How Colonialism Works

Types of Colonialism and Colonies

Botany Bay, ships Botany Bay, ships
The ships 'Supply' and 'Sirius' bring the first convict transports into Botany Bay, New South Wales, in 1787. This is an example of settler colonialism. Print Collector/Getty Images

Throughout history, there have been two main approaches to establishing a colonial empire.

In settler colonialism, people from one nation go off to live in another country, where they not only build settlements, till the soil, and harvest natural resources, but also strive to replace the indigenous people already living there. The colonists still remain subjects of the government in their native country.

The British colonists who made new homes in North America in the 1600s and Australia in the late 1700s were examples of settler colonialism. For those willing to take the risk of moving to a new country, it offered a chance for a fresh start and possibly a better life. The downside was that establishing a colony required a lot of people, and the land's original inhabitants either had to be killed off or driven away to less desirable areas to make room [sources: LeFevre, Mick].

Exploitation colonialism, in contrast, didn't require as many colonists to emigrate, and the native people could be allowed to stay where they were — especially if they could be pressed into service as workers. The goal was to exploit the weaker country's natural resources and extract as much wealth as possible [source: Mick].

A prime example of exploitation colonialism was Belgian King Leopold II's seizure of the Congo in the late 1800s. While he made a vast fortune in rubber and ivory, millions of the Congo's inhabitants starved to death or died of disease — or were killed by Leopold's colonial overseers for not meeting work quotas [sources: Riding, Diab].

Some political scientists have identified two other types of colonialism as well. In surrogate colonialism, a colonial power encourages one ethnic group or groups from the colonized country itself to take over land previously controlled by another group. This term was first used by anthropologist Scott Atran to describe the British allowing Zionist settlement in Palestine. In internal colonialism, the strongest part of a country might exploit other, less powerful regions or peoples. For instance in Sri Lanka, the Tamil population felt the Sinhalese majority oppressed them — hence the decades-long war between the Sri Lankan government and terrorist group the Tamil Tigers [sources: Mick, Atran, Sathananthan].