Colonialism and post colonialism


  • Colonialism refers to the practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers and exploiting it economically. In the context of The Color Purple, issues relating to the colonisation of America and Africa are themes which are addressed in the narrative.
  • Post-colonialism is, effectively, what happens to colonised countries and their inhabitants after independence from colonial authorities. In the United States, especially in the rural South, the issue of slavery had a dramatic effect on both black and white inhabitants for several centuries. In Africa, colonisation is an ongoing issue.

Europe’s colonisation of America and Africa

Between 1492 and 1784, large areas of North and South America were colonised by European expeditions from Portugal, Spain, France, Holland (the Netherlands), England, Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Russia.

From roughly the same starting point, to the middle of the twentieth century, Great Britain, France, Belgium (some of the French speaking countries in Africa e.g. the Congo were colonized by French-speaking Belgians), Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain all established colonies in Africa.

The African slave trade

The slave trade in Africa was not confined to white European colonial expansion or trade. From the fifth to the fifteenth century, wealthy native trade kingdoms in West Africa controlled caravan routes that ran north and south through the Sahara desert. Ghana (not the modern state, but at that time an area in what is now Mali) was the first kingdom to establish full control over the southern end of the Sahara and linked the Mediterranean, mostly Arab, markets to the north with the supply of African raw materials to the south.

Although gold and salt were the main commodities, there was also a profitable trade in slave labour. It was a common practice of some African tribes to raid neighbouring tribes and transport their captives into slavery, sending them north to the Mediterranean markets, to be bought mostly by Arab traders.

When the Dutch and English established colonies in Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the slave trade expanded considerably and European ships, mostly from Britain, picked up human cargoes from various collecting points on the West coast of Africa and transported them across the Atlantic to work in plantations in the West Indies and North America.

Slavery in the American South

The rural South of the United States had a well-established agricultural tradition. White Europeans, who had settled the Atlantic southern lowlands from the seventeenth century onwards, made great fortunes from farming cash crops such as tobacco, rice, indigo and cotton. The crops were grown on a large scale, in plantations that required investment in a large work force. These workers were imported as slaves from the West African coast, mostly, but not exclusively, on British ships, to be bought and sold in slave markets on the eastern seaboard of North America and in the Caribbean.

Slavery in America began in 1619 and continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until the abolition movement in the North led in part to the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the emancipation of America’s four million black slaves. 

The heavy use of slaves in the southern colonies resulted in the transfer of many elements of African cultures to the region. However, to justify the enslavement of other human beings, it was necessary for the white population in the south to consider the enslaved black population as being inferior. Even after the abolition of slavery and the reconstruction of the rural South, racial tensions and deeply rooted prejudice continued to separate black and white Americans. The legacy of slavery continued to influence American history until the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s, a century after emancipation.

What is ‘whiteness’?

  • An invented term that describes characteristics that are believed to be unique to white people
  • A belief that whiteness is an entitlement to be a member of a ‘superior race’
  • The norm by which others of different ethnic origin or skin colour are judged as ‘less than’ or ‘inferior’
  • A determining factor for the distribution of wealth, power, human rights and citizenship.

Historically, white people are an invented race, made up of various ethnic groups that were thought to have a common ancestry in parts of Europe and so were seen as being superior biologically and culturally to other races. The European settlers who colonised America and Africa became a single powerful coalition whose influence still reaches into American and African society and politics today.

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