Enclosure of the Commons and Colonialism

9 minute read

Open up your history textbook and turn to page 105 on British colonization of the Americas. Is this the beginning of colonialism and the end of Indigenous communities? Far from it; our “great” historians white-washed the full history of colonization. Before Columbus “discovered” the Americas, the Mongols had overtaken Asia, the Roman Empire had spread throughout the Mediterranean, and has gone the pattern of growth and fall for centuries. Colonialism as a noun refers to one group occupying another territory through political and economic control. The main difference between early colonialism and modern colonialism is the influence of capitalism, which created new and “innovative” systems of oppression. Instead of conquering land and requiring a tax, the capitalists structured new economies to benefit the colonizing state through the extraction of “natural resources” and “human capital”. The effects of modern colonialism persist into the present despite the independence of many colonies, due in large part to continued economic imperialism. 

Culture of Expansion

The agricultural revolution allowed societies to increase in complexity through specialization and population growth. Instead of every human engaging in food production, regions began to mass produce commodities from Persian textiles to Chinese salt and coal. The surplus in production created stronger ties between groups of people as the first trade routes developed, allowing for the diffusion of technology and goods. In the Middle Ages, manufacturing and commerce led to greater use of money including lords charging rents. During this time, empires began to form and expand into surrounding territory, including the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. The European economy continued growing as new technologies were developed, expanding agricultural production and leading to population growth. This great expansion fueled modern colonialism, as nations with abundant capital sought new markets and territories. 

Europeans began voyages with the purpose of establishing settlements abroad in the 16th century. Portugal, largely funded by anti-Muslim religious groups, sailed around Africa enslaving people for plantation work and exploiting gold resources that accounted for up to 25% of the state’s income. Meanwhile, the Spaniards created a stronghold on the Americas, exporting commodities like grains and silver that brought immense fortune to the country. This colonial expansion was made possible by the first European capitalists such as the Dutch, whose country became the financial capital of Europe, controlling commercial banks and exchange rates for trade. The Dutch East Indian Company, and later, the Dutch West Indian Company, operated with powers “normally reserved for a sovereign nation”, establishing settlements and warring with competitors. They made their fortune with large profit margins thanks to incredibly low wages for their sailors and the usage of child labor. The wealthy funded exploration and colonization while profiting off the exploitation of foreign lands and their own workers, further perpetuating the cycle of colonialism as the wealth derived from exploitation was used to fund further exploration. 

File: The East Indiaman General Goddard capturing Dutch East Indiamen, June 1795, by Thomas Luny.jpg
Dutch East Indian Company Ships

Settler Colonialism

The legacy and persistence of colonialism differs greatly depending on the region. The European colonization of the so-called United States was a form of colonization called settler colonialism in which the colonizer claims the territory of another group for its own people and country. Settler colonialism is incredibly damaging to pre-existing Indigenous communities because they are often forcibly removed or killed to make room for the colonizers. In the case of North America’s colonization, European colonists killed millions of Indigenous people through war, dispossession of resources, famine caused by forced removal to non-arable land, and the deliberate spread of disease. The remaining communities who survived the genocide have since been confined to ever-shrinking reservations subject to higher poverty rates and increased risk of sexual violence. American independence did not create a post-colonial state, either; instead, a new settler state gained formal control over claimed territory, while the colonized people continue to this day to lack full sovereignty over their land and people. 

Settler colonialism also became a method to rid the mother country of less “desirable” populations by expelling them to colonies. Anti-semitism in Europe during the 1600’s motivated the Dutch to move Jews to islands in the Caribbean and Brazil where they managed Dutch companies. When Portugal later occupied the formerly Dutch Brazil, many Jews were again forced to leave and pay high prices for refuge in the surrounding colonies. Prisoners also became a target for resettlement in the colonies: British criminals were sent to colonies in America and Australia as laborers for punishment. The conditions of the prisoners were harsh and many died in transport to the colonies from malnourishment. Once in Australia, enslaved prisoners were used to develop the colonies and local economies as laborers for public infrastructure and private companies. The prisoners had no opportunity for freedom, and were sent as disposable resources for exploitation. 

Coloured illustration of Arthur Philip, governor of Australia's first penal colony
Artistic depiction of Australian Penal Colony

Seizing of the Commons

When many colonial states invaded Indigenous societies, they brought capitalist ideology with them and instituted systems of governance accordingly. During the Spanish colonization of Mexico and Guatemala, Indigenous communities in the regions of Altos de Chiapas were “forced to transform their communal lands into individual property, which contributed to the fact that many communities completely lost their lands”. Traditionally, the communities engaged in subsistence agriculture to share in the labor costs and benefits of the land. However, the Spanish sought to increase profit by turning Indigenous land into a commodity to be sold to companies and taxed by the government. The colonizers segregated the local population, giving power to Ladinos by instituting “systems of serfdom and forced labor in plantations, mines, and workshops” in order to use class structures to subordinate the majority of the population. While Ladinos and Indigenous peoples are indistinguishable by biological standards, Ladinos identify themselves as white, as opposed to Indigenous peoples who retain their traditional culture. Today, the Ladinos still retain control over 70 percent of the land, which 95 percent of Indigenous peoples must rent for subsistence. The Indigenous communities struggle without adequate land for food production, low social mobility, and lower wages compared to Ladinos.

Similarly, the British colonization of India utilized a land tenure system to generate tax revenue, producing lingering social inequality and unequal levels of development. In many regions, the colonizers gave landlords rights to the land and power to “ set the revenue terms for the peasants under his jurisdiction and to dispossess any peasants who did not pay the landlord what they owed him”. The British highly benefited from the land revenue gained from the land tax, to the point where it constituted 60 percent of government revenue by 1841. In addition to the British profiting off the privatization of land, the landlords became wealthy because they were allowed to keep any profits generated from the land over the tax owed. The wealth disparity between people in India where the colonizers instituted landlords systems continues to be higher than in non-landlord-controlled regions. Colonization brought inequality and social division to countries in the global south through the privatization of land and institution of local hierarchies. 

File:Guatemala 4, GHR 16 (9269372204).jpg
Guatemalan, Indigenous activists

The Colonial Slave Trade

In budding colonial states, enslaved humans became a resource to be bought and traded to support economic growth and development. Scholars estimate that from 1450 to 1900 over 11 million people were forcibly removed from Africa and traded across Europe and the Americas. The number is possibly higher due to illegal trading and smuggling that occurred outside of government-sanctioned trades. Colonial expansion in the Americas contributed to a rapid increase in slavery during this period as colonies lacked high enough populations to support cash crops, like sugar. Slaves provided cheap labor to decrease the costs of agricultural production, thereby increasing profit margins and capital available for further investment. By relying on enslaved labor, colonizers were also able to specialize outside of food production, creating greater opportunity for technological advancement and complexity. Furthermore, many European states directly benefited from slavery, including Portugal, which monopolized African ports, and Spain, which profited by selling licenses to companies for selling slaves to it’s colonies. 

The slave trade allowed for rapid economic advancement and western expansion at the cost of human lives and ongoing oppression. People who were enslaved lost autonomy over their bodies along with their freedom. Women’s bodies turned into objects of production to increase the size of the work force through sexual violence. As a slave was considered property, the children of slaves could be taken away without the knowledge or consent of the parents. Generations of enslaved people were stripped of their cultural heritage, language, religion, name, and humanity for the “liberty” of white people and their economies. Despite the “end” of slavery, the trauma of the slave trade is ongoing as social hierarchies, wealth disparities, income disparities, systematic racism, generational trauma, state violence against people of color, and overall oppression continues to exist and impact the everyday lives of Black people in Western nations. 



While the term postcolonialism denotes that colonialism is behind us, the truth is that the effects of modern colonialism are ongoing, and new forms of colonial expansion are still emerging. The privileges of today are present because of the oppressions of yesterday that cannot be forgotten or erased. The current settler states would not be in existence without the objectification of land and people that spurred their rapid development. By invading Indigenous territories and committing genocide, colonizers destroyed many traditional ways of knowing and left behind hierarchies and deep-seated division. The tragedies of colonization not only impact the colonized, but perpetuate a combative relationship with the world that hurts everyone in its wake. Capitalist-colonialism continues to exist despite the decrease in direct settlement as the global south is exploited through economic institutions and neocolonialism. Nevertheless, we can work in solidarity with Indigenous communities for decolonization and full-sovereignty to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems and seek a regenerative future.

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