Published by EH.Net (October 2023).

Lorenzo Veracini. Colonialism: A Global History. London: Routledge, 2023. 217 pp. $38 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0367506384.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


The last several decades of economic history have had to grapple with the often dark and horrifying five-hundred-year period of “colonialism.” Lorenzo Veracini is known for his expertise on this subject, having authored Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (2010) and co-edited The Routledge Handbook to Settler Colonialism (2017). His new work, Colonialism: A Global History, is a concise synthesis of research aimed for a more popular audience in a textbook format. The book also gives particular attention to the relationship of colonialism to economic and social development, and imperialism.

The introduction examines the varieties and purposes of colonialism(s). He notes the centrality of violence. “Violence is both foundational to colonialism and defines its ongoing operation: it can be murderous and senseless, it can be rationally dispensed, it can be threatened or promised, it can be exemplary” (p. 9). He distinguishes colonialism and imperialism. “Profits accrue differently under empire and colonialism…. As a general rule, a colony primarily offers profitable trades; an imperial province primarily offers tribute” (p. 3). Another difference between empire and colonialism is “blue water,” i.e., separation of space (p. 7). Some colonialisms simply aim at reproducing the metropole. Settler colonialism, on the other hand, is “a mode of colonial domination where resident colonies are established by populations emanating from the metropole or from a variety of metropoles, [which] aims to … terminate Indigenous political autonomy if not the Indigenous populations” (p. 2). Why does colonialism happen? “An inexhaustible demand for commodities makes it profitable” (p. 11). How? “Gunboats” (p. 12)—that is, decisive monopolizations of (primarily) oceanic trade routes. In the end, colonialism “is a relation premised on displacement; anybody can do it, even though Western Europeans have done it more than others and more often” (p. 9).

Veracini’s narrative centers on seven “waves.” The first and second wave involves Europe’s ventures in the 1400-1600s and eventually the Atlantic slave trade (chapter 2) and mercantilist colonial empires (chapter 3). While the first wave “relied on existing networks of subjection to raid, plunder and to seek rent,” the second wave that washed over it “organised the production and commercialisation of colonial commodities in tropical plantations” (p. 33). What drove both was “[p]lunder and spices from the east, and plunder and silver, and then sugar and other colonial staples from the west. Of course, during the second wave it was enslaved humans that drove colonialism by growing and processing the sugarcane that sustained it” (p. 23). Indeed, besides viruses and technology, “Profits drove colonialism more than anything else: the colonial trades were enormously profitable” (p. 25). Even missionaries “were often doubling up as traders” (p. 22). This profitable trade required violence, which “underpinned colonialism in all its operations…Slavery is violence—a type of ‘social death’—and millions were sacrificed to the altar of capitalist accumulation and the pursuit of the colonial trades” (p. 25).

“Third wave colonialism,” we read “targets the temperate prairies, and entire continents. It does not primarily seek rent, tribute, or labour. It primarily seeks land” and seeks to displace indigenous people “from their homelands” (p. 89). It is driven by a “transport revolution” (p. 74) enabling conquest of “the frontier” by “pioneers.” This development was largely due to satisfy European demand. During this wave, mercantilist economic logic evolved into free trade ideas: “why colonise (and directly tax subjected populations) when you can profit from unequal terms of trade (that is, in terms they would not use but terms that aptly describe the colonial relation beyond political subjection, when you can profit from structurally unequal relations)?” (p. 65). Some of the first “decolonial” movements also got off the ground during this period. But this wave is “indeed ongoing,” such as in contemporary Cyprus, Brazil, or Tibet.

The fourth wave centers on Britain’s uncontested power, the fact that “colonialism was now truly a global phenomenon” (p. 98), and a much deeper transformation and domination of society.

“There was exploitation, and there were violence and domination, of course, and it was insidious, but the modes of extraction were place-specific and largely traditional. Now colonialism was exercising new forms of territorial control, and new forms of racial control; it was even overhauling existing indigenous property arrangements.” (p. 99).

Human life, institutions, societies were restructured to fit the new global market.

The fifth wave overlapped with the previous and involves the “colonial state” and imperialism: land to conquer had now run out, so it was time for colonial powers to go to war with each other for economic resources and trade routes—the Agadir Crisis, Boer War, Spanish American War, Italo-Turkish War, and the largest colonial war, World War I. “Militarised debt collection, extortion at gun point, is a marker of colonial relations during the nineteenth century and beyond, a feature that is typical of both the fourth and the fifth colonial waves” (p. 117). The sixth wave also introduced “neocolonial” experiments. Veracini cites League of Nations Mandates, colonization by Italian fascists, Japanese imperialism, and what he terms “Zionist colonization of Palestine.” Veracini spends the next chapter just on Japanese colonialism and imperialism, follow by the “seventh wave.” Veracini contends that while the period of “decolonialism” in the 1960s-1980s ruptured many global power relationships (all colonial empires fail to achieve their goals usually within 150 years), we do not live in a post-colonial world. In fact, quite the opposite—a recolonial era, which is characterized by chronic financial problems and ever new forms of domination and colonial trade (e.g., Special Economic Zones; America’s global military presence and indirect control of southeast Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere; protected oil pipelines on Indian reservations).

“Debt is used to discipline the postcolony and to trap it indefinitely within an unequal relation. Unequal terms of international trade create debt, and the postcolonial economies that produce great quantities of a limited number of tradable commodities are severely exposed to disadvantageous and declining terms of trade. In turn, attempts to develop and diversify must rely on loans raised in international markets, which further deepens subjection.” (p. 189)

The final chapter looks at the various “legacies” of colonialism and neocolonialism. Veracini presents practical and simple solutions: reparations (“rent,” or, a tax on settlers); return of stolen indigenous lands; removal or transfer of statues (“Socially significant settings, like public squares and educational settings, should be off limits. Perhaps the bottom of a canal would be a more suitable location, complexity could be conveyed from there”; p. 191). After all, when it comes to colonized (Global South) vs. colonizer (mostly Europe and U.S.): “Systemic poverty and chronic disease remain on the other side. It is a no brainer” (p. 190).

Colonialism: A Global History is scholarly and yet approachable, and his model of “waves” is simple enough to grasp and sophisticated enough to handle the complexities of social and economic history. His discussions regarding the relationship to capitalism and colonialism are nuanced and perceptive (pp. 31-32, 60-66, 95, 121). As a comfortable 200-page textbook—which will surely (and hopefully!) become the default choice for this subject—each chapter ends with review points, questions, and a variety of helpful pointers for students. For future editions, I would recommend more helpful maps (the ones included are unhelpful, bland, and hardly worth including)—such as those in Societies, Networks, and Transitions (Craig A. Lockard, Cengage 2021, 4th ed.; see maps IV.1; 15.1; 16.2; 17.2; 17.3; 19.4; 20.2; 21.1; 22.2) and in Empires and Colonies in the Modern World (Heather Streets-Salter and Trevor R. Getz, Oxford 2016), which is perhaps the closest equivalent to Veracini’s work. A chapter on Arab colonialism prior to European (post-1492) colonialism would also strengthen the work as a “global” introduction. In any case, world historians and those interested in social and economic history have truly been given a gift.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and a research fellow at LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

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