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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 232-234

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Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. By jürgen osterhammel. Translated by Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997. Pp. vi + 145. $34.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

Ours is reputedly a period of postcolonialism or, at least, of post-colonial literature, subaltern and otherwise. To judge, however, whether we are in a postcolonial epoch, and what that means, we need a firm [End Page 232] grasp of what is meant by colonialism itself. In his short volume, Colonialism, originally published in German in 1995 and now available inEnglish, Jürgen 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 so 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 [End Page 233] 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?

My own view tends to deny this last possibility. The West itself has changed from its earlier "modernization" stage, becoming multicultural and pluralistic, willingly or not. Racism may exist at home, but it plays a lesser role in the joint multinational ventures of globalization. A global elite has no sahibs. Although the West obviously still possesses a kind of dominant economic power and the culture that goes with it, and thus perhaps a form of colonialism, classic colonialism, let alone imperialism, is dead. In understanding today's globalization, we must recognize that, in fact, the death of colonialism is one of the preconditions for conceptualizing global history. (For some other preconditions, see my introduction to Conceptualizing Global History, edited by Bruce Mazlish and Ralph Buultjens [Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993].) Such thoughts, and similar ones, are inspired by Osterhammel's...