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Colonialism and Postcolonialism

  1. Daniel Butt

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee763

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Butt, D. 2013. Colonialism and Postcolonialism. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


Much of the history of international relations is characterized by the violent attempts of one community to subjugate another. In 1955, Aimé Césaire wrote of the “great historical tragedy” that befell Africa in its encounter with European colonialism, an encounter that led Césaire to conclude that “Europe is responsible before the human community for the highest heap of corpses in human history” (2000: 45). A range of important ethical issues emerges from a consideration of the past interaction between colonizing and colonized peoples, both in the African context and elsewhere in the world. This article first seeks to describe the key characteristics of colonialism as a system of domination and subjugation, before considering the legitimacy of contemporary judgments on the morality of historical colonialism. It then examines how the particular character of colonialism complicates arguments relating to the rectification of injustice. It concludes by asking what lessons those interested in ethics can learn from the diverse body of work produced by writers in the postcolonial tradition.


  • legal and political;
  • practical (applied) ethics;
  • colonialism;
  • compensatory justice;
  • postcolonialism