Imperialism vs Colonialism: The Facts and Differences

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There are clear distinctions to be made between imperialism and colonialism. However, the terms are still misused interchangeably. Both involve marginalisation and suppression of a community. But scholars and academics have agreed that they are entirely distinguishable.

Colonialism involves the physical act of organising colonies or territory in another country. Imperialism refers to spreading political and economic influence. To make it easier, you can think of colonialism as the practice and imperialism as the idea that drives that practice.

DefinitionThe policy or practice of expanding dominance.A practice that involves organising colonies in foreign countries.
TypesColonies, protectorates, spheres of influence, and economic imperialismSettler colonialism, exploitation colonialism, surrogate colonialism, and internal colonialism
ExamplesBritish America
Puerto Rico
Post-WWII Germany
The Americas


Imperialism is the policy or practice of expanding dominance. This is mainly done through political or economic influence. Imperialism revolves around the use of power, which means it’s morally questionable. Many governments and international organisations use the term to discredit opposing countries’ foreign policy.

When comparing and contrasting imperialism and colonialism, it makes sense to discuss imperialism first. Why? Because colonialism is just part of imperialism. Imperialism is the idea or the policy of extending a country’s influence over another community; colonialism is a way in which that can be done.

Imperialism has an extensive history – in practice, in literature and in theory. It’s mainly used either to extend a country’s power or gain control of resources in another country. Raw materials and open markets are a source of wealth and power for dominant governments. Dominant governments also see it as a threat if nondominant countries are allowed to develop their own economies with their own raw materials and resources.

Suggested: Cultural Imperialism: An Overview of Globalisation, McDonaldisation and Media

Types of Imperialism

Imperialism can apply to many forms of expansion and government. The four main forms of imperialism are colonies, protectorates, spheres of influence, and economic imperialism.

1. Colonies

A colony is a country that is under complete control of a more dominant country (the “mother country”). The dominant country organises territories of direct control in other countries. They institute governments and swear in foreign officials who report back to the mother country. They don’t give locals any say or influence on policy or government, which negatively affected the indigenous people. The colonial power took their freedom and autonomy. They’d usually impose policies that restricted their freedoms and purposefully inhibited their ability to practise their own culture and/or religions.

Colonies are also established to exploit land and resources. The British colonies of the United States are a good example. The British Empire took several colonial territories in North America from 1607 to 1783. These were named the British West Indies or British America until the thirteen colonies declared independence in the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century.

2. Protectorates

Protectorates are countries that have their own internal government but are controlled by an outside power. Unlike colonies, protectorates are governed by locals who have full control over most internal affairs. They must still recognise the sovereignty of the more powerful state, which govern all international affairs, such as military and relations.

After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico became a US protectorate. Spain sued for peace after losing several key fleets. They then established the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ceded ownership of Puerto Rico to the US.

3. Spheres of Influence

A sphere of influence is an area or region where a state has the power to influence developments and institutions but has no formal authority. A sphere of influence is usually established by a treaty for trading and investment purposes, but they can sometimes be used for military functions as well. These often bordered pre-existing colonies.

After WWII came to an end, Germany was divided into four key occupation zones. Britain had the Northwest. France had the Southwest. The United States had the south. The Soviet Union had the East. Britain, France and the US consolidated their spheres of influence to form West Germany, which left the Soviet Union with East Germany.

4. Economic Imperialism

Economic imperialism centres around the economic exploitation of low-income countries. High-income countries have economic power over lower-income countries. Even if low-income countries have political independence, high-income countries control their economies by owning factories, resources and means of production. This form of imperialism focuses on the interests of private businesses and wealthy individuals.


Colonialism is a form of imperialism. Nations set up colonies in foreign countries, usually by military or political force. Dominant countries take over nondominant countries and install governments and foreign officials who report back to the “mother country”. Locals and indigenous communities don’t have any influence or role in political decisions and government.

Colonialism is mainly associated with European imperialism, which began in the 15th century. This is sometimes referred to as the beginning of the “Age of Capital”. This label identifies the goal of wealth and profit, which has led to climate change, international human rights concerns, and class conflict.

There are endless examples of colonialism, which majorly impacted indigenous communities to this day. Indigenous communities in the US are still campaigning for their land to be returned after centuries of oppression following the British colonisation of North America. Modern US politics ignores indigenous communities and there is a widespread culture of racism towards indigenous identities.  

Types of Colonialism

There are various forms of colonialism. These forms can overlap and intersect, even though scholars find them entirely distinguishable. Just like imperialism, there are four main forms of colonialism: settler colonialism, exploitation colonialism, surrogate colonialism, and internal colonialism.

1. Settler Colonialism

A dominant country may colonise a nondominant country by settling there and appropriating land. Settler colonisation involves large-scale immigration of dominant communities, which aim to replace the indigenous population of a territory. Settlers will establish sovereignty over the land and superiority over all other identities. Generally, settlers view themselves as superior, which drives them to abolish all other cultural practices, religions, ethnicities and values. Settler colonialism can occur by violence, such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. However, it can also occur more subtly by assimilation or recognition of the indigenous population as part of the political and social culture.

Generally, the most discussed instances of colonialism revolve around the European colonisation of the Americas. This began with Norse settlers on the coast of Greenland and Canada. It became much more aggressive in the 15th century after the Spanish expedition led by Genovese Christopher Columbus. Both North and South America were dominated by European powers. These powers included Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, Russia and Germany.

2. Exploitation Colonialism

Exploitation colonialism occurs when one dominant nation exploits the natural resources of a country to grow its own economy. This involves fewer settlers and focuses on the extraction and exploitation of natural resources. This practice targets the indigenous population for human labour. Dominant countries make rapid financial gain from the low cost of labour and extraction of raw materials.  

During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, indigenous populations from Africa were enslaved and forced into labour. Enslaved people were also imported to the Americas, most populously to Brazil and the Caribbean. Portugal began the slave trade and was then followed by the Spanish, Dutch, French and British.

3. Surrogate Colonialism

A foreign power encourages and supports the settlement of a non-native group in land occupied by indigenous people. This support can be public or covert and is usually driven by their own political, social or economic interests.

Many intellectuals and social activists are currently entering discussions about the surrogate colonisation of Palestine in the early 20th century. Many anthropologists consider the mission of Ashkenazi Zionism in Palestine to be a prime example of surrogate colonialism. The British Empire notoriously assisted and drove this instance of colonialism, which has recently led to widespread conflict and ethnic cleansing. The colonisation of Palestine (aided by the British) led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which legitimised Zionist settlement.

4. Internal Colonialism

Internal colonialism is a result of inequality and class divides within a state. Powerful groups within a nation suppress less powerful groups. This is the only form of colonialism where the source of exploitation comes from within a state, rather than a foreign power.

Elements of internal colonialism can be seen in modern America and discrimination against the Mexican community. After the Mexican-American War 1846-48, many Mexicans became subjects of the US government. However, they weren’t given the rights and freedoms of other US citizens. Still, we see discrimination against the Mexican community in the US and their rights to fair treatment being ignored.   


Imperialism and colonialism are often mixed up. However, the two are clearly very different. Colonialism is a practice that involves organising colonies in foreign countries. Imperialism is the policy or practice of expanding dominance. To reiterate, you can think of colonialism as the practice and imperialism as the idea that drives that practice.

Colonialism is a form of imperialism. Imperialism has four main forms: colonies, protectorates, spheres of influence, and economic imperialism. Colonialism also has four main forms: settler colonialism, exploitation colonialism, surrogate colonialism, and internal colonialism. Each of these forms, as with imperialism, tend to involve clear power dynamics, class inequality and oppression of a non-dominant community.

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