In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ideologies of Colonization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Empire and Sovereignty
  • Conquest and Settlement
  • Old World and New
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Economy
  • Cartography
  • English Ideologies

Atlantic History Ideologies of Colonization
Ken MacMillan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0034


Envisioning, executing, and explaining colonization in the Atlantic world was a complex process for European and American intellectuals, who were often called upon to justify these actions both domestically and to the wider Atlantic community. As a result, several ideologies—or core intellectual ideas that focused goals, expectations, and actions—impacted European expansion into, and subsequent engagement with, the Atlantic world. Certain fundamental ideologies were shared, though not equally, by most of the European Atlantic powers. These included the intellectual desires to bring about Christian conversion and “civilization” among indigenous peoples; to utilize legal and political dialogue to justify their actions; to expand the territorial size of their states through colonization or conquest; improve national economic, political, and imperial power, especially vis-à-vis other competing European states; and to learn about the unknown parts of the world and its peoples and then determine how this new knowledge altered the world picture. Each nation also developed somewhat specific ideologies, both because of contemporary national perceptions that were not necessarily of interest to other nations, and as a direct challenge to the ideological justifications used by other European Atlantic powers. As a counterpoise to the Iberian ideology of belligerent conquest, for example, which was informed by their experiences with the Reconquista, the northern powers of Britain, France, and the Netherlands argued (though not without exception) for a more peaceful and benign method of colonization. In the process of this ideological debate, the northern powers tended to emphasize their desire for land, trade, and peaceful relations with the native population, rather than the subjugation of indigenous peoples. In turn, this land- and commodity-based ideology informed new economic policies and different attitudes toward native peoples and African slaves. Likewise, Protestant nations such as Britain and the Netherlands often argued for the importance of an ideology of liberty (of person and conscience), self-government, and private enterprise, as opposed to the more rigorous uniformity of religion and state that characterized the Catholic powers of France, Portugal, and Spain. As the subject of Atlantic ideology is a very large and complex one, this entry focuses on some general ideologies of colonization, while other entries should be consulted for more detailed treatment of individual themes (such as economic, religious, and racial ideologies, as well as the ideologies of liberty and republicanism.)

General Overviews

A number of texts compare and contrast the ideologies of the five principal Atlantic powers. Abernathy 2001 surveys overseas expansion with an emphasis on ideological trends leading toward global dominance, while Greene and Morgan 2008 offers essays on national ideologies and distinct themes. Bailyn and Denault 2008 is especially strong on the subject of economy and religion. Elliott 2006, Pagden 1995, and Seed 1995 take important comparative approaches, demonstrating the ideological similarities (Elliott) and differences (Seed) espoused by certain Atlantic powers.

  • Abernathy, David B. The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    A magisterial survey of European overseas expansion. Abernathy emphasizes that three specific ideologies—the development of the nation-state, new expansionist economics, and proselytizing religion—resulted in the rise and fall of imperialism.

  • Bailyn, Bernard, and Patricia L. Denault. Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    A collection of essays by leading scholars, covering a number of key intellectual underpinnings for expansion and settlement, especially the impact of economic and religious ideologies. See especially chapters 3–7.

  • Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Provides sweeping comparative analysis, written in lively prose, explaining England’s Atlantic ideologies and activities in relation to Spanish colonizing efforts, generally with the purpose of showing the similarities between the two approaches.

  • Greene, Jack P., and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Offers a broad discussion of the five Atlantic powers, including the ideologies that informed their activities. Includes thematic chapters on intellectual approaches to native peoples, Africans, and European efforts to assimilate the new.

  • Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c. 1500–c. 1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

    An influential work arguing that European Atlantic ideologies were fundamentally informed by medieval perceptions of Christian universal supremacy and classical theories of empire. The Spanish used the language and methods of conquest, while the British and French eschewed that language in preference for mundane methods of settlement.

  • Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    A controversial comparison of the ideologies and methods used by the five major Atlantic powers, arguing that each nation used vernacular methods to justify its activities. The Spanish focused on the ideology of conquest and subjugation, the English on mundane settlement, the French on theatrical acts and native consent, the Portuguese on astronomical and scientific knowledge, and the Dutch on maps and chorographical descriptions.

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