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Book Review


Wolfgang Reinhard, A Short History of Colonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. Pp. vi + 308. $36.40 (paper).


     The volume Short History of Colonialism by Wolfgang Reinhard is a new contribution to the studies of colonialism. The title of the volume implies the chronological outline of colonial developments. However, the general structure of the volume consists of independent chapters, i.e. case studies revealing the dynamics of colonial enterprise in different regions. Each of the chapters focus primarily on economic developments and partially on political developments, so the volume serves more as comparative study of colonial economic and political history than a history of colonialism in broader sense.

     In the introduction, the author conceptualizes the definitions of colonialism and colonization. Reinhard accentuates rightly the notion of a developmental gap, real or imagined, between colonist and colonizer, and also points out two significant components of colonial expansion, the rule and the settlements. Although these aspects are important for understanding the nature of colonial expansion, they remain rather underdeveloped in later chapters. The author uses the concept of colonialism beyond the classic “West and the Rest” dichotomy and admits that colonialism was not and is not exclusively a Western enterprise. Moreover, he refers to the general heterogeneity of Western colonial enterprise itself. Empires, he argues, “are comparatively heterogeneous formations composed of unequal parts with unequal status” (p. 2). The idea of colonial heterogeneity eventually determines the structure of the book, based on analysis of rather independent cases. While the introduction analyses colonialism(s), colonial developments and their impacts upon the world, the further chapters are more of a descriptive and informative nature.

     Chapter Two, “The European Atlantic,” provides an overview of rising merchant capitalism, European explorations of Atlantics, and ongoing competition between Portugal, Spain, and later Britain, Holland and France. Through detailed historical accounts, it demonstrates how the “Atlantic became a European inland sea” (p. 19). Chapter Three, “Europeans and Asians,” focuses on developments of trade routes and trade relations between Europeans and Asians and demonstrates how the leading role of the Portuguese was gradually overtaken by Dutch and English merchants. It also reveals how spice, coffee and tea were introduced in domestic European markets and became part of various national cultures. Chapter Four, “The Iberian Atlantic” illuminates the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in South America, profit extraction on behalf of the Crown, the spread of Catholicism and the development of culturally hybrid, yet highly stratified, cultures in colonial contexts.

     Chapter Five, “Plantation America and the African Atlantic,” explains the economic aspects of plantation life, mostly on the basis of sugar industries. The author illuminates the “triangular trade”—the circulation of resources, goods, commodities and labour between Europe, Africa and South America. Reinhard compares mortality rates among the different peoples and explains changing demographic structure of population. The development of racist ideologies as justification for economic practices is also explained; the author refers to the temporary enslavement of whites (i.e. “contract for a certain number of years’ labour in return for their transatlantic passage,” p. 72) that existed during early colonial era and points out how widespread views of whites as non-suitable for physical labour in tropics developed gradually with the institutionalization of slavery. The chapter provides detailed accounts of the financial value of plantations in terms of working slaves, machinery, buildings, animals, etc. Slavery related practices are explained on an economic basis, and Reinhold notes that “Because slaves had paid for their purchase price in sugar after at most sixteen months, it was hardly worth of effort of treating them with care” (p. 69). Overall, there is strong focus on economics. Other aspects of plantation life like reproductive practices among the slaves, interracial sexual relations, dynamics of race and gender, slave counter culture and colonial counterinsurgencies are mentioned only episodically.

     Chapter Six, “New Europes on the North Atlantic and the First Decolonisation,” explains the colonization of North America. It reveals the dynamics of power relations both among European powers in North American continent on the one hand, and relations between colonists and colonizers on the other. As author points out, the colonization of North America was driven by the desire for religious purity and the reproduction of domestic European conditions; consequently this led to the suppression of indigenous cultures. Again, there is strong focus on economics. The author explains the role of fur, guns and liquor in the colonial enterprise, however, other aspects such as cultural genocide and boarding school experiences remain marginalized. The author makes valuable insights by comparing experiences of internal and overseas colonization. He points out, “Just as the Spanish had their reconquista, so the English too had a kind of previous colonial experience upon which they could draw in the New World: the conquest of Ireland” (p. 92). Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of the Totalitarianism” points out to the “boomerang effect,” or how experiences from overseas colonies are typically brought back and reapplied in the domestic context, resulting in violence and cruelties. In Reinhard’s text, the scheme is reversed—domestic experiences are successfully reapplied overseas. His view is both interesting and provocative and opens the floor for further debates for comparing practices of governance both in domestic and colonial contexts. 

     Chapter Seven, “New Europes in the Southern Hemisphere and the Second Decolonization,” illuminates the development of settlers’ colonialism in South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The chapter focuses primarily on migration, changing demographic settings and economic developments in the colonies. Issues such as genocide, development of apartheid, development of first concentration camps in Africa, boarding school experience in Australia, and gender relations in colonies are omitted or mentioned only briefly. Among valuable observations, there are insights about the sub-imperialism of white colonial dominions—while striving for political autonomy and independence, they often imposed their own political agenda on neighbouring countries.

     Chapter Eight, “Continental Imperialism,” deals with the three cases of continental colonial expansion, i.e. the United States, Russia and China. There are several observations on this chapter: the distinction between colonialism and imperialism is only partially explained, as well as the distinction between continental and overseas colonialism. The author does not mention German continental colonialism, i.e. German expansion eastwards, which had a long historical tradition and was modelled after the American expansions westwards by Max Sering in late eighteenth century and intensified again with the German overseas colonies due to Versailles Treaty of 1919. American, Russian and Chinese continental imperialism is analyzed largely from an economic perspective, while other aspects such as imperial literature (conquest of the Caucasus and the birth of imperial Russian literature), imperial ambitions (Russia’s desire to have their own romantic concept of the Orient), colonial practices of governance (formation of reservations and boarding schools in North America), forms of violence (the Aleut genocide in Siberia, cultural genocide of native Americans, etc.) are mentioned only episodically. The chapter is focused mostly on economic dimensions and explains American, Russian and Chinese continental colonial expansions in terms of economic development.

     Chapter Nine, “Overseas Imperialism in Asia,” deals with the expansion of the Western European powers to Asia during the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The author conceptualizes the difference between colonialism and imperialism as the “shift from trade to rule,” however, the distinction between “colony of rule” and “imperialism” remains unclear. The chapter is based on rather independent sub-chapters such as “British India” and the “Dutch East Indies” etc. The author also illuminates the “opening and modernization” of both China and Japan, the countries that were never formally subjected to colonial or imperial rule yet became the playgrounds of Western European imperial powers.

     Chapter Ten, “Imperialism in Africa,” provides a brief review of Western European colonial and imperial adventures on the African continent. The title is slightly misleading, as the chapter portrays in fact both colonial and imperial developments in Africa, both before and after the Berlin Conference of 1885. It discusses the presence of both Arabs and Europeans on the African continent from as early as the seventeenth century, and the competitions and rivalries among Western European powers for the domination in Africa well before 1885. The author accentuates the Berlin Conference of 1885 as the turning point of colonization in Africa and explains the role of two latecomers, Germany and Belgium, in the imperial enterprise. The King Leopold’s crimes and commercial genocide in the Congo are well explained, however, they are poorly linked with the rubber boom and industrial developments in North America and Western Europe. German rule in Africa, the development of the first concentration camps and the so called “Second Reich” are not fully explained.

     Chapter Eleven, “Late Imperialism and the Great Decolonization,” covers the processes of decolonization that started with WWI. The chapter, as well as the book itself, is organized not in a chronological but rather a geographic order. It illuminates the developments of the Israeli state, the decolonization of Egypt, Japanese imperialism, the decolonization of Asia, Africa, Russia, South Africa and the non-decolonized territories. Reinhold highlights the significance of WWI and the WWII, the role of the USA and the USSR as well as native elites in the process of decolonization. The author points out subsequent indirect economic control as form or neo imperialism and states, “the colonial powers had, in their own interests, transformed undeveloped economies into underdeveloped ones that neo-colonialism could keep permanently in that condition by means of their dependency on the world market and foreign investment” (p.263). The chapter is informative and well-structured, but a few points should be addressed: analysis of the Israel case would benefit from stronger linkage with the concept of colonialism and colonization; the collapse of the USSR is interpreted as decolonization without providing arguments that the Soviet Union should be considered as a colonial empire; and Russian colonial possessions in Siberia are not mentioned among non decolonized territories.  

     The volume is focused largely on economics and partially on politics in a very strict and conventional sense of what is “political,” while other aspects of colonial conditions such as imperial literature, dynamics of race and gender relations, colonial ideologies, suppression of indigenous cultures, counter colonial insurgencies, and genocides are mentioned only episodically. The volume is of great value for comparative analysis, regional studies or for understanding of economic aspects of colonialism. It could be easily incorporated in teaching programs at different levels or useful for individual researchers focusing on specific aspect or particular regions of colonialism.

Rasa Baločkaitė is an associate professor in sociology in the Department of Social and Political Theory, Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania. She has published series of papers on Soviet and post-Soviet societies in Problems of Post Communism (2009), the Journal of Baltic Studies (2011) and Slovo (2012), among many others. She can be reached at


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