's Comparative Politics/Colonial History

Impact of Western Colonialism and Imperialism in Asia and Africa


by Samir and

There is no unanimity amongst scholars regarding the impact of West­ern Colonialism and Imperialism on Asia and Africa. On the one hand, some scholars hold that it greatly contributed to the civilizing of the back­ward people and contributed to the improvement of their living standards.

They argue that the various colonial powers set up schools and colleges, constructed roads and railways, built canals and bridges; provided law and order, improved sanitation and health, promoted trade and commerce and thus contributed to the welfare of the native people.

On the other hand, writers like John Conard and Holison are highly critical of the role of western imperialism in Asia and Africa. They associate imperialism with exploitation, misery, poverty, cruelty, conversion, degradation and racial segregation. Holison says that imperialism was 'rapacious and immoral'.

John Conard says "In many cases the motives for empire building have been selfish and the people in the colonies have frquently been exploited for the benefit of the mother-country." Both the above views contain only partial truth. In fact, the western colonization and imperialism was a mixed blessing. Its effect can be conveniently studied under the following heads.

1. Political Impact:

In the political sphere, Imperialism proved to be a blessing in disguise for some countries. For example, it provided political unity to India which had been torn by dissensions and strife before the arrival of the western powers. Thus the British provided political unity to India which she had not achieved at any stage in her past history.

This was rendered possible due to development of railways, modern means of trans­port and communication, press, introduction of English language which served as lingua franca, and a uniform system of administration through­out the country. This unity paved the way for the growth of political consciousness amongst people and ultimately motivated them to over­throw the colonial and imperialist yoke.

Secondly, the western colonialism and imperialism was responsible for the introduction of western ideas like nationalism, democracy, constitu­tionalism etc. in Asia and Africa. The various imperialist powers tried to implant their ideas and institutions in their colonies and thus uncon­sciously let loose liberal forces in the countries of Asia and Africa.

Thirdly, the colonial powers introduced efficient system of administration in the country. It is true that the administrative machinery was evolved primarily to promote the interest of the imperialist powers and paid little attention to the well-being and welfare of the natives.

Further, the natives were not given adequate representation in the civil services and generally excluded from higher positions. Despite these shortcomings, the system of administration, provided by the imperialist powers, exposed the colonial people to the system of western administration.

Fourthly, the imperialist rule also led to the rise of slavery. The slaves began to be sold and purchased as part of personal belongings. The practice commenced when Portuguese in the 15th century raided the African villages and enslaved the people.

These persons were then trans­ported to America. In fact there existed a regular market of slaves in Lisbon. Even the English engaged themselves in the slave trade. This slave trade resulted in the uprooting of millions of Africans from their homes. What is still worse that they were made to work under the most inhuman conditions and were treated with great cruelty.

Finally, the colonialism and imperialism led to bitter rivalry among the European powers and they fought various wars for the possession of the^ colonies. For example, France and Germany clashed over Morocco in Africa. In India also the French were involved in a long drawn-out struggle with the British.

2. Economic Impact.

In the economic sphere impact also the western imperialism had a mixed impact. On the positive side ii led to develop­ment of industries in Asia and Africa. The various imperialist powers set up industries in their colonies to make profits and thus paved the way for the industrialization of the colonies. The colonial powers established long lines of railways, built banking houses etc. in the colonies to fully exploit their resources. They also set up certain industries in these colonies to make quick profits and fully exploited the resources available there.

All this proved to be a boon for the colonies and led to their industrialization. On the negative side, the imperialist powers exploited the colonies by importing raw materials at the cheapest possible rates and exported the finished products at very high rates.

They also tried to cripple local industries, trade and commerce by enacting necessary industrial and taxation laws. This policy of systematic exploitation resulted in the draining of wealth and greatly contributed to poverty, starvation and backwardness of the colonies.

3. Social and Cultural Impact:

In the social and cultural spheres the colonial and imperialist rule produced serious consequences. In the first place it adversely affected the religions of the local people because the local people were encouraged by the Western Missionaries to embrace Christianity by offering them certain material benefits. As a result, soon Christianity became a thriving religion in many Asian and African coun­tries.

Secondly, the Christian Missionaries played an important role in providing certain social services to the local people in the form of hospi­tals, dispensaries, schools, colleges etc. and thus greatly contributed to the enlightening of the people of Asia and Africa. Thirdly, colonial and impe­rialist rule led to racial segregation. The European rulers treated their culture as superior to the Asian and African cultures and tried to impose the same on them.

Further, they believed that white races are superior to the black races and tried to keep aloof. They often enacted discriminatory laws against the local people. For example, in India the Indians could not travel in the railway compartment in which the Europeans were travelling. This policy of racial segregation greatly undermined the moral tone of the local population. Fourthly, the imperialist rule undermined the moral principles.

They foreshook all norms of morality to keep their hold on the colonial people. They tried to divide the local people and made them fight among themselves to retain power. The policy of 'divide and rule' followed by the British in India best exemplifies this policy of the imperialist powers. It is well known that this policy of 'divide and rule' ultimately led to the partition of India.

Finally, the policy of colonialism and imperialism caused untold misery and suffering to the people. The various imperialist powers were involved in a number of wars with the local people as well as amongst themselves which resulted in loss of millions lives. Thus colonialism and imperialism resulted in untold misery to humanity.

In the light of the above discussion we can say that colonialism and imperialism left a deep impact on Asia and Africa in the political, eco­nomic as well as social field.

Redrawing Colonial Boundaries: Africa in the 21st Century


By Glenn Ashton and The South African Civil Society Information Service (

The borders of Sudan, Africa's biggest country, are about to change (3 FEB 2011), provided all the players in this grand game stay the distance. This could be the most significant redrawing of the colonial boundaries of Africa since the colonial transition that saw the departure of the European colonial powers, abandoning their "places in the sun."

The partition of Africa into its present illogical and arbitrary boundaries took place just over a century ago, during what is now known as the "scramble for Africa." This colonial divvying up of the continent was decided at the Berlin Conference of 1885–6, where powers of the day – France, England, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium - shared out the spoils of the "dark continent."

These boundaries were arbitrary because they ignored geographical features, tribal distributions, religious beliefs, local sensitivities and historical realities. The consequences were tragic, the result of decisions by distant, uninformed and indifferent colonial overlords.

While Africa had few formal boundaries before the colonial land grab, those that were imposed have since become broadly recognised. Even the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) chose to formally accept these colonial boundaries upon its founding.

Many prominent Africans have railed at this colonial legacy. In response to the tragedy of Rwandan genocide Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said "We should sit down … and redesign the boundaries of African nations." The ongoing death of millions in the Congo can largely be laid at the door of colonial planning. Somali instability can trace its roots to failed attempts at unity and consequent partition. The same goes for the Western Sahara dispute that has dragged on for decades. Much – though not all – of West African instability can be laid at the door of this legacy.

Africa must certainly take some responsibility for its own problems. The pragmatic OAU decision to recognise colonial boundaries supports the argument that Africans must become involved in settling these disputes through its own internal mechanisms. The African Union has established a forum meant to provide clarity in these matters which appears moribund, or at least incapable of enhancing harmony between estranged neighbours.

The almost inevitable partition of Sudan into two nations is a case study in realpolitik, swayed by both historical and contemporary influences. The recent positive referendum in the south is simply another step in the process.

Britain consciously divided the Sudan, which was actually founded by the then Ottoman run Egyptian Caliphate during the late 19th Century, into two sections, determined only along arbitrary lines of latitude. The Muslim Arab population was kept to the north and the primarily animist African population in the south. The blame for the north–south rift in Sudanese history can be found within the twin tinderboxes of religion and ethnicity, which can in turn be laid at the door of those arch-colonisers, the British.

Britain encouraged Christian missionaries in the southern section to counter the spread of Islam from the north. This was reprised in the late twentieth century with an influx of US evangelists which influenced US intervention into the present fray. The role of these recent evangelists was clouded by the malign influence of oil.

Oil is a well recognised driver of US neo-colonial geopolitics. Significant reserves are located in southern Sudan, as well as along the presently proposed boundary between north and south Sudan. The Chinese also have made significant investments into the Sudanese oilfields.

Were it not for this notable mineral wealth it is unlikely that half a million people would have died in this benighted and otherwise poor region. The dirty Darfur conflict, where the government backed Janjaweed militia has been blamed for atrocities serious enough to have Sudan President Bashir indicted in The Hague for human rights violations is just one manifestation of how oil – and consequently neo-colonial interests - have impacted the local population.

All of these influences have conspired to end this colonially hatched conflict. The untimely death of the uniter of south Sudan, John Garang, in a helicopter accident, failed to halt the process. It continues to be propelled by diplomatic and economic pragmatism, led by the major powers like the US and China. The old colonial players remain engaged, as do AU interests, all realising that things just cannot continue as they have.

While a reported 99% of those living in southern Sudan have approved the referendum for partition, its realisation remains elusive. One obstacle is the oil-rich border area of Abyei, where the referendum was postponed because of oil interests and other disputes between nomadic pastoralists and local tribes, which remain largely unresolved. Another is the final agreement and conditionalities required by the Khartoum government to facilitate southern autonomy.

If all of these problems can be ironed out - and there is no real reason that this should not be the case - the division of the vast Sudan (bigger than Spain, France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden combined) has significant ramifications, not only for north and south Sudan but for the entire continent.

French scholar Roland Marchal, a Sudan specialist, sees this partition causing uneasiness for two reasons. Firstly, that boundary inviolability is being challenged and secondly, that this is being engineered under neo-colonial US pressure. Marchal feels that, “this is seen as if it were a Berlin II, with the colonial powers carving up Africa again." He also sees precedent being created for other secessionist movements in the continent.

Is there any reason that other nations cannot be divided? Could the problems in Ivory Coast be solved by partition? What about Nigeria? Perhaps the colonial monster that is the Congo can be broken into more homogenous and manageable sized states?

These suggestions stimulate distinct frission amongst the African – and international - body politic. In reality, change is generally slow to come. The Sudanese north – south divide has bubbled away for at least a century. Equally, local power plays hold the potential of any real change at bay in places like the Congo.

Yet there is another colonial tendril insinuating itself into the continent. This is the neo-colonial thrust pursued by both corporate and private interests, along with various wealthy but food insecure nations. These entities have purchased vast tracts of land across the continent, ostensibly for food production, during the past decade.

Madagascar has seen massive leases by the Korean chaebol Daewoo; Swiss multinational Addax Energy is making biofuels in Sierra Leone. Even in south Sudan New York investment firm Jarch Capital has leased over 1.5 million acres which they claim will create jobs and uplift the local economy. This pattern is repeated around the continent.

So just as one colonial problem appears headed towards resolution, a new (for that is what the prefix ‘neo-’ means) colonial wave, driven by the continued wealth disparities between the global North and South has raised its head, promising a whole new set of consequences and problems.

It is not that these problems are entirely new. After all, the reformist leader of Egypt, instrumental in annexing and creating Sudan on behalf of the British, was eventually deposed through predatory European lenders calling in their debts and expelling him in order that a more compliant leader could be installed.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. While the old colonial powers have lost their place in the sun, other emerging, capital rich sun-seekers are repeating history in subtly different ways. Even if boundaries are redrawn, neo-colonial interests will continue to carry significant weight.

African exploitation continues, not just through external influences redrawing the boundaries, but by the continued displacement of Africans through the agency of neo-colonially influenced oligarchs. These are in turn motivated by neo-liberal arguments of efficiency, which argue that Africa has vast tracts of land which are inefficiently utilised.

The reality is that this is simply a continuation of the enclosure of the commons by the wealthy. The activist Indian Vandana Shiva has predicted this new thrust will create more conflict and political instability by uprooting cultures and impacting local food security.

It appears we may have embarked on repairing one old problem while simultaneously creating a novel, perhaps even more intractable one. So while Africa shakes itself free of the colonial yoke, neo-colonialism's malign influence remains as immediate as it has ever been.