Understanding colonialism

1. Uncover the pattern

Use the Wikipedia entry on colonialism. It shows the changing structure of the world from 1500 through to 1974 on the four maps.  

  • Making notes as you go, study the first map from 1550 and find the countries in the box at the side.
  • Why are large parts of the world shaded in grey?
  • Why are parts of South America and Africa shaded in yellow and green?
  • Why did people set off to other lands in the 1500s? What was happening?

Now look carefully at the other three maps. What do you notice about the first and last maps? Write a sentence describing how the pattern has changed between 1500 and 1974.


2. Explore the concept

You will have seen how some European countries - Spain, Portugal and Britain - took control of land in other countries. Think about the Spanish coming to Mexico in the 16th century. Make a list of questions you would like to ask about this event.

Your notes from Activity 1 are a good starting point for writing your own definition of colonialism. In fact, colonialism is a complex practice to describe because it touches on many issues.  

Check if your questions cover:

  • motivations for exploration/settlement
  • encounters with Indigenous peoples
  • rules for settlement
  • consequences of settlement
  • ethical issues.

Break into groups and select one issue you’d like to research together. Research and write down answers to all of your questions about this issue.

As a class, pool and discuss your answers. Working alone, expand your own definition of colonialism by writing a paragraph that includes one sentence on each of the issues. Use your description from Activity 1 as the first sentence.


3. Research and investigate the concept further

The paragraph you wrote in Activity 2 will be relevant to what happened in Mexico between the Spanish and the Aztecs. To improve your definition of colonialism, you need now to be able to make some generalisations instead of just having specific statements about one particular situation. You can do this by looking at another example. Australia also has a colonial past. The First Peoples exhibition at Melbourne Museum offers a version of this history. You can visit the exhibition before or after your visit to Aztecs.

Draw and complete a table, similar to the one provided below.

You may find James Boyce’s history, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia useful to help you reflect on the British colonisation of the Port Phillip District in Victoria, and on the First Peoples exhibition.

IssueThe Spanish in MexicoThe British in Victoria

Motivations for exploration/settlement


Encounters with Indigenous peoples


Rules for settlement


Ethical issues



4. Define colonialism

Now that you have investigated two examples of colonialism, work with one other person to revise your first paragraph to develop a more general statement. You might find it helpful to look at an existing definition of colonialism, discuss what you agree and disagree with about it, and then refine your own version.

‘Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. Historically, this has often involved killing or subjugating the indigenous population. With the spread of Hellenic and Roman culture and technology by the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of the world has at some point been colonised by a European country.’

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonialism#History

  • Find examples of emotive language in this description.
  • Does it fit with your observations of the four maps in Activity 1?
  • What do you think about the closing statement that ‘most of the world has at some point been colonised by a European country’?


5. Wrap up the key ideas

Colonialism still has an impact on the world today – it is a huge and complex topic.

  • What questions remain for you about colonialism?
  • How might the process of Spanish colonisation of the Americas and British colonisation of Australia challenge the beliefs, values and ethics of historians in Australia today? Keep the different styles of history in mind.