Colonial war

The "Battle of Isandhlwana" by Charles Edwin Fripp. Fought between the Zulu of South Africa and the British Empire.

Colonial war (sometimes referred to as small war[1]) is a blanket term relating to the various conflicts that arose as the result of overseas territories being settled by foreign powers creating a colony. The term especially refers to wars fought during the nineteenth century between European armies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.


Traditionally, wars could be divided into three categories: wars of conquest, wars of liberation, and wars between to separate states.[2] These classifications can likewise be distinguished among colonial wars. Still, the term "colonial war" typically refers to a war of conquest.[3]

Colonial wars differed from "regular" wars (conflicts between neighboring states) in several ways. The first of these was that they were more political affairs than military ones.[4] In contrast to regular wars, in which the goals of the belligerents were limited, colonial war aims were absolute; conquering powers sought to exert total and permanent control over a territory and its population and ensure the establishment of lasting stability.[5] In spite of this, resources allotted to colonial campaigns were with few exceptions limited.[6] The meanings of defeat and victory were usually more complicated in colonial wars, as in many cases the invading power would often be facing a belligerent that was not encapsulated by a single city, government, or ruler. Furthermore, there was often less of a distinction between indigenous citizens and the regular armed forces of defending nations.[7] This lack of centralized authority meant that formal peace agreements were rarely made.[5]

With fewer government structures that could be taken over, it was more difficult for conquered peoples and territory to be administered. The tache d'huile (oil slick) practice arose to counter this, whereby colonial armies would establish or rebuild markets, schools, and other public entities following a conflict, as the Americans did in the Philippines following the Spanish–American War.[6]

In contrast to indigenous forces, European armies (the most common colonizing forces) were always professional forces, removed from the general population. Tasked with the work of rebuilding and administering colonies, colonial armies were often active while regular armies in mother countries remained idle until conflict arose. As such, soldiers in these armies would develop their own cultures and practices. Most of a colonial soldier's knowledge would come from direct experience and not from a formal military education.[6] European armies were almost always technically superior to the indigenous forces they faced, though this could not always be used to their advantage, as equipment like heavy artillery was difficult to transport and deploying formations such as cavalry presented great logistical challenges. European armies also maintained good discipline, had high morale, were well trained, and were educated in their possible deployments and in performing maneuvers. Regardless of the skill of their commanders, native armies usually lacked such cohesion and understanding of warfare.[8]


The first major colonial wars in North America were fought by Spanish conquistadors.[9]

The era of colonial wars is generally considered to have ended following the conclusion of the Portuguese Colonial War in 1974 (though some consider the Falklands War of 1982 to be the last true colonial war).[3]

Strategy and tactics

"Colonial warfare is the only form of encounter in battle remaining where the forces are sufficiently small that the meaning of conflict is comprehensible to the participant. Whatever else fails, a flanking movement is always possible. In such a campaign you feel the clashing wills of the opposite leaders directly instead of remotely. Colonial warfare retains here what has been lost in the mass conflict of Europe."

Force Publique Major Antoine Duperoux's remarks to war correspondent George Weller following the East African Campaign (World War II)[10]

Colonial military practices and tactics were usually regarded as secondary to regular warfare. Due to this emphasis on more direct conflicts, imperial operations and development in colonial ventures often received less attention from the armed forces of nations responsible for them.[4]

As in total war, invading powers often directed actions against indigenous non-combatants and local economies.[1] This included the burning of villages, theft of cattle, systematic destruction of crops, and even genocide as committed by the French in pacification campaigns in Algeria, and the Germans in the Herero Wars.[11]

Invading powers were much more easily frustrated when an indigenous force chose to wage a guerrilla war instead of committing to pitched battles, such as in the Franco-Hova Wars or the First Indochina War.[5] In practice this meant little as both forms of warfare generally happened within quick succession of one another.[7]

North America

Up until the American Revolutionary War, most of the colonial conflicts in North America, if they were not amphibious operations, took place in the wilderness.[12]

Conquest warfare

During the United States' western expansion in the mid-to-late 1800s, experienced trackers were employed as auxiliary scouts to gather intelligence on Native Americans' positions and movements. Most Native Americans performed hit-and-run attacks on United States troops and settlers, often with horses. If their camp was discovered, their activities would be disrupted, usually via an early morning surprise assault. Trackers were usually native or mixed-race, though some were white. Indigenous people were often demoralized when they saw other natives working with United States forces.[13]

Interstate warfare

With the exception of the raiding expeditions of the French and Indian War, the majority of colonial campaigns were fought in order to secure strategic forts. The purpose of nearly all movements against forts was to bring sufficient artillery close enough to breach their walls. As such, any typical attack involved the transport of cannon by a labor force, covered by an escort of troops, which would then be used to secure a compromised fort.[12]


The European colonial campaigns in Africa were generally conducted by European forces with support from native troops.[1]

Conquest warfare

African peoples were relatively disjointed, leading European powers to employ a strategy of divide and rule, aggravate internal tensions, and make use of collaborationism.[8] In response, African leaders sometimes formed coalitions.[14] In pursuit of wealth in Central Africa, Tippu Tip of the Arab Sultanate of Zanzibar would intentionally create conflict among tribal leaders that led to war. At the conclusion of each conflict he would claim allegiance with the victor and take a large share of the spoils of war.[15]


As in Africa, European colonial ventures in Asia were usually bolstered by native soldiers.[1]

Australia and Oceania

Conquest warfare

The Queensland Native Mounted Police Force regularly employed native trackers against Indigenous Australians' communities. The force was disbanded in the 1890s after all of the native populations had been subjugated.[13]

See also



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