4. a brief history – what is “colonialism”?

co town wider

For hundreds of years prior to the age of exploration, Europe was a world wracked by invading empires, constantly warring fiefdoms scrabbling for control over limited resources, and a generations-long period of famine and pestilence. Cultures and societies were held together through the “Dark Ages” by the rigid hierarchy of feudalism, a sort of “pyramid scheme” where power and resources always flowed up, and abuse and environmental degradation rained down.

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In a situation where land and life was always under threat from invaders, clear organization and strict obedience were necessary for the maintenance of standing armies, grains and other resources were stock-piled in fortified castles, and the religious concept of “divine right” meant that the king at the top of the pyramid owned everything, those at each lower level had privileges which were granted or revoked as their masters saw fit, and the vast majority of the population, at the bottom of the pyramid, were peasant tenants with an obligation to provide for the kingdom but little to no rights to land or resources.


This way of organizing society was not invented in Europe – many societies in different places and eras have turned to a “pyramid scheme” of one kind or another in order to build the strength to conquer or to defend. In Europe it became an obsession, with religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists categorizing hierarchies of animal species (with “man” at the top, of course), family members (with “man” or “father” at the top, of course), every minutely nuanced societal role was stacked up into an enormous ladder, even stuff like elements and colors and bodily fluids were put into hierarchies… eventually they even started categorizing made-up “races” (with “white man” at the top, naturally), and on and on. This cultivated a world-view that emphasized control, power, and exceptionalism – repeatedly justified by the Christian concept of God-given “dominion” over the rest of the world.


When Columbus first arrived in Hispaniola, what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, he noted native Taino peoples peaceful demeanor. He saw terrible opportunity in their lack of steel weapons, recording in his journal “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.” When he returned one year later with an army, the conquistadors – “conquerors” – proceeded to terrorize the population, forcing people to bring tributes of gold or cotton.

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If they did not bring enough, their hands were chopped off. Eventually all natives were enslaved in mines or on plantations modeled after the feudal system. Hundreds of thousands of people died from previously unknown diseases like smallpox, and within 50 years the Taino people were virtually exterminated.

The “successful” colonies of Hispaniola became the model for all subsequent colonies in the Americas. We celebrate Columbus here in the US… because many of us don’t even know that his legacy is one of slavery and genocide.

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The Pilgrims that settled in one of the first colonies in Northern parts came not for conquest and riches, but simply to find a place where they could live without being oppressed for their divergent religious beliefs.

In order to get that opportunity, they struck a deal with the London Company to get a ship and supplies and a contract permitting them to build a new settlement in New England.


The London Company was an early corporation chartered by the king of England – in fact the origin of all corporations is in the British colonies. “Crown corporations” were elaborate contracts created to give special power and privileges to new companies, who were entrusted by the king and funded by aristocratic investors, to conquer, rule, and administer new colonies. The corporation’s mission was to pursue monopoly control of production, supply, and markets within their defined region, by any means necessary, and to constantly send increasing wealth back to the stock-holders. Agents of these early corporations had the power to write laws, raise armies, execute trouble-makers. You may have heard of the Hudson Bay Company or the East India Company, and also the 13 US colonies were each ruled by a corporation.

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Whatever the ideals or intentions of the Pilgrims may have been, they were in debt to the London investors and were bound by contract to make and share profits. Over half of the Europeans who rapidly settled the 13 colonies in the 1600s-1700s were “indentured servants,” held as slaves for a period of 3-7 years to work off their debts. In New England, indigenous people were forced to become indentured servants, cleaning settlers’ homes and risking their lives on whaling ships, while to the South, African slaves as well as European indentured servants worked enormous plantations.

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In addition to whale oil and the South’s agricultural products like cotton, indigo, tobacco, and sugar, New England had an abundance of trees, which were rapidly clear-cut and made into fine furniture, chemicals like turpentine, and the many ships of the powerful British Navy, which proceeded to colonize other parts of the world. Over generations New England became a densely-populated hub of industry, and during the industrial revolution of the early 1800s large cities grew up around factory zones, as railroads pushed into the interior of the continent reaching for more and more land and resources, including the Great Lakes region and beyond.

triangle trade


By the time of the American Revolution, a self-perpetuating “triangle trade” had been established, where ships took sugar from Southern plantations to New England cities to be sold in exchange for manufactured goods and/or made into rum, and then took rum, guns, and gold to Africa to exchange for slaves, which were brought to the Americas to work on the expanding sugar plantations, and the cycle was repeated.


The doctrine of “colonial-ism” is the pursuit of ever-greater control, power, and exceptionalism, and it becomes a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Colonizers invade someone else’s land and take what they can – they take resources, they take slaves, they take knowledge, they take land and water.

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With an excess of resources, it becomes possible to develop, to make new things. New technology makes it possible and desirable to expand into new industries, new settlements, new transportation infrastructure, and this only increases the power of the colonizers. Now that the colonizers have greater technology and greater reach, they reproduce and repeat the the cycle of invading, taking, making, and expanding again and again.




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