In 1750 there were thirteen British "colonies" on the east coast of North America. If I'm not mistaken, the words "colony" and "province" were both used at the time to refer to any of those.

  • Today the word "colony" is often used to mean a state ruled by another state, so that one might hear it said that after the war of 1898 the Philippines became an American "colony".

  • I think the term also means a geographic region that gets populated by a large number of people who have relocated from another country with the result that those who came from that other country or their descendants outnumber and dominate the indigenous population.

Either of those two senses is applicable to the thirteen colonies. But when people in the 18th century used the word, did it mean the first of the two senses, or the second, or something else?

One data point is that the Articles of Confederation (proposed by Congress in late 1777 and ratified and effective as of early 1781) say that other "colonies" can be admitted to the Union as new states provided nine states consent. (I presume that means nine votes in Congress, where each state at that time could cast one vote.) But actual discussions in Congress of the admission of new states concerned the de-facto independent republic of Vermont (which was repeatedly denied admission in 1777 through 1785 because the state of New York adamantly and vociferously objected, saying Vermont was legally a part of New York and the government that in fact existed there was illegal) and Kentucky, which was a part of Virginia. (The legislature of Virginia had consented to the separation of Kentucky from Virginia. Congress's deliberations on whether to admit Kentucky were interrupted by a notification that the proposed new Constitution had been ratified by the ninth state, New Hampshire, so that it was in effect and so the new two-house Congress had to get elected. They decided that was not a good time to admit a new state. (That was only the first in a series of delays in the admission of Kentucky.)) In 1787 Congress also decided that at least three new states should be created in the territory northwest of the Ohio, and some have suggested that that exceeded their powers under the Articles.

  • You should note that neither of your definitions require the occupants to be sovereign. In fact, if you require sovereignty to be a "state", then you could say that in the first the "colony" has ceased to be a "state" and in the second the "colony" may or may not be a "state". Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:31
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    @called2voyage : I fear complications. In 1943, Italy surrendered to the U.S. and Britain, and agreed to submit to whatever those powers required of them, and in particular, the conquering powers appointed the prime minister of Italy. But I think it was still considered a state, with a sovereign king (who essentially didn't do anything, I think?), even though it was a state subordinate to other states. Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:49
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    That is just the nature of social science. Nothing is clean cut, but the exception in this case proves the rule. The fact that Italy was still seen as a sovereign state led to its quick release from subordination in 1946. Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:56
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    @called2voyage : I'm not yet convinced it's really an exception. Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 22:12
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    for the ancient Greeks, "colony" was another city-state founded by people from a mother city, which still would worship the same ancestors/family deities. It was not a derogatory term. The Romans used the word for settlements for old Legionaries in conquered areas. If educated people in XVI-XVIII c. were well versed in the classics, has the ancient meaning influenced their understanding of the word 'colony'? I have no evidence, it's a question/conjecture. In their mind 'colony' may just have been the most evident name. See (1) in the dictionary entry cited by Killingtime below, it fits well.
    – Luiz
    Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 16:01

5 Answers 5


In general, English speakers in the 18th Century would have used the second of your two meanings; it's the older one, and derives from Latin colonia, which referred to the Roman (and earlier Greek, and also Phoenician) practice of planting settlements in foreign places. Most of what were counted as "colonies" in the 18th Century were colonies in the "settlement of our people in foreign lands" sense.

What I suspect happened is that as Britain began acquiring other countries' "colonies" by force or by treaty (e.g., Jamaica from the Spanish, Dutch colonies like New Amsterdam, French colonies like Quebec), they were folded into the general concept of "colony" -- and administered by the same parts of the government. E.g., after the French and Indian War, Quebec was now ruled by Britain. Although it was of course a French colony and not a British one, it was still a "colony", and it was in North America along with the other British-founded colonies, and so it became one of the "colonies". Following the loss of the thirteen American colonies, the balance of "overseas realms controlled by Britain" shifted more and more towards "conquered/occupied foreign realms", and so the meaning of "colony" shifted toward the first one in your list. (Helped, perhaps, by the tendency of some British people to go out and settle in some of those places.)


According to Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language" (6th Edition, 1785), there were two meanings of the word.

Colony [colonia latin]
1. A body of people drawn from the mother-country to inhabit some distant place.
2. The country planted; a plantation.

These seem to correspond to your second defintion of the word.

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    Interesting. The sixth edition appeared after the U.S. became independent, but the first edition appeared in 1755, at which time no plans of American independence were afoot. It might be of interest to see the earlier one. But there's also the question of how people in the colonies understood the term, which might differ from what Johnson's Dictionary said. Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 20:30

I'm going to have to go with opinion here, so I won't be able to source/support my opinion as strongly as I prefer.

There is a major shift in these terms tied to economics.

During the mercantilist era (which I'm going to arbitrarily close at the start of WWI), colonies were possessions of the mother country. Colonies were a mercantilist tool that served two purposes.

  1. Extractive - colonies had resources that could be shipped to the mother country at an attractive price.

  2. Consumptive - Colonies would purchase mother country goods at an attractive price.

Governmental policy generally forbid the colony from trading with anyone but the mother country, or from trading amongst themselves even if the trade would have been advantageous to all. For example, colonists in Georgia could not trade with colonists in Jamaica - they were forced to trade with England, who then traded with Jamaica. This has interesting implications for smuggling.

Mercantilism was a bankrupt idea, but it persists to this day. In general, around WWII, a more laissez faire system dominated, in which trade is less limited. (there are exceptions to this and they are fascinating, but they are not the point I'm trying to make).

Mercantilism is a zero sum game - every ounce of gold that you hold is an affront to my economy. Modern economics is a positive sum game - we can both win through trade.

In general, colonies participated in the economic life of the empire as subordinate partners, but did not participate in the governance of the empire. Each colonial system had a distinct solution to the status of colonials - few gave them full rights, most gave them no rights. (Check Mike Duncan's Revolutions podcast for examples, or Jack Rakove's lectures)

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    The Declaration of Independence complains of legislation "for cutting off our trade will all parts of the world". That's one I'd never actaully thought about. Are you saying that's an essential part of the definition of "colony", as that word was understood in the 18th century? Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 15:51
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    Yes - According to mercantilism "colony" is a group of people who trade only with the mother country.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 15:55

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the British used the term "colony" mostly in your second sense of the word. That is, more or less empty land populated by "settlers."The "natives" either left, died off, or were assimilated by the settlers (e.g. Pocahontas and Squanto). That's why they were also called provinces.

India was the 18th century exception to the rule, in being your first type of "colony." Most of the other British colonies of this type (e.g in Africa), took place in the 19th century. Note, however, that Spanish conquistadors conquered and ruled the first type of colony in Latin America as early as the late 15th century.

This answer is based on the actual colonies possessed by England and Spain at various times.

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 11:03
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    @MarkC.Wallace: In formulating this answer, I just looked to the actual colonies. All the British 18th century colonies (except India) were "settlements;" the 19th century colonies in mostly Africa were the OP's type I, as were the Spanish colonies in Latin America back to Columbus.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 14:06

The term "colony" in the 18th century would have most frequently meant a settlement or country under the sovereignty of a more powerful country and primarily populated by people from the more powerful country.

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