Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The terms ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’, widely used in travel writing studies, derive from ‘colony’ and ‘empire’, but did not always have a strong ideological meaning. ‘Colony’ (mid-sixteenth century, from Latin colonia) denoted a farmstead or settlement established by a fixed body of settlers. ‘Colonial’ came into use in English in the late eighteenth century, particularly with reference to the North American colonies and their changing relationship with Great Britain. In other European languages, it often referred to goods produced in colonies and marketed in Europe (notably coffee, cotton, rice, spices, sugar, tea and tobacco). ‘Colonialism’ as an abstract noun did not appear for another century, and referred initially to informal styles and practices, such as linguistic peculiarities in spoken English (‘To use a colonialism, “the place was going ahead” ’, 1863 (Oxford English Dictionary)).
Even ‘imperialism’ initially had a fairly neutral meaning in English. An ‘imperialist’ was a representative or other person in the service of an empire – especially, in a European context, the Holy Roman Empire. In mid-nineteenth-century France, impérialiste denoted a supporter of Napoleon III's Second Empire, without notable emphasis on overseas expansion. It was only during the late nineteenth century, and principally in Britain, that the sense of a specific project or system of ‘imperialism’ developed. The prestige both of advocates such as John Seeley (The Expansion of England, 1883) and of critics such as John Hobson (Imperialism, 1902) influenced the global spread of the term from Russia to Japan (Koebner 1964; Brewer 1980). As such, ‘imperialism’ remained the more consecrated term. Paradoxically, it was only in the mid-twentieth century, when the Western colonial empires were coming apart, that the term ‘colonialism’ began to gain real prominence. Some applied it to a particular type of imperial system, one which involved population settlement and economic exploitation rather than a broader system of dominion over distant lands; ‘Western’ (Dutch, British, French and Iberian) empires were thus distinguished from ‘Eastern’ ones (Russian, Ottoman, Mughal, for example).
Numerous writers in the mid-twentieth century related colonial governance not just to political domination but to mental attitudes. A key work which both attacked colonialism as a mindset and consecrated the term was Aimé Césaire's Discours sur le colonialisme (1955 ). Around the same time, Frantz Fanon (1961) sought to analyse the predicaments of colonized or recently decolonized societies from a psychological viewpoint.