settlers remaking Tibet
  • There was a large Vietnamese diaspora in the United States at the end of the Vietnam war
  • There was a large diaspora from Palestine after the foundation of the state of Israel
  • There is even a Nepalese diaspora in England
  • These people had served as soldiers for Britain and were called the Ghurkas
  • Received citizenship as a result
  • So this process of creating diasporas is not over
  • It’s important to note that not every diaspora is because of colonialism
  • One of the largest diasporas in the world today is the Indian diaspora
  • Perhaps 25 million Indians live abroad
  • People have traveled throughout the world in search of opportunity. These people are economic migrants.
  • Still, colonialism remade populations over huge territories as one of its key features
  • shows how truly fundamental colonialism as
  • it remade the demography in the regions that became colonies
  • in some cases, such as the Caribbean, almost the entire indigenous population was replaced
  • how could this be justified?
  • How did the people in imperial powers think about their colonies and the morality of what they were doing?


Legitimating Colonialism

  • as long as colonialism existed, people sought to justify it
  • Europeans sought to justify colonialism during the Crusades, and during the conquest of the Americas through religious ideas
  • These ideas have very deep roots
  • With time, arguments would shift, and religion would decline in importance as a justification for colonialism
  • By the 1700s Europeans had begun to speak about their civilizing mission
  • This suggested that other nations and cultures had to undergo a period of instruction before they were ready to join the world order
  • In practice, there were similarities between these two arguments, the first religious: “We conquer people to make them Christians and save their souls”; and the second, we conquer people to civilize them, so that they can join the world order
  • The Spanish justified their conquest of the New World with a religious discourse, which said that the purpose of Empire was to enable the Church to convert indigenous peoples
  • An old argument that stretched back to the Crusades, not only in the Holy Land, but also the Iberian Peninsula and Eastern Europe
  • Originally the Crusades began as a defensive war to reclaim Christian lands
  • Then these ideals were adapted by groups like the Teutonic Knights to justify the conquest of the heathen in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
  • This ideology promoted by the Catholic Church, and then used to justify the conquest of the New World
  • This ideology was fading by the 1700s, because of the European Enlightenment
  • The Enlightenment emphasized the power of reason and science to understand the world, and critiqued the past power of religion
  • A new justification for colonialism was needed
  • Later theorists argued that all societies passed through common stages of development on a pathway from barbarism to civilization
  • A period of tutelage was necessary for colonies to become self-governing states
  • authors, such as John Stuart Mill, argued that savages have to great a love of freedom to have self-government
  • Only by instruction from a colonial power could they create the institutions and economies that would allow them to reach their full potential
  • Not a coincidence that John Stuart Mill the philosopher was also an employee of the British East India Company, which governed most of India
  • He also worried about the many abuses possible with imperialism
  • But believed that there were means to address these problems with technocratic changes in governing systems
  • He did not see imperialism itself as the problem
  • Authors such as de Tocqueville argued that the national interest of France outweighed the rights of Algerians
  • I am focusing on European advocates of imperialism
  • But you kind find analogues in many other parts of the world
  • The Chinese had their own world view in which they brought civilization to neighboring regions
  • In the 1930s, Japanese authors created their own arguments in favor of imperialism
  • Common thread: usually some kind of a civilizing mission
  • The imperial power was acting in the interests of those it conquered, who would ultimately benefit from the experience of colonialism
  • These were the arguments used to justify empire


Intellectual Opposition to Imperialism

  • These ideas were not uncontested
  • Right from the start there was a debate about the Spanish conquest of the New World
  • Surprisingly serious and intense
  •  Humanists in Spain argued that the non-Christians had the right to govern themselves as long as they followed natural law
  • the Spanish therefore emphasized the barbaric otherness of native peoples to justify the conquest- their cannibalism, nakedness, unwillingness to work
  • ironically, one of the groups that proved to most critical of imperialism were Church members like Bartolome de las Casas (you don’t have to remember the names)
  • they argued that the conquistadors did very little to promote Christianity
  • these friars wrote long critiques of Spanish imperialism
  • did not change the existing order
  • later, French, German and British philosophers critiqued imperialism
  • thinkers like Kant and Diderot argued that every individual is capable of reason and self-government (you don’t have to remember the names)
  • they questioned whether indigenous peoples benefited from colonialism
  • they argued that foreign traders and explorers had no right to enter inhabited lands
  • in the nineteenth century, liberals spoke out against imperialism
  • classic liberals, such as Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century, had denounced imperialism
  • Smith wanted Britain to surrender all of its colonies
  • He did not argue this mainly because he was concerned about the well-being of the colonies, but rather for Britain itself
  • He feared the cost of the large military that it would take to control the empire, and that the economic ties of empire would warp the nation’s underlying economy
  • all of these arguments could not stop the spread of imperialism
  • European countries believed that not only could they obtain great wealth from the colonies, but also possessing colonies was key to being a great power within Europe as well
  • But imperialism was a waning force


The End of Colonial Rule

  • at the time of the start of the First World War, colonial relationships defined the international system
  • but they had begun to collapse in the eighteenth century, with the rise of nationalism
  • in a sense, the American and Haitian revolutions marked the beginning of the end for imperialism
  • the Haitian uprising in 1804 was the only successful slave rebellion in history
  • if they could achieve independence, and outfight France under Napoleon, why couldn’t other nations gain their independence? Served as a model for other nations
  • this process of resistance continued over the next two centuries
  • by the early twentieth century the idea of empire was under attack
  • the rise of new powers also challenged European imperialism
  • the idea of imperialism was becoming outdated
  • even countries that were imperial powers denounced colonialism
  • the U.S. was a rapidly rising power which denounced European imperialism, at the same that it carried out imperial policies in Latin America
  • after 1917, the Communist rulers of Russia denounced imperialism, even while the Soviet Union expanded and conquered new territories
  • interesting that the Soviet Union showed the same ambivalence about imperialism and colonialism that you saw in many other imperial powers
  • officially, the Soviet Union was based on Marxist-Leninism
  • Marx had a certain sympathy with capitalism, which broke down feudal relationships in places like India
  • Marx realized that colonized peoples suffered, but believed that this suffering might lay the groundwork for social progress
  • Lenin had a much more critical view of imperialism
  • Lenin had argued that capitalism was the root cause of imperialism
  • In order to prevent revolutions amongst the working class, elites in wealthy countries exploited poor nations, to be able reward their own peoples with enough wealth to prevent discontent
  • Imperialism was in an inevitable aspect of capitalism
  • In order to defeat imperialism, Marxist-Leninists believed that capitalism had to be overthrown
  • And the inverse was also true
  • For this reason, the Soviet Union supported anti-imperial struggles around the globe, while at the same time remaining an imperial power in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
  • After the Soviet Union collapsed there was a huge diaspora of Russians in Europe
  • Key point: even nations that were imperial powers denounced imperialism by the mid-twentieth century
  • in the 1950s and 1960s one empire after another was forced to surrender its colonies
  • they had lost intellectual legitimacy
  • European nations no longer had the wealth to maintain them, especially after they had been nearly bankrupted in World War Two.
  • Guerrilla tactics perfected by Mao spread around the world
  • Very hard for conventional military forces to defeat these insurgencies
  • some imperial powers, such as Britain, gave up their former colonies with very little fighting
  • other powers fought bitter wars to retain their colonies, such as France in Vietnam and Algeria, or the Portuguese in Africa
  • in either case, the result was the same
  • imperialism had lost all legitimacy, and one colonial power after another fell
  • the number of nation-states in the world increased rapidly


Borders: the Legacy of Colonialism

  • colonialism had a huge legacy in the world
  • in some cases, nations found themselves still trapped by unequal relationships with their former imperial masters
  • often the new nation-states were themselves often the product of colonial arrangements
  • their borders were shaped by their former imperial masters
  • Iraq was shaped by the British, who united disparate ethnicities in an artificial state
  • The Kurds, a large ethnic group, lacked a nation, a problem which has plagued Middle Eastern politics ever since
  • Similar issues bedeviled many new nations
  • Frequently led to civil wars and violence
  • The largest example of this was probably that of partition in India
  • When the British left, India divided into Muslim and Hindu regions
  • There was ethnic cleansing and violence on a huge scale during this time
  • When the Ottoman empire collapsed, Greeks had to leave Turkey for Greece and vice-versa in the 1920s
  • You can also see colonialism’s legacy in Central Asia
  • This is the realm of the “stans,” nations such as Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan
  • These borders were set by Stalin, at a time when the Soviet Union was an imperial power controlling the region
  • Why did he choose the borders as he did?
  • One theory is that he deliberately created them so that they did not make sense as nations
  • Wanted to mix ethnicities, so that he could divide and rule
  • Made sense to Stalin in the mid-twentieth century, based not only on the Soviet Union’s political interests, as well as Stalin’s goals
  • Probably did not always make sense for the people in the region
  • But borders are very hard to change
  • I would argue that our modern system of borders is the most important legacy of colonialism



  • New nations also found that obtaining official independence was often not enough to end unequal relationships with their mother countries
  • Their economic development had been shaped by the mother countries, which often built infrastructure to export raw goods to the imperial power, while banning manufacturing in the colonies
  • These economic arrangements did not end overnight
  • Intellectuals in new countries began to refer to neocolonialism
  • By this they meant to the continuance of an unequal power relationship, through which the former imperial power continued to shape events in its colony in its interest, even after it no longer had political authority over its former colony (REPEAT).
  • Immanuel Wallerstein: the world is divided between a developed core and a periphery
  • He called this “World Systems Theory’
  • The political world had changed, in this view, much more than the economic one had
  • Neocolonialism did not only refer to economic relationships, however, but to psychological ones
  • Since the Greeks and Romans, the imperial metropole (or center of power) had been defined as the cultural center of the empire
  • Latin and Greek had become the languages of Empire in the Mediterranean world, much as Arabic had become the language of empire earlier in the Middle East
  • Even after imperial powers surrendered political control, new states often used European languages, because the new states were made up of many different peoples
  • Imperial traditions continued
  • There are places in Pakistan where people speak in impeccable English, play cricket, and echo older imperial customs
  • Local languages, traditions, and life-ways are not always valued after imperial powers withdraw
  • This is a larger process of neocolonialism


The Difficulty of Perceiving Neocolonialism

  • Neocolonialism is a construct so profound that it is sometimes difficult to see
  • Much as it can be hard to see the forest for the trees
  • Something is so large, it’s hard to truly understand, because it becomes part of the landscape
  • Intellectuals in newly independent countries, for example, pointed to world maps based on the Mercator projection, which made northern regions, such as Europe, appear far larger than they actually were
  • Europe traditionally at the center of the map (show Mercator Projection)
  • What do you notice
  • also show Hobo Dyer Equal Area Projection)
  • what do you see?
  • The map usually oriented with the North on the top, although there is no reason why the south could not be on top (show upside down world map)
  • What strikes you from looking at these images?
  • A small example
  • But it reflects the extent to which power relations shaped knowledge long after the empires themselves were gone



  • This recognition that literature and culture are shaped by colonial legacies has led to a theoretical movement called post-colonialism
  • It deals with how former colonies have dealt with the past history of colonial rule
  • Basic idea: colonial period continues to shape societies long after colonial rule ends
  • Some of the issues involved are very practical


Geographical Names

  • One example is that of names
  • One of the classic things that imperial powers do is to rename existing geographical markers
  • For example, Northern Canada has a vast archipelago in the Arctic
  • Most of the names are from English monarchs
  • The Inuit had names for all of these places, but they were not recognized
  • Much of this land is now part of Nunavut (you don’t have to remember this name), which is a territory politically controlled by the Inuit
  • They are renaming many sites
  • Too difficult to rename major islands
  • this example also holds in other parts of Canada
  • the Queen Charlotte islands are being renamed Haida Gwaii, the original name that the Haida people called these islands off of British Columbia
  • can see a Youtube clip of people cheering when these islands were renamed Haida Gwaaii
  • In Australia, perhaps the most famous geographic feature is Ayer’s rock, which was once named Uluru. The name has reverted. (perhaps YouTube video on Ayer’s rock and the controversy?).
  • you can find the same history here in Oregon, where native peoples have fought to restore indigenous names to key landmarks
  • One thing that you’ll notice that the examples that I’ve used involve native peoples
  • Usually when people think of imperialism and colonialism, they think of it taking place across international borders
  • But you can find colonial powers taking over indigenous lands within national borders as well
  • Indeed, some of the saddest examples of colonialism involve indigenous peoples.
  • POSSIBLE ACTIVITY: Perhaps show world map or hand one out: As a group of 3-5 people, can people try to find some names imposed through colonialism. Can they find any examples of places that names changed back after colonial powers left?


Name Appropriation

  • Another aspect of the colonial legacy is the adoption of names and cultures by those outside the culture for their own ends
  • One example: companies selling “Navajo” rugs that have no connection whatsoever to the Navajo
  • People selling indigenous healing ceremonies that have no connection to that culture
  • Persian rugs that have no connection to Iran
  • some people have no problem with this, this is only a name
  • other people, usually those whose culture is adopted, find it to be a form of appropriation
  • what is more distinctive, they say, than a name?
  • do you think that people have a right to control their name? Or is it OK for other groups to adopt that?



  • A common issue in postcolonial societies is the issue of land
  • In many states, for example in Southern Africa, the best land was given to whites
  • Many states now face demands to return land to the people who originally owned it
  • White families may have owned and worked the land since the 19th century
  • How do you balance these competing demands for justice
  • Also economic issues involved
  • In some countries, such as Zimbabwe, where land was seized, agricultural production declined, because the people who were given the land did not have access to credit for goods, nor were they always experienced farmers
  • Not only an African issue


Political Interventions:

  • Often former powers intervene in their former colonies for political reasons
  • Britain sent troops to Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein
  • This may be for reasons completely unrelated to colonialism
  • But there are people alive in Iraq who remember when British military actions in Iraq in the 1920s and 1940s
  • This decreases the legitimacy of the intervention
  • France faces the same issue when it sends troops into West Africa
  • But postcolonialism is not only concerned with these practical issues
  • It is particularly concerned with how the colonial legacy shapes how people in the developed world view their former colonies, and how people in the colonies find their world-view shaped by their colonial experience
  • Knowledge about developing countries often housed in their former imperial countries
  • For example, if you want to write a history of Angola, the archives are in Portugal
  • History of Kenya: the archives may be in London
  • This means that much of the writing and scholarship about developing countries may be written by people who don’t even speak the local language well, or may have done research in the former imperial capital
  • Anecdote: Amazon guide named Washington: all the maps are in England
  • People feel that they are spoken about, but don’t have the chance to present their own views about their experiences
  • I see that often in my own work on indigenous myths in Northern Canada
  • First Nations or indigenous peoples often have a lot of anger towards the anthropologists who wrote about them in the early twentieth century
  • These anthropologists never thought that the people they were writing about would read what they had written
  • How do these peoples understand the transition from colonial to postcolonial rule?


Edward Said

  • Perhaps the most famous author who has studied these problems is Edward Said, who wrote a famous book on the topic called Orientalism
  • Tried to describe the different ways in which Europeans had viewed the people of the Middle East
  • Unlike earlier authors, he did not focus on economics or political structures
  • More on cultural ideas
  • He tried to show that when Europeans tried to explain or understand the Middle East, they were in fact trying to find ways to dominate it
  • The way that people thought about the East was defined by power relationships
  • More recently, authors have critiqued postcolonial theory
  • But it is a sign of how deeply societies around the globe have been marked by colonialism


The Revenge of the Colonies

  • Ironically, many European powers have long since been overshadowed by their colonies
  • The most obvious example is the United States, which is much larger and more powerful than Britain
  • But there are many others
  • Portugal is a poor, indebted country of 11 million people
  •  A fraction the size of Brazil’s 200 million people
  • all of Portugal could fit many times over in most Brazilian states
  • Angola currently has a booming economy
  • Portugal has a terrible problem with youth unemployment
  • Tens of thousands of young Portuguese are going back to Angola
  • Some people returning to Angola may have left there as children in the 1970s
  • Most far too young for this
  • They are going to Angola as a land of opportunity
  • The Portuguese government is encouraging this, as a means to have people remit funds back to their homeland
  • Not all colonies permanently harmed by their colonial status
  • Nations like South Korea and Taiwan that suffered through long periods of colonial rule are relatively wealthy
  • Still, this is not the case in most of the colonial world



  • This has been a very long lecture
  • But I want to make the argument that history matters
  • The world order that we now see did not just appear from nowhere
  • Our world was shaped by a history of imperialism and colonialism
  • This has defined the world at such a deep level that it impacts all of us, even though we are not always aware of it
  • Not only a European phenomenon, although I have focused on Europe in today’s lecture
  • There were imperial powers from Asia to the Andes
  • Colonialism is a key aspect of our global experience
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