Having raised the specter of imperialism last week, it’s time to talk about the common counterpart to the empire: the colony.
The two don’t always go hand-in-hand, of course. Not all empires have colonies, and there are ways to have a colony without an empire. But that depends on what type of colony you’re talking about — so let’s take a look at what some of the options are.
Science fiction in particular has frequently deployed the trope of a colony established on uninhabited land. In some cases that just means no intelligent life; in others there’s no life at all, and the colony’s mission is to begin terraforming the planet to make it more habitable. Fantasy makes less use of this idea, but still, it crops up from time to time, often with magical wildernesses highly inimical to the settlers.
In the real world, I suspect this scenario hasn’t existed since the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) about eight hundred years ago — and it hasn’t existed on a large scale for probably more like ten thousand years, as humans finished spreading throughout the Americas. Which makes this particular trope a deeply problematic one, as it posits a rosy scenario in which no intelligent creatures, human or otherwise, are being displaced . . . when the reality on the ground was usually quite different.
Establishing a colony has often meant subjugating or at least driving off the original inhabitants. Nobody wants to set themselves up on marginal, unproductive land, but since the good spots are generally spoken for already, some kind of struggle will usually ensue. I’m not going to say this is universal, since some ancient colonies at least started out as trading posts than regular agricultural settlements; in those cases you might see more in the way of treaties and intermarriage than warfare. But where the colonizers have a solid advantage in numbers, organization, or technology over the local population, the latter will often find themselves pushed back to less favorable areas — if they’re not killed outright. If the advantage isn’t solid enough, then the colony fails, as the invaders are the ones killed or driven away.
So far I’ve been talking about settler colonies, where a group of people from A go establish themselves in the land of B and build their own society there. But the huge wave of imperialism that swept the globe often took a somewhat different form, where aim was less to establish a new population hived off from A, more to exploit B for profit. In this case it might be clearer to speak of B as a colonial possession of A: while there’s probably a certain number of people from A there to handle administration or pursue their personal interests, the aim is not to get rid of all the B people. (If you did that, who would you exploit for profit? Much better to have them labor on your behalf — especially if it’s a tropical area and you’re more vulnerable than they are to the local diseases.)
Colonies of the settler type get established for a variety of reasons, not all of them focused on profit. Sometimes the founding population is made up of refugees or exiles, fleeing or driven from their original home and hoping to make a new one elsewhere . . . even if it means driving somebody else off in turn. On other occasions, though, some ambitious individual sees an opportunity and convinces others to help them pursue it. A colony can even be officially sponsored by the government of its mother country, when the ambitious individual in question is the one in charge.
Flip that around, and you see the reasons why someone might decide to take the risk of emigrating — because make no mistake, many of these colonies were dangerous enterprises. It’s always difficult to get a new settlement up and running, even when there aren’t hostile locals trying to kick you back out again. But the romance of the colony is that it offers a wide range of opportunities, not all of them purely monetary. Criminals might have their crimes forgiven in exchange for a certain span of labor, while some Greek colonies around the Mediterranean offered their settlers the citizen status they could never earn at home. Or maybe you just need to leave behind a controlling family, a broken heart, or some other personal woe.
Especially in pre-modern times, though, it can be very difficult to maintain control over a colony once it’s well-established. During the early days it’s likely dependent on the mother country for supplies, reinforcements, and defense, but as it grows out of its childhood and into the teenage years (metaphorically speaking), rebellion becomes common. After all — as my own nascent country said — why should this place remain beholden to a far-off ruler who often sees the daughter colony as nothing more than a convenient source of profit? Remember, empires tend to exploit the periphery for the benefit of the core, and while settlers may not be exploited as brutally as indigenous inhabitants, that doesn’t mean they’re treated well. Or rebellion isn’t even necessary, because events back in the homeland render the mother country unable to devote any attention to non-local concerns. Like one organism budding off another, the colony abandons its obligation to send taxes or tribute, and becomes fully independent.
As the science fiction and fantasy genres have changed with the times, we’ve seen a drop in those “colonizing an alien planet or magical land” stories — but not a drop in stories about colonization. We’ve just put the shoe on the other foot, looking at the process from the perspective of those displaced or oppressed, rather than the brave settlers forging a new life for themselves on other people’s land. Even when there’s no sentient species on the alien planet, we’re starting to question how justifiable it is to terraform an existing ecosystem for our own benefit, or to introduce life where it doesn’t exist at all. Narratives about how humanity leapt to the stars when Earth could no longer support life are giving way to narratives about how maybe we should fix the planet we’re on, rather than spending those resources on screwing up another one.
But we’re a long way from having no stories about colonies at all. Not while the scars left by our real “brave settlers” are still so raw.