Both the global magnitude of colonialism’s expansion and its abrupt, fragmented demise place colonialism at a pivotal phase in human history. Colonialism normally refers to the conquest and direct control of other land and other people by Western capitalist entities intent on expanding processes of production and consumption. In this context, colonialism is situated within a history of imperialism best understood as the globalization of the capitalist mode of production. While colonialism as a formal political process managed through state entities began to unravel following World War II, the global expansion of capitalism continues as a process that informs and often structures national, corporate, and human entanglements on a global scale.
Historically, colonialism is a term largely restricted to that period of European expansion lasting roughly from 1830 to 1930. By the early 20th century, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal together claimed control of nearly 84 percent of the earth’s surface. The British alone ruled over one fourth of the world’s land and one third of its population.
European expansion did not begin, of course, in 1830. It was arguably the Iberian navigators of the 15th century, reaching the Americas in 1492 and India in 1498, who inaugurated the age of colonialism. Furthermore, other empires outside of Europe clearly rose (and fell) prior to the colonial period. By the 1830s, however, a new period of empire building had erupted, sparked by a volatile combination of technologies (of travel, production, and health) and ideologies (including liberalism, enlightenment, scientific racism, and capitalism) that entangled human relationships within the distinct and asymmetrical identifying categories of colonizer and colonized.
Colonial expansion was related to technological advancements driven by the rise of industrialization. Processes of commodity production that required ever larger quantities of raw material and unskilled labor, along with advances in travel technologies, pushed European powers into untapped spaces of labor and material around the world. In the process, colonized lands were reconfigured as spaces of manufacture or plantations for cash crops, and newly landless colonial populations were introduced to the wage economy.
Travel technologies helped make this possible. From the large-hulled sailing ships that took the Portuguese into Southeast Asia during the 1500s to the steam engines that followed 300 years later, people and products began to move through space at a pace the world had never before seen. At the same time, medical discoveries, such as quinine, allowed for relatively sickness-free travel into tropical climates that had before caused great illness for Europeans. In addition, the arms revolution at the end of the 19th century allowed for relatively small forces to take and hold large blocks of land and indigenous populations.
Ideologically, the impetus for colonialism might rest with what has been called capitalism’s tendency to expand beyond the confines of a single political system. Yet this push outward was buttressed not only by a belief in the logic of capitalism but also by a belief in the racial and cultural superiority of the colonizers. Colonialism as a “civilizing” project was fueled by Enlightenment beliefs in reason and progress, ideas thought capable of leading humanity out of the darkness of tradition and superstition and into the light of objective truth.
A concurrent scientific obsession with “race” further differentiated between populations already divided by an economic system of exploitation and helped legitimize feelings of superiority for the colonizers over the colonized. In short, an expansion in travel, combined with an ideology of racial difference, resulted in a cultural confusion of space for time, locating indigenous populations temporally behind Europeans in an evolutionary scheme that went beyond biology to include culture and intellect.
The confluence of these ideologies worked to create, at least in the mind of the colonizers, legitimacy for their actions. Colonialism as the “white man’s burden” was, for a time, perceived as a legitimate and benevolent enterprise of Europeans civilizing others.
A central component of the colonial project was the production of knowledge about other populations by European powers. To dominate and educate a population, one must construct that population as needing domination and education. Thus, colonialism brought with it a description of indigenous beliefs and behaviors that codified populations in terms of race, culture, tradition, religion, and economy. Knowledge of the world’s populations, created within a colonial context, highlighted differences to the benefit of the colonizers and, perhaps more important, continues to inform global relations as well as more intimate understandings of self and other. Area studies and anthropology departments, for example, owe their existence, at least in part, to the colonial process of knowledge production.
The demise of colonialism was in many ways of the colonizers’ own doing. A focus on liberalism and nationalism, in particular, had devastating effects on colonial projects in that indigenous populations were being introduced to Enlightenment concepts such as self-attainment and national identity. These ideas gave ideological weight to nationalist youth movements in colonized spaces. These movements often served to organize resistance that eventually turned into post-colonial nationalist projects.
- Dirks, Nicholas, ed. 1992. Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
- Williams, Patrick and Laura Chrisman, eds. 1994. Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Wolf, Eric. 1997. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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