Was colonialism in Asia Inevitable?

Topics: Colonialism, East India Company, Spain Pages: 5 (1564 words) Published: November 7, 2013

Were Asian countries doomed to be colonized?

One undeniable characteristic of colonialism in Asia between the 1800s and mid-1900s was the immense control it had over the economies and politics in Asia. Trade and production were tailored to serve colonial needs, and opposition to colonial rule was suppressed easily. In this context, claiming that colonialism was inevitable seems valid as Asian countries could neither resist colonial expansion, nor throw off the colonial yoke. However, when one considers the wider history of Asia, this claim falls apart. This is because there were time periods where colonialism was unachievable, notably during the seventeenth century when Asian empires were at their peak. This essay will argue that Asia was only “doomed to be colonised” between the 1800s and 1940. I will briefly explain what conditions in Europe and Asia allowed colonisation to be inevitable or impossible over the years.


The scope of this essay will be from the 16th century to the advent of World War Two. I will be using Jürgen Osterhammel’s definition of colonialism; which is when “an entire society is robbed of its historical line of development, externally manipulated and transformed according to the needs and interest of the colonial rulers.”1

“Pre-doomed” Asia

The extent of western penetration between the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century was limited compared to later years. Almost all western outposts in East and South Asia were there at the sufferance of the local kingdoms and were heavily regulated, as was the case for Guangdong in China2. Although several territories in Southeast Asia, like Melaka and Jayakarta3, were taken by force, two things differentiate this kind of expansion from later colonial ambitions. Firstly, they were taken as trading posts, not as part of a larger territorial aggrandizement campaign4. Secondly, economic gains were the motivating factor, not political or social control5. To say Asia was “doomed” during this period is inaccurate; the major Asian civilisations were very capable of dictating their terms to the West, and Western advances in to Southeast Asia were done piecemeal and without the political control that would characterise later colonialism.

Factors that limited Western advances

In the years preceding the nineteenth century, the great Asia Empires in China, India and Japan wielded power beyond many European countries. China under the Qing dynasty was considered a regional superpower, with approximately forty tributaries in Asia6. Under Emperor Kangxi, China extended control over Mongolia and Xinjiang, and defeated a Russian force in Northern Manchuria7. Mughul rule in the early seventeenth century under Akbar was marked by incredible affluence, religious tolerance, and a flourishing of arts and culture8. This combination of physical and cultural dominance allowed Asia to negotiate from a position of power, and gave it the ability to reject or control Western penetration.

The main limitation of the Western advance into Asia was that it was led by trading companies, like the Dutch VOC, and not states9. Territorial expansion was simply not tenable as conquering and governing large territories cut into company profits10. For this reason, the Dutch VOC in the East Indies did not seek to expand its territories beyond its port cities till the 1800s11. The exception would be the Spanish Philippines and Portuguese Melaka; both countries’ expeditions were state-led12. However, both Portuguese and Spanish lacked the economic power to impose full colonial rule and their territories were later lost to the Dutch and the US respectively13. The reliance on naval power and absence of a strong land force also impeded expansion inland14.

The aims of the West in Asia were almost always economically driven, with the exception of Iberian countries who wanted to propagate Catholicism15. The Dutch established Batavia with the intention of...

Bibliography: 1. Church, Peter. A short history of Southeast Asia. Sydney: Asean Focus Group pty Ltd, 1999.
2. Duiker, William J.; Spielvogel, Jackson J., The essential world history 3rd ed.. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
3. Heidhues, Mary Somers. Southeast Asia: A concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
4. Mason, Colin. A short history of Asia 2nd ed.. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
5. Murphey, Rhoads. A History of Asia 5th ed.. New York: Pearson Education Inc, 2006.
6. Osbourne, Milton. Southeast Asia: An introductory history, 9th ed.. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2004.
7. Osterhammel, Jürgen. Colonialism. New Jersey: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1997.
8. Simpson, William; Jones, Martin. Europe 1783-1914. London: Routledge, 2000.
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