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Adam Smith, in the fourth book of his Wealth of Nations, has a section discussing colonies—of particular interest to him, since at the time of his writing European powers were far more interested in establishing overseas colonies than they had been since Ancient Rome. His discussion is useful to worldbuilders, since he conveniently lists three categories of colonies, to which we will add a fourth (of somewhat lesser importance). And we love our simple-yet-powerful classifications, indeed we do!

A colony, for our purposes, is when a country sends a significant number of its people to settle in a place outside of its official borders, but within its control. The colony may be more or less autonomous and may even be self-governing, to a point. Certainly, the mother country has less control over a colony than over its “home” territory. And sometimes this matters.

A colony can be founded for one of the following reasons (and once founded, can take on aspects of the others—as with cities):

  • to relieve population pressure in the home country;
  • to relieve political unrest by giving opportunities to the dispossessed;
  • to secure riches, or the promise of them; or
  • for geopolitical or military advantage.

Smith begins his survey with the ancient Greeks (he could have added the Phoenicians, if he cared to). The city-states of these societies often had limited territory, and few prospects to gain more territory in the same neighborhood, since they were surrounded by hostile neighbors. As their populations grew, the only way they could provide for the growing populace was to send much of the people abroad, usually by ship, to explore distant lands and form colonies where prospects were good. Smith notes that these colonies were often autonomous of the mother country, writing their own constitutions, choosing their own leaders, and being effectively independent. (Smith slightly overstates the point; colonies often sent regular tribute to their mother country, and often were expected to support the foreign policies of the mother country by custom. But colonies did often break free of such expectations.) Also, the colonists often formed a cross-section of their societies, with people of all classes going abroad.

By contrast, when Rome formed colonies in its conquered territories, they were intended not to relieve population pressure, but to provide some measure of opportunity to the desperately poor of Roman society. The Roman economy and property laws tended to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and left large numbers of people with no land or capital. To prevent unrest or even rebellion, the Romans encouraged their poorest to go abroad to farm new lands outside of Rome proper; those who moved to the colonies were awarded generous land grants. (Note that this was a change from the earliest Roman colonies, which were placed in defensive positions on the coastline or in strategic locations in conquered regions; these earlier colonies would thus be of our fourth type.) One could draw parallels to the role of Britain’s colonies in the Americas in providing a safe haven for religious or political dissidents, which had the beneficial effect of cooling down sectarian tensions in Britain.

The original European colonies in the Americas, meanwhile, were motivated strictly by personal enrichment for the first explorers and administrators. Columbus was hoping to find a lucrative shortcut to India; when he found the West Indies instead, he exaggerated the prevalence of gold and silver among the natives in order to keep his royal patrons happy. He thus encouraged generations of adventurers and brigands to set sail for the New World. (Both they and the monarchs who bankrolled them were avidly looking for gold and silver supposedly in the possession of the natives, but they found little. The new colonies eventually became prosperous, but it often took fifty or a hundred years, by which time the original investors were typically bankrupt.) These sorts of colonists were usually skewed towards military men and government administrators, especially if there was a native populace that could be enslaved for the heavy labor.

Similarly, the European colonies in Africa of the 1800s and 1900s were meant typically to extract resources, rather than to provide accommodations for excess population or to offload political instability. With a few exceptions (such as South Africa or Algeria), large numbers of Europeans did not move to the African colonies to live; typically, the Europeans were technical specialists like engineers, government administrators, and security personnel. They were interested in developing the societies they ruled only to the degree needed to efficiently harvest resources like diamonds, rubber, or uranium—and no further. The entire economy of such colonies was organized around resource extraction and export.

Finally, Smith omits mention of colonies that were placed primarily for military purposes. We mentioned the early Roman colonies; in more modern times, we could look at the role of Gibraltar for Britain, or the various islands in the Pacific grabbed by one great power or another. Such colonies were meant to support permanent military deployments far from their home base so that the mother country could project power, and would consist of the military forces, their families, and the families of various other specialists and artisans needed to support a permanent settlement.

In short, if you feature colonial powers in your worldbuilding, think about why the colonies were placed in the first place (at great expense and risk), and how that influences the location, population demographics, and subsequent histories of the colonies.


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Wealth for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)