How Many Different Countries Have Colonies?

Updated July 28, 2023 | Infoplease Staff
Caravel sailing the ocean

Colonialism, which involves the exploitation and control of one country by another, has had a profound impact on the entire Earth. At some point in history, almost every country in the world has had colonies in different parts of the world, including Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Japan, leaving a lasting impact on their cultures, economies, and politics.

However, in the present day, only a few countries still have colonies or territories. In this article, we will explore the topic of colonial powers, colonialism, and how many different countries have colonies.

Are There Still Any Countries That Have Colonies?

There are 55 colonies including 17 territories in the world.[1] Eight countries maintain them: Australia (6), Denmark (2), Netherlands (2),[2] France (12),[3] New Zealand (3), Norway (3),[4] the United Kingdom (14), and the United States (14). Peruse Territories, Colonies, and Dependencies for a list of the world's colonies and which countries administrate them.

Which Countries Have the Most Colonies?

The United Kingdom has the largest number of colonies, with a total of 14 overseas territories.[5]

These territories include Anguilla; Bermuda; British Indian Ocean Territory; British Virgin Islands; Cayman Islands; Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Pitcairn Islands; Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; the Turks and Caicos Islands; the British Antarctic Territory; and the U.K. Sovereign Base Areas (Akrotiri and Dhekelia).[6] Other local U.K. dependencies are Guernsey, Jersey, and the Isle of Man.

The History of Colonialism

Colonialism is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations in South America and Asia practiced colonialism centuries ago. The modern form of colonialism began in the 16th century with powerful countries establishing colonies throughout the world, exploiting resources from these regions for their own gain. Let’s take a deeper dive into colonial history!

European Colonization

In the 1800s, European nations began to explore and colonize other parts of the world, starting with Africa and Asia. The British Empire was one of the most significant colonial powers, with colonies in India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and North America.

France had colonies in West Africa, French Polynesia, and Guiana. Spain had colonies in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Portugal had colonies in Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. The Netherlands had colonies in Indonesia, Suriname, and the Netherlands Antilles. Denmark had colonies in Greenland and the Virgin Islands. These countries, among others, established colonies to expand their empires, gain resources, and spread Christianity.

World War II and Colonial Rule

The aftermath of World War II led to many former colonies becoming self-governing, as European powers could no longer maintain their empires. Countries like India, Ghana, and Sudan gained independence from Britain, while Algeria gained independence from France.

The dissolution of the colonial empires had a significant impact on the world, as new countries emerged and old colonial powers lost their grip on global politics.

Colonial Powers and the United Nations

Today, many of the former colonial powers are members of the United Nations and have moved on from their colonial past. However, the legacy of colonialism remains in the cultures, economies, and politics of the countries that were once colonized.

Though some non-self-governing territories still exist today, the United Nations has worked to address the residual colonialism issues that arose from colonialism, such as poverty, inequality, and conflict, and to promote sustainable development and human rights in former colonies.[7]

German East African officers
Image Source: Getty Images

Original European Colonial Powers

European countries were some of the most prolific colonial powers in history. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, European nations like Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Italy established colonies all over the known world.

The British Empire

The British Empire was one of the largest and most powerful colonial empires in history. At its height in the early 20th century, the British Empire spanned the globe, with colonies in North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Many of these colonies eventually became self-governing countries within the British Commonwealth, such as Canada.

In Africa, the British established colonies in what is now known as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa, among others, like British Egypt. In Asia, they colonized India, Pakistan, Burma, and Malaysia. The British also established colonies in Australia and New Zealand, where they displaced the indigenous populations and imposed their own culture and language.

The French Empire

The French Empire was another major colonial power, with colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. French colonial rule was characterized by a focus on assimilation, with French language, culture, and Christianity being imposed on the local populations.

In Africa, the French established colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, among others. In Asia, they colonized Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and Madagascar. In the Americas, they established colonies in Haiti, Martinique, and French Guiana.

The Spanish Empire

The Spanish Empire was one of the first colonial powers, with colonies in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. The Spanish were known for their brutal treatment of indigenous populations, which led to the decline of their empire in the 19th century.

In the Americas, the Spanish established colonies in what is now Mexico, Central America, Peru, and Chile, among others. They also colonized the Philippines in Asia and parts of North Africa. The Spanish Empire was known for its extensive trading and commerce, with silver and gold from the Americas being transported to Europe.

The Portuguese Empire

The Portuguese Empire was one of the longest-lasting colonial empires, with colonies in South America, Africa, and Asia. The Portuguese were known for their exploration and trading, and their empire was centered around their ports in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and India.

In Africa, the Portuguese established colonies in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, among others. In Asia, they colonized Goa, Daman, and Diu in India, and Macau in China. In South America, they established colonies in Brazil, where they introduced the cultivation of sugarcane and the importation of African slaves.

The Dutch Empire

The Dutch Empire was another major colonial power, with colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Dutch were known for their trading and commerce, and their colonies were often centered around their ports and trading posts.

In Africa, the Dutch established colonies in South Africa, which they called the Cape Colony, and in what is now Ghana and Senegal.[8] In Asia, they colonized Indonesia, where they introduced the cultivation of spices and the importation of African and Asian slaves. In the Americas, they established colonies in what is now Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles.

The Belgian Empire

The Belgian Empire was a relatively small colonial power, with colonies in Africa and Asia. The Belgian rule in the Congo was particularly brutal, with millions of Congolese dying under Belgian colonial rule.

The Italian Empire

The Italian Empire was a short-lived colonial power, with colonies in Africa and Asia. Italy's colonial rule was characterized by a focus on infrastructure and modernization, but its empire collapsed after World War II.

Other European Nations

Other European nations like Denmark, Germany, and Russia also had colonies at various points in their history, but their colonies were generally smaller and less extensive than those of the major colonial powers.

Non-European Colonial Powers

While European countries were the most prolific colonial powers, many other nations around the world have also had colonies at some point in their history.

  • Japan: This country had colonies in Korea, Taiwan, and parts of China during the early 20th century. Japan's colonial rule was characterized by a focus on modernization and industrialization.
  • The United States: The U.S. had colonies in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as a history of colonialism in North America. The U.S. also played a significant role in the colonization of the Philippines.
  • China: China had colonies in Tibet and Xinjiang during the 20th century. China's colonial rule was characterized by a focus on assimilation, with Chinese language and culture being imposed on the local populations.
  • Korea: Korea was colonized by Japan for over three decades during the early 20th century. The Korean people suffered greatly under Japanese colonial rule, with many being forced into labor camps and used as sex slaves.
  • Ethiopia: The country was briefly colonized by Italy during World War II. The Italian occupation was marked by brutality and violence against the Ethiopian people.
  • Liberia: Liberia was founded as a colony for freed American slaves in the 19th century. While Liberia was not colonized in the traditional sense, it was heavily influenced by American and European culture and politics.
  • Sudan: The country was colonized by Great Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries. The British established a system of indirect rule in Sudan, which allowed local leaders to maintain some control over their territories.
  • Thailand: Never formally colonized, Thailand was still forced to cede parts of its territory to European nations during the 19th century. Thailand was able to maintain its independence by negotiating with European powers and adopting Western-style reforms.
  • Indonesia: Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch for over three centuries before gaining its independence in 1949. The Dutch introduced a system of forced labor in Indonesia, which led to widespread poverty and exploitation.
  • Iran: Though also never officially colonized, Iran it was subject to significant foreign influence during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Soviet Union and Great Britain both exerted significant control over Iran's politics and economy during this time.
south sudan independence

A South Sudanese man celebrates his country's independence. Source: AP Photo/Jason Patinkin.

How Are Former Colonies Doing Today?

Many former colonies are still struggling with the legacy of colonialism, including poverty, inequality, and political instability. However, some former colonies have been able to achieve success and stability, including Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

What Were the Effects of Colonialism?

In conclusion, colonialism has had a profound impact on the world, and its effects are still felt today. While only a few countries still maintain colonies, the legacy of colonialism is still present in many parts of the world. 

In many cases, colonialism led to the exploitation of resources and people, and the imposition of foreign cultures and beliefs. This has led to a legacy of inequality, conflict, and poverty in many countries.

It is important for us to understand and acknowledge this legacy, in order to work towards a more just and equitable future. And if you are interested in more colonial and slavery information, take our quiz: How Much Do You Know About the Triangle Trade?

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