Colonialism can’t be forgotten – it’s still destroying peoples and our planet

From the population decimation of the first colonies to the recent murders of environmental activists in Honduras, the arithmetic of cruelty and destruction is still unfolding.


Image: Tar sands, Alberta. Credit: Dru Oja Jay/Flickr, CC 2.0.

The consequences of colonialism and imperialism, in all their forms and across all their epochs, defy our imagination. Unspeakable cruelties were inflicted, their scars and agonies are unspeakable.

Colonialism was, and remains, a wholesale destruction of memory. Lands, the sources of identity, stolen. Languages, ripped from mouths. The collective loss to humanity was incalculable, as cultures, ideas, species, habitats, traditions, cosmologies, possibilities, patterns of life, and ways of understanding the world were destroyed. Countless ecological traditions – involving diverse ways of being with nature – were swept away.

As formal colonialism came to an end, the process of erasing its crimes from public memory and effacing history began. The forces of forgetting crafted and promulgated mythological narratives of innocent imperial greatness, unblemished by enslavement or genocide. When forced to give away the Congo, King Leopold took to burning all documents associated with his brutal rule. ‘I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there,’ Leopold said. His palace’s furnaces burned for eight days (1).

There are many such shredded chapters that we will never reconstruct. Every death count, every statistic, every fragment of history, is bitterly incomplete. But the preliminary arithmetic of cruelty is enough to illustrate the sheer magnitude of destruction.

So catastrophic and widespread was the decimation of human life in the Americas that nine-tenths of its original population was extinguished through war, epidemic diseases, enslavement, overwork, and famine (2). Most of us have heard the simplistic story of a genocide by germs, where populations were wiped out by diseases to which they had no immunity. But the vulnerability of communities to maladies was not just a product of biological misfortune. Malnutrition, exhaustion, absent sanitation, enslaving missions and overcrowding helped to weaken people’s protection (3). Demographic research has shown, for example, that on Hispaniola, the indigenous population plummeted before any smallpox cases were documented (4).

In the last decades of the 19th century, tens of millions of Indians died of famine, while British colonial policy forced the country to export record levels of food.  If their bodies were laid head to foot, the corpses would cover the length of England 85 times over (5). The evisceration of the Congo, designed to extract maximum levels of ivory and rubber, killed at least 10 million people – half the country’s population at the time (6).

The bounties of colonialism underwrote the wealth of Europe. Seams of silver and gold swelled the coffers of banks and merchants. The fortunes made from metals, slave trading, and plantation commodities, served as direct stimuli to colonial economies, helping to bankroll the Industrial Revolution (7). Consumers in the colonies proved vital to purchasing products and supporting Western European industries (8). By the late 19th century, over half of the British state’s revenue stemmed from its colonies.

Colonialism reconfigured the world economy. India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27 per cent to 3 per cent. China’s share shrank from 35 per cent to 7 per cent. Europe’s share exploded from 20 per cent to 60 per cent (9). The tables of development were overturned. In the 18th century, differences in income across the world’s leading civilizations were minimal. It is in fact likely that average living standards in Europe at this time were lower than elsewhere (10).

The story of colonialism, sanitized and blotted out from the historical consciousness, needs to be recalled, for many reasons – not the least of them because of our concerns about the climate. Colonialism’s ledger of lavish of destruction – its wholesale removal of ecosystems, and the subjugation of those communities that had nourished them – unleashed major rises in emissions. Between 1835 and 1885, deforestation in the territories of the United States was the largest global contributor to emissions (11).

Ultimately, colonialism transformed the speed, scope and scale of ecological destruction. It generated dramatic changes in land and marine ecosystems, and transformed the dynamics of economic growth. Political ecologist Jason Moore argues that ‘the rise of capitalist civilization after 1450, with its audacious strategies of global conquest, endless commodification, and relentless rationalization’, marked ‘a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture and the first cities’ (12).

Across most continents and contexts, the grip and influence of empire impelled an era of major devastation. As environmental historian Joachim Radkau outlines, ‘[i]n the opinion of the vast majority of scholars, a large-scale ecological crisis developed in the 18th century and became acute and obvious in the 19th… In China, as in Europe, one can detect in the 18th century a desire to use natural resources to their limits and to leave no more empty spaces…’ (13).

Its legacies endure today in colonial complexes that underlie our visions of nature, and other humans. Economically, its inheritance was the naturalization of a model of intense cost-shifting, which allowed for states to offload resource-consuming industries, and the costs of ecological damage. By the birth of the New World, silver mines and seams in Bohemia and Saxon had been exhausted. European forests were bearing the burden of centuries of exploitation for use in shipbuilding. Around 3,000 oaks were required to build a single warship (14). Iberian shipbuilding, which had eaten through the forests of Catalonia, was transplanted to Cuba and Brazil (15). The construction of British battleships was transferred from London to Bombay shipyards (16). Once the industries had been externalized, resources could be extracted with scant attention paid to the environmental consequences. Japanese policies for example, protected forests in Japan, but exploited them during Japan’s rule of Korea (17).

Colonialism also firmly shaped the ways we view conservation and ecology. Colonial efforts to protect nature, particularly popular at the end of the nineteenth century, became further opportunities for colonial control. Inhabitants were removed from areas of ‘pristine nature’ that then became national parks, while lands outside these were devoted to intensive extraction. Ahwahneechee communities were, for example, expelled from the valleys that today make up Yosemite Park in California.

Neocolonialism: the metabolism of misery

During the 19th and 20th centuries, formal colonialism came to an end. Countries were liberated, new flags unfurled, and rewritten constitutions adopted. But although imperial states were forced to relinquish their hold, their legacies prevailed. Centuries of enslavement, despotism, crushed sovereignty, and ecological demolition, had guaranteed a long afterlife to imperial haunting, and its logics of conquest and predation. Many of the new nation states carried on down tracks laid for them by the colonial powers and continued the process of ecological destruction. Under the banners of development, thousands of communities were evicted and displaced in development programmes.

In India, between 1947 and 2000, around 24 million Adivasis (indigenous peoples) were displaced by large development projects. The construction of the Narmada Dam displaced over 100,000 people alone. In Brazil, military and non-military governments triggered the wholesale destruction of huge areas of the Amazon rainforest, subsidizing road building, clearing the way for large cattle ranches, and opening up the land for migrants. In Egypt, the regime of Hosni Mubarak transferred control of land to large landowners, evicting hundreds of thousands of farmers were evicted, under the banner of ‘development’.

In 1972, following colonial precedents, the Nigerian government outlawed traditional agriculture by fire clearance, a move that would subsequently contributed to devastating famines (18). In addition, the government’s encouragement of new oil projects was described by prominent Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, as ‘recolonization’ (19). 

Deforestation took hold across former colonies. Between 1960 and 1980, Indonesia’s timber exports rose 200-fold. Côte d’Ivoire’s timber exports rose from 42,000 tonnes in 1913 to 1.6 million tonnes in the early 1980s; less than a fortieth of the country’s forests remain (20). Between 1900 and the present day, over half the ‘developing world’s’ forests were removed (21).

Those resisting these models, were met with severe repression, and extrajudicial violence (22). This metabolism of misery continues to this day, with hundreds of social leaders and community activists killed worldwide every year, for resisting the encroachment of extractive frontiers. Between 2010 and 2017, at least 124 environmental and land activists were murdered in Honduras (23).

The frontiers of ecological destruction are constantly expanding, as the global economy’s appetite for new materials staggers on. Between 2003 and 2015, the number of mining projects in Argentina rose from 40 in 2003 to 800 in 2015 (24). A fifth of Peru has been conceded to mining companies (25).

Today’s world is a landscape scarred by environmental violence: the monocultural soybean fields of Brazil’s Mato Grosso; the modern gold rushes of Madre de Dios and Zamfara; the vast tar-sands ponds of Canada; the forest-consuming coal mines of Kalimantan; the megadams of the Mekong Delta; the rivers dredged to yield sand; the phosphate mines of Western Sahara; the palm plantations of Tela; the bauxite mines of Guinea; the mesh of pipelines across the Niger Delta; the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh.

It is also a world of furnaces: the brick kilns of Peshawar; the smelters of Norilsk; the glass industries of Firozabad; the chemical factories of Dzerzhinsk; the steel mills of Xingtai and Mandi Gobindgarh; the fertilizer plants of Baocun; the tanneries of Hazaribagh and Rawalpindi; the aluminium smelters of Al Jubail; the polluted deltas of Ogoniland; the ship graveyards of Bangladesh; the cancer villages of industrial China.

The full impact of colonialism would be revealed in its long-term impacts. It radically transformed landscapes, state relations, philosophies and cultures, leaving as one of its inheritance an intensive and plunderous economic model. In pursuit of resources, countries ran roughshod over limits, and destroyed many of the ecosystems necessary for preventing climate change.

This is the second of two extracts from ‘The Memory We Could Be’, Daniel’s new book published this Autumn by New Internationalist Books.

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is a writer and activist. He tweets at @bywordlight 



  1. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
  2. JR McNeill, Mosquito Empires, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p 16.
  3. Justin McBrian, ‘Accumulating Extinction’, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? PM Press, 2016, pp 116-137.
  4. Massimo Livi Bacci, Conquest: The Destruction of the American Indios, Polity, 2008.
  5. Cited in Jason Hickel, ‘Enough of aid – let’s talk reparations’, Guardian, 27 Nov 2015.
  6. Adam Hochschild, op cit.
  7. Jason Hickel, The Divide, William Heinemann, 2017.
  8. Joseph Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  9. Angus Maddison, The World Economy, OECD, 2006.
  10. Mike Davis, ‘The Origin of the Third World’, Antipode, Vol 32, No 1, 2000.
  11. John L Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History, Cambridge University Press 2014, p 496.
  12. Jason W Moore, ‘The Capitalocene, Part I’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol 44, No 3, 2017.
  13. Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p 111.
  14. Jeremy L Caradonna, Sustainability: A History, Oxford University Press, p 33.
  15. Jason W Moore, ‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’, Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol 10, No 1, 2010.
  16. Joachim Radkau, op cit, p 173
  17. Ibid, p 117.
  18. Michael J Watts, Silent Violence, University of Georgia Press, 2013.
  19. Silke Stroh, ‘Towards a Postcolonial Environment?’, Local Natures, Global Responsibilities, Rodopi, 2010, p 197.
  20. Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World, Random House, 2007, p 192.
  21. John H Bodley, Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems, Rowman Altamira, 2012, p 47.
  22. Such as in the case of the Rio Negro massacres in Guatemala.
  23. Autumn Spanne, ‘Why is Honduras the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists?’, Guardian, 7 Apr 2016.
  24. Darío Aranda, ‘Qué hay detrás de la campaña antimapuche’, La Vaca, 27 Nov 2017.    
  25. Gestión, ‘Concesiones mineras ocupan la quinta parte del territorio del Perú’, 14 Sep 2014,



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