Lesson Objectives:

  • identify the history of anthropology and colonial expansion
  • recognize the role of colonialism, power and culture change
  • comparatively evaluate the post-colonial experience in different parts of the world

The previous section established the ways that human groups forge socio-economic relationships as a way to produce, distribute and consume needed resources within a group.  These relationships serve as the foundation for a society. As societies expand, they network into civilizations and civilizations can transition into a state. As state systems demand more resources they must expand their territories, and the process of taking and holding foreign territories is called imperialism (Kottak 2012). Imperialistic civilizations go as far back as the early Egyptian Empire, the Incas, Greeks, and Romans. Yet the colonial epoch, which marked European imperialism throughout the past 500 years, is a significant part of the history and culture of people living in formerly colonized areas today.

Colonialism is the economic, social, political, and cultural domination of a society over an extended period of time. Increasing demands for wealth and resources heightened tensions between European civilizations and compelled European states to expand their territories into Asia, Africa and the Americas in order to extract resources. In the 15th century Portugal launched maritime voyages to extract resources and acquire territories along the coast of Africa and Spain contracted Christopher Columbus to locate and establish territory in the Americas. By the 16th century, France, Britain and the Netherlands began to compete for land resources. By 1914, European empires occupied nearly 85% of the planet (Petraglia-Bahri 1996), and occupation was made possible through the widespread practice of genocide, enslavement, and the exploitation of indigenous people.

 Genocide and Enslavement

The widespread dessimation and exploitation of indigenous people was part and parcel of European imperialism. During the colonial epoch known as The Conquest in the Americas, millions of indigenous people died from colonial conflict or disease. In Africa, the enslavement of more than 20 million people over the course of several centuries decimated the population, ripped apart societies, and opened the door for European occupation in the 20th century.

The Trade Triangle,  the one-way triangular trade route that imported enslaved African people to the Americas, raw materials from plantations in the Americas to Europe to be manufactured into luxury items, and the exportation of luxury items to Africa in exchange for more people, helped fuel the accumulation of wealth in European civilizations.

Increased wealth facilitated technological advances in steam-coal power, manufacturing, transportation, weaponry, and medicine which served to strengthen European powers and change worldwide power relations. European powers undermined the sovereignty of foreign states by caving out territories on maps and claiming to ‘explore’ and ‘discover’ areas that were already occupied by indigenous people. The documentary, Uganda Rising, details how contemporary issues in Africa are rooted in colonial policies of the past.

The occupation of an indigenous majority by a European minority was made possible by a ‘divide and conquer’ policy that facilitated internal conflicts within occupied groups. Colonial boundaries intersected ethnic groups. Colonial policies privileged some and alienated others. And despite increasingly popular ideas about liberty and equality among the masses in Europe during that time, colonial states managed territories according to a feudal-capitalist model; rights and privileges were granted to Europeans and to indigenous people who abandoned their culture and conformed to European authority and ways of life.

In light of the apparent atrocities and inequalities that became evident during the colonial era, imperialists relied on propaganda that offered a moral justification for the injustices that were embedded within the colonial system. When we address race in an upcoming module, we will explore how racial theories and categories were created by philosophers and scientists in order to reconcile ideas about equality with the oppression of large groups of people. Evolutionary theories were used to construct linear trajectories that positioned occupied societies behind European societies, and were therefore in need of ‘development.’ Orientalist representations of indigenous people were distributed to the general public in order to ensure popular support of occupation among the masses living in the home land.

The Uganda Rising documentary posted above featured Noam Chomsky describing how colonial policies and practices were presented as being for the benefit of the people who were under occupation. This ideology was coined as ‘The White Man’s Burden’ in a poem written by Rudyard Kipling, famous author of the Jungle Book. Kipling’s poem referred to the American occupation of the Phillipines, but it reflected a common sentiment that was shared by colonial imperialists.

The White Man’s Burden (1899)

Take up the White Man’s burden–Send forth the best ye breed–Go bind your sons to exile–To serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild–Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. Take up the White Man’s burden– In patience to abide, To veil the threat of  error And check the show of pride; By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain. Take up the White Man’s burden– The savage wars of peace– Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease; And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to naught. Take up the White Man’s burden– No tawdry rule of kings, But toil of serf and sweeper– The tale of common things. The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread, Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead. Take up the White Man’s burden– And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard– The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:– “Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?” Take up the White Man’s burden– Ye dare not stoop to less– Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness; By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do,The silent, sullen peoples  Shall weigh your gods and you. Take up the White Man’s burden– Have done with childish days– The lightly proferred laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise. Comes now, to search your manhood Through all the thankless years,  Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!

In his poem, Kipling refers to occupied people as ‘half devil and half child’, ‘sullen’, ‘sloth’ and ‘ungrateful.’  He goes on to characterize colonial occupation as a seeking ‘another’s profit’ and working ‘another’s gain.’ From his perspective, colonialism aims to ‘fill the mouth of famine’ and ‘bid sickness to cease.’ He blames the failures of occupation on  ‘sloth and heathen folly’ that bring all hopes to naught.  The ideology behind ‘the white man’s burden’ was part of an ethnocentric perspective that positioned non-European cultural groups as backward, savage and in need of changing. While at the same time, exercising hypocrisy by ignoring the massive amount of valuable resources there were extracted from occupied areas and imported to colonial Europe. after World War II, the Geneva Convention made it illegal to occupy foreign territories and extract resources. Nonetheless, the colonial legacy continues to inform international relations today and contemporary anthropology must consider the ways that the social and historical context of colonialism continues to inform contemporary people living in formerly colonized areas. Hegemonic ideologies, such as those expressed in the Fair & Lovely commercial presented in the Introduction Modules, is one example of the ways that the history of colonialism continues to operate in modern cultures.

The Ideological Apparatus

It is easy to wonder how a small minority of elites can come to dominate a massive population of people. French philosopher and Marxist, Louis Althuesser (1970), built on Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to argue that while a large part of European occupation was fueled by military power (what he refers to as the repressive apparatus), long-term occupation and state power rests on hegemonic ideologies that convince people that they are inferior and unequal. He refers to this as the ideological apparatus. While the repressive apparatus constitutes institutions such as the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, and other bodies that exert external social controls, true domination, according to Althuesser, is based on a set of realities that get inside the minds of people and compel them to control themselves.  During the colonial period, euro-centric institutions such as churches, schools, media, and associations were used to get inside the minds of the colonized by promoting European cultural values and ideas as a way to improve society. Although World War II is considered the official end of European colonialism, the legacy of world-wide ideological and cultural domination by colonial powers persists into the present. 


A wide variety of circumstances related to the second World War helped contribute to the end of European colonial power: 1.) The financial cost of war made it difficult for many colonial powers to meet the costly budget of maintaining infrastructure in colonial territories as they needed to invest in rebuilding and reconstruction of war-devasted areas,  2.) The atrocities committed by the Nazi regime seriously called to question colonial policies and practices in light of racial pseudo- science and new ideas about universal rights, and 3.) Many colonized people were recruited or forced to participate as soldiers on behalf of the colonial power, and the war experience exposed the weaknesses and shortcomings of their imperial oppressor.

Post-colonial Nation-building

During the second half of the 20th century, most European colonies achieved independence and were faced with the daunting task of building a nation while recuperating from the consequences of long-term social, political, economic and cultural occupation. Although each post-colony is characterized by its own unique social and historical circumstances, political anthropologists organize post-colonies into three general categories: settler countries, non-settler countries, and mixed countries (Kottak 2012). Settler countries consist of large numbers of European descendants and sparser native populations such as Canada and Australia. Non-settler countries are comprised of large indigenous populations and relatively few European descendants such as Jamaica, India and Nigeria. Mixed countries consist of a population of indigenous people and European descendants such as Zimbabwe and Algeria.

In many cases, post-colonial governments carried on the policies and practices of the former colonial regime. National boundaries often reflected the former colonial borders that intersected linguistic and cultural social groups. Residents continued to identify themselves according to the hegemonic ethnic groupings created by the ‘divide and conquer’ policies of the former colonial regime, and this laid the foundation for ethnic violence such as the acts of genocide committed in Rwanda in late twentieth century. In some cases, tyrannical dictators received economic and military support from former colonial rulers while implementing harsh policies and practices, while many ‘independent’ governments maintained close-ties with former colonial powers and carried out the same colonial policies, such as the policy of apartheid in countries such as South Africa.

Apartheid is an institutional framework that relies on ‘Inhumane acts of a character … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime’ (Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – 2002). We will discuss apartheid in more detail when we address Race and Ethnicity in an upcoming module.

Post-colonial Studies

‘Life & Debt’ is a documentary about post-colonial conditions in Jamaica.

Post-colonialism refers to the interactions between European nations and former colonies and the outcomes of the colonial experience, and several disciplines in the social sciences and humanities include post-colonial studies within the curriculum. A central concern in post-colonial studies is the way that euro-centric hegemonies continue to operate within the social, economic, political and cultural mechanisms within contemporary post-colonial societies. This was apparent in the ‘Fair & Lovely’ commercial’ we viewed in the Culture section of the introductory module. The privileging of lighter skin is part of a legacy rooted in British colonization of India during the 20th century. Although the colonial occupation ended, colonial policies, practices, and ideologies remained intact. This is a key factor in the upcoming modules when we address international relations in the Modern World System and the Global Economy.

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Discussion: View the film  States of Independence , and using terms and concepts from this lesson, consider the socio-historical circumstances that establish the foundation for the social, political and economic challenges faced by cultural communities living in formerly colonized areas today. Consider the different policies of cultural assimilation practiced by the French, Spanish and British empires; What are the contemporary implications of those policies? How does the post-colonial ideological apparatus continue to operate in society? What are the  similarities and differences in the post-colonial cultural experience in the U.S. (prior to 1776) compared with other parts of the world?

When you complete the discussion, move on to the Modern World System lesson.