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Economies and Empire

Colonialism and the Clash of National Visions

Using Photographs to Support a Claim

Learning Targets

  • I can articulate how photography served to define, support, and eventually undermine colonialist agendas.
  • I can identify conditions that led to nationalist movements.
  • I can describe the impact that photography had on colonialism.
  • I can write from differing perspectives about colonialism.
  • I can identify different methods of resistance to colonialism in different countries.


The push to colonize Africa began after the mid-nineteenth century. Over the course of roughly 40 years, the leading European powers began their conquest of much of tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Island Pacific. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal waged wars abroad, either building new empires or enlarging already existing ones. This time of empire building and expansion is also known as the “new imperialism,” in which the countries previously mentioned, plus Japan and the United States, conquered societies that lacked comparable wealth or military strength. Even though the ethnic societies that were invaded devised a variety of strategies to defend themselves, by the early 1900s, the invading forces had gained sufficient control to start organizing colonial governments and extracting exportable resources.

Colonialism is the term used to describe the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony, and often between the colonists and the indigenous population. Similarly, imperialism, as it is defined by the Dictionary of Human Geography, is an unequal human and territorial relationship, usually in the form of an empire, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another.

In 1830, France invaded and captured the North African port city of Algiers. King Charles X of France was motivated more by political prestige than by any clear strategic aim, as he (and few other European leaders) had little knowledge of the African interior. During this time, France focused on “civilizing” Algeria, and as a result, Algerian culture suffered. Algeria became a destination for thousands of European immigrants, who later became known as Pied-Noirs, or “black feet,” referring to people of French or other European ancestry. Many of these settlers migrated to Africa—not to work or serve temporarily, but to establish permanent communities where they expected to live a European lifestyle. They routinely displaced African farmers by legal or illegal means and with full colonial government support. Most of the country’s Arabic and Berber-speaking Muslim majority was reduced to the status of landless, and depended on earning small wages working for European agribusiness. Settlers expected the European colonial government to protect them and grant them economic opportunities and social privileges that the majority of the population was not entitled to. European settlers also enjoyed political power that went way beyond their numbers in terms of total population.

During roughly the same time, the British were capitalizing off of their ownership of India. As a British imperial possession, the population of more than 250 million (compared to a mere 31 million in Britain) offered many opportunities for obtaining goods and money. Iron and steel plants were created, and soon India was supplying tons of rail stock to the colonial transport authority. These rail lines were used to export growing amounts of tropical groceries and “drug foods,” such as sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco, and opium, to places where wealthy urban classes could afford them. Cotton, too, was a popular crop, especially in India, and was exported in great quantities, and especially during the American Civil War. As a result, investors opened millions of acres of land in both India and Algeria to commercial farming. The movement of once self-sufficient farmers into agricultural wage work most often led to poverty.

Begin the Activity

Part 1: Newspaper Report
Students may work either individually or in groups. Hand out copies of the images or project them. Tell students that they are working for a major newspaper, and their field photographers have just developed these images. It is now their job to write an article based on one of two views:

  • They are writing from the European viewpoint to support the economic, cultural, religious, and political opportunities that colonial ventures offered. They want to encourage fellow Europeans to consider purchasing products from the colony—and possibly moving there—because of the wealth of economic opportunity.


  • They are writing from the viewpoint of the colonized, in protest of colonization. They want to persuade Europeans to stop purchasing products from the colony or moving there because of the damage it is causing to their society.

Ask students what they will need to know about the images to write the article. Encourage them to cite where in the image or in their research they can support their comments in their article.

Throughout the activity, ask students to keep the RAFT acronym in mind:

R: Role. Identify possible roles. What role are they taking on?

A: Audience. Identify possible audiences. (For example, not everyone in the colonized country would be against the colonizers.)

F: Format. What format will they be using? (In this case, it’s a newspaper article.)

T: Topic. For their topic (colonization), be sure they choose strong verbs. They are writing to persuade, argue, support, etc.

Questions to Consider

  • What is the perspective or point of view of the photographs? What is emphasized and how (such as objects or props, placement of people, relationship of people to objects or architecture, relationships between people)?
  • Do you think these photos were posed or candid? What message, story, or experience is the photographer trying to relay to the viewer?
  • What aspects of the scene in the photograph can be manipulated to promote colonialist views?
  • Why do you think colonization happened to the extent that it did?
  • What events set up conditions that were favorable for colonization to take place?

Part 2: Design a Poster
Working in small groups, have students design and create a poster that either supports or criticizes colonialism. Invite students to use the photographs that were used in the newspaper activity. This poster could be used to persuade politicians, tourists, business owners, or any other relevant group from the period. These posters could be displayed along side the newspaper articles, or independently.

Extension Activity

Literature Connection
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, focuses on the clash between colonialism and traditional African culture. The story chronicles the life of Okonkwo, a tribal leader who struggles to accept the changes that white colonizers bring to his village. In partnership with the language arts teacher, have students read Achebe’s novel and consider the myriad moral and ethical dilemmas that are explored. Ask students why they think this novel is still relevant today.



next: Defining Colonialism

Grade Level

High School


Social Studies
World History


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