Postcolonial theory

Postcolonial theory - an introduction

Key vocabulary

Defining colonialism and postcolonialism

Colonialism is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically" (Oxford dictionary, 2019). Simplified, it is our global history and the actions of colonial powers. Postcolonialism is the aftermath, the 'after-colonial (post means after) and the ways cultures, politics, and people changed. Imagine postcolonialism as looking at colonisation through a magnifying glass.

Colonisation has shaped our modern world and is divided into either settler coutries or non-settler countries.

Colonialism can be understood through studying historical and fictional documents. Most history books are written by the 'winners', while studying postcolonialism focuses on those who where affected by colonialism itself. 

As a part of English 7, we will study literature that reflects the impact colonialism had on people, their culture, behaviour and language. 


controlling, occupying and exploiting another country


the effects of colonialism on people, culture, politics and economy

The History of Colonialism

Colonialism is ancient and such is also the exchange of goods and ideas between parts of the world. Man has been in contact with one another over the millenia. For example, the Silk Road is a 6400 km road from China to Europe, where caravans dealt with cloth, metals, food stuffs, crafts, and ideas. Religion, philosophy and politics were also shared. 

The Silk Road is only one example where our interactions over country borders had an impact on the cultures that were connected by it. Ideas spread freely, influencing the other. By themselves, these of sharing, influencing and becoming influenced, are not negative since they are passive effects of people who interact. Colonialism as we understand it comes with the active and aggressive attempts to prey on others.

Impreialism is a policy, an organised action, that most often the source of colonisation. Where imperialism is the intention behind invading another country, colonisation is the action. Throughout history, we can see this by countries extending their power by, for example, use of military force. 

Rarely do we talk about imperialism and colonialism without mentioning war.  Examples are the conquests of imperial nations, such as South America by the conquistadors, Japanese colonies in South-east Asia, the British and settlements in North America and the relocation of Native Americans.

The Scramble for Africa

Indeed, colonialism can be clearly understood by looking at African history. Over the centuries, European countries had established trading posts along the African coast lines. With time, the UK, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, invaded the African contintent.

The intention was to seize control over economically strong areas and raw material. The name 'scramble' - meaning quick or hurried movement - came from the goal to secure lang before other European countries did. 

With the intent of controlling and exploiting African nations, the European empires not only took the continent by force, people were also held against their will. Africans were forced into labour and to cultivate farmland that now belonged to the ruling empire. 

Their crops become 'cash crops', meaning crop that was meant to be sold. Essentially, the lang that originally belonged to the native people was taken from the, they were forced into slavery and then have their yields benefit not themselves but the imperial nations.

Before the scramble


After the scramble


Alongside economical power were cultural effects. The natives of colonised countries were often seen as savages, godless and uneducated. The European perspective of life was considered to be the norm, known as eurocentrism. Eurocentrism goes hand-in-hand with the of the other, a concept where  European colonisers and the colonised people see each other as vastly different.  Moreover, the colonised people did not only succumb to slavery but were also being educated according to European values - colonial education -  in schools and churches.

Eurocentrism and colonial education came to have several strange effects. With time,  Africa, the Middle East, the Far East are mystical, different and therefore excotic from a European perspective. Eventually, some colonised people were also taught in school to see the European version of nature to be the norm, and thusly even their own surrounding become 'excotic' to them. 

After the second world war, power was shifted and African countries achieved independence. The process of decolonisation took several decades. In sum, a timeline for the Scramble for Africa is:

Colonised people were taught to sound European, for example speaking English with a British accent. They were not treated equally to those who spoke English natively and were known as mimic men, having to mimic their colonisers. Furthermore, children to European colonisers and natives expreienced hybridity, an identity conflict where they were of both of 'the civilised and savage world'. 

In sum, the long-term effects of colonisation, creating the image of people as 'other', education and eurocentrism have created a sense of ambivalence. Ambivalence, the sense of mixed feelings, come from the process where what once was seen as the norm - the African nations' environment, languges and cultures - have been taught to be of a lesser status. What people experience every day are 'inferior' to the western world, a change that is deeply rooted in history. 


“The ambiguous way in which colonizer and colonized regard one another.”


”The process by which a cultural practice is made stimulating and exciting in its difference from the colonializer’s normal perspective.”


A European western perspective is seen as the norm, in terms of world-view and culture.


A mix of cultural, ethnic or social aspects, such as traditions from parents’ mixed background. 

Colonial education

“The process by which a colonizing power assimilates ... larger population to its way of thinking and seeing the world.”


“Ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group (racism, sexism, etc).”


“The means by which the colonized adapt the culture (language, education, clothing, etc.) of the colonizer.”


Postcolonial theory with examples

An American man is seen carrying an African sterotype. This is a typical example of otherness, where the two individuals are juxtaposed as opposite extremes. Not only has the African man's skin been turned charcoal black,  his lips are absurdely enlarged. Moreover, he even has to be carried to a 'school house', evidently in need of the white man's colonial education.

Indian and Chinese skin-bleaching are examples of eurocentrism, colonial education and mimicry, where white skin is considered better than dark skin. Not only does it create and foster racism, where people of a certain skin colour are seeen as less admirable, it also grants immediate power to those who are born with more fair skin. 

The world map that we use in Swedish schools (and most European countries) has Europe placed in the middle. The placement reflects eurocentrism which becomes even more evident when looking at a world map from South Korea. Here, we can see many asian countries at the centre of the world. Interestingly, the name 'the Far East' becomes more ridiculous considered from this perspective.

Postcolonial examples in literature

Source: By William Blackwood (Life time: November 20, 1776 – September 16, 1834)

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. (1899) about Marlow, based on real events, as he rides a boat up river Kongo, looking for Kurtz, encounters savages and madness. Ifluential, but criticised of racism.


Things fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). A famous African novel in English about Okonkwo, concerning his manliness and pride, meeting with British missionaries and the change that comes with British colonial change.

Source: By Victor Gillam - “The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)” Judge, April 1, 1899

White Man’s burden by (1899), by Rudyard Kipling, is a poem about the Philippine–American War (1899–1902). White man’s burden includes pro-imperial concepts, arguing that countries and people seen as savages should be civilised.