European colonial powers based their legal authority for colonizing other peoples on the international legal principle known as the “doctrine of discovery.” This principle gave the colonial power superior rights over the indigenous people in the control of the indigenous peoples’ land. Another international legal principle used to justify the occupation of other lands was the “contiguity principle.” Under this principle, the colonial power has legal authority to claim a land that is close to the one that it is occupying. Furthermore, the contiguity principle empowers the colonial authority to claim an indigenous land irrigated by a river whose source is in the land it is occupying.

Between the 16th and mid-20th centuries, almost all African countries were colonized by European countries. The Europeans also established colonies in Asia and the Americas during this era, which is often described as modern colonialism. Some of the European colonial powers were Britain, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, and Belgium. Before embarking on full colonization of territories, European colonizing authorities’ foray into Africa, Asia, and the Americas began with mercantile, trade, and religious missionary expeditions.

This entry explains the various types of colonialism, reviews the history of colonialism, and then discusses the consequences of colonialism, including its reliance on surveillance to monitor and control people.

Types of Colonialism

There are different types of colonialism, namely settler, exploitation, plantation, surrogate, and internal colonialism—all of which are exploitative and oppressive. However, settler colonialism describes colonialism where a significant number of citizens from the colonizing country migrate en masse to the colonized country or territory. This occurs when people from the colonizing country seek to escape economic hardship and/or religious or political oppression. In settler colonialism, the colonists are determined to settle in the colonized country or territory despite the indigenous peoples’ resistance, with the aim of exploiting the economic products of the colonized country for use in their home country. The settler colonial subjects, conscious of the fact that they are not welcomed by the colonized people, typically employ repressive tactics to subjugate and control the indigenous people. Two examples of settler colonialism are the (1) Dutch mass migration to and settlement in South Africa and (2) the British peoples’ migration to America. The Dutch East India Company, commanded by Jan Van Riebeeck, established its base in South Africa in 1652, originally for shelter for its ships and for its hungry sailors to replenish their supplies of meat, fruit, and vegetables. The European settlement in what is now the United States could be said to have started in 1492, following the Spanish expedition led by Christopher Columbus. Attempts were often made to either exterminate the aboriginals or subjugate them for exploitative purposes.

Exploitation colonialism describes the colonial system where the purpose of the colonization is the exploitation of the natural and human resources of the colony. In plantation colonialism, the colonial authorities established a permanent or semipermanent base in the colonies to plant tobacco or cotton, for example. Surrogate colonialism describes a colonial system in which the colonial authorities sponsor and/or provide support for another nonnative people to occupy the indigenous peoples’ land. Internal colonialism occurs when there is uneven development within a nation-state and the inherent exploitation resulting from the structural political and economic inequalities between the different areas of the nation-state.

History of Colonialism

Consequences of Colonialism

Marxist theorists argue that colonialism, just like capitalism, is exploitative of workers, especially workers from the colonies. According to this perspective, colonialism created forced social change and uneven development. Colonialism destroyed the culture, economy, and educational systems of the colonies. It created a dependency relationship between the colonial powers and the colonies. Colonialism changed, for example, Africa’s economic and social priorities to meet the needs of Europeans. Colonialism also reinforced the racist and race superiority ideologies that served the economic and social interests of Europeans and their descendants.

Colonial people also brought to the colonies diseases that were not indigenous to the colonized people, resulting in many deaths. For example, Europeans introduced smallpox to Australia, and it is estimated that more than 50% of the indigenous Australian population died as a result. In addition, colonialism undermined the colonized peoples’ traditions, languages, religion, and educational and political systems and constrained their development. Some scholars blame colonialism for Africa’s and Asia’s economic, social, and technological underdevelopment.

However, there are some scholars who see positive developments with colonialism. Adherents of this school of thought argue that colonialism created universal standards by bringing diverse populations to speak one language, practice one religion, and share scientific and philosophical ideas that spurred scientific and technological development in the world. Colonialism, some scholars have argued, has also acted as a bridge between the “imperial capitals” and the “metropoles”—that is, between the colonial powers and their colonies—narrowing the geographical, ideological, commercial, and religious divides between them. According to this argument, colonialism is the forerunner of globalization and its attendant economic and social benefits, including technological advancements. Thus, today’s expanded economic activities have their roots in the colonial era.

Some scholars also credit colonial powers with the introduction of Western education and health care, which they believe have had a positive impact on the lives of the colonized people. Furthermore, they assert that colonialism contributed to centralizing power and bringing an end to political conflicts and instability in some of the colonized countries or territories.

The operational strategy of colonialism is often shrouded in secrecy, but its survival depends on the extent to which the colonial country is able to marshal its security and surveillance apparatus to repress dissent and to control resistance to it. That is, the maintenance of colonialism depends on the effectiveness of the surveillance strategies and practices of the colonial country for monitoring and controlling the people of the colonized country or territory.

O. Oko Elechi, Rochelle E. M. Cobbs, and Emmanuel Amadi

See also Postcolonialism ; Social Control

Further Readings

Ekeh, Peter. “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, v.17/1 (1975).

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2005.

Korman, Sharon. The Right of Conquest: The Acquisition of Territory by Force in International Law and Practice. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1982.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1979.