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settlement colonies
dependent colonies
"native policy"

Colonies are, strictly speaking, settlements of people outside the borders of their home nations, usually in lands considered to be "empty" or "barbarous." These settlements remain colonies while they retain their subordinate ties with their mother countries. Once they become independent of those countries, or incorporated in them, they lose their colonial status. The word colonies is also used, however, in other ways. The overseas territories acquired and ruled from Europe as a result of the imperialism of the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries were generally called colonies, though the element of "settlement" here was usually minimal. This entry will cover this meaning also, though it is important to be aware of the differences between the two kinds. Lastly, the word colonies and its derivatives—colonization, colonialism, and so on—can be employed metaphorically. Thus, one reads of "colonies" of artists in famous beauty spots; or of birds; or of barnkolonier, holiday camps for poor children in the nineteenth-century Swedish countryside. These, however, are peripheral usages.

In the original and more correct sense of the word, all peoples have colonized. Otherwise they would not have spread. Most of this happened very early in history: original humanity pushing out from the Great Rift Valley of east Africa, for example; Stone Age man and woman colonizing the north as the last ice age receded; or Polynesians settling in present-day New Zealand around 1000 c.e. In the nineteenth century this process of contiguous colonization was still going on in many places: the Russians in Siberia, white Americans in their "west," Scandinavians in Norrland, and so on. In most of these latter cases it was at the expense of weaker indigenous inhabitants, who were either extirpated or enslaved. Even where they were treated better, the indigenes could still feel "colonized." This was because this kind of colonization invariably involved expropriation. The natives might be technically assimilated, but their cultures, polities, and property rights were not.

settlement colonies

When the word colonies was used in the early nineteenth century, however, it nearly always referred to Europe's overseas colonies. These went back to the sixteenth century in the cases of Spain and Portugal, but were still being added to as late as the 1850s. The underlying dynamic beneath this movement was emigration, which in its turn was caused by perceived overpopulation in Europe: in the century from 1750 the population of some countries nearly doubled. Whether this really was too great for Europe to sustain on its own is doubtful; even at this time improved methods of agricultural production were enabling the population to be fed, and more people meant bigger markets, which should have kept them all employed. It may have been the organization of European societies that was at fault, causing more poverty and distress than were strictly necessary. At the time, however, an easier solution to these problems—especially for those who resisted social change—seemed to be the vast "virgin" territories that had recently been discovered and opened up across the oceans, which offered instant opportunities for new starts for millions of Europe's unfortunates. Between 1850 and 1910 (earlier figures are less reliable) a total of roughly 34 million men, women, and children emigrated out of Europe; 15 million of them from Britain, 6 million from the German-speaking countries, 6 million from Italy, 2.5 million from Spain, and nearly 2 million from Scandinavia. Most of these ended up in the United States, which by this time, of course, had long broken its formal colonial ties. But a significant number, particularly Britons, were instrumental in establishing new or sustaining older colonies overseas; of which the most significant were British North America (later Canada); the Australian colonies (federated in 1900); New Zealand; British and "Afrikaner" South Africa; and French Algeria. These—and a handful of lesser colonies—were the nineteenth century's characteristic colonies in the strict sense of the word.

The colonies sometimes posed difficult questions for contemporaries, though not usually for ethical reasons. Colonization was felt to be fundamentally different from "imperialism," which was widely felt to have an unsavory side. Colonists did not dominate or exploit other people; instead they used their own honest labor and enterprise to tame and cultivate wildernesses. That at any rate was the theory, which of course sat uneasily with the reality, in many places, of shocking treatment of the indigenes. A few European humanitarians were aware of the latter and did what they could to prevent it—under the aegis for example of the Aborigines Protection Society, founded in Britain in 1837. Generally, however, the attitude toward "natives" of this degree of "primitiveness" was that they were bound to die out in the face of the "superior civilization" of the West, sadly but naturally. Besides, to try to control the process—hold back land-hungry European emigrants—would require a greater exertion of metropolitan imperial power than was thought to be desirable from the point of view of either "economy" or "freedom." For the great virtues of colonization in this sense—the particular qualities that marked it off from imperialism—were its cheapness and its democracy. Hence the pride that many Britons, especially, felt for it. It was a means by which British liberties were

being spread throughout the world. Most people saw these liberties culminating in colonial independence, with Canada, Australia, and the rest all going the way of the United States. It was this that justified colonization in liberal terms.

Most of the problems attaching to the British settlement colonies arose from the metropolitan government's relations with them in the meantime. An initial problem concerned restrictions on trade: the nineteenth-century colonial system (or mercantilism), which had been one of the reasons for tension with the thirteen American colonies. That however was solved as British commercial policy was progressively liberalized during the early nineteenth century, ending with the repeal of the Navigation Acts (forbidding certain colonial trades with foreign countries) in 1849. Thereafter most disputes in this area were over the colonies' wishes

Growth of colonies' commodity trade with Britain (in £ millions)
CanadaAustraliaNew Zealand
SOURCE: Brian R. Mitchell, with the collaboration of Phyllis Deane, Abstract of British Historical Statistics, Cambridge, U.K., 1962, pp. 318–325.
Exports to Britain 18547.14.3
Imports from Britain 18546.011.60.3
Exports to Britain 191020.638.620.9
Imports from Britain 191026.227.78.7

to impose trade tariffs of their own. There were also controversies over migration to the colonies, which was resented on both sides: in Britain by those who felt themselves forced to emigrate by an unjust economic system at home; and in the colonies by those who suspected Britain of merely dumping its undesirables on them. This was most obvious, of course, in the case of colonies used for transporting convicts, such as New South Wales and Tasmania. (That practice stopped in 1868.) Then the colonists' treatment of the "natives" could raise concerns, either from a humanitarian viewpoint or if it provoked uprisings that the metropolitan government then had to help suppress. This was particularly serious in settlement colonies with large and relatively powerful native populations, such as New Zealand, South Africa, and (French) Algeria. Unsurprisingly, it was this kind of colony that saw most of the fiercest colonial wars of the time. Lastly, in two areas of British colonial settlement, North America and South Africa, other Europeans—French and Dutch respectively—challenged British dominance, which was then only reasserted after more damaging and expensive wars: in Canada in 1837–1840 and South Africa in 1899–1902. Otherwise, however, Britain's settlement or "white" colonies were the easiest parts of its much vaster empire to run. For the most part they ran themselves.

Their economic value to Britain was considerable, even after the end of mercantilism meant that it could not exploit that value exclusively. All furnished markets for the products of its factories—and markets of a familiar kind: customers with the same kinds of tastes as at home—as well as (increasingly) investment opportunities. They also furnished Britain with food and raw materials, such as Canadian fur, timber, and wheat; Australian and New Zealand wool and mutton; and South African fruits and gold. Table 1 shows the growth of the colonies' commodity trade with Britain between the 1850s and the 1900s (in £ millions).

It should be emphasized that these figures never represented a majority of Britain's trade, far more of which (around 70 percent) was done with the European continent and the United States throughout this period. The same is true of emigration from Britain, which before 1904 went predominantly to the United States. The importance to Britain (and other European countries) of colonial emigration may have been its function as a social and political safety valve: forced to stay and suffer at home, people might have turned more easily to revolt. Advocates of colonization also pointed to the importance of the markets it created to the employment and living standards of those who stayed at home. These assessments, however, are still controversial. The economist John Atkinson Hobson argued that the colonial safety valve merely released employers from the necessity of paying higher wages to their domestic workers, which would have been equally stimulating for industry, and more socially beneficial.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, under the impact of trade depression and international economic competition, many in Britain came to regard their settlement colonies more positively. Colonies were now considered assets that should not after all be allowed to "separate" naturally from Britain, but instead be encouraged to deepen their ties with Britain, for example, through a free trade area (often called a Zollverein, after the German) and some form of political federation that would enable them to pool their "freedoms" with Britain's. Most of the colonies' peoples of British origin were still intensely loyal to their mother country—possibly even more "imperialist" in this special sense than stay-at-home Britons were. (Empire Day, for example, came to be officially celebrated in Canada and Australia long before it was in Britain.) The main proponent of imperial federation at this time was Joseph Chamberlain, British colonial secretary from 1895 to 1903. His scheme failed, however, partly through domestic resistance, on "free trade" principles, to the discriminatory tariffs that would obviously be necessary to establish tariff preference for the colonies, and partly because even the most theoretically "loyal" of colonials were reluctant to compromise their practical independence. Nonetheless, this movement sowed the seeds of the idea that later became the (much looser) commonwealth, a term that originated in the 1880s.

Other European countries did not have this option to the same extent. The closest comparison is probably France's colony of Algeria, established by conquest over the local Arabs, which boasted a European population of 740,000 (about 70 percent French, most of the rest Spaniards and Italians) by 1911. Most of these immigrants were farmers, often vine cultivators, who had been granted concessions of land (seized from the locals) by the French government, in a manner similar to the American "homestead" system. Germany's main settlement colony, German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), was acquired in 1885 but had attracted only thirteen thousand European settlers by 1910. Most German, Scandinavian, and Italian emigrants colonized the United States instead, and so very soon became "lost," in most senses, to their mother countries. When those countries talked of establishing "colonies" from the 1880s onward, it was usually of the other, nonsettlement kind.

dependent colonies

Most nonsettlement, or dependent, colonies originated in the policy—or phenomenon—of "imperialism" that took hold of Europe in the later nineteenth century. They were possessions populated mainly by non-Europeans, and for both that and climatic reasons were considered unsuitable for white people to live in, except in the more temperate parts of some of them (such as—in Africa—the Kenyan and Cameroon highlands). The Europeans who lived there did so temporarily, simply in order to rule or police or proselytize or exploit the natives. They had generous leave provision (to protect their health), and almost all returned to their home countries at the ends of their careers. They numbered very few: little over two thousand British men (always men) ruling India for most of the nineteenth century, for example, lording it over a population of something like two hundred million. It is this that distinguished these "dependent" colonies from the "settlement" ones, from the point of view both of the Europeans and of the indigenes.

One similarity was that both types of colonies were there to be exploited, in one way or another, for the benefit of Europeans. That however should not be taken entirely negatively. "Exploitation" simply means, literally, to make the best of something, and the line that enlightened people took in the nineteenth century was that the greatest benefits were mutual: that European commerce with colonial peoples, and the "development" of their resources, were bound to profit the latter too. Unfortunately things did not always work out this way. The main problem came when the freedom of labor was impaired. It was difficult to see many of the benefits of commerce, for example, trickling down to slaves. At the start of the nineteenth century most European nations with overseas colonies still practiced slavery in them, but slavery was whittled down in most colonies over the course of the next sixty-five years. Spain abolished the practice in 1811 (except in Cuba), Britain in 1833, Sweden in 1843, France in 1848 (though there had also been a brief ban during the revolutionary years), Denmark in the same year, and Holland in 1863, before the United States at last caught up in 1865. (Several contemporaries pointed out how much better off the blacks of the southern states would have been if the United States had still been part of the British Empire in 1833, which is not entirely convincing—with American support the proslavery lobby in Britain might have been able to resist emancipation longer—but illustrates the point that imperialism, as distinct from colonization, can be an agent of liberation as well as of tyranny.)

The demise of European slavery did not bring an end to adverse labor conditions in the colonies by any means. Many colonial nations retained quasislave systems: apprenticeship, the corvée, indentured labor, taxation to force natives to work for money wages, and so on. These systems were enough to keep the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society—whose motto (from the mouth of a kneeling African) was "Am I not a Man and a Brother?"—going from its creation in 1839 (on the foundation of other societies stretching back to 1787)

to the twenty-first century. The Dutch colony of Java and King Leopold II of Belgium's Congo Free State (present-day Zaire) were two of the most notorious examples of exploitation of this kind. And it could be claimed that workers are never basically free under colonial or any other kind of capitalism in any case. However, the claim made by most colonial powers during the nineteenth century was that by exploiting their overseas territories, they were enriching both themselves and the natives: providing the material means by which the latter could be furnished with schools, hospitals, and so on, and ultimately—in some cases—the infrastructure for independent statehood. The British colonial governor Frederick, Lord Lugard (1858–1945), coined the term dual mandate to describe this. Colonial power was legitimized by the way—or insofar as—it served both parties.

"native policy"

Colonies could not simply be exploited, however. They also had to be ruled. In most cases European intervention had destroyed indigenous political systems, so something needed to be put in their place. In addition, the claim to be benefiting native societies—improving the lot of the locals, and "advancing" them in "civilization"—required at least a show of a positive and constructive "native policy" to make it convincing. Colonial rulers could not be content with merely keeping the natives down, though this was how some of them—particularly the parvenu Germans—behaved. They had taken on a great responsibility here. All agreed on this (or pretended to), but not on how precisely that responsibility should be exercised.

The way this responsibility was exercised depended on two broad factors. The first was the colonists' worldview: their general perceptions of themselves and their European culture (or cultures) in relation to these "others" that they were seeking to "raise." Usually that could be described as arrogant, though we should not perhaps be too hard on the confident, "progressive" societies that composed most of Europe at that time for not being aware that material wealth, power, and even "progress" do not necessarily indicate "superiority" in any other sense. The crucial consideration was to what they attributed that superiority. If it was their race, then this could not be encouraging to those who did not share the Europeans' ethnic advantage. Racist theories were common in certain intellectual circles in Europe at this time, and unflattering racial stereotypes were even more common, in popular literature, for example. This of course is not only a characteristic of the west and in the west, it was not the whole story. There was also a strong seam of race-egalitarian thought, represented by that Anti-Slavery Society slogan, but associated more with the French, which may have grown weaker during the later nineteenth century—it certainly came more under attack—but still remained, to inspire more charitable "native policies."

An example is the government of British India prior to 1857, whose objective, according to the historian and member of the Supreme Council of India Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859) was to raise up "a class of persons Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect," which would of course have been unthinkable without the assumption of equality (quoted in Stokes, p. 45). Macaulay foresaw India eventually ruling itself on parliamentary lines. French colonial policy had much the same official aim. "All the efforts of colonisation," declared a government resolution passed in 1889, "must tend to propagate amongst the natives our language, our methods of work, and gradually the spirit of our civilization" (quoted in Roberts, p. 103). When that was achieved, even the blackest of Africans would be accepted as a full-fledged Frenchman (or woman), no less. Here were two cases where the colonists' worldview augured well for their alien subjects, albeit only in theory and not without a downside.

The downside was the lack of respect for native cultures that this view implied. Because all humans were the same, they could all aspire to the same standards; and because western European standards were the most "advanced," these were what all non-Europeans were entitled to. This of course was also the missionary view, with the Christian revelation and ethic representing that peak of human enlightenment, compared with which every other religion and value system was measured, to its inevitable detriment. (Again, Christianity is not unique in this regard.) To become truly respected, therefore, and demonstrate their genuine equality with white men and women, non-Europeans needed to abandon their customary—backward, superstitious, dark, as they were usually characterized—ways.

There was an alternative, based on a different worldview that did not regard European culture as necessarily the summit, or as universally applicable, but simply as something that had grown historically out of a particular set of circumstances, just as had all other cultures in the world. This more conservative and relativist view was more likely to tolerate cultural and social differences. It is found in Britain after the Indian Mutiny (1857–1858), for example, in the criticisms that Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) made of the Macaulay kind of policy, on the grounds that it did not respect what he called Indian "nationality." This is why, he claimed, the Indians—solid conservatives, just like himself—had mutinied. It is also found in a new doctrine of colonial government, called "Indirect Rule," or "rule the native on native lines," which became fashionable in British colonial circles around the turn of the twentieth century. In parts of West Africa in particular, the Colonial Office made a point of preserving indigenous forms of government and society (where they remained to be preserved)—the old emirs of northern Nigeria, for example—and encouraging political development along those traditional lines. But this doctrine had its disadvantages too. It could betray racist assumptions, if different cultures were seen as racially determined (as one of the original ideologues of indirect rule, the traveller Mary Kingsley, believed). It alienated natives who actually craved Western enlightenment and suspected indirect rule of being designed to keep them in the dark and, so, "down." And it was, in truth, more a device to excuse nondevelopment in Africa and to avoid provoking instability, in a situation in which—as we have seen—Britain could afford far too few men on the ground to be able to do much positive "good" for the natives.

In fact ideology—"worldviews" and the like—probably had less impact on "native policy" in the colonies than the sheer day-to-day circumstances faced by those who were supposed to implement those views under a myriad of pressures from (for example) the natives themselves, their kings and chiefs, European settlers, traders, capitalist "developers," missionaries, the officials' own corruptibility, and simple material factors like geography and climate. The idea that colonial practice was significantly determined by metropolitan colonial policy is mistaken in most cases. Even in France's case, where abstract theory was valued most highly—they even had an école coloniale to inculcate it—and where policy was supposed to be most consistent across all its colonies—with administrators being transferred between them in a way that was unusual in the British Empire—"assimilation" (into French culture) was more often a distant aspiration than an actual achievement. It had a few successes. Cochin China (the southern part of present-day Vietnam) became largely Frenchified culturally. Senegal in West Africa became so politically

assimilated that in 1914 it furnished the French National Assembly with its first deputé of pure African descent: Blaise Diagne (1872–1934), who later rose to be undersecretary of state for the colonies. (In 1921 he resisted national independence for Senegal: "We French natives," he said, "wish to remain French, since France has given us every liberty" [quoted in Crowder, p. 22].) Elsewhere, however, the policy foundered on the rocks of local native opposition, white settler prejudice, and a gradual change of mind in the metropole in the early twentieth century in the face of these difficulties. In the case of the British colonies, the failure of ideology was less, because there was less ideology to fail (after 1857) and because what there was of it was in any case more pragmatic than France's. What Britain had done was to acknowledge the limited possibilities and capacities of any form of colonial government, and work within these. This made it difficult for it to fly high—in "raising" the natives—but unlikely that it would fall very far.

Other colonial powers never even attempted to fly, though they sometimes paid lip service to the ideal, in order to reassure more "progressive" countries like Britain and France. "For bringing civilisation to the only part of the earth which it has not yet reached, and enlightening the darkness in which whole peoples are plunged is, I venture to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress," claimed King Leopold II of the Belgians, grandly, in 1876. "Need I say that no selfish motives impel me?" (quoted in Brunschwig, 1960, p. 35). In fact Leopold's Congo Free State was one of the most selfishly and oppressively run of all the European colonies in the 1890s—mainly by private capitalist companies with the kind of amoralism that typifies capitalism in its most unrestrained state—provoking a Europe-wide campaign against the "Congo atrocities," which led to the Belgian parliament's taking the country out of his hands completely in 1908. Portugal's older established African colonies of Portuguese West Africa (present-day Angola), Portuguese East Africa (present-day Mozambique), and São Tomé and Príncipe were run on semifeudal lines, with large estates (prazos) owned by colonistsor their mulatto descendents, who had absolute authority over the Africans, or colonos (in fact Portugal was the last of the European colonial powers to outlaw even formal slavery, in 1869); until the early 1890s, when pressure from the more "progressive" European nations forced Portugal into wholesale reforms. These reforms promised to bring the benefits of a more enlightened kind of capitalism to its colonies but were never properly implemented. (They promised education for Africans, for example, but as late as 1909 only three thousand Africans and mulattos were attending primary school throughout the huge colonies of Angola and Mozambique.) In the 1900s yet another humanitarian campaign, against the cruel treatment of what were effectively slaves in the cocoa islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, made Portugal a virtual pariah among colonial nations.


The word colony covers a multitude of phenomena. Hence it is difficult to generalize about the significance of the actual thing. In the strict sense of the term, the colonization of countries like Canada and Australia was inevitable, the only surprising thing being that it was by people who came from so far away. This was probably a bad thing for the indigenes, with whom they shared little in common culturally; but it is by no means certain that the Aborigines of Australia, for example, would have been treated any more kindly by migrant Indonesians (their closest neighbors). What the European peopling of these parts of the world did was to spread European or "Western" institutions wider and so help strengthen their hold on the world. Whatever its importance, this kind of colony should not be confused with the other main use of the term in the nineteenth century, to describe communities of non-Europeans ruled absolutely—albeit in some cases paternalistically, at least in intention—by the European governing classes. That was a different phenomenon, raising other problems that were dealt with in widely divergent ways, according to the culture and society of the European nation that was doing the governing in any particular instance, and circumstances and pressures on the ground. Most nineteenth-century colonies of both kinds were given up during the second half of the twentieth century, though it is arguable that—rather like slavery—the thing itself survived under other names.

See alsoColonialism; Emigration; Imperialism; Missions; Race and Racism.


Brunschwig, Henri. Mythes et réalités de l'impérialisme colonial français, 1871–1914. Paris, 1960. Translated by William Granville Brown as French Colonialism, 1871–1914: Myths and Realities. New York, 1966.

Clarence-Smith, Gervase. The Third Portuguese Empire, 825–1975: A Study in Economic Imperialism. Manchester, U.K., 1985.

Cornevin, M., and R. Cornevin. La France et les Français outre-mer. Paris, 1990.

Crowder, Michael. Senegal: A Study of French Assimilation Policy. London, 1967.

Duffy, James. Portuguese Africa. Cambridge, Mass., 1961.

Gann, Lewis H., and Peter Duignan. The Rulers of German Africa, 1884–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1977.

——. The Rulers of British Africa, 1870–1914. London, 1978.

Gann, Lewis H., and Peter Duignan, eds. Colonialism in Africa, 1870–1960. Vol 1: The History and Politics of Colonialism, 1870–1914. London, 1969.

Gifford, Prosser, and Wm. Roger Louis, eds. Britain and Germany in Africa: Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule. New Haven, Conn., 1967.

Hammond, Richard J. Portugal and Africa 1815–1910: A Study in Uneconomic Imperialism. Stanford, Calif., 1966.

Henderson, William O. The German Colonial Empire, 1884–1919. Portland, Ore., 1993.

Judd, Denis, and Peter Slinn. The Evolution of the Modern Commonwealth, 1902–1980. London, 1982.

Knoll, Arthur J., and Lewis H. Gann, eds. Germans in the Tropics: Essays in German Colonial History. New York, 1987.

Mansergh, Nicholas. The Commonwealth Experience. London, 1969. Dated, but good on the British settlement colonies.

Porter, Andrew, ed. The Oxford History of British Empire. Vol. 3: The Nineteenth Century. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Roberts, Stephen H. History of French Colonial Policy. London, 1929.

Slade, Ruth. King Leopold's Congo: Aspects of the Development of Race Relations in the Congo Independent State. New York, 1962.

Stokes, Eric. The English Utilitarians and India. Oxford, U.K., 1959.

Wehler, Hans Ulrich. The German Empire, 1871–1918. Translated by Kim Traynor. Dover, N.H., 1985.

Woodruff, William. Impact of Western Man: A Study of Europe's Role in the World Economy, 1750–1960. London, 1966. Excellent for figures.

Bernard Porter