Colonialism is the building and maintaining of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. Sovereignty over the colony is claimed by the metropolis. Social structure, government and economics within the territory of the colony are changed by the colonists.

Colonialism normally refers to a period of history from the 15th to the 20th century when people from Europe built colonies on other continents. The reasons for the practice of colonialism at this time include:

i. The profits to be made.

ii. To expand the power of the metropole.


iii. To escape persecution in the metropole.

iv. To convert the indigenous population to the colonists’ religion. Some colonists also felt they were helping the indigenous population by bringing them Christianity and civilization. However, the reality was often subjugation, displacement or death.

A colony is part of an empire and so colonialism is closely related to imperialism. Manifestations of colonialism

The imperial powers acquired political control over large number of countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Thus, if colonialism was economic exploitation, imperialism was political control. The two went hand-in-gloves.


In most cases imperialism followed economic domination and exploitation. Colonies were used to acquire cheap raw material and labour, and for dumping in their markets the finished produced by the colonial powers. Both colonialism and imperialism were exploitative and undemocratic. One naturally followed the other.

The colonists had their arguments to support this system of exploitation. The defenders of colonialism and imperialism pleaded their case in terms of white man’s burden. They argued that it was the obligation of advanced nations to help the people of “backward’ countries – to “civilise” and “Christianise” them, and “to teach them the dignity of labour, and to impress upon them the beauties of their own concepts of law and order.”

According to Palmer and Perkins, “They argued that colonialism was a necessary prelude to the emergence of most of the free and independent states of the world and to the twentieth century awakening of Asia and Africa.” These arguments of supporters of colonialism were rightly rebutted by its critics who used such terms as brutality, exploitation, misery, hatred and degradation for colonialism and its practices.

The critics insisted that the struggle for empires led only to the urge to create greater and still greater empires and that the appetite of empire builders knew no limits. Colonialism was the foundation of imperialism. Portugal and Spain were the first to establish their colonics. They were soon joined by Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany. The first to lose its colonies were Germany and Turkey who were deprived of all their colonies after their defeat in the First World War. Even Japan and the US had joined the race.


After the First World War only four African countries were fully or partially independent. The rest of the Continent was under one colonial power or the other. The British Empire was so vast that the sun never set in it. The 13 British colonies in North America were the first to liberate themselves in 1770s and 1780s, and they established the sovereign United States of America. The Portuguese and Spanish colonies of Latin America were next to acquire independence. Asia and Africa had to wage struggles for independence, in which they succeeded only after the Second World War.