Imperialism and colonialism – definitions and distinctions

A general definition

Imperialism and colonialism are forms of expansion and maintenance of state control over people and land outside of the traditional core territory of the imperial/colonial state. They involve specific forms of oppression and exploitation connected to specifically imperial/colonial modes of othering and cultural hierarchisation.

Distinguishing imperialism and colonialism

I propose using imperialism as a general and encompassing term for violent and expansionary activities of states, ancient and modern, their practices of control over people and land – whether they involve permanent physical occupation of subject/dependent territories or not.

Imperial practices could include exploration and mapping, raids, conquest, occupation, settlement, the transfer, expulsion or extermination of populations, punitive expeditions and arrangements with local elites. But also: alliances between stronger states and weaker states (or non-state societies), the creation of client states, tribute systems, diplomacy backed by military threats, economic (inter)dependency, cultural hegemony and ideological influence.

I propose to use colonialism to describe state practices that involve the physical occupation of the subjugated territory, through direct violence, including but not limited to military violence, and of course economic and cultural domination.

In other words, I propose to define colonialist practices as a subset of imperialist practices.

Some states deploy only or mostly non-colonial forms of imperialism, some only or mostly colonial forms, some both.

The distinction between actual incorporation of a territory into the imperial state and forms of subjugation and dependence that fall short of full incorporation is of course fluid. This is especially true for earlier historical periods, as the degree and intensity of state control and economic integration depend on technologies of communication, transport and violence.

As a consequence, it is impossible to draw a hard and fast distinction between colonial imperialism and non-colonial imperialism.

Distinguishing colonialism from non-state migrations

Colonialism should first of all be distinguished from migrations of non-state peoples into new territories previously uninhabited by humans, such as the settlement of the Australian continent by the genetic and cultural ancestors of today’s Aboriginal Australians, the peopling of the Americas by the ancestors of today’s Native Americans, or the settlement of the islands of the Pacific Ocean by Polynesian seafarers.

Colonialism should also be distinguished from the migrations of non-state peoples into territories already inhabited by other humans, such as, for example, the ‘colonisation’ of Central and Southern Africa by people originating in West Africa (the ‘Bantu expansion’), the ‘Slavic’ migrations in Bronze Age Western Eurasia, or the migration of speakers of Tai languages into what we today call South East Asia in the first millennium CE.

Many ancient stateless societies seem to have been characterised by various degrees of social inequality and ancient migrations into already inhabited territories seem to have involved some violence against other humans.

Based on archaeological and ethnohistorical studies, it seems reasonable to assume that different forms of captivity and unfreedom were part of the structure of many ancient stateless societies, and that the process of migration could involve the forced integration of subjugated people, as, at least initially, inferior, even ‘kinless’ and ‘socially dead’, members.

In addition, debates in anthropology over the past decades have thrown the traditionally clear distinction between state and non-state societies into question.

All this suggests that the distinction between colonialism as a form of geographic expansion of state control, and the migration of stateless people into new territories, is not an absolute one, but rather, that there have been a diversity of historical processes of human migration and societal expansion, ranging from the more peaceful and egalitarian to the more violent and oppressive.

Nonetheless, distinguishing between colonialism and migration seems to me to be of crucial importance, not least in view of the reactionary use, in modern times, of what Nandita Sharma calls ‘the separation of Natives from Migrants’.


War and slavery, albeit on much smaller scales than in modern times, seem to have been widespread features of human society, all over the world, including in ancient historic and pre-historic times.

Without entering into the debate about the existence or otherwise of male domination in pre-historic human societies, we can confidently say that all known examples of war and slavery in human societies have been linked to some form of male dominance.

The association of (hegemonic) masculinity with hunting and warring is obviously extremely widespread, and in many historical periods and in many societies it was mostly captured women and children that were assigned the status of slaves (‘kinless’, ‘socially dead’ people), while captured men were usually killed.

It seems obvious to me that there is an ancient and tight linkage between the social construction of women as beings that could be, in various ways and degrees, ‘possessed’ by men – with the institutions of war and slavery.

What’s more, in many places and in many historical periods, the distinction between commerce and war (particularly raiding and pillaging) was a fluid one.

It thus seems reasonable to me to see patriarchal social relations as the bedrock of, the condition of possibility for, expansionary state violence, with their associated forms of expropriation and exploitation.

Pre-modern versus modern

Most historians agree that something fundamental changed around 1500 CE and that this justifies calling most history before that time ‘pre-modern’ and everything after ‘modern’.

This despite much criticism of the dubious associations of the concept of ‘modernity’ with ideas of a supposedly inexorable historical ‘progress’, the identification of ‘modernity’ with a supposedly superior ‘Western’ civilization, the relegation of contemporary ‘non-Western’ societies to a timeless realm of ‘tradition’, and so on.

If we can rid the term ‘modern’ of its Eurocentric and, indeed, colonial, ideological baggage, maybe its use, in a strictly descriptive sense, can be justified.

There can be no doubt that around 1500 CE human (and many non-human animal, plant and microbe) populations all over the world (with the exception of Oceania, which was drawn into ‘modernity’, in this restricted sense of the term, only from around 1800 on), became interconnected and began migrating, voluntarily or otherwise, in quantitatively and qualitatively new ways.

If this is what we are referring to when we say ‘modern’, there seems to me to be no reason to cast colonialism as a uniquely ‘modern’ phenomenon. Expansionary state projects were divers, before and after 1500 CE, and some ‘modern’ imperialisms had more in common with ‘premodern’ imperialisms than with other ‘modern’ imperialisms.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me to apply the term colonialism to, for example, the Arabisation of North Africa, the Levant and other regions from the 7th century CE on, to at least some aspects of Mongol empire-building across Eurasia, or to the medieval European (‘crusading’) projects of conquest, settlement and Christianisation in Iberia, the Baltic and the Levant, the Iberian settlement and economic use of the Canaries, Madeiras and Azores in the 14th and 15th centuries, and so on.

There were many continuities between the aforementioned medieval European projects of territorial expansion and later Portuguese and Spanish overseas colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

Western’ versus non-’Western’

The early Portuguese Empire, the Mali Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Ming Empire, to take some examples of ‘early modern’ Old World empires, were hierarchical, oppressive and exploitative state societies with expansionist tendencies.

To stay in power, their ruling classes needed to insure a steady stream of wealth with which to obtain the loyalty of the administrators, tax collectors, soldiers, scholars, priests… on whom their rule depended. Territorial expansion was one way of appropriating ever new sources of wealth.

Belief systems played an important role in stabilising such societies, but war and conquest, as a means of keeping and acquiring control over fertile land and agricultural labour, over trade centres and trade routes, access to resources and the labour necessary to exploit those resources, were central to keeping these states’ elites in power.

There was nothing unique about early modern ‘Western’ states that would have fundamentally distinguished their modes of, and motivations for, expansion from other, ‘non-Western’ states.

If we include the colonialism of early modern European states in our considerations, therefore, a hard and fast distinction between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ colonialism makes no sense.

There is no denying, though, that there was something quite particular about late modern European colonialism.

Enlightenment, racism, empire and nation

Scientific and technological developments since especially the 18th century have enabled states to intensify their control of both ‘core’ / ‘domestic’ and ‘peripheral’ / ’frontier’ / ‘colonial’ populations. In this sense, 20th century imperialism (in both its capitalist and its pseudo-socialist, non-capitalist variants) and more recent forms of colonialism are very different from earlier forms of colonialism.

What’s more, the emergence of the nation state and of scientific racism shaped European imperial endeavours of the late 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in very particular ways.

As Frederick Cooper puts it in ‘Colonialism in Question’: ‘Brutality, enslavement, land grabbing, the denigration of indigenous cultures, and coerced religious conversion are not unique to any era or place. The more profound argument lies both in a supposedly post-Enlightenment penchant for classification – and hence invidious distinction based not on the give and take of relations between unequals but on systemic rankings of peoples […] and, more persuasively, in the contention that as European publics claimed rights and citizenship for themselves, they defined a sharper division between a metropolitan polity for which such claims were relevant and an external sphere for which they were not. Subordination was no longer a fate to which anyone might be subject, but a status assigned to specific people, whose marking therefore became an issue. Overcoming such marking required evidence of acquiring the prerequisites of inclusion, hence the importance both of civilizing missions and of tightly controlling the passage from one status to another. There is something in this long-term view of a shift toward sharper distinction between a potentially democratic imperial core, located in Europe, and a colonial periphery, where access to rights, if attainable at all, required evidence of personal transformation. Even some of the old empires – the Russian and the Ottoman, for instance – began to act more colonial in the late nineteenth century, trying to impose an imperial civilization along the edges of empires, although constrained by the practical necessity of working with local elites.

As the period from around 1500 to around 1750 CE is often referred to as the early modern period, and the period from 1750 on is often called late modern, maybe we could dub this particular phenomenon ‘late modern European colonialism’.

Control of ‘overseas’ versus ‘contiguous’ territories

A distinction is often made between ‘overseas’ colonialism (for example some of the ancient Greek, Persian and Roman settlements and conquests, some of the ‘early medieval’ Arab and Viking settlements, and of course modern European, Japanese and US colonialisms) and situations where the subjugated territories are contiguous with the traditional territory of the dominating state (such as was mostly the case for the Ottoman, Russian and Chinese Empires).

Sometimes these latter scenarios are referred to by the term internal colonialism (which, it is important to note, also has other meanings). The use of this term has been criticised for implicitly conceding the legitimacy of the colonial projects in question.

Why, such critics ask, should the French, British and, most importantly, the United States’ conquest of North America, the Russian expansion into Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the conquests of the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese domination of Tibet and East Turkestan / Xinjiang, be called by some special name? From the perspective of the people being conquered and dominated, there is no difference in the degree of violence, dispossession and humiliation between this form and other forms of colonialism. And the colonised generally tend to be, at least initially, quite unconvinced by the colonisers’ claim that the land now rightfully belongs to them – whether the colonisers have come from overseas and far away, or over land from somewhere more nearby.


Although the term colonialism itself suggests that there should be some ‘colonisation’ going on, not all colonialisms were centrally about large scale settlement. Although all colonial projects included some settlement of people from elsewhere in newly acquired territories, I do think it makes sense to distinguish colonial projects that resulted in substantial settlement (such as the Chinese settlement projects in what is today Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, Arab settlement in North Africa, the Levant and elsewhere from the 7th century CE on, the Dutch/VOC settler colonial project in South Africa, the Russian conquest and settlement of Siberia, Spanish settlement of what is today Argentina and Chile, the French settlement project in North America, and of course the British settlement projects in North America and Oceania) from ones that did not.

This was not always a question of intent. Many projects of settlement, especially of people from cooler climates trying to settle in the tropics, failed, often due to disease.

But certainly there were colonial projects that never intended major settlement: the Portuguese Empire never considered major Portuguese settlement in South Asia, the Dutch VOC never intended massive Dutch settlement in the Dutch East Indies.

Capitalist versus non-capitalist colonialism

Capitalists, that is, people with capital that invest in trade or production of goods with the intention of making a profit, which they then reinvest in new profit-making ventures, and so on, have existed in many societies and for a long time, as have money and markets.

But it is only over the last few centuries that capitalists have become the dominant social class, first in some societies, later worldwide, and that states have become fully capitalist states.

In many pre-capitalist societies, ownership or other forms of control over land (or direct ownership or other forms of control over labouring people, which in the end comes down to the same thing), or a high position in the apparatus of state, or both, conferred elite status. Being a warrior, or a priest, scholar or storyteller, and being descended from a long and noble lineage, was what conferred status. In some societies elite people were expected to be highly literate, in others, martial skills were sufficient. In many such non-capitalist societies merchants were despised. In some, they were valued by elites – but they were not, though wealthy and influential, themselves ever fully in control of the apparatus of state.

Recent radical scholarship has thrown new light on the relation of money and commerce with war and slavery in both ancient and modern times, and the presence and importance (or otherwise) of capitalist (or incipient capitalist, or proto-capitalist) sectors in various pre-modern, non-capitalist societies is hotly debated.

There has always been and still is a lively debate on the left on how best to define capitalism, in the sense of a term that is supposed to capture essential aspects of how a given society functions. Some leftist historians and social theorists advance ‘merchant capitalism’ as an intermediary stage between the pre-capitalism of, for example, the European Middle Ages, or Ancient South East Asia, and the fully developed capitalism of, say, Britain in the 19th century.

Merchant capitalism is said to be distinguished from more fully developed capitalism, by, among other things, its focus on simply moving goods from a market where they are cheap to a market where they are expensive, rather than restructuring the mode of the production of those goods itself. In Marxist terminology this is often referred to as the difference between the formal and the real subsumption of labour under capital: “[…] capital gradually transforms the social relations and modes of labour until they become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital, and the labour process is really subsumed under [it].

Some scholars advance the idea that the Islamic world of the 8th to 12th centuries could be said to have been proto-capitalist, or merchant capitalist. There is much debate on how the merchant capitalism of late medieval Italian city states like Venice, Florence and Genoa should be understood. Whether the Dutch Empire of the 17th century should be considered fully capitalist or not is also hotly debated.

These disagreements aside, it follows from the above that many forms of colonialism were non-capitalist, that not all ‘Western’ colonialism (particularly not that of the early modern period) was (fully) capitalist, and that the distinction between non-capitalist and capitalist forms of colonialism is an important, albeit often somewhat unclear, distinction.

Daniel Mang 2021-06-20