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Economies and Empire

Colonialism and the Clash of National Visions


In the two hundred years between 1500 and 1700, travel by land and sea linked disparate parts of the globe in intricate relationships based on resources, wealth, trade, and power. This expanded system of international trade brought peoples and cultures into contact, and set in motion the phenomenon in which certain European powers came to dominate and exploit much of Africa and South Asia. A few such powers established far-flung footholds early: The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company were founded in the early 1600s to control the spice trade in Asian waters and the export of cotton and textiles from India. Soon, the Dutch would also establish a foothold in South Africa. In the centuries to come, European nations would continue to set up trade ventures and colonial outposts all around the world. By 1920, nearly 600 million people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific basin, and South America were living under one of nine colonial powers. In the aftermath of World War II, nationalist movements began to topple European regimes and win their independence.

This collection explores colonialism, traditionally thought of as a practice of domination by one group over another, subjugated group. The term colonialism has usually referred to instances in which one nation moved people to a new region, installing permanent settlements. Once there, the settlers maintained a political affiliation and loyalty to the home country. To varying degrees and by different measures, European “imperial” powers attempted to coerce indigenous populations into allegiance to the home country—that is, by annexing the territory as part of the home country, or by more indirect controls. The term “colonialism” usually refers to the act of subjugation, and “imperialism” to the methods employed (such as through military or economic domination). However, the terms are not always used consistently, even among scholars. Despite the difficulties of terminology, what is most important for this collection is an understanding that colonialism created relationships between groups of people who previously had not interacted.

Focusing on the course of European political domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this collection will consider some of the interactions between people in Africa and India and European colonizers, and explore the ways in which colonialism affected the colonizer and the colonized.

Photography was an essential tool of colonialist regimes, as photographers traveled widely during the turn of the century. Regimes, as well as publishing companies, also hired and trained photographers to work in these regions and to produce images. Printed in albums, and then on postcards made for tourists, it was a popular fashion to collect these images and bring them home as souvenirs or gifts after a trip abroad. These images also served various other purposes, such as helping to build support in the home country, for entertainment or curiosity, or for government officials, religious, and corporate heads to record and monitor their work there. As resistance to colonialism took shape in the twentieth century, photographers were often on hand to document these large-scale and sometimes violent events.

Grade Level

High School

Classroom Connections

Social Studies
World History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • Colonialism, the system of control by European powers over parts of Africa and the subcontinent of Asia
  • The origins and instrumental uses of colonial photography
  • Resistance to colonialism in the form of nationalist movements by using two case studies: India and Algeria


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