How Colonialism Works

The Legacy of Colonialism

Chris Patten, Hong Kong Chris Patten, Hong Kong
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, meets Buddhist monks at Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin Temple shortly before the official handover of the territory to China in 1997. Bill Rowntree/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Colonialism always has been a tricky concept for nations to justify morally, since basically, it involves seizing control of someone else's land and resources. That conflict became strongest in the 1800s in Europe, when European societies began embracing liberal ideas about freedom and self-autonomy, even as they took over and exploited weaker, less-advanced countries in Africa and elsewhere. One way that countries rationalized that aggression was to argue that the inhabitants of those places weren't yet capable of self-government, and that colonial rule would help them to progress in that direction [source: Kohn and Reddy].

There were other rationalizations as well. One was what that these colonists were bringing "enlightenment" to dark places — showing underdeveloped civilizations better methods of agriculture, education and technology, for instance. Or they were bringing Christianity to the natives.

Of course, the motives were mixed. Many missionaries did establish needed schools and hospitals. Sometimes, the colonists stopped harmful practices. The Spanish, for instance, outlawed human sacrifice among the Aztecs. And some writers point out — as if this is an excuse — that these colonized countries often already had their own forms of slavery or imperialism. Or that the clash of civilizations was in the end good for mankind [source: Duke].

But was it? While some former colonies have become prosperous, democratic nations, others still struggle. Political scientists say that because colonies lived under authoritarian rule and had governments that were mostly concerned about extracting natural resources and as much wealth as possible, they created a template that was too easy for post-colonial dictatorships to follow [source: Acemoglu, et al.]. In Africa, the borders drawn by colonial powers, which don't reflect Africans' ethnic and cultural heritage, have led to disunity and political strife [source: Fisher].

According to the U.N., there are still 17 "non-self-governing territories" — essentially, colonies — left in the world, comprising less than 2 million people. They range from the Cayman Islands and Bermuda in the Caribbean, which remain under British rule, to French Polynesia.

Most of these remaining colonies may not necessarily want independence. In a 1995 referendum in Bermuda, 73 percent of the population voted against independence; in 2017, a former premier felt the matter should be revisited [source: Lagan]. In 2011, a year before Jamaica's 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, a poll showed 60 percent of Jamaicans felt that the country would be better off if it was still under British rule [source: Daily Gleaner]. The poor economy and high crime made many believe (rightly or wrongly) that these ills would not have happened with Britain in charge — perhaps when they consider how Bermuda remained a colony and is in much better shape financially.

A 2014 YouGov survey found that 59 percent of the British public saw their nation's former empire as something to be proud of, while only 19 percent feel ashamed of having exploited the people of other countries. But even so, only 34 percent said they wish that Great Britain still had an empire [source: Dahlgreen]. That's another sign that the era of colonialism has come to an end.

Author's Note: How Colonialism Works

As a child in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War had just begun to escalate, I remember going to the local library and finding an outdated geography book that still showed a place called French Indochina. I think it was then that I first started to realize how colonialism had helped shape the world in which we live, and the extent to which it had left behind terrible problems that had yet to be resolved. Unfortunately, a half-century later, we're still dealing with many of those same problems.

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