Colonialism refers to a nation extending its sovereignty over territory beyond its homeland by establishing colonial settlements, dependencies, trading posts, or plantation colonies, in which native inhabitants are ruled, displaced, or extirpated. The goal of colonialism is to strengthen the homeland by controlling the natural resources, labor, and market of the colonial territory. Usually, colonizers will impose their sociocultural mores, religion, and language on the indigenous population. The term colonialism also refers to a set of values, including racism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism, which aim to justify the means by which colonial settlements are established on foreign land.

Types of Colonialism

Settlements, dependencies, trading posts, and plantation colonies are distinct ways in which colonialism has been achieved. Settlements involved people emigrating from a mother country, such as England, Spain, or France, and permanently displacing or killing indigenous populations. Dependencies occurred when colonizers did not arrive as a mass settlement but as rulers over existing native populations. Trading posts occurred primarily to engage in trade rather than to rule or settle in the larger territory. Finally, plantation colonies, used primarily in the Caribbean, involved importing slaves into colonial settlements, who eventually outnumbered the primary settlers and ruled the hinterland.

History of Colonialism

Pre-European Colonialism

Although most world history texts cite the European Age of Exploration as the origins of colonialism, substantial evidence suggests that African and Asian colonial settlements predate European settlements by centuries. The Olmec heads found along the Mexican Gulf Coast provide the most striking evidence of African colonies in the Americas more than 3,000 years ago. North African rule over European territory is also well documented through the legacy of the Moorish societies in Spain and France and Hannibal’s reign over Rome and Italy. Genghis Khan led the most notable Asian colonial establishment by conquering nations and installing the Mongol Empire across Asia, Western Europe, and North Africa. The Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous empire in world history.

The First Wave of European Colonization

European colonization, which has its roots in Portuguese and Spanish exploration of the 15th century, in many ways shaped present-day debates over colonialism. Portuguese explorers successfully established trading posts on the Atlantic islands and along the West African coast and eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope to reach India in 1498. In 1492, Spain financed Christopher Columbus’s voyage to discover an alternate route to India by sailing west. Columbus reached the Bahamas Islands, thinking he was in Asia. He returned to Spain to obtain more resources to conquer the so-called New Land. On his second voyage, he reached Haiti, thinking he was in India, and led his army to exploit the native population. Columbus’s exploits included mass murder, enslavement, torture, and rape. His human rights abuses led to some of the first debates on colonialism, which included mostly religious leaders who either condemned or justified Columbus-style atrocities against Neolithic populations.

After observing Portugal and Spain’s economic boosts, Northern European nations, particularly the Netherlands, England, and France, began to stake claim to the Americas as well. Religion influenced all European colonial establishments. Spanish nations used colonialism to seek fabled Christian kingdoms, establish theocracies, and finance religious wars. Conversely, some of the largest colonial settlements from England spawn from people fleeing religious intolerance in their homeland. However, monetary gains were the cornerstone of most human rights violations. Colonizers found that harvesting crops on the hinterland reaped great profits, so they enslaved native populations and sub-Saharan Africans. Historians estimate that Western settlers enslaved more than 10 million Africans to provide the labor necessary to harvest the colonies.

Independence in the Americas

In 1776 the 13 British colonies declared their independence and became the precursor to the modern-day United States of America. Subsequently, Haiti became the second independent nation and the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere, when Toussaint L’Ouverture led the Haitian revolution against France. The Haitian revolution also led to the first organized slavery abolition movement in a metropole, or mother country. Spanish occupation in the Americas ended with the Latin American wars.

Western Expansion, New imperialism, and the Scramble for Africa

In the 19th and 20th centuries, new nations in the Americas formed by European colonizers focused on conquering the western frontier. In North America, settlers subjected the Native American population to preemptive war, detention centers, and population transfers, such as in the Trail of Tears. However, the White settlers’ diseases crippled the Native American population more than their prowess.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, European nations set out a new colonial agenda with New Imperialism, after losing most of their stake in the Americas. New Imperialism, starting with the Scramble for Africa, formally established a competition between the United Kingdom, the French Third Republic, and the German Empire to conquer as much territory through armed force as possible. In the Scramble for Africa, which commenced in 1880 and boiled over into World War I, European powers established dependencies in and claimed as colonial territory all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia (Liberia was colonized by the United States with former slaves).

Racist pseudoscientific theories and religion were used as propaganda to justify the African expansion and subsequent atrocities committed against Africans. However, major corporations, such as the De Beers Mining Company, provided the most solid platform for European exploits of Africa. During the European conquest of Africa, wars between Westerners and native Africans proliferated (e.g., the Anglo-Zulu War), and eventually European superpowers began to war with each other as they competed for territory.

The Scramble for Africa ended after World War I; however, most of Africa was still under European control. From the period immediately after World War I (1914-1918) to the mid-20th century, anticolonialism and anti-imperialism movements became powerful, spurred by communism, colonized war veterans (e.g., Senegalese sharpshooters who fought with France), and colonized elites (e.g., Algerian Franz Fanon). The French colonial empire suffered a devastating blow in the Algerian Revolution. Worldwide, sympathy increased for colonized populations, and the institution of colonialism lost popularity.

Decolonialism, Neocolonialism, and Postcolonialism

Decolonialism was most prevalent after World War II; however, cold war tensions between the two new world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR), spawned neocolonialism. The USSR aligned itself primarily with anti-imperial movements, by providing training and weapons to militias planning a coup (e.g., the African National Congress and Castro’s Cuban Revolution). The United States, afraid that the USSR was building dependencies, began to compete with Soviet interest by spreading democracy. U.S. and USSR competition for allies led to civil war in many third-world nations (e.g., Angola and Vietnam) and wrongful CIA- and KGB-implicated assassinations of key leaders, such as Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sylvanus Olympio of Togo.

In the postcolonial era, there have been many critiques of the impact of colonialism and whether colonialism exists today. Colonialism permanently changed the social-cultural, geographical, political, and economic landscape of the world. Indigenous populations of Africa, the Americas, and Australia continue to live as second-class citizens on their native lands, whereas generations-old businesses and banks that financed acts of genocide and other atrocities reap residual benefits from the legacy of colonialism. The debate on colonialism is omnipresent and still very active to this day. Recently, the February 23, 2005, French Law on Colonialism contained an article that mandated high-school teachers to teach the “positive values” of colonialism to their students. French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac repealed the law in 2006.

The United States, a product of both colonialism and an independence movement, is the primary focus of the postcolonial era. Critiques allege the existence of an American Empire, which imposes its values on other countries to build a new style of dependency. Defenders argue that the American Empire does not exist, or they propose that the United States is a Benevolent Empire, which builds relationships with other nations by helping them overcome struggles, as in the Spanish-American Wars. Internally, the United States continues to grapple with its own colonial legacy. To the dismay of social advocates, history texts in the United States are replete with colonialism-related omissions (e.g., Columbus’s second voyage and atrocities against Native Americans).

Implications for Counseling

The legacy of colonialism has implications for counseling practice and research. First, the psychological impact of colonialism and survival of indigenous values among previously colonized people influences the counseling relationship. Second, cultural imperialism is a natural by-product of colonialism, leading many counselors to make assumptions about a client’s traditions and values that are shaped by the majority culture. In addition to cultural imperialism, theories of ethnocentrism, racism, White supremacy, and pseudo-science used to justify colonialism have lingered well past decolonialism and influence counseling research and practice.


  1. Biel, R. (2000). The new imperialism: Crisis and contradictions in North-South relations. London, New York: Zed Books.
  2. Duara, P. (2004). Decolonization: Perspectives from now and then. New York: Routledge.
  3. Fanon, F. (1980). A dying colonialism. London: Writers and Readers.
  4. Sartre, J.-P. (2001). Colonialism and neocolonialism. London: Routledge.

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