Colonialism and Imperialism: Core and Operative Ideas of Justification

Faculty Research Colloquium

Tue Mar 28, 2017 12:30 PM - 01:30 PM
Georgetown Building – 1D63


Camilla Boisen is a Lecturer of Writing at New York University Abu Dhabi.  Her main area of research is on colonial political thought in relation to the development of ideas of rights and trusteeship and their influence on contemporary problems such as postcolonial restitution. She is currently working on producing a research monograph that intends to link political theory and empire in the history of international relations and brings further understanding to how past ideas of legitimation are associated with interventionist policies today. Previously, Camilla was a research fellow at the National History Museum, Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark. In South Africa, she held post-doctoral research fellowships in political theory at the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand. She has published articles in, among others, History of European Ideas, Journal of International Political Theory and Grotiana and is co-editor of Distributive Justice Debates in Political and Social Thought: perspectives on Finding a Fair Share (Routledge, 2016). Camilla has taught courses in political theory in the UK, Denmark, and South Africa, and serves on the editorial board for Theoria – A Journal of Social and Political Theory.


The argument of this paper is that religious and political ideas, whatever, the economic motivations, were paramount in justifying colonial and imperial ventures for five centuries. Previous characterisation of justification exhibit pragmatic, opportunistic and incompatible ideas, seeking the unity in underlying economic motivations. I claim that there was a persistent and relatively rigid constellation of fundamental, or core, ideas in which rights, obligations and duties were specified. This constellation was deeply religious and provided the unquestioning reasons for expansionism. The objectives of the core ‘ideology’ were pursued and justified by operational principles which differed from context to context. The operational principles are laterally often unrelated, but they are inextricably related to the core as tactics to a strategic plan. I contend there is a fundamental identity in the diversity which I illustrate with reference to justifications of land acquisition and exploitation.