Colonialism is undertaken primarily for economic reasons - that is the colony exports natural resources to the parent country where the resources are turned into finished products. These products then fuel the economy of the parent country. In addition, the colony serves as a contained market for finished goods from the parent nation.
Truly the practice of colonizing distant lands began in the ancient world. The Greeks, with their formidable navy, were masters of colonization. However, in our context we will be dealing with colonialism in the modern world at the end of the 15th Century.
We all know that "in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." He is, of course, widely credited with having discovered America. However, did you know:
1. Columbus was not looking for (nor did he suspect the existence of) America, but rather a passage from Europe to Asia. He died thinking this is exactly what he had done.
2. Columbus never made landfall in what is now the United States. In his voyages he only explored the Carribean islands & Panama.
3. America is named not for Columbus, but for Amerigo Vespucci, a contemporary of Columubs who explored the South American mainland.
4. Scholars suspect that Northern Europeans (Vikings & possible the Irish) were sailing to what is now North America five centuries before Columbus.
Nevertheless, Columbus represents the vanguard of what became a veritable flood of Europeans into the "New World". Within a century the British had established a colony in Virginia, the ill-fated Jamestown settlement. It was not long before the French and the Dutch joined the Spaniards, British, and Portuguese in settling the Americas. Each nation was attracted to the New World by the promise of increased wealth and power, especially from the rumored Gold and Silver thought to be in great abundance. Like children cutting off slices from a pizza, the European nations carved up the Americas and began fighting with one another for bigger portions.
The rest of the world was "up for grabs" too: Europeans colonized much of Africa and parts of Asia as well.
Again, colonialism usually brought economic prosperity to those nations willing to risk the endeavor. Another benefit was found in the many advances in the technology of travel. Sailing and navigating techniques, cartography (map-making), and shipbuilding all saw enormous advances during the colonial era.
The negatives, however, were often tremendous: the degredation and oppression of the indiginous (native) people was part of nearly every colonial endeavor. Most natives were overpowered by the Europeans due to a number of factors:
1. Lack of resistance to European diseases (to some extent this did work both ways)
2. Superior technology of the European armies (guns, steel armor, etc.)
3. Loose social organization compared to the Europeans' military discipline
The end result usually followed one of two patterns:
A. The native populations were wiped out by disease or killed in armed conflict (as was the case with most of North America)
B. The native populations were overwhelmed and essentially enslaved (as was the case with most of South America)
Many parts of the world are still feeling the effects of this oppression in the form of strained race relations and economic disparity (wealthy European descendants and impoverished native descendents).
A lesser injustice of colonialism was the "second-class citizenship" of the colonists themselves when compared to the citizens of the parent nation. This played itself out in North America between the British and their colonists and eventually resulted in a colonial rebellion and the foundation of a new country. The 13 American colonies have in turn become 50 states, spanning an entire continent, due to their own sort of colonialism.
The Church today, of course, opposes the enslavement or the mistreatment of natives, but in the 15th Century the view was slightly different. Members of the Church did indeed advocate for more humane treatment of the natives, but the mindset was that they were less civilized or "savage" and therefore in need of reform at the hands of "civilized" Europeans. The Church did respond to colonialism by sending missionaries, particularly form Religious Orders, to minister to the needs of colonists and the preach the Gospel to natives. It is due to the efforts of these missionaries, especially the Franciscans and Jesuits, that much of Latin America is very Catholic even to this day. Female religious orders played a part as well, as we see in the Sisters of Providence founded by St. Theodore Guerin, who took charge of the education of youth in the frontier region of America today known as Indiana.
Until Next time,
Ad Jesum per Mariam.