What caused the shift from annexation of territory, to colonization of territory?

I've been thinking about this for some time, but can't come to any definite conclusions as my knowledge in history isn't broad enough.

Definition of annexation:

the action of annexing something, especially territory.

Definition of colonization:

the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area.

I think the cause might revolve around this idea:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” (Art of War)

Annexation is more straight forward, hence a nation invades->occupies another nation with the "open" intention of annexing its territory, subduing its people and plundering its resources.

Colonization is more deceptive (based on my limited knowledge) as there is no annexation (reduces the risk of revolt from local population), and no "open" intention of invasion->occupation->subduing of local population->plunder of resources.

Is my assumption correct? As I said before, my knowledge in history is not very broad, so I might be very off the mark. I would love a thorough answer.


  • 2
    Your definition of colonization is... odd. Can you give an example?
    – Schwern
    Feb 18, 2017 at 5:50
  • @Schwern for example colonization of New Zealand, or the Middle East, or India. Why didn't they simply annex the territory, and instead chose this "new" method called "colonization"? Feb 18, 2017 at 6:04
  • I'll add some things to my answer.
    – Schwern
    Feb 18, 2017 at 6:23
  • Colonization really is more like annexation-plus - seize the land and then transplant colonists... There was plenty of resistance from indigenous populations in the American, Australian, and New Zealand colonial territories - they weren't happy about the European landgrab
    – user13123
    Feb 18, 2017 at 11:25
  • Was there a shift?
    – MCW
    Nov 21, 2018 at 19:30

3 Answers 3


Part of the problem is "colony" is a floaty term. I think there are at least three basic ways a country dominates land:

  • Colony: replacing the natives with your own people (the Americas, Australia, parts of Africa).
  • Empire: Exploiting the native population (India, Middle East, parts of China, other parts of Africa, Philippines).
  • Annexation: Making a land, and its people a, more or less, full-fledged part of your country (Texas, Wales, Puerto Rico).

This is is all long, grey, smeared continuum. For example, one could argue that Wales and Texas were both colonized and annexed.

I think when you're saying "colonization" you mean empire. That's been going on since antiquity. The Greeks, Romans, Persians... everyone did it because it made money for the homeland.

Why didn't the British they annex India? Because India was a commercial venture by the East India Company, and they were making tons of money exploiting the natives. India was thickly populated and fairly advanced technologically, so they couldn't just shove them out of the way and replace them with British people like was done to the post-apocalyptic North American natives (more on that later). Annexation means government which costs money, better to use the local governments and keep them divided. It means Indian natives might want to become British citizens, and citizens have rights and protections and laws. They're harder to exploit for money.

In short, colonization and empire is rarely a deliberate government act. It usually begins as a for-profit venture by private citizens or chartered companies and generates so much money for the home country the entire government gets sucked in.

Looking at this historically, the major difference between "annexing" and "colonizing" is how the dominating power views the locals. For annexation, they'd offer them the rights and respect as their own population. For colonization, they consider them sub-human to be moved around and wiped out as they please.

This view of the locals isn't by accident, it's a result of economic pressures to justify exploiting the region by othering the locals. If they're not human, then they must not have any rights. Of course, respect can also come from the barrel of a gun, and sometimes natives won that respect by fighting.

Let's look at a few examples to illustrate, and I'm going to have to paint with a very broad brush. Let's start with the European invasion of the Americas.

This was a colonization effort driven by economics: the New World was viewed as a land to be stripped of resources to supply the European powers. Europeans settled there to gain economic opportunity and new freedoms. The natives were just in the way. Accordingly, they were thought of as sub-human, almost animals, treated as slaves, their land stolen, and pushed off into whatever land the Europeans didn't want (until they did).

The native Americans had just undergone an apocalypse, new European diseases had wiped out most of their population. This, combined with not being as advanced in warfare, meant they could be easily subjugated.

Fast forward 400 years to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in WWII. Though it's often referred to as annexation, this was a very deliberate colonization effort. The intent was to gain land and resources for the German people to expand into, with one teensy problem: very well armed people were already living there. Even if Germany defeated them on the battlefield, they'd still be there. So they had to be wiped out. To that end, the Slavs were declared sub-human and the German state went on a war not just of conquest, but of extermination. This failed because the Slavs resisted, they hadn't been crippled by plagues, and fought back.

In contrast is the German annexation of Austria, and Czechoslovakia. These were mostly peaceful affairs, and the population was treated well... uhh, for a German-occupied country.

Somewhere in between is the European invasion of New Zealand. This is late in the colonial era, early 19th century. Slavery is being called into question. European culture was becoming enlightened to the idea that maybe all people are created equal and we can't just take people's stuff because they look different.

The Maori, the New Zealand natives, had many advantages other native populations did not have that allowed them to win the respect of the Europeans. They had decades of mostly peaceful contact with Europeans, time to learn their languages, and most importantly, trade for tools and weapons. They were also a very war-like people, ready for a fight, and the Europeans knew it.

On the European side, New Zealand is literally the middle of nowhere. Reaching it, even in the 19th century, was difficult. There wouldn't be the endless crush of European people and supplies, nor the insatiable lust for raw materials. They couldn't simply bulldoze the Maori, though they'd try. They'd have to bargain with them as equals. Military power can lead to social respect.

As a result, while the Maori were eventually overwhelmed, they were not shattered like the Native Americans and the Australian Aborigines. They retained some power, and today make up 15% of the population of New Zealand.

The answer to "why didn't Europe colonize China?" is similar. The Chinese natives were simply too many and too strong. India as well, though it's considered a colony, was more of an annexation and creation of a puppet state. Though in both cases the native populations were second-class citizens, so the distinction between "colony" and "annexation" blurs, no major effort was made to wipe them out and replace them with Europeans.

The American annexation of Texas was part annexation, part colonization. Texas, at the time, was part of Mexico and numerous native tribes also claimed the land. A mix of Spanish and native people were there, as well as an increasing number of white settlers. One of the major reasons for its annexation was to provide more land and resources for American settlers. Once annexed, it was colonized, but the natives were not pushed out and today the population remains a mix of white, native, and Spanish people.

This is one lens to look at colonization vs annexation with: power imbalance and how the locals are viewed. There are others.

  • 1
    Probably not correct to refer to the union of England and Scotland as an annexation. Feb 18, 2017 at 18:19
  • 1
    @StevenBurnap Yeah, I guess it was more of an amalgamation.
    – Schwern
    Feb 18, 2017 at 18:35
  • 2
    I think you're overlooking an important factor in your colonization=settlement vs empire=exploitation of natives argument. That's the influence of climate. The places where northern Europeans colonized - mid-latitude North America, southern South America & Africa, New Zealand &c had climates roughly similar to northern Europe, so the northern Europeans could live comfortably there. Much of India, Africa, South America &c has climates that were unliveable for them prior to air conditioning.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 21, 2018 at 19:23
  • There's a lot to like in this, but it makes it sound all so planned. For the most part, it wasn't very thought out in advance until roughly the 19th century. Prior to that, things just happened: People heard about opportunities (to flee to, to trade with, to exploit) and went charging off on their own with their home governments following behind trying to make the mess into something that served the home country's purposes.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 7, 2023 at 0:36
  • @MarkOlson That would make a good supplementary answer.
    – Schwern
    Apr 7, 2023 at 16:47

There's a lot to like in @Schwern's answer and I have upvoted it, but it makes the whole process sound so planned and so organized.

Until roughly the 19th century, colonization/conquest was more a matter for freebooters than for governments. (There are always exceptions to this, just as there were examples of attempted private enterprise even in the 20th century.) But for the most part, the collection of overseas territory wasn't very thought out in advance.

In the earlier days, things just happened: People heard about opportunities (to flee to, to trade with, to exploit) and went charging off on their own with their home governments following behind trying to make the mess into something that served the home country's purposes.

India was taken over bit by bit by the British East India Company which was decidedly not interested in the British government exercising control over it. (The Dutch East Indies followed a fairly similar pattern.) The American colonies were mostly founded privately: New England, Maryland and Pennsylvania by religious dissidents of various flavors. Other colonies were founded for private gain -- British Canada was largely founded to exploit its wealth in furs.

Even Latin America, which is arguably an exception in that the Spanish government got involved early in the process, was conquered by freebooters out to make a buck (or a million).

Singapore and Hong Kong were entrepots before they were seats of Empire.

Arguably Australia was set up as a colony from Day One, but Day One was in 1786 -- which is arguably an honorary part of the 19th century!

Bottom line: There are historical trends to be sure, but be careful not to assume that the people involved thought in those terms. I'll bet that for every person in, say, 1700, who pondered the difference between "annexation" and "colonization", there were a thousand who were pondering whether they could make their lives better by heading overseas to make their homes and their fortunes.


So I didn't like the answers in this thread and I search more the internet for a better answer myself and i came up to the conclusion that a colony is a form of settlement with the purpose of establishing control over a region ore territory and annexation is the act of integrating a region ore territory in the direct administration of your government ore the current form of government you are controlling.

So if i take the example with Germany and Soviet Union in WW2 i would say that the act of killing the Slavic population would be called ethnic cleansing. The act of taking the territory and integrating it into the German state would be called annexation and Lebensraum the act of settling Germans into the Russian supposed former territory would be called colonization.

The killing of the native Americans should be called ethnic cleansing, the act of taking the native Americans territory and integrating into their one state would be called annexation, and the settling of those people would be called colonization.

In Africa the population was enslaved instead of being exterminated but the military (I presume) still occupied the Territory so the territory of Africa was in direct control of the king effectively annexing it and then making colonies for economic incentives and establishing better control over the new region.(Disclaimer I dont know how the conquest of Africa was done it might be that it was a disagreement of some sort followed by a declaration of war of witch puppet rulers would be installed with the presumption that if they accept some treaty they would be left alone and then African kings had to accept Europeans settling into his territory while being protected by Spanish ore English ore French law, i dont know).

Transnistria is another example of colonisation. The URSS annexed Moldova the native population in this case was ( I may be worng) largely left alone with only expected politically problematic people being deported to Syberia. So Moldova was annexed and Transnistria was colonized and put into direct administration of the Moldovan now new region of the URSS to establish more control over it as people of Russian origin would be now in the demographic of that region.

Edit: I guess what am I tried to say in the parenthesis about Africa is that they may have being colonised through a vasal state that allowed it to happen as opposed to direct annexation. also my definition of colonization dosent really fit into what a Greak colony in antiquity would be witch seems to be just a form of settlement in foreign land.

  • 1
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