Comparativ 30 (2020), 3/4

Comparativ 30 (2020), 3/4.
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Comparing Colonialism: Beyond European Exceptionalism

Comparativ is edited by Matthias Middell and Hannes Siegrist (ReCentGlobe, Leipzig University) on behalf of the European Network in Universal and Global History and published with Leipzig University Press
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Comparativ is edited by Matthias Middell and Hannes Siegrist (ReCentGlobe, Leipzig University) on behalf of the European Network in Universal and Global History and published with Leipzig University Press
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Comparing Colonialism: Beyond European Exceptionalism
edited by Axel T. Paul and Matthias Leanza

Matthias Middell / Katja Castryck-Naumann, pp. 221–222.


Axel T. Paul / Matthias Leanza: Comparing Colonialism: Beyond European Exceptionalism. Introduction, pp. 223–235.

Krishan Kumar: What’s in a Name? Should We Distinguish Colonialism and Imperialism?, pp. 236–247.

Though popular and much scholarly usage does not distinguish between colonialism and imperialism, some scholars have argued for a clear analytical distinction between the two. A prominent example is the classicist Moses Finley, who especially wishes to define “colony” in terms that would distinguish it from “empire”. There are certainly some gains from attempting to do this, notably in emphasizing the distinctiveness of European “settler colonialism” from the fifteenth century onwards. But this article argues that there are also significant losses in trying to draw too hard and fast a line between colonialism and imperialism. It severely limits comparative possibilities, by excluding most of the empires of the ancient world as well as most non-Western empires, such as the Chinese Empire. There are considerabl continuities and overlaps between empires across a wide swathe of space and time; modern colonialism is a sub-species of empires in general, not a separate experience requiring special treatment. Our accounts would be the poorer if we adopt too restrictive a definition of colonialism, blinding us to the many ways in which it fits into the larger and longer story of empire.

Martin Mauersberg: Of Archetypes and Special Cases: Colonization in Greek and Roman Antiquity, pp. 248–261.

Pre-modern forms of colonization readily come to mind when “comparing colonialism”. Among them, the colonization undertaken by the Greeks and the Romans stands out, because of a longstanding assumption about their special relationship to modern European colonization. Greek colonization and Roman colonization were not merely seen as distinct exemplars of colonization, but also as inherently “European” phenomena and therefore as forerunners of Europe’s more recent exploits overseas – a perception which imposes an anachronistic interpretative framework. Consequently, the paper calls into question these well-established modern perceptions and examines the peculiarities of Greek and Roman colonization, which consisted, above all, in the establishment of cities, which were, however, not necessarily adjacent to “Others” or aimed at political domination.

Robert G. Hoyland: Were the Muslim Arab Conquerors of the Seventh-Century Middle East Colonialists?, pp. 262–273.

In the course of the seventh century Muslim Arabs successfully conquered lands and peoples from Morocco to Afghanistan; they founded cities in their newly acquired territories, settled in them, ruled from them and extracted resources, both physical and human, from their hinterlands. This sounds like eminently colonialist behaviour, but there are reasons to pause and reflect on this point. There is the general problem of applying modern terms to pre-modern situations; for example, in a world where states have a clear sense of borders, it is more evident when one power trespasses upon the realm of another, but what about a world where borders are fluid and shifting or even seen as non-existent? Then there are the specific circumstances of the late antique Middle East, which was dominated by the empires of Rome and Persia, both of which aspired to supremacy. Can the Muslim Arab defeat of these states and occupation/ exploitation of their lands be characterized as colonialism? And how did the Muslim Arabs conceive of their own conquests, what were their intentions and should we factor them into our assessment of the nature of their rule? These and other questions will be considered by this paper.

James A. Reilly: Ottomans in Syria: “Turkish Colonialism”, or Something Else?, pp. 274–284.

Syria under Ottoman rule offers material for interrogating the concept of colonialism. The Ottoman Empire governed the predominantly Arabic-speaking population of the Syrian lands for four centuries (1516–1918). Ottoman rule in Syria bears at least a superficial resemblance to modern colonialism, including implantation of new populations, economic exploitation by administrators, and co-optation of “warlike” or “tribal” communities into the imperial structure. But the story of the Ottoman Empire in Syria is more complicated than a binary colonizerscolonized vision allows. The Ottoman sultanate transitioned from a powerful pre-modern empire to a beleaguered and defensive-minded modern state. Rather than representing “Turkish colonialism”, Ottoman rule in Syria illustrates an instance of how an older imperial structure tried to adapt to new and unfavourable circumstances of modern statehood.

Michael Khodarkovsky: A Colonial Empire Without Colonies: Russia’s State Colonialism in Comparative Perspective, pp. 285–299.

This paper argues that the Russian empire was a colonial empire in denial. Similar to other European empires, Russia’s policies and practices were colonial in nature. It was particularly so in the Asian parts of the empire, where Russian expansion evolved from a non-settler to a settler form of colonialism. However, unlike other European empires, Russian authorities consistently and consciously denied Russia’s colonial nature. What distinguished the Russian empire from its European counterparts was the dominant role of the state and a type of state colonialism that European empires began to practice at a much later stage.

Matthew W. Mosca, Imperialism and Colonialism in the Qing Context, pp. 300–312.

This paper outlines a framework for using the concepts of imperialism and colonialism to analyse the Qing empire, by relating the political goals of the Qing state with the economic and demographic centrality of China proper within the empire. In Inner Asia, state-driven imperialism often restricted the penetration of Han Chinese migrants and economic networks. In predominantly non-Han regions of southern China, by contrast, state policies often promoted migrant settlement and cultural transformation in forms that reflected a colonial dynamic. Southeast Asia was also deeply influenced by China proper’s economic growth and out-migration, but here the lack of Qing state interest prevented the emergence of a dynamic resembling that of European colonialism. After 1860, the Qing state increasingly abandoned efforts to balance the interests of various subjects, and shifted to a colonial policy of integrating all parts of the realm as closely as possible with China proper.

Félix A. Acuto / Iván Leibowicz: In Pursuit of the Sacred: Understanding Inka Colonialism in the Andes, pp. 313–326.

The Inka Empire, or Tawantinsuyu, was the largest ancient empire in the Americas. During the fifteenth century and the first decades of the sixteenth century, the Inkas managed to conquer vast regions of the South American Andes, subduing a variety of groups and polities. But the Inkas did not expand their realm for the sole purpose of extracting resources and accumulating wealth. To various degrees, they developed a colonial project that aimed at reshaping the political, economic, cultural and religious institutions and practices of the colonized. There is no doubt that Inka colonialism involved, among other things, corvée labour, the strategic relocation of people(s) and the exploitation and production of staple crops and luxury goods. Nevertheless, we argue in this paper that, above all, the Inkas expanded into the Andean region to meet and relate to the Sacred. Inka expansionism was a sort of religious quest through which the Inkas built up their authority and legitimized their rule.

Wolfgang Reinhard: Agency, Cooperation, and Oligarchy – The Origins of Colonialism, pp. 327–338.

There were plenty of necessary conditions for successful European expansion and control. But the sufficient condition for success involves a combination of agency, cooperation and oligarchy. Colonialism is almost never the consequence of a master plan formulated by a particular government, but, as a rule, results from the initiative of individuals, such as explorers, merchants, missionaries – and bandits. Furthermore, for geographical, political and – last but not least – financial reasons colonial rulers had no choice but to recruit soldiers, administrators and servants from the indigenous population. Finally, in many cases, colonialism resulted in the combined domination of European and indigenous oligarchies at the expense of native subjects.

Janne Lahti: Apache Land: Indigenous Colonialism on North America’s Borderlands, pp. 339–354.

Challenging the idea of colonialism as a European monopoly, this article uses a colonial and settler-colonial lens to frame a discussion of eighteenth-century North American borderland histories involving Apaches, Comanches and the Spanish. It centres on the idea of a shifting and contested colonial zone – Apache land – as a mosaic of competing colonial projects and intricate networks of friendship and enmity. In this zone, the Apaches, Comanches and the Spanish engaged in expansionist projects and invidious distinction, as well as elimination, replacement and assimilation. The Apaches were expansionists whose homelands enlarged, contracted and fragmented over time as a result of rival expansionist projects and the Apache’s own designs. Consequently, Apache land was a space being constantly remade by colonial projects that were not dictated or dominated by Euro-Americans.

Axel T. Paul: Colonizing Colonizers: On the Colonial Transformation of “Pre-Colonial” Rwanda, pp. 353–371.

Even before Rwanda became a German colony in the final years of the nineteenth century, the pre-colonial Rwandan kingdom ruled over western frontier territories which had already acquired a quasi-colonial status. Here, models and methods of domination and exploitation were developed that, under European colonial rule, came to serve as the blueprint for Rwanda’s pseudo-traditional socio-political structure. Yet, it was European colonialism which transformed Rwanda’s pre-colonial imperialism into a case of internal colonialism. The first part of the paper deals with general reasons for the development of statehood in interlacustrine Africa. The second part focuses on the rise and inner dynamics of the Rwandan empire from the mideighteenth century until the arrival of the European conquerors. The last part outlines to what extent the European presence in Rwanda enabled the Rwandan monarchy not only to survive, but to live up to its pretension to be the sovereign ruler of the country.

Matthias Leanza: Colonial Trajectories: On the Evolution of the German Protectorate of Southwest Africa, pp. 372–386.

Colonialism manifests itself in a variety of forms. Through comparative case studies, we can systematically explore these varieties. However, by focusing on recurring patterns in order to determine what is typical for a given case, in contrast to other cases, comparative studies tend to neglect temporality and change. Hence the question arises: How can we acknowledge the evolving nature of the objects of comparison without rendering systematic accounts impossible? In order to answer this question, I will discuss the notion of “colonial trajectories”, which allows us to create process-sensitive typologies. I will illustrate this argument by tracing – in three steps – the evolution of the German protectorate of Southwest Africa, the precursor of present-day Namibia. Although this essay is not itself comparative, it does lay out a conceptual framework for comparing patterns of socio-political change in a colonial context.

Kate McDonald: Looking for Empires: Japanese Colonialism and the Comparative Gaze, pp. 387–400.

This article surveys trends in recent English-language studies of Japanese imperialism and colonialism. Anglophone scholarship on comparative Japanese colonialism has shifted approaches in recent years. The early generation of comparative scholarship emphasized inter-imperial and inter-regional comparison. Newer scholarship builds comparative categories from the grounded analysis of liminal and transgressive subjects. Overall, the field increasingly represents the Japanese empire not as a singular phenomenon or a collection of distinct colony-metropole relationships. Instead, the field approaches the study of colonialism in the Japanese empire as an act of untangling the threads that made, and continue to make up, the many Japanese empires. The most exciting comparative work is that which does not explicitly define itself as comparative at all, yet which forces the field to re-evaluate the possibilities and limits of producing knowledge through comparison.


Frederick Cooper, pp. 401–409.


Jon Mathieu: Globalisation of Alpinism in the Twentieth Century: Publicity, Politics, and Organisational Endeavours, pp. 410–422.

Book Reviews

Sverre Bagge: State Formation in Europe, 843–1789. A Divided World, Abingdon / New York 2019
by John Breuilly, pp. 423–425.

Gordon H. Chang / Shelley Fisher Fishkin (eds.): The Chinese and the Iron Road. Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Stanford 2019
by Thorben Pelzer, pp. 426–428.

Michael Zeuske: Handbuch Geschichte der Sklaverei. Eine Globalgeschichte von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, 2., überarb. und erw. Aufl., 2 Bde., Berlin / Boston 2019; Michael Zeuske: Sklaverei. Eine Menschheitsgeschichte von der Steinzeit bis heute, S
by Jürgen Angelow, pp. 429–432.


Gwyn Campbell: Africa and the Indian Ocean World from Early Times to circa 1900, Cambridge 2019
by Geert Castryck, p. 433.

Weiping Wu / Mark W. Frazier (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Contemporary China, London 2018
by Jan Zofka, p. 334.

Comparativ 30 (2020), 3/4. in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 17.04.2021, <>.
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