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Reviews of Colonialism (Updated and Expanded Edition)

“Osterhammel’s book represents a new approach to the subject. The concise but sweeping study encompasses the processes of colonization and decolonization from the early modern period to the twentieth century. Virtually all other studies to date have looked at strategies of colonial conquest, exploitation, and rule from the imperial point of view. Osterhammel shows that the colonial situation developed in ways that duplicated neither the metropolis nor the pre-colonial society, but instead blended these and added a new direction characteristic only of colonial realms. He emphasizes that the Europeans were normally not considered dangerous invaders by local populations until they threatened the traditional cultures with missionaries, European schools, and bureaucracy. A conviction of imperial cultural superiority gave modern colonialism an aggressive turn. The result was ethnic and social stratification in the colonial society, even when colonists took over the pre-colonial administration and society as the British did in India.”
— Midwest Book Review

“Insightful and often brilliant.”
— International Journal of African Studies

“Picking up the newest edition of Jürgen Osterhammel’s Colonialism, it’s hard to imagine a thorough and innovative treatment of a subject as complex as colonialism in such a small package. Osterhammel engages the monumental world system of Immanuel Wallerstein, re-interprets the issue of power and agency in the struggle between colonized and colonizer, and sets out a definition of colonization intended to be applicable across three continents and five hundred years. Rarely more than one hundred pages in length, its size alone would suggest this book as a student’s introduction to colonialism.

“The history of colonization, as Osterhammel points out, usually appeared in older textbooks as the history of a particular colony. Writers who were still operating within the old assumptions of the colonizers saw their endeavor as a “civilizing mission.” Modern scholarship has tended to reverse the issue, seeing European colonizers as nothing but invaders to be resisted. Osterhammel goes beyond both these approaches. He argues for a more unified view of colonialism as a process that began with the first European expansions after the Middle Ages and is in many ways still going on today. ‘The history of colonialisms is thus not only — perhaps not even chiefly — a history of conquest, acquisition, and flag-hoisting. It is a history of the gradual emergence of state structures and societal forms and their geographic expansion or contraction within nominally claimed regions’ (28).

“For students, the most useful aspect of this book is Osterhammel’s ability to define a highly complex problem in terms that can be applied to many situations. By considering colonialism as ‘a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders … [who] … are convinced of their own superiority and of their ordained mandate to rule’ (16-17), Osterhammel is able to break down barriers of location and periodization that previous definitions of colonialism often get hung up on. He is therefore able to apply the insights of this book to areas in which formal colonization may not have occurred, making this work useful in topics courses of any sort that consider historical power relations.For example, Osterhammel sees missionaries as agents of cultural change which colonial authorities, who often preferred to leave in place existing social and political structures and rule from behind the scenes, did not want.

“Osterhammel’s ability to see colonialism as a multi-faceted issue, with different forces at work among both colonizers and colonized is among the greatest strengths of this book. This is in keeping with his focus on colonization as a process that goes on even after formal colonization came to an end. This, in turn, makes this book useful for those interested in post-colonial situations.

“Osterhammel has mapped out a new approach between the apologetics of the old colonial historians and the current writers who diminish the effects of colonization on the history of the non-western world. His ‘long duration’ approach is a history almost without people, in which forces shape all those who come into contact with conqueror and conquered alike. In doing so, he has created not only a theoretical overview, as the subtitle promises, but a new working definition of colonialism that should serve as a base for further re-evaluating such an important and difficult topic.”
World History Bulletin

“Ours is reputedly a period of postcolonialism or, at least, of postcolonial literature, subaltern and otherwise. To judge, however, whether we are in a postcolonial epoch, and what this means, we need a firm grasp of what is meant by colonialism itself. In his short volume, Colonialism, originally published in German in 1995 and now available in English, Juergen Osterhammel of the University of Hagen and the Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin, attempts to give us a theoretical overview of the subject.

“For Osterhammel, colonialism, a ‘system of domination,’ is a ‘fundamental phenomenon of world history’; it is also a ‘phenomenon of colossal vagueness’ (p. 4). His book is a terse, systematic effort to dispel that vagueness. As he tells us, ‘colonialism’ and its adjuncts ‘colonization’ and ‘colony’ embody processes of expansion; thus we can potentially consider them as constant features of human history. The author offers classifications (six major forms of colonial expansion), periodizations (six major epochs), typologies (three major types, suitably subdivided), and so forth to help us understand the phenomenon. Though colonialism can be thought of as a constant in world history, nevertheless the concern in this book is mainly with its modern version: the first epoch treated is 1520-70. In an extraordinary act of compression, Osterhammel outlines a theory along with supporting details that seeks to map the topic in a satisfactory manner.

“For Osterhammel, colonialism is not necessarily a pejorative term. We must be aware, he believes, that colonizer and colonized each shape the other, sometimes compliantly and sometimes otherwise. Though the colonizers generally came with a missionizing attitude and an unwillingness to make cultural concessions to their subjects, the ‘master’ was affected as much as the ‘slave.’ The entire process of colonialism was gradual and grounded in ‘local’ circumstances, both imperial and native.

“Unintended consequences abound. The colonial state imposed territoriality, especially in Africa, and created political boundaries. Though the results were frequently not nation-states — the source of much ethnic and religious conflict later on — such states unexpectedly embodied emancipatory possibilities. Similarly, seeking to spread Christianity, colonizers helped create ‘Asian’ religions; for example, ‘Hinduism’ as a clearly defined world religion ‘was alien to pre-colonial India’ (p. 98). As we know, it now exists as a powerful political force in contemporary India.

“Back ‘home,’ in this case Europe, the acquisition of natural resources and human labor undergirded the international economic system on which the West depended. Social science was another ‘acquisition,’ for example, in the form of anthropology, which, though it flourished ‘in the bush,’ first supported and then undermined the ideology of colonialism.

“Is colonialism now to be viewed as a world historical phenomenon of the past? Is imperialism — treated, oddly enough, as ‘in some respects a more comprehensive concept’ (p. 22) — also dead? Or is it that colonialism and imperialism (defined as assuming an international political system in which ‘colonies are not just ends in themselves, but also pawns in global power games’ [p. 21]) have simply taken a new form, globalism?

“… Standing by itself … Osterhammel’s book offers a concise conceptual framework in which to place further consideration of aspects of the fundamental phenomenon of colonialism. No small accomplishment for a small book!”
Journal of World History

“A brief, readable and comprehensive introductory survey … a significant contribution to the field where such surveys are all too rare.”
Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

“[C]lear structure and competent interpretation.”
Neue Zürcher Zeitung

“No other work on colonialism comes close to the pithiness and readability of this book … internationally unmatched.”
Die Zeit