Skip to content

Distinctions of Colony & Empire

Battling man, battling nature, & settling ethically

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

4 min read.
My favorite part of the Pocahontas story is when she goes to England with her husband John Rolfe, runs into John Smith, and i
My favorite part of the Pocahontas story is when she goes to England with her husband John Ross, runs into John Smith, and is furious that he’s still alive.

I think we need to separate out imperialism from colonialism. They are certainly linked, and many sources use them interchangeably, but to my mind, they are not the same. The root word of colonialism is “colony.” A colony is, to my mind — India and the other British colonies notwithstanding — a group of people migrating to a place and taking it over, as opposed to adopting the local culture.

A “colony” can be sustained; both genders are represented, and it is a permanent settlement, not just an army of one racial group ruling natives from another racial group. In America and Australia, there were children, and settlements, people trying to live in new lands… and, of course, large numbers of natives being wiped out and exploited.

We often think of settling new land and homesteading there as being sort of in a vacuum… but it’s been thousands of years since humanity has genuinely settled pristine land for the first time. The idea of pioneers and settlers brings to mind images of the colonization of America, Jamestown and the Wild West, or perhaps the settlement of Botany Bay in Australia. Both of these locations were already occupied by native peoples.

For true "pristine colonies," one needs to look farther back, for example the early settlement of the Polynesian islands.

Battling Man: Imperialism

“Imperialism” refers to rule by an emperor; it’s talking about adding to the dominion of a country, oftentimes without significantly changing the ethnic makeup of a locale.

imperial (adj): of or relating to an empire.

Hernan Cortes engaged in imperialism, not colonialism. The Spanish conquistadors used mostly native populations to farm and mine, until the attempts to Christianize the natives led to missionaries objecting to the enslavement of the natives. Between that and the rampant disease affecting the native populations, the Spanish began importing slaves. The Roman Empire functioned very similarly to the way the Spanish controlled the Americas; the Spanish hacienda system actually evolved because of Rome. The Roman provinces, like Hispania, Germania, and Britannia, were controlled by Romans, and a small Roman population. The focus of the Roman efforts was on assimilating the provinces, not spreading its population.

The Belgian Congo, on the other hand, was definitely colonized — though at first, the Belgian King was acting in his capacity as an individual citizen, albeit a rich one. Unlike most European colonies, the Congo was subject to direct rule. The large numbers of whites in the Congo were part of a very severely segregated system, but as with the Spaniards, these weren’t colonies so much as large groups of men with guns helping to rule it.

Battling Nature: Pioneering

Early human migration appears less often in our stories. Some of this is doubtless due to how long ago these migrations happened; Egypt was likely settled by humans at least 50,000 years ago. The earliest known human settlement in North America, at Bluefish Caves in Canada, was somewhere around 25,000 years ago — that’s ten to twenty times as long ago as the death of Jesus Christ. The earliest European settlement we can prove is from 30,000 years ago.

Yet there are some remote corners of the world that were settled relatively recently. New Zealand was settled around 1300; the Polynesian Tribes were still migrating as late as 1550, when they settled the Chatham Islands. Bermuda was settled by shipwrecked sailors in 1609, including John Rolfe, whose wife and child died there. He later went on to marry a Native American woman that Disney remembers as Pocahontas.

The Norse are the only popular example I can think of. During the Viking expansion they didn’t conquer Greenland, they just settled there. They engaged in trade with the locals for the next couple hundred years, and then the colony died out during the Little Ice Age. The Normans also expanded into Europe, particularly France and England.

Settlement Stories: Ethics

Somewhat to my surprise, my research on this topic for the last few weeks has shown me that not many people appear willing to state unequivocally that colonialism and imperialism is bad. It’s even surprisingly hard to find sources that will talk about the negative impacts weighed against the positive impacts. What the Western countries did during the Colonial period — an era that we are still seeing the repercussions of in the form of neo-colonialism — and what countries like China are doing now with regard to economic colonialism in Africa.

Quasi-related, I find ironic that the first “War on Drugs” was fought by the Chinese, who were trying to stop the British from peddling opium to the people during the height of the Empire.

An American, it’s hard to examine colonization dispassionately. Sometimes, I feel as though I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about imperialism; we talked about it a lot in school, even if it’s hard to find sources on the internet. It’s been happening in some form or another for centuries, and people far more articulate than I have been arguing about it for probably just as long. What else can I add to that incredible pile of discourse? The ethics of it are muddy because I feel like a hypocrite decrying the tactics that gave rise to my corner of civilization, and haven’t worked out how I feel, other than what I’ve said previously about the foolishness of claiming that violence doesn’t solve anything.

What about y'all?

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

Check out one of these related posts
Members Public
📰 The Intricacies of Ivory

Explore elephant, narwhal, hippo, walrus ivory's captivating history & uses in jewelry, tools, games, & trade.

📰 The Intricacies of Ivory
Members Public
📰 On Famines: why and how they happen. To who?

Agrarian societies experience famine for a variety of reasons, including poor governance, war, and weather.

📰 On Famines: why and how they happen. To who?
Members Public
📰 Food as Currency

On the origins of agriculture, money, & currency

A basket full of dried cocoa beans being traded at a mayan market via the MidJourney AI bot.