by Thomas Benjamin and Dennis R. Hidalgo

Western colonialism has engendered anticolonialism from the beginning of the age of European expansion. All empires, in fact, have provoked local and indigenous defiance, backlashes, and resistance throughout human history. The conquest, domination, exploitation, and rule of neighboring and distant peoples and their lands by a powerful and often alien polity, by their very nature, has time and again produced many different kinds of challenges, opposition, and violence.

A Protest Against Globalization, Colonialism, and the United States. An antiglobalization protestor marches in Paris in November 2003 during the annual European Social Forum.

A Protest Against Globalization, Colonialism, and the United States. An antiglobalization protestor marches in Paris in November 2003 during the annual European Social Forum. © Antoine Serra/in Visu/Corbis. Reproduced by Permission.

Beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the overseas colonies of western Europe met resistance, and created resistance, by the native peoples in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Indigenous opposition and resistance, however, were rarely a simple matter of non-Europeans rejecting European governance, order, or culture. Overseas imperialism and colonialism also produced a tradition of intellectual critique, criticism, and condemnation within the West itself. Western anticolonialism was based upon various and evolving objections, stemming from moral, religious, humanitarian, economic, and political concerns and interests.

The immigrant settlers of Europe’s overseas colonies in time developed their own anticolonial critiques that led, in the Americas most particularly, to resistance, rebellion, and revolutions creating independent states. Anticolonialism contributed to, and was a product of, nationalism and the struggles to create new identities for the peoples of Europe’s overseas colonies. Indeed, true anticolonialism—that is, the theoretical and active resistance to colonial rule with the objective of overthrowing imperial control and establishing independent, national states—became nearly indistinguishable from nationalism in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia by the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

There are a number of entries devoted to anticolonialism and indigenous and settler nationalist and independence movements in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific in this encyclopedia. There are, as well, several entries that describe and analyze Western thought regarding colonialism. This entry, as a result, does not retrace all of these historical developments, nor does it reconsider the history or historiography of anticolonial thought. Although this entry presents no all-embracing theory to explain anticolonialism, it does identify, describe, and classify the broad patterns of anti-Western anticolonialism of the past five hundred years in an effort to translate an extraordinarily complex historical phenomenon into an understandable and useful analysis.

Although anticolonial thought and action has existed for many centuries, indeed, for millennia, the concept “anticolonialism” is quite recent. The word colonialism did not appear in an English dictionary until the mid-nineteenth century. Although theorists in the past have emphasized the difference between colonialism and imperialism, writers and even historians today often use these concepts interchangeably. Following the lead of political scientist David Abernethy, empireis defined as a state (metropole) that dominates and legally possesses one or more territories beyond its boundaries (colonies). Imperialism refers to the process of expansion and conquest necessary in the construction of an empire. The territories seized, dominated, and possessed by the imperial state are colonies. “Colonialism,” writes Abernethy, “is the set of formal policies, informal practices, and ideologies employed by a metropole to retain control of a colony and to benefit from control” (2000, p. 22). Anticolonialism is a broad concept that includes every kind of opposition—from political thought to popular violence—against imperialism and colonialism.

Defiance, opposition, and resistance to European expansion, conquest, and colonization by indigenous communities, organized groups, disparate “mobs,” states and empires, and slaves took different forms and sought different outcomes. The most significant and widespread kinds of indigenous resistance over the five centuries of Western colonialism were the following:

  1. Preexisting indigenous polities, states, and empires used violence to defend their people, land, autonomy, and power against Western expansion.
  2. Popular nativist uprisings were often violent reactions to the interference by, or imposition of, Western colonists, institutions, and customs, which often came in the form of militant or missionary Christianity.
  3. African and Creole slaves revolted against, primarily, the plantation and the master class.
  4. In all colonies, protest uprisings and movements appeared to highlight colonial injustice, and often specific abuses and impositions, in order to provoke concessions, reform, and improvements. These ameliorative protest uprisings and movements challenged colonial regimes but did not attempt to destroy or defeat them.
  5. State builders, often nationalists or nationalist movements, organized violence against colonial regimes to defeat them and create new states governed by leaders from the majority indigenous population.
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

Posada, José Guadalupe (1852-1913) – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

When historians examine specific uprisings, revolts, rebellions, and insurrections, the artificial boundaries of these categories begin to bend and collapse. The Hidalgo Revolt (1810–1811) in central Mexico was a popular nativist uprising against “whites” and the wealthy, but it was also a genuinely anticolonial—that is, antiSpanish—rebellion intended to establish Spanish American and popular self-government in Mexico, if not an independent nation-state in time. There were, of course, many more kinds of indigenous resistance to Western colonialism, both violent and nonviolent, than the five described above. These five forms of resistance, however, represent the basic models that dominated the non-Western responses to Western colonialism.

In most parts of the world, the expansion of European empires came into direct conflict with existing indigenous states and empires. The Spanish defeat of the armies of the Inca Empire and the occupation of the imperial capital of Cuzco in 1536 was the beginning, not the end, of serious organized resistance to Spanish encroachment in the central Andes. Less than a year later, a massive Inca rebellion besieged the Spaniards in Cuzco and attacked them in Lima. Although the siege was broken, in 1538 the defiant Inca leader Manco Inca had two armies in the field and had organized local rebellions across the Andes. The Inca army in the northern Sierra fought the Spaniards for eight years. Manco Inca and his successors retreated to the remote eastern Andean site of Vilcabamba and defended the restored neo-Inca state until 1572.

In southern Africa, the expansionist Zulu kingdom and empire came into conflict with Dutch colonists (Boers), and then the British colonial state, in the nineteenth century. For more than fifty years the Zulu fought the Boers and the British until their defeat and “conquest” in 1879. The Zulu, nevertheless, rose in rebellion in 1906.

A quite distinct and more widespread form of resistance was nativist uprisings, popular indigenous reactions against colonial exploitation and the imposition of Western culture, religion, and governance. The Tzeltal Revolt of 1712, a Maya uprising against the Spanish in southern Mexico, aimed to kill or drive out of the province all Spaniards, mestizos, and mulattos and establish a new Indian Catholic society and kingdom. The Indian Revolt of 1857 in India and the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 were popular explosions of violence against Christian missionaries, local converts and collaborators, and “foreign devils” in general.

Slave revolts in the Atlantic world from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century—violent uprisings by enslaved Africans for many centuries and, later, by Creole AfricanAmericans—attacked one of the most important economic institutions and social systems erected by Western colonialism. In the numerous assaults against the plantation system and its masters, and against the degrading, exploitive, and violent slave system itself, African and Creole slaves attacked colonialism or colonial rule indirectly and inadvertently. Rebel slaves used violence to respond to violence and injustice. Rebels sought revenge, escape, return to Africa, the creation of a new society, and, occasionally, the extermination of the slave-owners and their like.

Wolof slaves revolted against the Spanish in Hispaniola in 1521. Across the Atlantic, a slave revolt beginning around 1544 in the Portuguese island colony of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea produced a settlement of free Africans who continued to fight the Portuguese. These Angolares (originally, slaves exported from Angola) raided plantations and burned fields and sugar mills, and in 1574 attacked and largely destroyed the city of São Tomé In 1595 a leader named Amador led a slave army of five thousand men and women that burned or destroyed some seventy sugar plantations on the island.

Over the next four hundred years, there were many hundreds of major slave revolts and insurrections in the Americas. The massive slave insurrection that began in 1791 in France’s richest colony, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) became transformed into an organized military campaign led by the ex-slave Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803) that defeated Spanish, British, and French armies. In 1804 the black generals established the independent nation-state of Haiti, the second new state in the Americas and the first modern state ever created by a slave insurrection.

Ameliorative protest uprisings and movements employed violence against the colonial regime or its officials, but also nonviolent methods of protest and resistance, such as demonstrations, riots, strikes, petitions, and more. Many, if not most, of the village uprisings in colonial Mexico were provoked by specific abuses or perceived threats and ended when colonial officials promised to act upon the grievances of villagers. As William B. Taylor, a historian of colonial Mexico, notes, community outrage was directed against local officials, the tax collector, or the parish priest. “Villagers in revolt generally did not make the connection between their grievances and the colonial system as a whole” (1979, p. 134).

In the Gold Coast, the British colony in West Africa, the Aborigines’ Rights Protective Society (ARPS) was formed in the 1890s to appeal to, and it was hoped to influence, British public opinion against the colonial authorities on the spot. The colonial government began a program to transform property rights and relations. The ARPS, formed by traditional chiefs working with African lawyers educated in Britain, organized the first colonywide protest and sent a delegation to London that succeeded in getting legislation that protected their land rights.

In the wake of the French conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, the Muslim Sufi order of the Qadiriyya in western Algeria provided the religious and political legitimacy for a resistance movement. In 1834 ‘Abd al-Qadir (1808–1883) became the head of the order and fought tribal authorities and the French to expand his authority. Within three years, the French recognized ‘Abd al-Qadir’s authority and the sovereignty of the Qadiriyya state over two-thirds of Algeria. In the 1840s conflict with the French—that is, with the more technologically advanced French army—led to the defeat and surrender of ‘Abd al-Qadir in 1847.

Depiction of the Battle of Omdurman (1898).

Depiction of the Battle of Omdurman (1898). Richard Caton Woodville (1856–1927)

In the Egyptian colony of Sudan, the Mahdi (a messianic Muslim leader) Muhammad ibn-Abdallah began a campaign in the 1880s to create an independent theocratic state. The campaign took advantage of Egypt’s turmoil and weakness in the face of French and then British intermeddling. In 1883 the forces of the Mahdi destroyed the ten-thousand-strong Egyptian army. General George Gordon (1833–1885) went to Khartoum, Sudan, to evacuate Egyptians, but was besieged and killed in 1885. The middle Nile Valley was controlled by the Mahdist state, thereafter, it seemed, for more than a decade. In 1898 an Anglo-Egyptian army invaded the Sudan and met the Mahdist army at Omdurman on the banks of the Nile River. The British forces, armed with Maxim (machine) guns, repeating rifles, and gunboats, killed and wounded tens of thousands of Mahdist dervishes. After the five-hour battle, only forty-eight British soldiers were killed. The Mahdist state was overthrown as the British Empire took control of Sudan.

Scene from the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. Image from Egyptian History website.

Scene from the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. Image from Egyptian History website.

Anticolonialist nationalist revolts of the twentieth century were remarkably successful. A nationalist Egyptian uprising in 1919, followed by mass demonstrations, prodded the British to grant independence in 1922. Within three months of the assignment of the mandate of Iraq by the League of Nations to Britain 1919, the “Great Arab” insurrection in the new country began. The Arabs of Iraq had reasons of their own to oppose British colonialism, but the Communist International (or Comintern, a Soviet-led revolutionary organization), trying out its anticolonial legs, employed propaganda in an attempt to add fuel to the fire: “In your country there are eighty-thousand English soldiers who plunder and rob, who kill you and violate your wives!” (quoted in Kiernan 1998, p. 191). Over the next seven years, the British occupation faced not only Arab resistance but also Kurdish insurrection, which began in 1922. At the end of 1927, Britain recognized the independence of Iraq under the sovereignty of King Faisal (1885–1933) and in 1932 Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations.

Ho Chi MinhIndochina (today Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) was not brought under effective French colonial rule until the 1880s and 1890s. However, at the Paris Peace Conference (1919–1920), which established the terms of peace after World War I ended in 1918, Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) and other Vietnamese nationalists were attracted by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s (1856–1924) call for national self-determination and the possibility they might negotiate some degree of self- government and autonomy with the Great Powers. The Vietnamese spokesmen, like those from India, Egypt, Senegal, and other colonies, were ignored.

Back in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and other nationalists formed the Communist Party in 1925; the party organized an uprising in 1930. The repression that followed kept order until a revolt erupted in 1940. After this uprising was crushed, Ho Chi Minh and other nationalists in 1941 established a united front of various parties and resistance groups called the Vietminh. At the conclusion of World War II (1939–1945), following the Japanese surrender in Hanoi, the Vietminh declared the independence of Vietnam. The French, however, unwilling to give up control of the colony, sent an army to Vietnam and fought the Vietminh from 1946 until 1954, when a garrison of sixteen thousand French and African soldiers at Dien Bien Phu surrendered to a superior Vietminh force. In that same year, a FrenchChinese agreement, accepted by the Geneva Conference on the Far East (1954), divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel. The Communist Vietminh government took control of the northern section and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. France then granted independence to South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

These five distinct kinds of indigenous resistance to Western colonialism disguise a social complexity that characterized the establishment and maintenance of colonialism itself. Colonialism was not something that was imposed from outside or that operated with the collusion of forces inside; it was a combination of both developments. Anticolonialism, in a similar way, was resistance to the outside imposition, as well as a contestation of political authority, among indigenous leaders, groups, regions, and classes within a colony.

The Indian Revolt, or Great Rebellion, of 1857 to 1859 began as a mutiny of Indian soldiers orsepoys who served the British East India Company. The sepoys of the Bengal Army protested their pay and conditions. Once British rule began to waver in the north, towns, artisans, and peasants rose up in rebellion to restore, at least symbolically, the Mughal Empire. The British defeated the rebellion in large measure because large sections of the Indian army, the Ghurkas and Sikhs in particular, remained loyal. When Delhi fell to “British” forces, most of those forces were Indian.

The Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 was both an anti-Manchu and an anti-Western rebellion. “Boxers,” a secret society, were Han Chinese nationalists who opposed the “Manchu” Qing regime and foreigners, particularly missionaries and businessmen, who supported the regime.

Table 1 provides a list of important anticolonial rebellions and slave revolts of the past five hundred years. It suggests the great geographical diversity and temporal persistence of anticolonial struggles around the world. This list, however, is far from definitive and complete. Scholars of colonized peoples, furthermore, have emphasized that peasants, slaves, women, and other relatively powerless groups have employed “weapons of the weak”—that is, everyday forms of resistance, such as shirking, theft, sabotage, arson, and flight—to resist, recoup, or survive colonialism. While these “quiet” and often clandestine forms of resistance have rarely entered the history books, they have, according to James C. Scott (1985), constituted the greatest part of peasant politics.

The long and bloody history of resistance to Western colonialism that is suggested by the names and dates in Table 1 influenced Western political and social thought from the sixteenth century to the present. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, European encounters with other peoples and lands prompted philosophical debates about the nature of humans and the moral responsibility of Christian monarchs and colonizers to the “barbarians” and “savages” they encountered, conquered, and ruled. A number of sixteenth-century Europeans, such as Antonio de Montesinos, Thomas More (1478–1535), Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536), Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566), Alonzo de Zorita (1512–1585), Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Philippe de Mornay (1549–1623), and José de Acosta (1539–1600), opposed war and violent expansion, and in particular criticized Spanish colonial excesses and abusive policies, but they never rejected the imperial project. Some French Protestants, and more English and Dutch Protestant critics, seized upon the discourse of the Spanish critics and created the “Black Legend,” an exaggerated reprimand of Spanish colonialism.

Not all western European writers in the seventeenth century, however, were anti-Spanish, and very few criticized, let alone opposed, their own nation’s imperial projects. A number of French Catholic philosophers and missionaries in the seventeenth century praised Spanish attempts to legislate protections on behalf of Native Americans in their New World kingdoms. By the 1660s, the English dramatist John Dryden (1631–1700) romanticized the Spanish conquest of Mexico in his play The Indian Emperor (1665).

By the mid to late eighteenth century, a number of prominent European and American thinkers and politicians not only criticized the abuses and excesses of Western colonialism, but for the first time challenged “the idea that Europeans had any right to subjugate, colonize, and ‘civilize’ the rest of the world” (Muthu, 2003, p. 1). Such Enlightenment philosophers and writers as François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Denis

Table 1. Non-European rebellions, resistance movements and slave revolts

Table 1. Non-European rebellions, resistance movements and slave revolts The Gale Group.

Table 1. Non-European rebellions, resistance movements and slave revolts
Date Leadership/People Event
Phase 1: Expansion, 1415–1773
1490s Hispaniola (Sp.) Taino Chieftain’s Revolts
1521 Hispaniola (Sp.) Mexico (Sp.) Wolofs: Slave Revolt
1540s Mexico (Sp.) The Mixtó War
1520s–1540s Yucatan (Sp.) Yucatec Maya Resistance
1540s–1550s Brail (Por.) Potiguar, Caeté & Tupinambá: Resistance and Wars
1550s–1600 Northern Mexico (Sp.) The Chichimeca War
1567 Bahia, Brazil (Por.) Indian Slave Revolt
1595 São Tomé(Por.) Amador: Slave Revolt
1622 Virginia (Br.) Powhatan Confederation Attack
1637 Connecticut (Br.) Pequot War
1673 Jamaica (Br.) Slave Revolt
1680–1692 New Mexico (Sp.) Pope: Pueblo Rebellion
1712 Chiapas (Sp.) Tzeltal Rebellion: Maya Revolt
1731 Louisiana (Fr.) Samba: Slave Revolt
1733 St. Johns (Dm.) Slave Revolt
1734–1738 Jamaica (Br.) Cudjoe: Chief of Trelawny Town: First Maroon War
1739 South Carolina (Br.) Stono Rebellion: Slave Revolt
1742–1750s Peru (Sp.) Juan Santos Atahualpa
1760 Jamaica (Br.) Tacky’s Revolt: Slave Revolt
1761 Yucatan (Sp.) Canek: Maya Uprising
1763–1766 North America (Br.) Pontiac’s Rebellion
Phase 2: Contraction, 1775–1824
1777 Upper Peru (Sp.) Tomás Katari: Aymaras
1780–1783 Peru-Upper Peru (Sp.) José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Tupac Amaru II Rebellion)
1791–1804 Saint Domingue (Fr.) Toussaint L’Ouverture: Slave Rebellion
1795 New Granada (Sp.) Slave Revolt
1795 Demerara (Da.) Slave Revolt
1795–1796 Jamaica (Br.) Second Maroon War
1810–1811 Central Mexico (Sp.) Miguel Hidalgo: Popular Uprising
1811–1815 Mexico (Sp.) José María Morelos: Continuation of the HidalgoUprising
1816 Barbados (Br.) Slave Revolt
1823 Demerara (Br.) Slave Revolt
Phase 3: Expansion, 1824–1912
1825–1830 East Indies (Dt.) Prince Dipangara: Java War
1831 Jamaica (Br.) Slave Revolt
1831 Virginia (US.) Nat Turner: Slave Revolt
1832–1847 Algeria (Fr.) Abd el Kader: War of Resistance
1835 Brazil (Por.) African Muslim Slave Revolt
1838 South Africa (Br.) First Zulu War
1843–1847 New Zealand (Br.) First Maori War
1857–1859 India (Br.) The Indian Mutiny
1865–1872 New Zealand (Br.) Second Maori War
1860–1890 North America (US.) Sitting Bull & Crazy Horse: Sioux Wars
1862–1872 North America (US.) Cochise: Apache War
1865 Jamaica (Br.) Morant Bay Rebellion
1871 Algeria (Fr.) Kabyle Revolt
1879 South Africa (Br.) Second Zulu War
1882–1885 Sudan (Egpt/Br.) The Mahdi: Islamic Revolt and War for Independence
1891–1894 German East Africa Mkwawa Rebellion
1895 Madagascar (Por.) Red Shawl Uprising
1896 Ethopia (Ind.) Italian Defeat at Adowa
1896–1897 Southern Rhodesia (Br.) Shona and Ndebele Rebellion
1899–1900 India (Br.) Birsa Rising
1900 China (Ind.) The Boxer Rebellion
1899–1902 Philippines (US.) Emilio Aguinaldo: Philippine Insurgency
1899–1920 Somaliland (Br.) Muhammad Abullah Hassad: Resistance Movement
1899–1905 Somaliland (It.) Muhammad Abullah Hassad
1904–1907 South-West Africa (Gr.) (Nambia) Nama & Herro Revolt: resistance to German settlers
1905–1906 East Africa (Ger.) (Tanganyika) Maji Maji: Popular Uprising
1906 South Africa (Br.) (Natal) Zulu Revolt
1908, 1912, 1918, 1925 Panama (Pro.) Social and Political “Unrest”: US. Military Intervention
1912–1918 Libya (Fr.) Sanussi Sheikhs
Table 1. Non-European rebellions, resistance movements and slave revolts [CONT]

Table 1. Non-European rebellions, resistance movements and slave revolts [CONT]

 This table is based on Table 13.1, “Colonial Rebellions by Indigenous or Slave Populations,” in David B. Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 308-309. Using Abernethy’s template, data from other sources have been added to this table: See C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004); Jeremy Black, Europe and the World, 1650–1840 (London: Routledge, 2002); Chambers Dictionary of World History (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2005); Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., A Historical Guide to World Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Susan Schroeder, ed., Native Resistance and the Pax Colonial in Colonial New Spain (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998). The Gale Group. 
Table 1. Non-European rebellions, resistance movements and slave revolts [CONT]
Date Leadership/People Event
Abbreviations: Br. British Colony, Dn. Danish, Dt. Dutch, Fr. French, Ger. German, Ind. Independent, Por. Portuguese, Pro. Protectorate, Ru. Russia, Sp. Spanish, US. United States, USSR. Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.
Sources: This table is based on Table 13.1, “Colonial Rebellions by Indigenous or Slave Populations,” in David B. Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 308-309. Using Abernethy’s template, data from other sources have been added to this table: See C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004); Jeremy Black, Europe and the World, 1650–1840 (London: Routledge, 2002);Chambers Dictionary of World History (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2005); Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., A Historical Guide to World Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Susan Schroeder, ed., Native Resistance and the Pax Colonial in Colonial New Spain (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
Phase 4: Unstabe Equilibrium, 1914–1939
1915 Nysaland John Chilembwe
1920 Mesopotamia (Br.) ‘The Great Iraqi Revolt’
1921–26 Morocco (Sp.) Abd el-Krim: Berbers’ Rif War
1925–26 Morocco (Fr.) Rif War against the French
1922–31 Libya (Fr.) Sanussi Sheikhs
1930–31 Vietnam (Fr.) VNQDD: Yen Bay Uprising
1930–32 Burma (Br.) Saya San
1930s–48 Palestine (Br.) Arab and Jewish Revolts
Phase 5: Contraction, 1940-Present
1945–49 East Indies (Dt.) Independence War
1946–54 Vietnam (Fr.) Ho Chi Minh: Independence War
1947–60 Madagascar (Por.) Independence Rebellion
1948–56 Kenya (Br.) Mau Mau Rebellion: Kikuyu People
1954–61 Algeria (Fr.) FLN: War for Independence
1961–75 Angola (Por.) Independence War
1962–75 Mozambique (Por.) War for Independence led by FRELIMO
1963–75 Guinea-Bissau (Por.) Amilcar Cabral: Independence War
1972–79 Rhodesia (Ind.) Robert Mugabe: Civil War
1979–1989 Afghanistan (Ind.) Anti-USSR Insurgency
1994–Present Chechnya (Ru.) Anti-Russian War
2003–Present Iraq (Ind.) Anti-United States & Coalition Insurgency

Diderot (1713–1784), Abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal (1713–1796), Richard Price (1723–1791), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Joseph Priestly (1733–1804), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), and others rejected imperialism and colonialism for a number of different reasons. For Diderot, European imperialism had been a disaster for non-European peoples in terms of war, oppression, and slavery and had, in addition, corrupted Europe itself. Many of these anti-imperialist Enlightenment writers opposed European imperialism and colonialism on the basis of the idea that all the world’s different peoples were human and therefore deserved respect and fair treatment. Not only did these thinkers accept the concept of shared humanity, they shared the idea that non-Europeans were peoples of culture (as were Europeans), not savages or “natural” humans, and that their cultures were not necessarily better or worse than the oppressive, corrupt, and violent societies of Europe.

Thomas Jefferson, the American philosophe, wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 “that all men are created equal,” and as a consequence governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Jefferson’s shattering of the moral underpinning of colonialism was complemented by Alexander Hamilton’s (1755/57–1804) American anticolonialism expressed in The Federalist over a decade later:

The world may politically, as well as geographically, be divided into four parts, each having a distinct set of interests. Unhappily for the other three, Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has, in different degrees, extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia, and America, have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. (Hamilton, 1787)

This state of affairs, according to Hamilton, will no longer be tolerated. “Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!”

Not all, or even most, Enlightenment philosophers and writers, of course, opposed imperialism and colonialism. Eighteenth-century political thought was complex and even contradictory regarding certain issues. Antiimperial and anticolonial writings, like the antislavery tracts of the eighteenth century, were profoundly novel and uniquely Western. Both intellectual critiques were founded upon centuries of Western thought and, in particular, nearly three centuries of observing, listening to, and writing about non-Europeans. Antislavery arguments, political campaigns, and diplomatic and military actions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the emancipation of all bondsmen in the Americas. The anti-imperial and anticolonial discourse of the eighteenth century, on the other hand, while undoubtedly significant over the long term, was followed by a new wave of European imperial expansion and annexation in the nineteenth century. The great political thinkers of the nineteenth century—conservatives, liberals, and radicals—generally accepted the arguments on behalf of imperialism.

Even Karl Marx (1818–1883), who argued that Western colonies were often set up in rich and well-populated countries for the specific purposes of plunder, thus providing Europe with “primitive” or “original” accumulation of wealth and capital, could not deny the historical necessity and advantage of colonialism. “In actual history,” Marx wrote in 1867, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” in this accumulation (1867/1990, p. 874). As was true for many of his contemporaries, however, Marx viewed European colonialism as an indispensable element of world progress. Colonialism was an important modernizing force, noted Marx, part of “the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode” (1867/1990, pp. 915-916).

Marx’s twentieth-century intellectual heirs—Marxists, communists, neo-Marxists, dependency and world-systems analysts, postcolonialists, and others—had little difficulty condemning imperialism and colonialism. Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919), and V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) in the early twentieth century redirected “Marxist” thought against capitalist imperialism and colonialism. In 1920 Lenin’s Comintern in Moscow offered a systematic program for global decolonization.

Liberal anticolonial principles were as influential during the twentieth century as Marxist ones. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his “Fourteen Points” in a message to the U.S. Congress as a plan to end World War I. In his fourteenth point, Wilson suggested the creation of an association of nations to facilitate the sovereignty and independence of all nations based upon self-determination. The Fourteen Points encouraged a number of colonial leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, to attend the Paris Peace Conference and present petitions for autonomy and independence. The Atlantic Charter, a declaration of principles issued by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) and British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) in 1941, echoed Wilson’s Fourteen Points and called for the rights of self-determination, self-government, and free speech for all peoples.

Anticolonial leaders and movements in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere during the twentieth century drew upon elements of both liberal and Marxist anticolonial thought. Anticolonial movements generally spoke the rhetoric of liberalism (freedom, self-determination, self-government, individual rights, and so on) when discussing politics, and the rhetoric of Marxism (equality, economic development, social rights, and so on) when discussing social and economic problems. Twentieth-century anticolonial thought was also saturated by the development of nationalism and the use of history to help create or invent national identities. The great anticolonial movements of the century, it is not surprising to note, were nationalist movements: the African National Congress, the Indian National Congress, the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies, the National Congress of British West Africa, and others.

In the past, historians have argued that the anticolonial movements of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—of the so-called third world—adopted the liberal and Marxist anticolonial critiques, the ideas and forms of nationalism, and even rational, narrative history from the West. There is little doubt that there was substantial borrowing. As more and more non-Western historians are exploring their national histories, however, they are learning that their form of anticolonialism was not simply a “derivative discourse.” Indian historian Partha Chatterjee argues that as colonized, Anglicized, Bengali intellectuals were schooled in Western statecraft and economics, they also worked to create through schools, art, novels, and theater an Indian aesthetic sphere that was distinctively Indian. “The bilingual intelligentsia,” writes Chatterjee, “came to think of its own language as belonging to that inner domain of cultural identity, from which the colonial intruder had to be kept out” (1993, p. 7).

Other historians have charged that anticolonialism, or at least the history of anticolonialist struggles, has focused too much on elites and intellectuals. Amílcar Cabral (1924–1973), leader of the independence movement of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s realized that genuine anticolonialism is the “cultural resistance of the people, who when they are subjected to political domination and economic exploitation find that their own culture acts as a bulwark in preserving their identity” (1973, p.61).

Anticolonialism, in violent actions and in formal thought, and in the hands, pens, and movements of non-Europeans as well as Europeans and Americans, has a history that is long, complex, and still being debated and written. There are many interesting questions but few easy answers.


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Wesseling, H. L. The European Colonial Empires, 1815–1919. Translated by Diane Webb. Harlow, U.K.: Pearson Longman, 2004.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition) 

Benjamin, Thomas, and Dennis Hidalgo. “Anticolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. Ed. Thomas Benjamin. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 57-65. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

About Dennis R. Hidalgo
I am a historian of the Atlantic World. I am passionate about people, those alive in the present and those who left little trace of their past.

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