/ from a painting by Angus McBride -

/ from a painting by Angus McBride –

These days the word strikes a sour note, arousing images of rough settlements, starving ‘piccaninies’, whips, shackles, thoughtless government from a distance of thousdands of miles etc. If there are any ‘colonies’ left after the post-war rush to be rid of them I think it is because the ‘colonists’ prefer it that way. 90% of colonies which achieved independence have suffered under bad or atrocious rule since being ‘freed’, with the possible exception of the United States, and even there half the settlers in the Thirteen Colonies claimed they did not wish for independence from British rule, and after 1776 sold up lock, stock and barrel and moved to Canada, where they were welcomed.

   Colonization must be distinguished from migration and imperialism. Migration means the movement of a large group of people over land or sea, seeking a better or freer life – like the English colonists getting themselves to Canada. Colonization implies an established community from which people deliberately go, or are sent out, to establish a new settlement in some other territory. The new settlement, at least primarily, preserves the customs, laws and manners of the community from which it came. It is supposed, also, to maintain trading, administrative and social links with it, though sometimes this has not happened. Imperialism is a planned extension of the rule of one state over others in order to form or maintain an empire. It may be that colonization might have formed part of an imperialistic policy (it certainly did in the case of Belgium in Africa), but colonization should not be identified with imperialism. This is the crass error that liberals and ‘free-thinkers’ and ‘progressives’ have made since 1945. After all, the British ruled in India and with the agreement of the majority of Indian potentates incorporated it into her Empire. But Britain did not colonize China by establishing colonies called Hong Kong and Shanghai on China’s coast. Britain did indeed colonize Australia, though the method used is open to suspicion. Penal settlements were not designed to become colonies.

   The word ‘colony’ comes from the Latin – colonia, itself derived from the verb colere – to cultivate or inhabit. Roman colonias were sections of territory usually acquired by conquest. The community established on this ‘acquired’ land also became known as a colonia. The German city of Cologne, or Köln got its name because it was founded as a Roman colonia.

   The Phoenicians established colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean at least one thousand years B.C. They lived through trading, and became powerful and rich through their own industry. Carthage, for instance, was a Phoenician colony and strong enough to declare war on Rome. Corinth started a colony on the island now known as Corfu, as did other Greek city-states on other islands. In 773 B.C they even started one at Syracuse in Sicily. Greek colonies were founded on the northern coast of the Aegean, on the Black Sea and in Italy.

   After the fall of the Roman Empire, itself split by necessity into two parts, the best-known colonizers in northern Europe were the Vikings from Scandinavia, principally Norway and Denmark. Though they were seen as piratical invaders, the Norsemen established bases from which they could sally on their marauding voyages in search of plunder. It may come as a surprise to some Irish that Norwegians founded Dublin. The Danes planted themselves in eastern and northern England, and in Normandy. Norwegians began the settlement of Iceland in 870; they also established eastern and western settlements in Greenland which survived until the end of the 14th century.

   We have dealt extensively with colonies in the New World already in these three volumes of general history. News of the conquests made by Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Perú induced a rush of emigrants from Spain and Portugal, anxious to ‘find’ treasures of gold and silver. The area of Spanish rule and settlement slowly extended throughout Central America, down the western coast of South America and across the gigantic Andes to the River Plate. The Aztec capital Tenochtitlán was knocked down and fired by Cortés (which incidentally and comically means ‘courtesy’). He founded Mexico City on the site. Pizarro founded Lima in 1535, probably because of easy access to the good port of Callao, which had to be built too. Peruvians have always found this a joke, as Lima has the very worst climate in the whole of Perú, damp and humid in autumn and winter, hot and humid in spring and summer. Trujillo or Arequipa would have been better sites, but they had no port, making it impossible.

   The Portuguese, who had been kindly granted all the territory in the New World eastward of a line invented by a pope (Alexander VI, a Borgia), moved too slowly to take advantage, but at least they established Bahia in 1549 as the administrative capital of what would become Brazil. Spanish and Portuguese colonization was simply exploitative, a colonial society often but not always found – the newcomers are the ruling class and previous inhabitants are reduced to the status of small farmer, labourer or slave.

   A different type of colonial society began to appear in the 17th century on the eastern coast of North America. There was no plunder to be had there, no gold and silver (the colonists thought), and the local inhabitants were hardly docile, as the natives had mostly been on the south-western coasts under the Spanish and Portuguese. The first English settlement, ill-fated as it turned out, was at Roanoke (q.v. 1587).

Native populations would doubtless have preferred not to be colonized. They could look forward to the obligation of being reduced to an inferior status, and very possibly decimation by diseases and other ailments brought by their colonizers. Many native populations in Central and South America, and many Australian Aboriginals suffered this fate, if they were not actually killed by them. It is a fact that people who left their homeland to found and work new settlements thousands of miles away had by necessity to be tough. The colonizers endured colossal hardship, and were, rather endearingly, frequently saved by the local population. They learned from them how to survive in a wholly hostile environment, bur their real concern was to succeed in their enterprise and thrive in it. They cared little for the rights of the natives.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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