Global Expansion: Colonialism Research Paper Starter

Global Expansion: Colonialism

(Research Starters)

The term colonialism refers to the the supremacy of one people over another. The dominant group blocks the autonomous development of the colonized and imposes rules, institutions and cultural codes of the colonizers on the colonized. Colonial history has shaped the structure of the world and its societies and culture profoundly. The suppression and exploitation of people and their land, the imposition of Western cultural ideals and eradication of other cultures, and the creation of nations and national boundaries are all phenomenon of the Post-Colonial Age.

Keywords Colonialism; Empire; Identity; Modernity; Postcolonialism; Race and Ethnicity; Social Darwinism; Subaltern


The age of Colonialism begins as early as the 15th century and ends with the two World Wars of the 20th century. The European empires first claim the lands of Africa, Asia and then the newly discovered American continent for their own. In these lands, countries and islands, they found communities, societies and different cultures which they declared to be inferior to their own. They turned native people into laborers and slaves, and forced their religions and their political and cultural patterns upon them. They declared the rich cultural life to be primitive or barbarian on the mere basis that these cultures were different. Eventually, they declared them a curiosity for their social and anthropological sciences, which was upheld well into the 20th century, despite the plea for a culturally relativistic point of view by anthropologists like Franz Boas or Margaret Mead.

The effects of colonial heritage still shape world politics today. Many parts of the African continent have been stripped of their resources, while others are still dependent on Western companies, who have secured mining rights to control the markets for their products. The map of Africa or the Middle East is today largely a result of colonial conquest and postcolonial negotiation. African National borders often divide common cultures and force the most different cultural heritage and religions to exist in one nation. These cultures come with different rituals and social institutions for the resolution of conflict and were left with having to employing Western ideas of political institutions. In this situation, many newly created nations were torn apart internally or ended in military dictatorships.

The ethnic and political situation in Iraq today, the mixture of Sunni, Shia, Kurds and others, was also the product of Western colonialism. Even after the colonial age, the Western influence has not stopped its progress. During the Cold War, the world outside of West and East was a playing field for proxy wars and ideological conflict.

In the 1970s with the new perspectives of Postmodernism and multiculturalism, the heritage of colonialism was reviewed in terms of ethnic and identity politics. Post-colonial theory dealt with the question of cultures that were hybrids of imposed Western ideas on traditional culture.

The history of colonialism probably began with the Portuguese laying claim on African lands in around the 15th century. The goals of colonization were economic, religious and ideological. In Africa, as well as in Asia and the American continent, the Europeans found an abundance of natural resources, including gold, which they thought of as "riches." The people they encountered in these lands were very different from them. Above all, they were not organized the same way as were the Europeans, which meant they could not muster large enough forces to defend themselves.

The technological sophistication and superiority in organized numbers gave these early Europeans the idea that they were superior in every aspect; that they were more civilized and developed. They encountered people who where so different from them that it was even debated among theologians of the 16th century, whether or not they had souls. In the end it was decided they did, and therefore should be subject to missionary efforts. They were converted to Christianity (often enough at gun-point). The history of slavery in the United States is essentially the direct result of these events.

In general, colonialism can be defined as the rule of one people over another. The effects of this rule, however, are graver than the occupation and oppression of another country. Colonialism refers specifically to the fact that the ruling culture will impose its own culture onto the people it has conquered, thereby cutting off the independent development this culture. Europeans of the time even spoke of the "white man's burden" to justify their forced "civilizing" of the cultures they declared primitive. Sadly, they obliterated rich civilizations and entire cultures in the process.

In the 19th century, the rationalization for this changed from the missionary and civilizing ideology to ideologies of racial supremacy. With the ideas of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, biology and political philosophy were irrevocably changed. Evolution as natural selection and the struggle for life were quickly turned into political ideologies. The school of Social Darwinism tried to apply these biological concepts to human societies and the ideology thus created proliferated some misconstrued idea of "white supremacy."

Eventually, as Hannah Arendt has argued, colonialism and pan-nationalism conflated and the colonizers turned in on themselves, culminating in the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, who brought war over Europe. And colonialism was not just a European phenomenon. The Japanese had invaded and colonized parts of China and Korea with the same kind of rhetoric, but eventually Japanese Colonialism ended with the second World War.

Further Insights

The Case of Ghana

The effects of colonialism in Africa are a central reason for the continent's many political and humanitarian crises. Moreover, Western involvement in Africa did not end when colonialism ended. The case of the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) is a testament to that fact.

Nkrumah was a major political figure for post-colonial Africa and spearheaded an international Pan-African. He had studied Catholic Theology, Education and finally philosophy first in Accra, and later in the US (in Pennsylvania) in the 1940s. He encountered Marxist literature and made the acquaintance of international members of Marxist and Trotzkyist movements. Combining the lessons from catholic divinity with Marxist ideals, Nkrumah renewed a pattern which the famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) had foreseen as an alternative to the Neo-Kantian and the liberal critique of capitalism. Parsons had encountered the same mixture of ideals and ideologies while studying in Heidelberg in 1925 and deliberated how Marxism, reformed by catholic social ethics, (for example in the work of Max Scheler) could actually prove a useful alternative way of addressing the problems of capitalism (Stingl, 2008).

In this spirit, Nkrumah went to London and eventually became a famous figure in the Pan-African movement under W.E.B. Dubois. He then went on to unify his native country in the Gold Coast territories which were under British rule and eventually declared Ghana's statehood and independence from the UK. He was incarcerated several times, but eventually Ghana won its independence and Nkrumah was elected president. Applying governmental economic planning for over a decade, Nkrumah successfully modernized and industrialized a country that was stripped and intertwined in the global economy in way it could not turn into profit. Before Nkrumah took office, the Ghanaian lands were the largest producer of cocoa world-wide, but did not have a single refinery.


Nkrumah continued to write political books and unmasked the web of international corporations that were profiting from creating obstacles for African development. He went on to declare these and Western political engagements in the region a form of Neocolonialism. Even if Western nations no longer controlled the African people directly, the economic dependencies they created on the world market very much established their dictatorial rule.

For a time it seemed as if Nkrumah managed to be the...

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