The Social Impact of Colonialism

Some authors emphasize more general effects of colonial domination, such as alienation. Frantz Fanon, for example, writes:

„Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it. This work of a devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.“ (Fanon (1963[1961]: 170))

However, such notions can hardly be measured in a comparative way. According to other authors, the social impact of colonialism depended on the number settlers of European origin, colonially-induced labor migration and the level of colonial investment in the health and education sector. Related to that were different practices of ethnic and/or religious discrimination or privileges.

Settler and labor immigration

In Latin American Spanish colonies, a low proportion of settlers caused a limited social development in the areas of education and health (Mahoney 2003). A percentage of settlers between 10% and 30% is linked to higher income inequality (Gini measures) than a higher or a lower percentage (Angeles 2007). In settler and plantation colonies, there was a considerable amount of expropriation of land in different forms. The concentration of land ownership was higher where horticultural societies were colonized than in areas with higher population densities and more complex agricultural technologies. The latter were also less prone to the importation of labor. The colonially-induced labor immigration has a strong regional bias (Amin 1972; Fieldhouse 1996).

The following characterization of the situation in Southeast Asia by Trocki (1999) covers many other colonies outside that region as well:

„Ethnic diversity was a fact of life in the region long before Europeans arrived, but with administrative rationality and European racism things changed. The new territorial frameworks of the colonies within which relatively unified administrative structures came into being were in fact the foundations of the new nation-states. The new administration, however, identified and isolated these diverse elements, compartementalizing some, protecting others and allowing still others greater freedom of action. (...) Language and educational policies drove home the final barriers.“ (Trocki 1999: 113).

In many colonies, economic specialization developed along ethnic lines with the “new” sectors being taken over by “newcomers”. In British-Malaya, policies of the colonial government resulted in “such large and self-sufficient migrant communities that the older pattern of absorption into local society“ only rare¬ly occurred (Watson Andaya/Andaya 2001: 342). On Borneo, the British Brooke-Regime, a clear ethnic specialization developed, in which ethnic Chinese were traders and cash-crop farmers, Malays administrators, Iban (an indigenous ethnic group) police¬men and soldiers while other indigenous groups in the interior of the island remained generally outside the scope of government policy. The government always favored the amalgamation of smaller groups into one of the larger categories, usually along religious cleavages, i.e. all Muslims were considered to be ethnic Malays. This policy, on the other side, contributed to the formation of an identity among the numerous distinc¬tive and often rival indigenous ethnic groups (ibid., 253). Lange et al. (2006) conclude:

Unsurprisingly, in these ‘plural societies’, the anti-colonial nationalist movements came to see the ‚non-national’ communities as reminders of foreign domination. Many of these minorities became targets of the new governments’ policies and, often enough, victims of government-sponsored or -tolerated pogroms. According to Paige (1975: 355), in both Ceylon and Malaya, “chronical racial hatreds were expressed in frequent riots against Tamils and Chinese, and after independence the role of minority plantation population has been major, perhaps the major, political issue“.

Artificial borders

The artificiality of colonial borders is one of the popular truisms about the effects of colonialism. According to Englebert et al. (2002: 1093), there is “little disagreement that the boundaries of contemporary African states are unusually arbitrary as a result of their largely colonial origins“. There are two aspects of “artificial borders”: the creation of ethnically fragmented countries and the separation of the same people into bordering countries (Alesina et al. 2006: 2). Sometimes both is the case, as the example of Lesotho shows: “Not all nationals are Basuto, and not all Basuto are nationals” (Spence 1968: 12). In the Near East, the spheres of influence and control established in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 led to an artificial dismemberment and reassembly of Arab territories formerly belong to the Ottoman Empire. Vandewalle (2006:40) calls Libya an “accidental state”, “created by, and at the behest of, Great Power interests and agreed to by the local provinces who feared other alter-natives”. On the Southeast Asian continent, the definition of the river Mekong as border between (semi-colonial) Thailand and (French) Laos was agreed upon by the French and the British, thereby cutting the area inhabited by Lao-speaking people in two parts along the main traffic arteria – the Mekong. However, the opposite aspect, the creation of “artificial non-borders” is usually neglected in the analysis of the colonial “heritage”. Kerbo (2005a) summarizes for Southeast Asia:

“One of the most obvious changes in Southeast Asia was that the 40 ‘nation states’ which existed before colonialism in the 18th century were reduced to 10 by the 20th century. (...) over the decades of colonialism the Dutch created an Indonesia which made no cultural or sociological sense. Much like the Western colonials in Africa, many different tribal, religious, and ethnic groups where put together by the Dutch to form what is now considered Indonesia.” (Kerbo 2005a: 447)

He focuses therefore not on the “artificiality” of borders but on the “relative presence or absence of contested territory by smaller kingdoms or ethnic and tribal minorities” (ibid. 443).

The colonial borders proved to be long-lasting and have not been changed, except for very few exemptions not included in our sample (Eritrea, East Timor). This has been a deliberate policy by the Organization of African Unity and by the United Nations. As a consequence of this fixation, according to Herbst (2000) neither colonial nor post-colonial administrations have incentives to invest in the periphery of their territories, causing inefficiency and weak institutions. The colonial borders furthermore created landlocked states, in Africa more than in any other region. And they created large countries, increasing the likelihood of civil wars (ibid.).

Health and education

Many authors see the investment in the education and health sectors as the most positive impact of colonialism. According to the new estimations by Bolt/Bezemer (2009), ‘colonial human capital’ is the most important colonialism-related determinant of long-term growth in sub-Sahara Africa. However, it has to be kept in mind that education under the colonial government was not primarily meant to improve the knowledge of the indigenous population or to open the ways to European universities but to recruit and to train clerks/officials for the administration. Education policies were guided by the practical needs of colonial society. E.g. in Egypt, the British „attempted to confine the Westernized schools to the training of the future civil servants and to direct the bulk of primary school graduates into vocational institutes“ (Cleveland 1994: 101); in Malaya,

„.the British could (...) fulfill their self-conceived role as ‚civilized’ rulers by providing a basic vernacular education for Malay children and by overseeing primary schooling in Chinese and Indian languages. It was considered unnecessary to offer higher levels since the government viewed education as means of equipping the population with the tools appropriate for their assigned lot. The exception was the privileged upper strata across all ethnic groups who, through English-medium instruction, were also enabled to fill their specific role in colonial society.“ (Watson Andaya/Andaya 2001: 255)

For Rodney, colonial schooling in Africa was “education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment“ (Rodney 1972: 264).

However, he sees differences within as well as between colonies , and assumes that British colonies offered more educational opportunities than French ones, largely due to the activities of the missionaries. The empirical data on enrollments at the end of the colonial period indeed show huge variations in sub-Saharan Africa (Künzler 2007: 74f.). Financial arguments played an important role: In Egypt, austerity measures under the rule of Lord Cromer (1883-1907) such as the closing of public schools and the increase of fees led to a decline of the primary and secondary enrollment rates (Cleveland 1994: 101). At the same time, independent schools were in many colonies forbidden or carefully observed in order to exclude the development of a potentially anti-colonial elite. Trocki (1999: 88) argues that the impact of schools was “far-reaching, since it had the effect of creating cultural allies for the colonial powers”. There was virtually no other option for school graduates than to work within a colonial structure (government, trade, mission), a situation that according to Wallerstein (1970: 410) created the “clerk between two worlds“: “To concentrate on his psychological dilemmas, however, is to miss the key factor, the structural bind in which this class found itself“.


“Cultural allies” were also the parts of the population that converted to the religion of the colonizers. Missionary activities belonged to the repertory of the European colonizers from the beginning in 15th century , and in many places their collaborators and subjects accepted their religion as ‘superior’ – and/or for opportunistic motives. In many areas, missionaries came with the colonizers, in some before them, and in others again colonization (or semi-colonial rule) brought religious freedom and the protection of missions, for all kinds of Christian churches and sects. A relation too close with the colonizers could be a disadvantage for the mission. In India after independence, the Christian Church “has become free from the stigma that it was an ally of the ‚foreign’ rulers“, while during the British colonial domination, it “was often looked upon as an ally of an alien imperialism” (World Christian Handbook 1949: 150f). How far-reaching the change of life related to conversion to Christianity really was, is difficult to assess. Arcilla (2003) stresses the change of routines in the life of Filipinos:

“They learned to pray at different times during the day ... people soon adjusted to a regular routine or time schedule. Their working hours were divided into prayer, work, rest, and recreation; the week was set off by Sunday Mass and other obligations; and the year by the celebration of Easter, Christmas, and their patron saint’s day.” (Arcilla 2003: 24)

Much depended on the distance between traditional life and the new religious instructions and standards – the new religion demanded not only exclusivity and e.g. renouncement of ancestral worship and shama¬nistic health rituals, but also of non-sedentary lifestyles, polygamy and open promiscuity. Successful were missionary activities especially there, where a process of self-christianization could be set in motion. In these cases, local assistants took successively over the preaching and converting, and “native Churches” were built. In Africa, there was more African control over missionary activities where missions were established before colonial rule, while in the reverse case the dividing effects on African societies were more distinct (Iliffe 1969: 130). Among the consequences of Christian missionary work in Africa was also an age cleavage:

„It was above all the young who where attracted to the early missions, so that acceptance of education and Christianity often appeared almost as a revolt of a whole generation against its elders.“ (Iliffe 1969: 128)

There were also many other unintended consequences, e.g. christianity-inspired, but anti-Western messianistic movements, “native Churches” could inspire independence movements, or a dissolution of the traditional cultural value system followed by a complete breakdown of social structure. In Vietnam, the Cao Dai sect was founded in 1926, a case of “frankly fabricated traditionless syncretism” which mingled Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, spiritism, and freemasonry, among others, with a quasi-Catholic church organization (Osterhammel 1997: 99).

The impact of missionary activities was big in areas which were not converted to one of the “high” or scriptoral religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc.) already, i.e. mainly areas in south of the Sahel belt in Africa (with the exception of the East African coast), in Southeast Asia (in the Archipelago the Philippine and some Indonesian islands, on the continent the so-called “mountain tribes”) and in Oceania. As the World Christian Handbook (1949) states on certain minorities in China, checking the prospects of missionary activity:

„There are no strongly organized religious systems among the (...) tribes. Their relative simplicity of life and thought offer good soil for the Gospel.“ (World Christian Handbook 1949: 134)

Among the highly educated in stratified societies, missionaries argued in favor of Christianity by referring to the superiority of European knowledge, technology etc. The latter met usually open doors, but unrestrained missionary zeal put these exchanges at risk, again and again, as in the case of Viet¬nam, where the perception of European „as bearers of both useful knowledge and a dangerously subversive ideology explains the fluctuating fortunes of the missionaries as reci¬pients of official favours or targets of extreme displeasure“ (Watson Andaya/Ishi 1999: 200). In Islamic areas, colonial missionary activities were especially unsuccessful. If this has to do with traditional animosities out of centuries-old religious competition or with the fact that apostasy is a crime punishable by death in Islamic law (Lewis 1995: 295), is not of importance here. As the World Christian Handbook (1949) summarizes:

“... in the whole Moslem world, particularly in the homelands of Islam in the Near East, the number of converts from Islam to Christianity has always been very small and is still very small. The Christian churches consist of foreign residents and of people belonging to families which were never Moslem.” (World Christian Handbook 1949: 76)

In mainly Islamic areas, converts usually were followers of ancient Christian churches, which had survived in some parts of Western Asia. In many colonies, converts were given special tasks in administration and/or army, and they usually became “loyalists”. This had a lasting impact on interreligious relations, independently of their absolute numbers. The decolonization process brought many risks for converts, which were often – especially in cases of armed conflicts and wars of independence – met by emigration.


Regarding the health situation and life expectancy, colonialism had a mixed impact. On the one hand, medical centers were founded, e.g. with the purpose to lower infant mortality, and prevention and vaccination campaigns against certain diseases were made. By ending or reducing traditional warfare – whose frequencies and character are hotly debated – in many regions, colonialism had a pacification effect which reduced economic disruptions and therefore famines. For Southeast Asia, Elson (1999: 160) argues that it was the significant reduction of mortality, not an increase of fertility, which led to a net population growth in colonial period. On the other hand, urbanization and the work in mines, plantations and on the big infrastructure construction sites favored the spread of diseases and increased dramatically the number of work-related accidents. In Southern Vietnam, one in twenty plantation workers died, which was double the overall mortality for the French colony (ibid., 157). In the case of the Philippines, May (1980) concluded that the ambitious colonial programs during US-rule (1898-1946) did not match the realities of rule. The administrators’ efforts did not transform Philippine society; rather, they had a minimal social and economic effect on pre-existing social, economic, and political structures. Thus, the “entire U.S. colonial period ... was only a brief ‘deviation’ in the course of Philippine history” (May 1980: 183).

In Africa, “the establishment of plantation colonies, originated by the English and afterwards imitated by the other imperialist countries, had a grossly disturbing effect on the African nutritional economy” (De Castro 1952: 179). In certain areas colonialism led to a drastic population decrease. In the Belgian Congo, the decrease was by 50 percent between 1879 and 1919; mainly responsible for this is forced labor and the atrocities linked to it (Hochschild (2000[1998]: 233).