Colonialism as a Modern Regime of Power

Dr Philip Holden, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


Late colonialism, for Chatterjee, needs to operate for both ideological and pragmatic reasons as distinctly modern form of power. Colonial rulers in the later nineteenth century would appeal for philosophical justification to the thematic of the Enlightenment, of European thought from the eighteenth century onwards. The human race is here seen as progressing from primitivity to modernity through its exposure to the light of reason. As scientific knowledge of the world increases, so human beings will control their world to a greater extent.

As a modern regime of power, late colonialism cannot appeal--except as a very last resort--to brute force or to ideas of sovereignty. Rather, it must attempt to justify itself by attaching itself to Enlightenment ideals. Thus colonialism is often presented by colonialists as a kind of tutelage, in which colonized peoples will eventually be brought up to the level of Europe. As incredible as it may seem to us now, many colonial officials see themselves as missionaries, bringing light to the darkest corners of the earth, taking on "the White Man's burden" of educating and enlightening colonized peoples so that they could begin, very slowly, to climb up the ladder of progress which the colonizers have already climbed.

Colonialism thus works as governmentality, attempting through institutions such as schools, asylums, and churches to encourage colonized peoples to move gradually towards "self-improvement." This is also a pragmatic strategy, in that relatively few colonizers (and, crucially for colonizing governments, little money) are needed to run a colony.

[Postcolonial Web Overview] [Postcolonial Discourse Overview] Partha Chatterjee Overview

Last Modified: 19 April, 2002