European Colonialism: Justification

Figure 1.--Noël Eugène Ballay was a French auxiliary doctor of the French Navy, and then explorer and colonial administrator. He was born in Fontenay-sur-Eure (1847). As colonial administrator he was: Lieutenant governor of Gabon (1886-89); Governor of French Guinea (1891-1900); Governor-General of French West Africa (1902). e died on 26 January 1902 in Saint-Louis, Senegal (1902). This monument was dedicated in Conakry, where he was Governor (1908). It depicts Ballay with the French flag and a young naytive boy. At the base of the statue we can see a man, a breast feeding woman and a young girl offering the victory palms. The monument is a perfect representation of the colonial ideal. The Europeans never lived up to it, bit it is how many Europeans viewed their coonial empires at the time.

Agression needs no justification. Commonly the goals are wealth, resources, and power. The Mongols as they conquered most of Asia and the Middle East and large areas of modern Russia did not attempt to justify their conquests. On the otherhand, the Mongol Empire did not last long. Commonly the great empire builders have attempted to justify their conquests. Even the great totalitarian oowers of the 20th century developed justifications for their conquests (Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, militaristic Japan, and NAZI Germany). The basic difference between the Communists and Fascists which share fundamental elements is in the radically different justification. Often the justification was a civilizing mission. This was at play with the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. In more recent times humanitarianism became a factor. Often this was a thin veil for the more mundane motiviations of wealth and power. This does not mean, however, that humanitarianism was not a factor to be recoked with and in the 19th century a real concern among European publics. Along with 19th century humanitarianism came racism. This was adecelopment coming from the Atlantic slave trade. Unfortunately in the 19th century as part of socialDarwinism a scientific rationnel was developed that received widespread accaeptance.


The European maritime outreach began with the Portuguese as they sailed south down the Atlantic coast of Africa (mid-15th century). Their goal was to open profitable maritime trading routes to the East to go around the Muslim domination of land routes. They were not interested in establishing African colonies, but did found coastal trading posts. There was no important effort to spread Christianity. This was initially the same objective as led by Columbus, they sailed west out into the Atantic. Soon the Spanish. Soon the Spanish changed their objectives as it became clear that they had not only encountered a whole new continent, but that fabously wealthy native Americans empires existed on the new continent. This began with Ferdinand and Isabella. They were known as the Catholic Monarchs who had just completed the Reconquista of Spain, driving out Muslims and Jews. Perhaps more than any other European state, Isabella and Ferndinand and their sucessors were fervent Christians and from an early point, along with empire building, spreading Christianity was a major goal of state. Thus Christian priests (inckudung the Dominicans and Frasiccans) accompanied the Conquistadores and and spreading the faith was a fundamental justification. At fitst there was a debate as to whether the Native Americans were actually people. Spanish rule was brutal. Eventually the Church took on the mission of protecting Native americans. Bartolomé de las Casas became the symbol for this effort. The other European coonizers were less concened about spreading Chistianity. But in the later Scrable for Africa, Christianity became an important concern (19th century).

Social Darwinism

Charles Darwin was the English biologist who after his participation in a British scientificic expedition aboard the HMS Beagle (1830s) conceived of natural evolution. Several observations led to his conclusions such as finding sea shells in the high Andes or the variations in tortoises and finches on the Galapagos Islands that suggested the animals were adjusting to environmental differences in a way that created new species. Other biologidts/naturalists at the time had also reached similar conclusions, but Darwin was the first to publish his theories in his landmark Origin of the Species (1859). Central to Darwin's theory was the response of individuals to the environment and the perpetuation of characteristics best adapted to the environment. Those organisms best suited to their environment thus achieved a degree of survival advantage and passed their superior genetic characteristics to their proginy. The concept was viciously attacked at the time, mostly by religious groups. In fact the religious fundamentalists continues to object to evolution, but interestingly now attempts to desgise its attacks in pseudo-science -- inteligent design. Social Darwinism actually has noting to do with Darwin himself who was describing biological processes. Social Darwinism was the creation of the philosopher, Herbert Spencer. While presented as scientific, it was never subjected to the rigorous scientific examination to which Darwinian evolution was subjected. Thus Social Darwinism is more of a philosophical construct, basically a pseudo-science. The term Social Darwinism was designed to cloth the concept in verities of science. The heart of Social Darwinism as argued by Spencer was the concept of 'survival of the fittest'. Spencer tried to apply the scientific principles of Darwinian evolution to culture and race. Spencer writing in the late-19th century saw a dominant Europe and backward socities in Asia and Africa which were being colonized. Spencer was British and he saw Britain and the British Empire as the most successful country. He also saw a world that was being dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christianity. Because Europeans were white and other regions were populated by other races, racism became an important element of Social Darwinism. The concept was useful way of legitimizing European imperialism.


Humanitarianism is a moral ideal of kindness and sympathy toward other human beings. An early theoretical manifestation comes out of the Jedeo-Christian ethic and best expressed in Jesus' parable of the Good Samritan. An early effort was that of the Catholic Church to protect Native Americans as pursued by Father Bartolomé de las Casas. Humanitarianism as an effective movement, however, required major cultural movements which first appeared in the West: democracy, capitalism, and the industrial revolution. These movements were important because until capitalism transfored the econmy of the west, nost of the population lived in poverty, ofren abject poverty. Impactful humanitarian efforts are not possible among a population living in poverty. Once large numbers of people are lifted from poverty into the middle-class than real humanitarian efforts are possible. The Indistrial Revolution created the wealth needed to fund public education and public health programs. And democracy created the political mechanism for the public to demand such efforts from governments. Christian churches to vary degrees supported this effort and the Americand French Revolutions created a similar secular dynamic. It is this no accident that major reform movements like the campaign to end slavery, limit child and female labor, prison reform, and protect aboriginal populations all occured in the 19th cenntury. This became part of the justification for colonialism, to bring the befeits of modern technology and modern goverance to less civilized peoples. Colonial authorities attempted to varying degrees attempted to include humanitarian aims into colonial government policies. [Lester and Dussart] Along with 19th century humanitarianism came racism. This was adecelopment coming from the Atlantic slave trade. Unfortunately in the 19th century as part of socialDarwinism a scientific rationnel was developed that received widespread accaeptance. This was not intially a factor because China and India were at first in many ways richer and more developed than Europe. But by the 19th century this had changed and science and capitalism created the modern Europe.


Lester, Alan and Fae Dussart. Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance: Protecting Aborigines across the Nineteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press: 2014).


Navigate Children in History Website:
[Return to Main European colonialism page]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 10:25 PM 8/31/2016
Last updated: 10:25 PM 8/31/2016