What do you understand by the term colonialism in the early modern Americas?

Colonialism is an emotive term that has many definitions, with numerous academics and scholars struggling to find one firm interpretation. In this essay, therefore, the validity of these different explanations will be assessed with particular reference to the colonial experiences of Spain, England and Sweden. However, in order to fully answer this question, particular emphasis should be placed on the provenance of sources and historiography, which often provide an interesting insight into the reasoning behind the conclusions of various scholars. The word colonialism only emerged in the English language between 1850-55; despite this it is a widely used term, tending to emphasise exploitation through various means: an attachment to the mother country or nation state, and the extension of power in a new territory. Although useful, this explanation fails to get to the heart of the issue: is colonialism an idea or a model? Or, perhaps, is it a word that encompasses so much that it has come to mean very little? Surely it is almost an impossible task to assemble a definition around such a varied and diverse experience of three countries covering vast territories? Consequently, in this essay, it is necessary to look at the way in which colonialists themselves justified taking land in the Americas and the utopian ideas, which enshrined colonial belief. Furthermore, it is important to examine models of colonisation that have attempted to bottle the essence of this complex and varied term.

The Spanish believed that the Americas were open to conquest, as Christian doctrine “granted the right to the persons and property of heathens and infidels.”[1] This beliefs stems from natural law, or the idea of a great chain of being; a hierarchy within all of society. However, many different philosophers inside this group had varying beliefs, as shown by the “Valladolid controversy” that took place between 1550-55. Juan Gines De Sepulveda, a Franciscan monk, believed that “the most powerful and most perfect rule over the weakest and the most imperfect”.[2] Therefore, Spaniards  had a natural right to rule over “the barbarians of the New World […] who in wisdom, intelligence, virtue and humanities are inferior”.[3] This is in contrast to the view of Bartolome De Las Casas, a Dominican monk, who broadly agreed that Christians have a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to convert heathens. However, this conversion must be achieved in a way “which does not notably harm or damage the rights of those […] individual infidels.”[4] De Las Casas was writing in reference to the Encomienda (meaning ‘to entrust’) system, which was established to entrench Native American labour.[5] Despite legislation by the Crown to limit the powers of the Encomienda (like the Laws of Burgos in 1512), the system remained in place as conquistadors had no incentive to reform.[6] Spanish colonialism was therefore typified by this disparity between colonial belief and individuals who were on the frontier of colonial action.[7] Burkholder and Johnson believe that the pyramid structure (with the monarch at the helm) envisaged by the Spanish was a theory that simply did not work in reality. Instead, a more accurate representation is that of wheels, with each hub being in the capital of the Audiencia (administrative territory) and every spoke extending to a province. The Spanish court, in turn, formed the hub of the wheel whose spokes are the Audiencias. From this view the imperial organisations are actually characterised by decentralisation.[8]

English colonial belief was also justified but through a different means. John Locke, who was linked to the colonial development of the Carolina settlement (1663) through his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury, wrote The Two Treaties of Government (1689) which outlines many ideas on property and ownership. Locke believed “the same law[s] of nature […] give us property”.[9] Therefore, property allocated to one man is “as much as any one can make use of to any advantage.”[10] Consequently, man is justified to take land as long “as there was still enough, and as good left”.[11] This was obviously the case in the Americas, where land was in abundance. However,  Locke does stress that a colonialist does not have the right to “engross as much as he will”.[12] This is owing to the view that a colonialist has a responsibility to improve land and, in doing so, it becomes his property. Therefore “as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates and can use […] is his property.”[13] This helps us to understand what colonialism was for the English. As Barbara Arneil rightly puts it, “nothing could reflect more clearly the aggressive colonialism of the […] English than the assumption that we actually possess everything on earth and it is up to each individual person, or nation, to grab its claim before anyone else can.”[14] This is an essential point in explaining the varied colonial experience of the English. The English were almost opportunistic in the way that they viewed the Americas. Therefore, the English had “learned from the Spanish [that] the argument from conquest could only justify imperium over the native peoples but not dominium over American land”.[15] Thus the English were able to improve on the Spanish colonial justification, enabling Locke  to construct a new chapter in the Second Treatise (chapter 5)[16]; when one looks at the discontinuity in the language used, and its specific focus on property, it is evident that chapter 5 was written independently of the rest of the book, thus providing an experience-enabled justification of English colonialism (thanks to his association with the Earl of Shaftesbury and with the constitution of the Carolina settlement).[17] Consequently, Locke’s argument has “identifiable colonial origins” in the Carolina settlement, though “not exclusively colonial applications” as it failed to provide a full and nuanced illustration of the varied English colonial experience.[18]

Swedish colonial development is also justified through natural law and humanist principles. Samuel Von Pufendorf, a Lutheran, wrote De Jure Naturae et Gentium (The Law of Nature and of Nations, 1672) in which he outlines his views on ownership. Pufendorf believes that God “did not determine […] what things should be held individually, and what in common”, thus he left this “to the judgement of men”.[19] Pufendorf argues, contrary to Hugo Grotius, that not only are men sociable but that they are so sociable that people’s judgement should decide how property is owned. As Pufendorf goes on to say, there is no such thing as a just war, as decisions should be made through the “authority of a judge of commonwealths”.[20] This belief in the natural harmony of interest is noticeable in the way in which New Sweden developed a unique relationship with the Lenai Lenape.[21] However, Pufendorf was writing in 1672 and the New Sweden colony was established in 1638. Therefore, this is also an example of retrospectively justifying colonial policy. Perhaps Swedish colonialism was, for this reason, an opportunity as it was a “society in the semi-periphery of the world, which strived to reach the world economy’s centre.”[22]

All of the ideas above about justifying colonialism stem from a belief in utopia (or, perhaps, a dystopia, its opposite). Utopia means two things: an ‘ideal place’ but also ‘no place’. The word, which emerges from Greek, was first translated into English by Sir Thomas More in 1551.[23] More, in his book Utopia, describes a secluded island, isolated and remote, away from corruptible presences. This was an idolised concept and by 1640 the production of utopian literature was prodigious. Furthermore, it was accessible owing to the printing press, which revolutionised the availability of scriptures.[24] This allowed Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis to become very popular, so much so that Bacon was involved in founding the Virginia Company in order to officially consolidate colonialism and utopianism as a capital venture.[25] The Spanish also viewed the Americas as a utopia. Vasco de Quiroga allegedly carried a copy of Sir Thomas More’s book at all times during his time in Mexico city and Michoacan.[26] Furthermore, the number of books, paintings, sculptures and  literary works that emerged depicting the Americas as a new paradise was vast, even if they were diverse in the ways in which they envisaged moulding the environment. This is a key point in understanding why colonialism was so varied in the Americas. Despite broadly similar aims and justifications, the individuals in the Americas were faced with hugely varying circumstances in which to create “utopia”. Therefore, any attempt to give a definition of colonisation must incorporate the effect of the area, the terrain, individuals, the era and the relationship with the natives and the society that this produces. Perhaps the idea of colonialism is, therefore, separate from the act of colonisation, suggesting that colonisation is a process that develops and changes along with the individual in the Americas.

Many historians believe that Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis (1893) is one of the most accurate representations of a model of colonialism. Turner describes how the “advancement of the frontier has meant the steady growth of independence on American lines”.[27] Therefore, the “environment is at first too strong for the man” and “little by little he transforms the wilderness but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply a development of the Germanic germ […] he is a new product that is American”.[28] This led Evelyn Page to write, in 1948, The First Frontier – The Swedes and the Dutch, in order to substantiate this claim.[29] As the title suggests, the book focuses on the Swedish colonial presence in the Americas, which was short and unique. Sweden was too weak economically and its shipping too undeveloped to compete with England and the Netherlands[30]. This, coupled with the wild aims, meant that the tiny New Sweden colony was doomed to failure and, in 1655, Fort Christina was stormed by the Dutch.[31] This comparatively mundane attempt by Sweden at colonisation appears, at first glance, to be a huge failure. However, the Swedish Colonial Society exists today, releasing quarterly news letters[32] and documenting the way in which, after the fall of New Sweden, the Swedes and Finns remained continuing their unique friendship with the Lenape Indians.[33] This adaptability and ability to “accept conditions which it furnishes, or perish”[34] is evident throughout Sweden’s brief colonial experience. Firstly, the colonists of New Sweden showed immense courage and independence; “in spite of disease and violent death, [those who remained] must have possessed a hardihood that could only be imaginatively measured.”[35] The frontier, perhaps, “bred individualism and self reliance”.[36] Secondly, the Swedes were said to have a “special relationship” with the Lenape Indians;[37] they exchanged “furs […], game and fruit, native clothing, mats, bags, and rope” using the native currency.[38] Thirdly, the Swedish sense of European identity weakened with a dislike and disregard of authority. Consequently, Swedes had a heightened sense of individual opportunism that is a “common characteristic of the frontiersmen.”[39] Finally, the “Swedes were not only willing […] to put themselves under alien control, but were far from reluctant to shift loyalties on the spot”.[40] This, at first glance, leads one to believe that Jackson’s frontier thesis is the exact model of Swedish colonialism; however, this is simply not the case. The “rugged individualism” of which Turner writes merely occurred owing to the fact that the Swedes wanted to return home. Johan Printz’s first report in 1643-44 stated that a fifth of colonists had died and there was “no longer any desire to remain here”.[41] Furthermore, the frontier had little effect, if any, on the practice of religion.[42] The Swedes continued to teach and follow Lutheranism, suggesting that “European germs” had in fact triumphed over their environment.[43] Moreover, the disorganised society produced in New Sweden was more a result of conflicting aims than of the effect of the frontier. Nevertheless, it is also important to look at the number of people in New Sweden who were on the frontier. Terry Jordan, a Human Geographer, found that 22 American family names uniquely derived from the colony as late as 1820[44]. Jordan argues that the Swedish were on the frontier as “they became thoroughly mixed into the American population” and their effort created the ideas and founding principles of the United States.[45] This argument is ultimately flawed as it views history through a distorted lens, which manipulates through hindsight and is, therefore, ahistorical. It is a perfect example of teleological history, which views history with an end or a purpose in mind. Consequently, Jordan and Turner are both guilty of placing an emphasis on the “uniqueness of Americans”.[46] This led Ian Tyrrel, a professor at the University of New South Wales, to claim that this exceptionalist ideology was partly founded by Frederick Jackson Turner, who centred their national historical tradition.[47] However, the “legacy of […] exceptionalism still haunts the study of American history” today, as it is “too narrow in its concentration on American uniqueness.”[48] This becomes even clearer when one attempts to use the frontier thesis to look at Spanish colonialism in the Americas. Turner himself believed that the modern American individual was formed from a “Germanic”, not Hispanic, European.[49] Therefore, one immediately wonders why: did Spain not colonise the Americas? The answer is yes, of course they did, and the Spanish colonial Church became the primary vehicle of acculturation, preparing indigenous communities for integration into the colonial order.[50] Furthermore, the Church was present in all areas of colonial life and by the early seventeenth century the number of creoles far surpassed that of the peninsular Spanish, further indicating how the Church anchored itself within society.[51] The missionaries are the perfect example of frontiersmen as shown in the way that they travelled across the Americas, faced with truly daunting circumstances, establishing regular assemblies for instruction and worship.[52] This also took place in modern day North America in the Florida colony (1565). This is ignored by Turner in his infamous thesis. Moreover, subsequent historians have continued to overlook the huge, looming presence of Spain in the Americas. This is something that needs to be addressed if an extension of Turner’s thesis is to provide an accurate model for “colonisation”, whatever that might be. However, perhaps the frontier idea is ultimately flawed as it too focussed on American uniqueness and exceptionalism.

In recent years many different fields of study (anthropology and geography in particular) have attempted to define colonialism. They have established a set of rules or a series of events that lead to a successful colony. Jurgen Osterhammel, a political scientist, writes about three different types of  colony: settlement, maritime, and exploitation.[53] These provide a good framework of what colonialism was for most English, Dutch and Swedish colonial experiences. Osterhammel writes that “colonialism is a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and minority of foreign invaders”.[54] This, at first glance, appears to be a good description of many colonies in the Americas. However, there are clear exceptions to this rule; Barbados was previously unsettled before the English arrived, but it was undeniably still colonisation. This shows how Osterhammel has provided a skeleton of what colonisation tends to involve, but historians will always find isolated examples to disprove his rather rigid theory. The best model of colonisation is provided by Donald Meinig who, in 1986, provided the five stages of progression for colonies to become viable or successful.[55] However, he also describes the effect that the Americas had on Europe and European ideas. This can be seen in Spain, Sweden and England not only in relation to the arts, as discussed earlier, but also relating to power in the country. Spain established the House of Trade (from 1504) and the Council of Indies (from 1524), which oversaw every kind of judicial activity in the colonies,[56] thus tipping the power balance in Spain south towards Seville. In England, major ports were established in Bristol and the West of England, hence the phrase “ship shape and Bristol fashion.” Meinig’s model therefore becomes flexible, far more so than that of Osterhammel. In spite of this, Meinig still struggles to enshrine Spanish colonisation. The Spanish appear to jump from “exploration” (point I) to “imperial imposition”(point IV)[57]. Furthermore, the Spanish believed in mercantilism far more than in commerce; as such, Meinig’s model cannot apply to the Spanish.  Despite being a monumental effort at Atlantic history, which provides an excellent model of colonisation, Meinig is still producing a model of colonisation; thus it will always be flawed, failing to incorporate the nuanced and varying colonial experiences of Spain, England and Sweden.

Colonialism is a concept derived from the notion of utopia. Despite varying definitions and views on how utopia should be implemented, all three countries broadly shared the same aims: to bring religion to the heathen; to gain economically; and to spread their national identity. Colonialism is therefore separate from colonisation, the process which shaped both Europe and the Americas. Colonialism was justified by the philosophers Locke, Sepulveda, De las Casas and Pufendorf, all of whom retrospectively justified colonialism in order to allow further exploits in the Americas. Consequently, one can view colonialism as an opportunistic notion based on the ideas of utopia. The range of opinions on the definitions of utopia allowed an array of individuals to be classed as colonialists, hence part of the reason for the diversity of the first colonial experiences. However, the process of colonisation was varied owing to the Americas, which had a fundamental effect on the colonists themselves. This is where the Turner thesis provides some useful analysis of the colonisation process, as the area, terrain, individuals, era and relationship with the natives would have “bred individualism and self reliance”.[58] Unfortunately, the theory is also steeped in American exceptionalism and ignores the Spanish presence in the Americas. However, Donald Meinig has produced an insightful five point process through which colonisation takes place, providing a good analysis of the effect of the Americas on Europeans and visa versa. In spite of this, Meinig’s model glosses over the individual motives and mind-sets of individuals, thus failing to incorporate all the nuanced and varying colonial experiences of Spain, England and Sweden. Therefore, if one is to create a definition of colonisation that fits England, Sweden and, most importantly, Spain, it will be a momentous achievement. It will need to be subtle: not a model, but a flexible and coherent argument arising from historic examples. One definition of colonialism would only blur the very real differences between the experiences of the different countries. A definition that would satisfy twenty-first century sentiments would be far removed from encompassing the varied objectives that motivated the nations and individuals involved.


[1]    Middleton, R. Colonial America, A History, 1585-1776, 2nd edition, (Routledge, Oxford, 1996) page 9

[2]              Juan Ginès de Sepúlveda, ‘On the Indians’, c.1547, in Englander et.al.(eds.), Culture and Belief in Europe(The Open University, 1990), pp.321-24.

[3]              Juan Ginès de Sepúlveda, ‘On the Indians’, c.1547, in Englander et.al.(eds.), Culture and Belief in Europe(The Open University, 1990), pp.321-24.

[4]    Bartolomé de las Casas. “Aqui se coienen treinta proposciones muy juridicas” in Englander et al Culture and Belief in Europe (Oxford Basil Blackwell, 1990) pp324-9.

[5]    Black, Johnson N. The Frontier Mission and social transformation in Western Honduras The order of our lady of Mercy 1525-1773. (Studies in Christian mission, 1995) page 34

[6]    Black, Johnson N. The Frontier Mission and social transformation in Western Honduras The order of our lady of Mercy 1525-1773. (Studies in Christian mission, 1995) page 36

[7]    Black, Johnson N. The Frontier Mission and social transformation in Western Honduras The order of our lady of Mercy 1525-1773. (Studies in Christian mission, 1995) page 37

[8]    Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008) page 95

[9]              Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater- Nofter-Row, 1728) page 163

[10]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 163

[11]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 164

[12]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 164

[13]           Locke, J. Two treatises of government: in the former the false principles & foundation, 5th edition, (London, Pater-Nofter-Row, 1728) page 165

[14]  Barbara Arneil, “John Locke, natural Law and colonisation” History of Political thought, Vol xiii. No 4. (1992), p601

[15]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p618

[16]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p617

[17]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p617-8

[18]  David Armitage, “John Locke, Carolina and the “Two Treaties of Government””, Political Theory, Vol 32, No. 5 (Oct 2004) p619

[19]             Pufendorf, S. eds Jean Barbeyrac, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, 2nd edition (Oxford, Linchfeild, 1710) p34

[20]             Pufendorf, S. eds Jean Barbeyrac, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, 2nd edition (Oxford, Linchfeild, 1710) p15

[21]           Rambo, H R, The Swedish Colonial Society, by the Swedish Colonial society available at: http://www.colonialswedes.org/AboutSCS/swedish_colonial_society.html  accessed on the 15/11/2010

[22]  Dahlgren, S. “The Crown of Sweden and the New Sweden Company” in Hoffenhecker, C, Waldron, R, Williams, L, Benson, B New Sweden in America (Associated university press, London, 1995) page 54

[23]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 52

[24]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 85

[25]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 54

[26]  Amy Boesky,  Founding fictions: Utopias in early modern England  (University of Georgia Press, 1996) Page 52

[27]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921) page 2

[28]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921) page 2

[29]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948) page 276

[30]  Dahlgren, S. “The Crown of Sweden and the New Sweden Company” in Hoffenhecker, C, Waldron, R, Williams, L, Benson, B New Sweden in America (Associated university press, London, 1995) page 60

[31]  Dahlgren, S. “The Crown of Sweden and the New Sweden Company” in Hoffenhecker, C, Waldron, R, Williams, L, Benson, B New Sweden in America (Associated university press, London, 1995) page 61

[32]  Rambo, H R, The Swedish Colonial Society, by the Swedish Colonial society available at: http://www.colonialswedes.org/AboutSCS/swedish_colonial_society.html  accessed on the 15/11/2010

[33]  Rambo, H R, The Swedish Colonial Society, by the Swedish Colonial society available at: http://www.colonialswedes.org/AboutSCS/swedish_colonial_society.html  accessed on the 15/11/2010

[34]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921)page 2

[35]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 281

[36]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 281

[37]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 283

[38]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 283

[39]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 302

[40]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 285

[41]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 285

[42]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 303

[43]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 303

[44]  Terry Jordan “New Sweden’s role on the American Frontier: A Study in cultural preadaption” in Geographer Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol 71, No 2 (1989), p82

[45]  Terry Jordan “New Sweden’s role on the American Frontier: A Study in cultural preadaption” in Geographer Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol 71, No 2 (1989), p82-83

[46]  Ian Tyrrell “Exceptionalism in the Age of International History” in The American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 4. (Oct 1991) p1031

[47]  Ian Tyrrell “Exceptionalism in the Age of International History” in The American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 4. (Oct 1991) p1031

[48]  Ian Tyrrell “Exceptionalism in the Age of International History” in The American Historical Review, Vol 96, No. 4. (Oct 1991) p1031-2

[49]  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Holt, New York, 1921) p 2

[50]  Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008)page 106

[51]  Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008)page 106

[52]  Edwina Williamson, The penguin History of Latin America, (Penguin group, London, 2009) page 99-100

[53]  Jurgen Osterhammel Colonialism, A Theoretical Overview(Markus Weiner Publishers, 1997 Jamaica) p10

[54]  Jurgen Osterhammel Colonialism, A Theoretical Overview(Markus Weiner Publishers, 1997 Jamaica) p16-7

[55]  Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, A Geogrphical perspective on 500 years of History, Vol 1: Atlantic America, 1492-1800. (Yale University press, London, 1986)

[56]  Burkholder, M A., Johnson L L. Colonial Latin America, 6th edition (Oxford University press, Oxford, 2008)page 109

[57]  Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, A Geogrphical perspective on 500 years of History, Vol 1: Atlantic America, 1492-1800. (Yale University press, London, 1986)

[58]  Evelyn Page, “The first Frontier – the Swedes and the Dutch” Pennsylvania History xv. 4 (1948)  page 281

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