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The Long-Lasting Effects of Colonial Policies

The Long-Lasting Effects of Colonial Policies Why some post-colonial nations succeed while others do not

Whenever we talk about Canada, New Zealand, Libya or Indonesia, we need to bring up the colonial empires which dominated much of the modern world up until the beginning of the Cold War. The periods under colonial rule differ, with the “scramble for Africa” taking place in the latter half of the 19th century, while American colonization began in the late 15th century, but the great European empires eventually had most of the world, at one time or another, under colonial rule. All those four countries share a similar past which involved being ruled by Europeans with varying degrees of autonomy, exploitation or even representation in democratic processes. However, the similarities stop there. Canada and New Zealand are both considered developed countries which hold economic and commercial power while Libya can barely be seen as a functioning state due to its internal unrest. Indonesia is somewhat in the middle, having an emerging economy status while controlling a loosely connected archipelago dominated by ethnic and religious heterogeneity. How did these countries turned up so different from one another despite their shared status as colonial subjects?

The origins of colonialism and types of colonial systems 

Modern colonial empires emerged after the discovery of the New World by the Europeans in 1492. The absence of important staple crops (such as wheat), easily domesticated animals (such as horses, pigs, cows or chickens) and key inventions such as the wheel led to fragmented, decentralized Amerindian societies where people lived in small tribes as opposed to big cities like the Europeans (there are exceptions to this rule such as the Mesoamerican civilizations). This isolation meant that diseases such as smallpox or bubonic plague could not evolve as they originated in crowded environments where humans and animals lived together. The urbanized indigenous Americans had no acquired immunity to specific European diseases, given their own isolation from the rest of humanity, whereas the bubonic plague and other pandemics had travelled between European and the Far East multiple times in the past. Therefore, the main weapons of the colonizers were gunpowder and disease.

The technological advantage and the unknown biological threat proved to be deadly to the native populations, as they saw a decline of 90% in their numbers. This led to patterns of Europeans discovering deserted cities, as previous natives carrying European diseases penetrated far more quickly in the interior of the regions and spread deadly diseases in advance of European arrival there. This paved the way for European expansion on the American continent. Australia had no sophisticated indigenous civilization to provided a large population base which could have resisted the Europeans in the absence of disease. As in North America, the natives also had no sedentary population adaptation to alcohol and the culture of consumption which Europeans brought with them further devastated the natives through alcoholism, which remains a bane to this day. Heavy colonialism in Africa came about very late, aside from the South of Africa, with its highlands, because, there, the Europeans had no adaptation to local diseases, especially malaria, and it was only the discovery of quinine as an anti-malarial drug that enabled its full conquest.

However, the implementation of colonialism differed from country to country. We can have a settler based colony where immigrants from the mother nation make up the majority of the new territory’s population (as in the case of Canada or New Zealand) or at least a definitive plurality (South Africa). Another system is that of exploitation where the only priority of the colonial government is to extract resources and send them home. This was the case for most of South America, Africa and South-East Asia. Other colonies are meant to fit in more sophisticated protectionist constructs, where they become captive markets for the manufactories back home in industrializing Europe (India for the British, especially after it became a cotton producing region). Another system might be that of surrogate colonialism where ethnic or religious minorities are used as settlers in order to create a more homogenous society back home. This is one of the reasons why “France became French” or “Spain became Spanish”. 

The Spanish Encomienda 

The biggest colonial power up until the 19th century was Spain which held most of the Americas, from California all the way to Argentina. At one point, Portugal was in a personal union under the Spanish Crown which meant that the entire South American continent was ruled from Madrid. Colonial rule was based around a system of Viceroyalties which divided the newly conquered landmass. The aim of the Spanish was to acquire resources that they would have imported from the East such as sugar, coffee or cotton and also accumulate silver and gold for foreign trade and to shore up state budgets. More cash crops were added to the portfolio such as cocoa beans or tobacco. Extracting those resources in a pre-industrial world meant that labor was more important than ever. That is why the Spanish Crown implemented the system of Encomienda which aimed at integrating the natives in the colonial societies but de facto managed to give the Spanish the right to enslave them making the system to resemble a harsher version of the Russian serfdom. The dominant doctrine was that of “Gold, Glory and God”. This meant converting the population to Christianity while establishing a caste system based on racial criteria in order to favor the extraction of resources. As the natives were declining in numbers, the white Europeans came in small numbers at first and were not suited to the tropical climate, especially for back breaking labor in the sugar cane fields, the colonies became markets for slaves in Africa and elsewhere, leading to the triangle trade, where slaves are sent to these regions, resources are sent to Europe or the industrializing North American colonies and finished goods are sent to Africa to purchase more slaves from local tribes. This has led to more racially mixed societies in countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Cuba or Brazil.

The Spanish caste system was perpetuated even after the independence of the colonies and it has led to divided societies dominated by inequalities which only fueled the unrest and political instability which are still present to this day. The encomienda system may have also crippled the economic capacities of Central and South America leaving them without the means to move on to higher value-added economic activities, being stuck in labor intensive manufacturing in the same way that the plantation economy managed to hold back the development of the American South during the 19th century. 

The British Dominions 

The British expansion in North America, South Africa and Oceania proved to be different from the Iberian model as these places were never the home of influential civilizations such as the Aztecs or the Incas. The native tribes were stretched thinly and were easier to subjugate or even displace. This has led to a greater influx of European migrants, most of them being religious minorities (Puritans, Jesuits, Mennonites) from the Old Continent or people who were trying to forge a new life for themselves. This has led to a frontier culture which managed to create societies that were emulating the ones found in the home country. The resources proved to be less “exotic” than those found in South America. The economy of those areas was not so focused on extracting raw materials but on building fully functioning societies populated by citizens who in turn paid taxes to the Crown and imported goods from Britain which were subjected to tariffs. A great portion of the North American trade consisted of pelts, grain or tobacco and cotton in the American South where slaves were later used, a practice carried on by the United States after independence.

Therefore, we find the British model to be more focused on settler colonialism rather than resource extraction, aided by religious strife and exploding populations at home. This can be seen in the different approach of the British regarding African or Asian colonies as in India they opted for a more “boots on the ground” policy which favored the extraction of resources such as cotton or spices. Another exception is Australia which was settled with the help of convicts expelled from Britain transforming the island into a penal colony for a short while before becoming a settler-based colony similar to Canada or New Zealand.

With all this in mind we can say that countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand (and to a lesser extent South Africa) enjoyed more autonomy and inherited fully functioning democratic institutions and even the legal system which turned those colonies into fully developed independent countries while allowing the growth of other economic sectors which hold a higher value-added and in turn need a more educated and skilled workforce. This may not be true for India, Pakistan, Malaysia or the African colonies. 

The scramble for Africa 

Following the Berlin Conference of 1884, the African continent was partitioned between the Great Powers (The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy) with small gains for Spain (parts of Morocco, Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea), Portugal (Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique) and Belgium (the Congo) with Ethiopia and Liberia (itself the only American settler colonial society in Africa and emulating the racial hierarchies and plantation economy of the antebellum South) remaining independent. The move to partition Africa was done so that no further war would escalate between the European Powers and was seen more as a way to gain prestige rather than manpower or resources even if African troops fought in the Great War and resource extraction was an important part. Most of the 19th century colonial powers were actually investing more in maintaining the colonies than the revenues they were obtaining, especially in areas without prior build-up of infrastructure necessary for exploitation, thus making an argument for the rapid decolonization following the bankruptcy after the Second World War. To bring things into perspective, Africa was still being explored in the late 19th century, with Europeans just then managing expeditions into the interior of the continent, such as the famous expeditions of Stanley and Livingstone.

This time the continent proved to be dangerous to the Europeans themselves due to diseases such as malaria. The interior of Africa was largely inaccessible and the settlement was reserved for coastal areas such as South Africa or Senegal. To ensure control over the vast areas, the European Powers empowered certain peoples in order to subjugate others (this being the latest origin of the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry in Rwanda). In addition to this, Leopold II of Belgium managed to treat the Congo Free State as his own personal property turning his colonial rule into a dark page of Congolese history filled with mass murder and crimes.

Another key feature of 19th- 20th century imperialism is that of drawing borders based merely on infrastructure or administrative elements resulting in straight lines which have nothing to do with ethnic or religious boundaries resulting in heterogeneous nations dominated by unrest, instability and feuds. Those countries have almost no history of being national entities and due to the focus on resource extraction they have not inherited any democratic traditions or institutions, the most important inheritance probably being that of language (English, French or Portugese) and Christianity. Those factors may have led to the failure of certain African states but efforts to create a national identity have been made with varying degrees of success. 

The cultural impact of the colonizers 

One key element of the post-colonial nations is the mindset that has formed during the colonial period and this mindset differs depending on the colonizer and most importantly if the colonies were settled by Europeans and from where those Europeans came from in particular, but also the general ideas and traditions that came with them. For example, England in the 17th century (when the initial 13 colonies of the US were settled) was dominated by religious freedom, freedom of speech and a strong presence of democratic institutions such as the Parliament. Those ideas made their way into the backbone of the American society which still to this day holds on to those “Lockean” values. Also, a great portion of the first settlers were religious minorities, mostly protestants, who in turn made capitalism the dominant system there. However, in the cases of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, those areas were intensively settled during the 19th century and at that time Britain was influenced by new sets of ideas such as welfare programs or conservatism which still dominate the political spectrum in those countries even if Britain has moved on.

The French way of building colonies was different. In the Americas, they focused on trading and building forts and trading posts rather than settlements. This trading was also carried out with the help of the natives. However, they tried to settle specific areas such as Québec where most of the colonists were coming from Brittany, Normandy or Western France. Some of them were also religious minorities (Huguenots). However, these settlers had a strong identity back then which in turn made the Québec residents to consider themselves culturally superior and resilient to any attempt at assimilating. This may be the reason why the region is “strongly French” and why a secession movement has been present there. In the later days of the Empire, France wanted to recreate the cosmopolitan life of metropolitan France overseas in places such as Beirut (nicknamed “the Paris of the Middle East”), Hanoi, Pondicherry (in India) or Saint-Louis in Senegal but those efforts were purely aesthetic, the process of actual nation-building being mostly left out.

The same might apply to Central and South America. During the exploration era, the Spanish Crown has focused on displacing and converting religious minorities such as Jews or Muslims from Southern Spain and spreading (with the help of the inquisition) the Catholic faith. This may be the reason why the Latin Americans (and the Filipinos for that matter) held on so vigorously to their faith. 


To summaries, post-colonial nations important similarities, but also great differences in background. The colonizers behaved very differently from one place to the other but some things are clearer than others: colonies focused on resource extraction are generally lacking the ingredients necessary to make up a functioning nation. Furthermore, the British seem to have had a more long-term approach given that their colonies were suitable for settlement and even places such as Botswana and India still benefit from British cultural imports.

Moreover, the culture and general mindset of the home nation greatly influenced the outcome as the settlers wanted to emulate aspects of the mother country. All those factors contributed to the level of development of certain nations. The answer to why Congo failed to build a healthy economy and society may be complicated to say the least but some of the answers may lie within its colonial past. Nation-building is, after all, a complicated process that involves a vast number of resources and ideas. Whatever the outcome we should all consider the historical and economical aspects as they can greatly change our perspective. 


Diamond, J, 2001. Guns, germs, and steel. St. Paul, Minn.: HighBridge Co.

Harris, C., 1972. The French Background of Immigrants to Canada before 1700. Cahiers de géographie du Québec, Volume 16, numéro 38

Wolfe, P., 2006. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), pp.387-409.

America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century, Part 1 - Religion and the Founding of the American Republic | Exhibitions (Library of Congress). America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century, Part 1 - Religion and the Founding of the American Republic | Exhibitions (Library of Congress) (2021). Available at: (Accessed: 24 February 2021).

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