Empires and the Legacies of Colonialism

A colony is a territory that is separate from, but is politically and economically dominated by another sovereign state.

colonialism is the process by which states conquer or in some other way gain control of colonies. European states from the 14th to 20th centuries were active in colonizing territory in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Colonization was often violent and oriented toward the extraction of resources from a colony and/or broader strategic interests that the colony served.

An empire is a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority..

Imperialism is a policy or practice by which a country increases its power by gaining control over other areas of the world. The term can also be used more broadly as the effect that a powerful country or group of countries has in changing or influencing the way people live in other, poorer countries.

Imperialism is the process by which empires are created and is the force underlying colonialism.

Even after an empire falls and its imperialism ends, the legacy of past imperialism often lives on in shaping the location and character of social, political and economic life across the globe.

The Life Cycle of Empires

Short (2015, 219) observes that empires tend to develop in three phases.

Empire Formation

Blanton (1996, 219) notes that imperialism is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon that is very difficult to analyze. Causes and reasons are difficult to unpack when the diverse groups of people who benefit from empire-building will often have a variety of motivations and may actively attempt to hide their intentions behind rhetoric or ideology. Empires vary greatly in scale, form, and lifetime, making classification difficult.

A major and consistent motivation for the formation of empires is the desire for resources, as evidenced by the historical actions of colonizers. The material resources of colonized peripheral countries are extracted for the benefit of the core country of the colonizer. However, there are other related economic and political factors that can often underlie the thirst for control of resources:

These material motivations have often been overlaid with an expressed desire to bring religious salvation or technological development to societies viewed as backward or uncivilized.

As empires grow, they are able to overcome the tyranny of distance as newly developed transportation and political networks increase the ability to project military force further from the core (Short 2015, 218). While a distance decay effect still exists as imperial power still decreases with distance, the continuous development of transport and communication technology is certainly one factor in the increased size of 18th and 19th century empires compared to empires earlier in history.

This is related to a more general spatial concept called time-space compression, where improvements in the speed of transportation and communication make distances shrink (in terms of cost or time), even though physical distance stays the same. For example:

Imperial Overstretch

Empires tend to expand beyond their ability to maintain economic dominance and project military power. Short (2015, 226) observes four limits to empire:

Imperial Disintegration

Overstretched empires finally begin to collapse and decolonization is often violent as power struggles ensue for the disintegrated parts.

Political institutions designed for the service of colonizers and the personal benefit of leaders do not readily transform into democracies. Authoritarian networks of power that maintain control by violence tend to continue to use those tactics even after the top leadership becomes local.

Local struggles can also be complicated by global geostrategic issues. Movements in Southeast Asia to gain independence from French control in the middle 20th century became framed as a proxy war between the capitalist and communist systems in the US's deadly and unsuccessful Vietnam War.

These struggles, along with colonial borders drawn with no concern for ethnic divisions within the population can result in enduring conflicts. An example is contemporary Iraq, whose boundaries are a product of British rule (the Sykes-Picot Agreement). While disparate factions could be held together after independence in 1932 by a sequence of unstable autocratic governments, the US invasion of Iraq unleashed these suppressed forces, resulting in ongoing violence and instability.

And although direct or indirect military control ends with independence, political economic, military and social ties often remain and give former colonial powers great influence in their former colonies. This is called Neocolonialism.

Waves of European Colonialism

From a Western viewpoint, two major waves of European colonialism have been exceedingly consequential in shaping the current world order

First Wave

The first wave of European Colonialism was from the late 15th through early 19th century and was concentrated in the Americas. A common start for this was the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The Columbian Exchange is a name given for the subsequent exchange of people, plants, ideas and diseases between Europe and the Americas, and the consequences for the people already living in the Americas were dramatic and long-lasting (Marston et al 2014, 281):

Ironically the massive influx of wealth from colonial possessions into Spain caused massive inflation that made domestic industry uncompetitive and destabilized Spanish politics. Successful independence movements in the Americas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the rise of the United States as a dominant regional force brought the first wave of colonialism to a close.

Second Wave

A second wave of European colonialism immediately followed the first and lasted from the early 19th through mid 20th century. (Marston et al 2014, 193)

This second wave was most pronounced in Africa and was at its height during the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Continuing European demand for raw materials as the Industrial Revolution heated up, was heightened by competition between European governments over the exploitation of Africa's resources. Malaria had made Africa the white man's grave and limited contacts to coastal areas, but increased use of quinine as a malaria treatment made internal exploration and conquest practical.

The second wave ended much like the first as imperial empires reached terminal decline, and independence movements took hold in the wake of the Second World War. But the legacies of that wave persist in Africa (Marston et al, 2014, pp 193):

The Scramble For Africa, 1902 (Rand McNally via David Rumsey

Modes of Colonial Rule

There were two general modes of European colonial rule.

Direct rule involves the use of armed force by an authoritarian government to compel obedience and suppress dissent. This was a characteristic of colonial governments established by the Belgians and Portuguese. These structures then often became the authoritarian model used by leaders to build governments when the colonies became independent.

Indirect rule involves a more-subtle harnessing of existing power structures and leaders (ruling elites) with more limited applications of violence within a decentralized administrative structure. The British Empire was largely run this way and the French went even further in attempting to build national identity in making leaders French provincial citizens.

Legacies of Colonialism

As mentioned in the examples above, the contemporary legacies of historic colonialism include:

In many parts of the world, that legacy has been problematic:

After formal colonial relationships (direct imperialism) are terminated with independence for a colony, a neocolonial relationship can persist where the former colonial power still can still exploit the former colony for resources or labor even if they no longer have direct military control. This indirect control is maintained through economic, financial and trade policies, often with the aid of transnational corporations and global institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Short (2015, 219) notes that the more recent an empire, the greater its enduring consequences.

The nature of the disintegration of an empire can also determine its legacy. The Inca Empire was largely obliterated by the Conquistadors, so the language and religion of the Spanish persists. In contrast, aspects of Roman language, religion, architecture and technology remain an integral part of life in the West.

The nature of the colonial relationship also influenced the subsequent health of the independent country. Economists James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote (2006) studied the contemporary economies of island nations relative to their colonial experience and noted that the time spent as a colony correlated with increased contemporary economic strength (GDP). This was more pronounced for colonial time after 1700 and with colonies of the US rather than of Spain or Portugal.