Everyone knows about the British Empire, about how we were once a wealthy colonial superpower.
But what does that actually mean?
Basically, that we invaded, occupied, and then settled Brits in other countries, generally for economic purposes.
This guide will explain the basics of British Colonialism, how it was ‘justified’, and the repercussions which are still felt in many parts of the world to this day.
What is colonialism?
Colonialism is the act of one nation dominating another. This involves the conquering of the native population in order to control their land and exploit their natural resources.
It often also involves the enforcement of the colonising nation’s culture and religion on the native population, as well as the settlement of colonisers in the new territory to act as the ruling class. Unsurprisingly, this process was generally violent and involved the killing of many indigenous people, both initially and later on in order to suppress independent movements.
Why were so many places colonised?
The answer is surprisingly simple: money and power.
The Empire began in the 16th Century as a system for economic trade. Britain picked countries with valuable resources, such as precious metals, spices or tea. Then the colonisers decided that they liked these things so much they couldn’t risk the local population trying to claim them as their own, so they repressed the native peoples and shipped over loyal Brits to rule and protect their ‘interests’ (money).
The result was an Empire that lasted until 1997, when Hong Kong ceased to be under British control. Check out our cheat sheet, The British Empire, Explained, for a summary of the British Empire's rise and fall.
Britain was also in stiff competition with other European countries and wanted to spread its power across the world in order to out-do them.
And how exactly was the repression of so many peoples justified?
Again, the answer is surprisingly simple: it was decided that they didn’t really count as people.
Europeans, including Britain, came up with various ‘scientific’ reasons why white Europeans were superior to the non-white native populations of the places they invaded. While many of these ‘arguments’ centred around skin colour and are largely responsible for racism as we know it today, others focused on head shape or bone structure.
Another argument even implied that the European climate created people with better values than those from more tropical climates. So, as they were the ‘superior race’, it was their moral duty to rule over these lesser peoples.
The religion factor
Europeans also believed it was their duty to spread Christianity, as the one true religion, and encourage others to convert to it.
Consequently, a large part of colonisation involved the forced conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity, forcing them to abandon their own beliefs and traditions. This was often done through education, which also involved a repression of local languages in favour of English. Existing religions and cultural practices were criminalised, and buildings destroyed.
Religion was used both to justify the superiority of Europeans and to control the native populations by controlling how they think.
But it's all over now, right?
The Empire may be over (at least in name), but the effects of colonialism can still be seen all over the world.
Think of all the places that have English as an official language – some may have long since become independent, but they are all places Britain once invaded. Some of these places, such as Australia and New Zealand, are still dominated by the white descendants of British colonisers, as opposed to the indigenous peoples. Many former British colonies have fared far worse.
Racism was essentially created and, perhaps more importantly, institutionalised during colonialism and used to justify it. This ideology has impacted the lives of millions, forcing them to suffer and struggle more than others based solely on their skin colour. To learn more about this and how it still has an impact today, see our Guide: Racism.
Colonialism is also responsible for another ever-present ideology: the patriarchy. Many indigenous peoples and tribes actually gave a lot of power to women, who were viewed as equals in society. Then, when Europeans arrived, they brought with them their European hierarchy, which was sexist (as well as racist). Again, using pseudo-science, Europeans had already decided that as women are generally physically smaller than men, they were therefore inferior and took it upon themselves to apply this ideology to all the peoples they held power over.
As well as the damaging and long-lasting ideologies mentioned above, European colonisers were also responsible for fuelling a bunch of wars and regional conflicts, not just the ones they actually fought in. When Britain, alongside other European empires, ‘discovered’ new lands, they would divide them amongst themselves to avoid wars over the area. This meant dividing land into countries for us to rule over however it best suited the colonisers, paying no attention to how the native tribes and peoples organised themselves. This meant that when these countries became independent nations, people from the same cultural and/or ethnic groups were separated from each other by borders and forced to live in the same nation-state with people from different groups, with different customs, traditions, languages, and religions.
As a result, there have been various civil wars and uprisings where one group is tired of being ruled by another with whom they don’t identify. Other conflicts have arisen when people who we separated from their ancestral land want it back, but the people now occupying it are unwilling to relinquish it. A prime example of this is the Israel-Palestine Conflict, which you can read about in our Guide.
Colonialism isn’t uniquely British, and all countries who had empires have had a similar impact on the world. But this is all the more reason to be aware of the realities of Empire.
This guide only covers the basics of British Colonialism, but hopefully it provides some insight into the dark reality of the British Empire which we seldom learn about.
Discover fresh content British history with our British History & Revisionsim section.