Ideologies of Colonization

Ken MacMillan

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Ideologies of Colonization

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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Envisioning, executing, and explaining colonization in the Atlantic world was a complex process for European and American intellectuals, who were often called upon to justify these actions both domestically and to the wider Atlantic community. As a result, several ideologies—or core intellectual ideas that focused goals, expectations, and actions—impacted European expansion into, and subsequent engagement with, the Atlantic world. Certain fundamental ideologies were shared, though not equally, by most of the European Atlantic powers. These included the intellectual desires to bring about Christian conversion and “civilization” among indigenous peoples; to utilize legal and political dialogue to justify their actions; to expand the territorial size of their states through colonization or conquest; improve national economic, political, and imperial power, especially vis-à-vis other competing European states; and to learn about the unknown parts of the world and its peoples and then determine how this new knowledge altered the world picture. Each nation also developed somewhat specific ideologies, both because of contemporary national perceptions that were not necessarily of interest to other nations, and as a direct challenge to the ideological justifications used by other European Atlantic powers. As a counterpoise to the Iberian ideology of belligerent conquest, for example, which was informed by their experiences with the Reconquista, the northern powers of Britain, France, and the Netherlands argued (though not without exception) for a more peaceful and benign method of colonization. In the process of this ideological debate, the northern powers tended to emphasize their desire for land, trade, and peaceful relations with the native population, rather than the subjugation of indigenous peoples. In turn, this land- and commodity-based ideology informed new economic policies and different attitudes toward native peoples and African slaves. Likewise, Protestant nations such as Britain and the Netherlands often argued for the importance of an ideology of liberty (of person and conscience), self-government, and private enterprise, as opposed to the more rigorous uniformity of religion and state that characterized the Catholic powers of France, Portugal, and Spain. As the subject of Atlantic ideology is a very large and complex one, this entry focuses on some general ideologies of colonization, while other entries should be consulted for more detailed treatment of individual themes (such as economic, religious, and racial ideologies, as well as the ideologies of liberty and republicanism.)

Article.  8604 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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