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Increase your knowledge of the topic of colonialism, which is defined as the control by one nation over a dependent area or people. Colonialism is often used synonymously with the term imperialism, although there are key differences between the two. While both refer to political or economic control by one nation over an “other,” colonialism involves the settlement of the colonizing power’s people in a new territory for the purpose of administration and exploitation of the territory’s natural resources and people, while imperialism can involve more indirect methods of domination. In that sense, colonialism is one of many expressions of imperialism.

Colonialism has been a feature of civilization since ancient times, when the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Phoenicians built enormous empires through conquest and subsequent settlement of their people in newly conquered territories. Other empires followed suit, including the Islamic caliphates of the Middle Ages, which spread as a result of military victory, followed by the establishment of their culture and religion as colonizing influences.

While colonialism isn’t specific to one people, group, or region, the concept is most closely associated with Western colonialism, beginning with the “Age of Discovery” in the fifteenth century. During that time period, advancements in navigation allowed European explorers, traders, and soldiers to travel farther and faster than they ever had before. Portugal led the way by establishing its first colonies in North Africa, followed by Spain, which established a vast empire in the Americas. The competition between those two nations soon expanded to include England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, who fought for hegemony in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Early colonial efforts were often masked as attempts to “civilize” indigenous peoples through conversion to Christianity.


Toward the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, most of the colonial holdings in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, Haiti, and the countries of Latin America, gained their independence. As the United States strengthened its position internationally, it established the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to deter further European interference in the Western Hemisphere. European nations focused more specifically on colonizing efforts in Asia and Africa during the nineteenth century as a result.

The Industrial Revolution that had begun in the eighteenth century resulted in an increased need for raw materials for European factories as well as new markets for European goods in the nineteenth century. Great Britain’s position of economic and naval dominance allowed it to expand its empire to become the largest in the world, which included an important colony in India (known as the British Raj) administered by the British East India Company and the penal colony of Australia. France was also active in Asia, with a focus on Indochina.

While European powers previously had exerted more indirect control over Africa, this policy changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as they raced to control and colonize the continent in a competition known as the “Scramble for Africa.” The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 attempted to sort out competing European interests in Africa; by 1914, only two African nations were outside European control: Ethiopia and Liberia.

The two world wars of the twentieth century (World War I, from 1914 to 1918, and World War II, from 1939 to 1945) significantly weakened Europe’s control of its colonial holdings. As a result, nationalist demonstrations in Asia and Africa produced successful independence movements throughout those regions. The most dramatic wave of decolonization was concentrated in the period from 1918 to the 1960s, when more than 50 countries and over 800 million people gained independence from European rule. For Asians and Africans, decolonization’s roots lay with the development of new local elites trained in modern disciplines—law, medicine, civil service—and their establishment of national-level political and, later, military organizations.

But the legacy of colonialism continued to negatively affect these regions. Particularly in Africa, colonies were established without regard to the traditional homelands of the continent’s various tribes, resulting in ethnic-based warfare and difficulty in establishing stable governments postindependence. The tendency of Western nations to continue to exert influence over their former colonies led to the coining of the term “neocolonialism” to describe the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence their former dependencies.

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  • African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom, 1st Edition

    African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom, 1st Edition

    Cambridge University Press  |  2015  |  ISBN-13: 9781316371145

    This book provides a narrative historical, postcolonial account of African religions. It examines the intersection of Black religion and colonialism to explain the relationship between empire and democratic freedom. Rather than treating freedom the opposite of colonialism, slavery, and racism, the author interprets multiple periods of Black religious history to discern how Atlantic empires (particularly the United States) simultaneously enabled the emergence of particular forms of religious experience and freedom movements as well as disturbing patterns of violent domination. He explains theories of matter and spirit that shaped early indigenous religious movements in Africa, Black political religion responding to the American racial state, the creation of Liberia, and FBI repression of Black religious movements in the 20th century. By combining historical methods with theoretical analysis, the author explains the seeming contradictions that have shaped Black religions in the modern era.

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  • Defining Documents in American History: Exploration and Colonial America (1492-1755), 1st Edition

    Defining Documents in American History: Exploration and Colonial America (1492-1755), 1st Edition

    Salem Press  |  2012  |  ISBN-13: 9781429837040

    This volume begins with a collection of exploration and colonial documents, including important journals of exploration, reports of New World settlements, and early political tracts on self-governing. Also included are narratives on colonial life and slavery and indentured servitude.

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  • Documenting America: The Primary Source Documents of a Nation: From Columbus to Colonial America, 1st Edition

    Documenting America: The Primary Source Documents of a Nation: From Columbus to Colonial America, 1st Edition

    Britannica Digital Learning  |  2012  |  ISBN-13: 9781615308569

    The New World, as the land that comprises the United States was once known, held the promise of opportunity and changing fortunes for those who discovered and colonized it. Even before becoming an independent nation, the land proved to be a bounteous, yet challenging home. This lively volume recounts the early history of America, using a diverse selection of the era’s personal and historic documents as guideposts.

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  • European Colonialism in the Asia Pacific, 1st Edition

    European Colonialism in the Asia Pacific, 1st Edition

    Trocadero Publishing  |  2011  |  ISBN-13: 9780864272560

    From the 1500s to the 1900s, the peoples, nations, kingdoms, sultanates, and tribes of the Asia-Pacific were seen as fair game for colonization by European empires. From tiny Pacific islands like Niue to the vastness of Australia and India, almost nowhere was immune from the attention of European explorers, traders, and missionaries. This book shows how colonialism began in the pursuit of trade by the Portuguese and expanded into a rush for territory that peaked in the 19th century with Britain ruling over a vast territory, taking what was seen as “civilization” to these ancient lands.

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