Those who misunderstand colonialism and its subsequent re-shaping of the world often ask what makes it so different from all the other conquests in history. What separates the British Empire from the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great? Why do North Africans resist French influence but not the region’s prior Arabization? Why don’t populations demand apologies from all their previous conquerors in an attempt to reconcile all that has been done to them?
To compare European colonial systems to the flow and ebb of prior conquests is to assume that all historical conquests relied on the same model of subjugation that defined European conquest: centralized and institutional racialization of peoples across the globe, in need of civilization (or the alternative, extermination), and whose histories could be described by constructed hierarchies. As it stands, such characterizations only framed the praxis of European colonization. Prior conquests, for all intents and purposes, were not borne out of globally racialized agendas that attempted to recourse history towards new definitions and categories, but typically out of fundamental desires for wealth, power, cultural or religious influence, and stability. Most conquerors also assimilated to the cultures of the lands they acquired rather than simply the reverse, and often the subsequent cultural exchange influenced both the habitus of the conquerer and the conquered.
For example, Sudanese intellectuals, regarding Arab influence in North Africa, argued that:
Afro-Arab integration in the North tended to be referred to as Arabization. To the extent that Arab symbols of identification, especially their language and religion, have been highlighted over and above their African equivalents, this characterization may be justified, but the process involved more give-and-take than the term “Arabization” would adequately reflect. A significant degree of Africanization of the Arab element also took place. (x)
European colonization did not permit such give-and-take. There was no Native Americanization of British settlers in the Americas, no Indianization of British culture, no Africanization of Europe; instead there was a one way push towards the Europeanization of the colonies- a push that attempted to strip and eradicate whole cultures and peoples from their native identities.
Moreover, no other conquest in history received massive authority from virtually every part of society. While rulers in previous eras sanctioned their own expansion with or without popular support, European colonization was justified, reinforced, and encouraged by political figures, religious authorities, scientists, the intelligentsia, philosophers, artists, the working class, merchants, and more. Each social class in the otherwise stratified nation-state became a beneficiary to the fruits of colonialism and all unified to buttress its institutionalization with easy conscience. Academia and other discourse were dedicated to crafting fields of study that attempted to legitimize the dehumanization of global peoples, establish their inferiority to reflect European superiority, and subjugate the world to Social Darwinist ideologies through various modes of violence. The centrality and normalization of this method was unprecedented.
The resulting violence in native lands, then, was also unprecedented in history. No other era testifies to the systematic eradication of peoples and cultures by the bloody hands of European colonialists. No other era exhibits a collective continental culture that relied on terrorizing millions worldwide. No other era has killed more, exploited more, and glorified itself more than the era of European colonization.
This is why the resistance to the legacy of colonialism is so great and why Europe and America are so scrutinized and held responsible for their recent sins; sins that scathed Africa, Asia, and South America, and whose wounds are still bleeding. Indeed, this is also why European colonization is not comparable to other conquests of the past.