From Imperialism to Postcolonialism: Key Concepts

Imperialism, the domination of one country over another country’s political, economic, and cultural systems, remains one of the most significant global phenomena of the last six centuries. Amongst historical topics, Western imperialism is unique because it spans two different broadly conceived temporal frames: “Old Imperialism,” dated between 1450 and 1650, and “New Imperialism,” dated between 1870 and 1919, although both periods were known for Western exploitation of Indigenous cultures and the extraction of natural resources to benefit imperial economies. Apart from India, which came under British influence through the rapacious actions of the East India Company, European conquest between 1650 and the 1870s remained (mostly) dormant. However, following the 1884–85 Berlin Conference, European powers began the “Scramble for Africa,” dividing the continent into new colonial territories. Thus, the age of New Imperialism is demarcated by establishment of vast colonies throughout Africa, as well as parts of Asia, by European nations.

These European colonizing efforts often came at the expense of other older, non-European imperial powers, such as the so-called gunpowder empires—the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires that flourished across South Asia and the Middle East. In the case of the Ottomans, their rise coincided with that of the Old Imperialism(s) of the West and lasted until after World War I. These were not the only imperial powers, however; Japan signaled its interest in creating a pan-Asian empire with the establishment of a colony in Korea in 1910 and expanded its colonial holdings rapidly during the interwar years. The United States, too, engaged in various forms of imperialism, from the conquest of the tribes of the First Nation Peoples, through filibustering in Central America during the mid-1800s, to accepting the imperialist call of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which the poet wrote for President Theodore Roosevelt on the occasion of Philippine-American War. While claiming to reject naked imperialism, Roosevelt still embraced expansionism, promoting the creation of a strong US Navy and advocating for expansion into Alaska, Hawaiʻi, and the Philippines to exert American influence.

The Great War is often considered the end of the new age of imperialism, marked by the rise of decolonization movements throughout the various colonial holdings. The writings of these emergent Indigenous elites, and the often-violent repression they would face from the colonial elite, would not only profoundly shape the independence struggles on the ground but would contribute to new forms of political and philosophical thought. Scholarship from this period forces us to reckon not only with colonial legacies and the Eurocentric categories created by imperialism but also with the continuing exploitation of the former colonies via neo-colonial controls imposed on post-independence countries.

The non-exhaustive reading list below aims to provide readers with both histories of imperialism and introduces readers to the writings of those who grappled with colonialism in real time to show how their thinking created tools we still use to understand our world.

Taken from the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this classic text, Eduardo Galeano’s introduction argues that pillaging of Latin America continued for centuries past the Old Imperialism of the Spanish Crown. This work is highly readable and informative, with equal parts of impassioned activism and historical scholarship.

Colonialism affected every aspect of life for colonized peoples. This intrusion into the intimate lives of indigenous peoples is most evident in Nancy Rose Hunt’s examination of Belgian efforts to modify birthing processes in the Belgian Congo. To increase birth rates in the colony, Belgian officials initiated a mass network of health programs focused on both infant and maternal health. Hunt provides clear examples of the underlying scientific racism that underpinned these efforts and acknowledges the effects they had on European women’s conception of motherhood.

In this consideration of Colonial Nigeria, Chima Korieh explains how British Colonial officials imposed British conceptions of gender norms on traditional Igbo society; in particular, a rigid notion of farming as a male occupation, an idea that clashed with the fluidity of agricultural production roles of the Igbo. This paper also shows how colonial officials encouraged palm oil production, an export product, at the expense of sustainable farming practices—leading to changes in the economy that further stressed gender relations.

Newbury and Kanya-Foster explain why the French decided to engage in imperialism in Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. First, they point to mid-century French engagement with Africa—limited political commitment on the African coast between Senegal and Congo, with a plan for the creation of plantations within the Senegalese interior. This plan was emboldened by their military success in Algeria, which laid the foundation of a new conception of Empire that, despite complications (Britain’s expansion of their empire and revolt in Algeria, for instance) that forced the French to abandon their initial plans, would take hold later in the century.

Mark D. Van Ells’s work acts as an “exploratory and interpretive” rendering of American racial attitudes toward their colonial endeavors in the Philippines. Of particular use to those wishing to understand imperialism is Van Ells’s explication of American attempts to fit Filipinos into an already-constructed racist thought system regarding formerly enslaved individuals, Latinos, and First Nation Peoples. He also shows how these racial attitudes fueled the debate between American imperialists and anti-imperialists.

Aditya Mukherjee first provides an overview of early Indian intellectuals and Karl Marx’s thoughts on the subject to answer the question of how colonialism impacted the colonizer and the colonized. From there, he uses economic data to show the structural advantages that led to Great Britain’s ride through the “age of capitalism” through its relative decline after World War II.

It can be tempting to write the history of decolonization as a given. However, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the colonial powers would not easily give up their territories. Nor is it safe to assume that every colonized person, especially those who had invested in the colonial bureaucratic systems, necessarily wanted complete independence from the colonial metropole. In this article, Frederick Cooper shows how conflicting interests navigated revolution and citizenship questions during this moment.

Written by Nguyễn Ái Quốc (the future Hồ Chí Minh) while living in Paris, this letter to a pastor planning a pioneering mission to Vietnam not only shows the young revolutionary’s commitment to the struggle against colonialism, but also his willingness to work with colonial elites to solve the system’s inherent contradictions.

Aimé Césaire, “Discurso sobre el Colonialismo,” Guaraguao 9, no. 20, La negritud en America Latina (Summer 2005): 157–93; Available in English as “From Discourse on Colonialism (1955),” in I Am Because We Are: Readings in Africana Philosophy, ed. by Fred Lee Hord, Mzee Lasana Okpara, and Jonathan Scott Lee, 2nd ed. (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 196–205.

This excerpt from Aimé Césaire’s essay directly challenges European claims of moral superiority and the concept of imperialism’s civilizing mission. He uses examples from the Spanish conquest of Latin America and ties them together with the horrors of Nazism within Europe. Césaire claims that through pursuing imperialism, Europeans had embraced the very savagery of which they accused their colonial subjects.

Having served as a psychiatrist in a French hospital in Algeria, Frantz Fanon experienced firsthand the violence of the Algerian War. As a result, he would ultimately resign and join the Algerian National Liberation Front. In this excerpt from his longer work, Fanon writes on the need for personal liberation as a precursor to the political awaking of oppressed peoples and advocates for worldwide revolution.

Phạm and Méndez examine the writing of José Martí and Hồ Chí Minh to show that both spoke of anticolonialism in their local contexts (Cuba and Vietnam, respectively). However, their language also reflected an awareness of a more significant global anticolonial movement. This is important as it shows that the connections were intellectual and practical.

Edward Said, “Orientalism,” The Georgia Review 31, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 162–206; and “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Cultural Critique no. 1 (Autumn 1985): 89–107.

As a Palestinian-born academic trained in British-run schools in Egypt and Jerusalem, Edward Said created a cultural theory that named the discourse nineteenth-century Europeans had about the peoples and places of the Greater Islamic World: Orientalism. The work of academics, colonial officials, and writers of various stripes contributed to a literary corpus that came to represent the “truth” of the Orient, a truth that Said argues reflects the imagination of the “West” more than it does the realities of the “Orient.” Said’s framework applies to many geographic and temporal lenses, often dispelling the false truths that centuries of Western interactions with the global South have encoded in popular culture.

Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” boundary 20, No. 2 (Summer 1993), 24–50.

Gayatri Spivak’s 1988 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” shifted the postcolonial discussion to a focus on agency and “the other.” Explicating Western discourse surrounding the practice of sati in India, Spivak asks if the oppressed and the marginalized can make themselves heard from within a colonial system. Can the subordinated, dispossessed indigenous subject be retrieved from the silence spaces of imperial history, or would that be yet another act of epistemological violence? Spivak argues that Western historians (i.e., white men speaking to white men about the colonized), in trying to squeeze out the subaltern voice, reproduce the hegemonic structures of colonialism and imperialism.

In this article, Antoinette Burton considers the controversies around using the social and cultural theory as a site of analysis within the field of imperial history; specifically, concerns of those who saw political and economic history as “outside the realm” of culture. Burton deftly merges the historiographies of anthropology and gender studies to argue for a more nuanced understanding of New Imperial history.

Michelle Moyd’s work focuses on an often-overlooked part of the imperial machine, the indigenous soldiers who served the colonial powers. Using German East Africa as her case study, she discusses how these “violent intermediaries” negotiated new household and community structures within the context of colonialism.

Caroline Elkins looks at the both the official rehabilitation policy enacted toward Mau Mau rebels and the realities of what took place “behind the wire.” She argues that in this late colonial period, the colonial government in Nairobi was never truly able to recover from the brutality it used to suppress the Mau Mau movement and maintain colonial control.

Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel, “Decolonization as Moment and Process,” in Decolonization: A Short History, trans. Jeremiah Riemer (Princeton University Press, 2017): 1–34.

In this opening chapter of their book, Decolonization: A Short History, Jansen and Osterhammel lay out an ambitious plan for merging multiple perspectives on the phenomena of decolonization to explain how European colonial rule became de-legitimized. Their discussion of decolonization as both a structural and a normative process is of particular interest.

Cheikh Anta Babou challenges decolonization narratives that focus on colonial policy-makers or Cold War competition, especially in Africa, where the consensus of colonial elites was that African colonial holdings would remain under dominion for the foreseeable future even if the empire might be rolled back in South Asia or the Middle East. Babou emphasizes the liberation efforts of colonized people in winning their independence while also noting the difficulties faced by newly independent countries due to years of imperialism that had depleted the economic and political viability of the new nation. This view supports Babou’s claim that continued study of imperialism and colonialism is essential.

Mahmood Mamdani, “Settler Colonialism: Then and Now,” Critical Inquiry 41, no. 3 (2015): 596–614.

Mahmood Mamdani begins with the premise that “Africa is the continent where settler colonialism has been defeated; America is where settler colonialism triumphed.” Then, he seeks to turn this paradigm on its head by looking at America from an African perspective. What emerges is an evaluation of American history as a settler colonial state—further placing the United States rightfully in the discourse on imperialism.

Antoinette Burton, “S Is for SCORPION,” in Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times, ed. Antoinette Burton and Renisa Mawani (Duke University Press, 2020): 163–70.

In their edited volume, Animalia, Antoinette Burton and Renisa Mawani use the form of a bestiary to critically examine British constructions of imperial knowledge that sought to classify animals in addition to their colonial human subjects. As they rightly point out, animals often “interrupted” imperial projects, thus impacting the physical and psychological realities of those living in the colonies. The selected chapter focuses on the scorpion, a “recurrent figure in the modern British imperial imagination” and the various ways it was used as a “biopolitical symbol,” especially in Afghanistan.

Editor’s Note: The details of Edward Said’s education have been corrected.


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