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Difference Between Imperialism and Colonialism

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World history has been shaped by the expansion of powerful nations and their occupation of foreign lands to proliferate trade, alliances, knowledge and influence. Many cultures have built empires and established settlements, and these imperial and colonial doctrines still have a resounding legacy on the world today.

How is imperialism different from colonialism?

The main difference between imperialism and colonialism lies in their context. Imperialism itself is the policy of expanding a country’s territory and influence through military or diplomatic means, while colonialism adopts and applies this policy by creating settlements in foreign lands to extract new resources and extend a country’s reach.

What is Imperialism?

roman empire imperialism
The Expansion of the Roman Empire through its Imperialist Policy

Imperialism is a national doctrine whereby a country extends its territories and controls new lands by exercising its political, military or economic power.

Nations may adopt an imperialistic policy for many reasons; if successful, their imperial ambitions may yield to them a wealth of advantages, including access to valuable ports, trade hubs or cultural centers; more land for settlement; greater sway over other countries; a new supply of manpower; and valuable natural resources.

Imperialist policies are also characterized by the geopolitical dynamic in which a dominant metropolitan core rules over distant territories. Said territories may even be separated on land from an empire’s center.

What is Colonialism?

Illustration of the Greek & Phoenician Colonization

Colonialism refers to the practice of imposing control over a group of people, most commonly through the establishment of colonies, for mainly economic benefits.

Colonies are foreign territories that are settled by colonizers and subjected to the rule of the “mother country.” These colonies provide a safe haven for citizens looking to migrate to new lands, and expedite trade and diplomacy between the mother country and local states.

Colonization also facilitates the spread of new technologies, socio-cultural practices, languages, resources, and religions to the native population.

Indigenous people in colonies are often treated with suspicion; some colonial nations, such as the Spanish Empire, treated natives as second-class citizens, or enslaved them entirely.

Differences between Imperialism and Colonialism


Imperialism and colonialism are associated concepts that are distinguishable through context.

For starters, imperialism is considered as the underlying policy that drives most attempts at colonization. Its focus on territorial expansion is motivated by the acquisition of new resources, land and other strategic assets to increase a state’s military, economic and political power. 

Imperialistic policies can adopt a number of methods that are meant to enforce control over new peoples and territories.

Colonialism is a practice that is closely associated with imperialist doctrines, as settling colonists into new lands is a long-term strategy for expanding a nation’s territory. While imperialism can accomplish several objectives, colonization efforts are often made for primarily economic aims.

Scholars agree that both imperialism and colonialism have historically involved a form of invasion; militarily, in the case of many empires, and economically, where colonies are involved.

Movement of People

Migration is a more prominent facet of colonialism compared to imperialism; settlers from the mother country can find many incentives to establish their homes and businesses in distant territories, such as new opportunities for trade and livelihood and an escape from religious persecution.

Such settlement efforts can lead to the displacement or alienation of native populations.

Imperialism also allows for the movement of people between the metropolitan core and distant territories.

Slavery was a common cause for why subjugated natives also moved across an empire. For instance, West African slavers sold African slaves to imperial powers, such as the French and Portuguese, after which the slaves were transported to work in colonial holdings in the Americas and elsewhere.

Geographical Dynamics

Imperialism and colonialism both seek to expand a nation’s territory and reach, although the modern definition of colonialism implies that there is a considerable distance between a colony and its mother country.

As colonialism is chiefly motivated by settling in economically-valuable areas, many colonies are situated in distant locales. These colonies may only be practically accessible by sea, due to the length and danger associated with land routes.

Imperialism might result in a state controlling neighboring lands, which are much nearer geographically and culturally. 

Nature of Control

Imperialism doesn’t necessarily require that the mother country imposes formal and legal control over acquired territories and their native populations, as long as functional control is maintained through political, military, or economic coercion.

Scholars describe the British imperial doctrine, for instance, as imposing control “informally if possible, and formally, if necessary.”

Colonialism, in practice, involved more hands-on methods of control. Soldiers were required to maintain the peace, tame the land for future expansion, and quell native uprisings.

Due to the vast distances that separate many colonies from their metropolis (mother city), governors and administrators may be sent to rule over these holdings on behalf of the central government. These colonial governments may be afforded a degree of autonomy to better rule over their subjects’ affairs.

Historical Examples

Imperialism has been a recurring motif in world history since antiquity, and is a testament to Man’s drive for expansion and conquest. 

Many of the world’s greatest empires, such as Ancient Rome, the Mongol Empire, the Ming Dynasty, and the Mali Empire, are excellent examples of states that exerted both soft and hard power to control distant lands informally.

Although different from the modern form of colonialism, the practice of people forming colonies is similarly long-lived, reflecting the human desire to seek greener pastures in new lands. 

Great colonial powers of the past included the Phoenicians, master seafarers of the Mediterranean Sea; the Ancient Greeks; and Han China.


The root word of colonialism, colony, is derived from the Latin colōnia, referring to a place for agriculture. 

Imperialism, on the other hand, originates from another Latin word, imperium, denoting a status of sovereignty or supreme power. 

Comparison Chart: Imperialism vs Colonialism

Movement of PeoplePresentMore prominent
Geographical DynamicsMay rule nearby or distant lands.Emphasis on vast distances.
Nature of ControlSoft or hard powerHard power, e.g. military means
Historical ExamplesMing Dynasty, Roman Empire, Mongol EmpirePhoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Han Dynasty
EtymologyLatin imperium, supreme power, sovereignty or ruleLatin colōnia, a place for agriculture

How are Imperialism and Colonialism similar? 

Colonialism and imperialism are closely-interrelated concepts, to the point where they are considered interchangeable to laymen. 

Both doctrines adopt expansionism as an ideal; they value the growth and development of a nation through the acquisition of new lands, resources, peoples, and other strategic assets. 

Imposing and maintaining control is vital for both imperial and colonial efforts. The mother country may leverage its political, economic or military strengths to retain its grasp over new territories. 

Culture, technology, ideologies, economic practices, religions, and other facets from the mother country will invariably be assimilated by native populations, although it is not uncommon for native cultures to influence their settlers’ cultures in some form, particularly concerning cuisine, fashion and lifestyle.


What are the different types of colonialism?

The primary form of colonialism is “settler colonialism,” in which migrants from a mother country settle en masse into new lands, eventually becoming the majority demographic and displacing the native populations.

Scholars have also defined other forms of colonialism, such as:

- Extractive Colonialism, where colonists are mainly interested in collecting vast quantities of valuable raw materials from an area;

- Planter Colonialism, in which colonizers institute the mass planting of a particular crop in fertile lands; and,

- Imperial Power Colonialism, by which nations use colonies to extend their military, diplomatic or economic reach.

Why did the Mongol Empire collapse?

Although the Mongol Empire of the 13th century became the greatest contiguous land empire in world history, the sheer quantity of different tribes, populations, languages and religions under its domain meant that its stability was always challenged.

Scholars see Genghis’ son, Kublai Khan, and his central government in China as competent rulers, although they were ultimately unable to control such a vast empire.

The Mongol Empire split into different states after Kublai’s death in 1294. The following 14th century saw several crises of succession occur which further weakened the government, and inevitably resulted in a rash of rebellions.


Imperialism and colonialism are expansionist doctrines; nations under these doctrines aim to grow in power through controlling new territories, populations, and resources.

Imperialism is understood as the policy that instructs colonialism. Imperial states may seek to annex neighboring countries, or create colonies in distant lands. Soft or hard power can be exercised to retain control over these areas. 

There are many motivations for imperialism: military projection, greater diplomatic influence, and acquisition of new assets and resources for the economy.

Colonialism is a practice commonly tied to imperial ambitions. Migrants from the mother country who move to new settlements is one of the principal aspects of colonialism. 

Colonies are often economically-motivated projects; as such, colonists search for valuable resources in distant lands, which may be very distant from the mother country.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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