How Can I Justify a World Without Colonialism?

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Hi, it’s me again!

History buffs: What do you think of this?

Demons (more monster- than villain-like) have made sparse attacks on humanity since forever, and all cultures have had mages to defend themselves. However, in the thirteenth century, there was a massive surge of demons all over the globe, killing off about half the human population before human mages eventually got the situation under control.

I’m thinking that after this, various cultures and societies would have become a bit more similar than they were in the real world, due to having survived the same kind of catastrophe and threat, through the same means, at the same time. One effect of this would be that Europe didn’t get the chance to colonize large parts of the world.

The story is fairly limited in scope, takes place over a few months in a single European city, so I don’t have to figure out everything about world history to tell it – but this is one difference from the real world which I think makes sense. Does it?


Hey Dvärghundspossen, great to hear from you again!

The short answer is yes. I think that makes total sense as an explanation for why Europe wouldn’t have colonized the rest of the world in your alternate history. A powerful, non-human threat is also just the sort of thing that would get our fractious human societies to put aside their difference and work together.

The longer answer is that it doesn’t actually take much to alter history so Europeans never went out colonizing. We have to remember that colonization was a gradual process, and any number of factors might have put Europe on a different path.

History is a labyrinthine, ever-changing mess where it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty why things happened, and so audiences are usually happy to accept whatever offer you have for why an alternate timeline happened. Like, maybe Justinian’s reconquest set the stage for a resurgent Roman Empire in your setting. Rome was all about conquest, but they had a very different view of it than later European empires. Distant colonies scattered all over the world? No thanks!

Or maybe the Roman Empire never formed in the first place, leaving Europe without the founding political institutions from which many imperial powers drew their identities. Again, that would handily put a stop to colonization. This is before you even consider magic. A little anti-disease magic in the Americas after 1492 would have made it effectively impossible for Europeans to settle the continent like they historically did.

My point is just that if your main goal is to explain why European colonization never happened, you don’t need to reach for extreme options like massive demon attacks. On the other hand, if the demon attacks are already an important part of your story, then go ahead and use them as the explanation for why white people kept their colonial hands off the rest of the world. Few will question it.

The one thing I’d recommend caution on is the idea of different cultures being “more similar” in this setting. Whatever the historic context, modern audiences from marginalized groups are often very sensitive to being lumped together or otherwise homogenized/absorbed. So while it’s perfectly reasonable to say that the Aniyunwiya and Haudenosaunee people allied with Europeans to defeat the demons, you don’t want to make it sound like those identities have merged together.

Hope that answers your question!

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  1. Passerby

    I’d like to add that even in our history, it wasn’t Europe that colonized. It was Britain, Portugal and a couple other countries. If you look at the map of Europe, that’s actually a pretty small percantage of all the countries you see.

  2. Alex

    Actually most European countries did colonize at some point. From the current European countries, the following colonized somewhere: UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Russia, Latvia (as the Duchy of Courland), and Turkey (as the Ottomans). Additionally, Austria (as part of the Habsburg possessions) benefited from Spanish colonial gains. So that basically leaves various Eastern European countries, which were part of larger empires during most of the colonial period.

    • Cay Reet

      Very much, yes. We remember the big ones, like Britain, Spain, and Portugal. But all Western European countries and some Eastern ones, too, had at least a handful of colonies at some point.

  3. Dave L

    Even if different areas fought the same enemy, they’d probably still retain their differences, especially in a time before mass communication and transportation

    • Cay Reet

      I’m not saying we’d see the same culture world-wide, but there is such a thing as ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’

  4. Adam

    Oh joy! Something I’m good at! I teach world history in Minnesota, so I know a little bit about colonization.

    To simplify as much as I can, the Spanish came to the New World in the 15th century seeking wealth. They found gold and Native Americans. They tried enslaving the natives, forcing the natives to get them more gold. The natives kept dying to European diseases, so enslaving natives didn’t work out. The Spanish then looked to Africa, justifying enslaving an entire continent of humans on the basis that Africans were not human (much like their view of the Native Americans). Shortly after the Spanish, the Portuguese joined the party. Millions of Africans were brought over to the New World to help the Spanish and Portuguese get some of that sweet sweet gold, sugar, and tobacco.

    Fast-forward a few centuries, when the slave trade ended, European nations saw fit to help out all those sub-human savages living all over the world (see “white man’s burden”). They colonized places like India and all of Africa to exploit the indigenous peoples of raw resources, which they brought back to Europe to craft into goods, which they then sold back to their colonies. The colonies served as a cheap labor force and market for European goods.

    If anything, I would say the mages in your story would be even MORE motivated to colonize other parts of the world because, with Europe in shambles from the demon incursion, they’ll need all the more labor and resources to rebuild themselves!

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Sure, but I was thinking that since the same disaster happened at the same time in the rest of the world as well, and had to be dealt with by everyone, the Americas, for instance, are gonna be very different by the 15th century than they were in our world. It’s not like you’re gonna have a disaster of that scale, pick up the pieces – and then, the rest of the world goes back to the exact same state it was in before the huge demon crisis, and continues to develop from there the exact same way it did in reality? Right? That seems implausible to me.

      Magic, in my story, can’t really affect anything native to the human world. It’s basically only used to fight demons, but in that area, it’s indespensible, since demons are invulnerable to any kind of physical violence and can’t be reasoned with. So one thing that every culture on Earth had to do in order to survive, was to gather up EVERYONE with magical talent, no exceptions because the talent is rare and every single person is needed, and get them into training (I’m doing this traditional thing where you need to be born with it + training to do it). Even after the major crisis was averted, demons continue to pop up from time to time, so the institutions had to stay. And… that in itself is such a major difference from real-world history, that it seems unlikely to me that Europeans could travel across the Atlantic in the 15th century and find American continents that are the same as they were in the real world.

      • Cay Reet

        An actual example from literature (not high literature, but I like it) would be the Lord Darcy stories. They are set in an alternate 20th century (they were written in the 1980s and supposed to be set in the same time), where a few historical events went different (most notably Richard Lionheart lived a lot longer and decided to do actual ruling, instead of spending all of his time abroad, after a severe injury in the battle where he died in our world). In this world, magic exists and has been codified – meaning everyone can learn magic, provided they’ve been born with a talent for it.

        Magic is a great equalizer for this one, because it meant that the Europeans faced off against much stronger ‘natives’ on other continents. The Americas have some small colonies of the Angevin Empire (Britain, France, and some smaller parts, essentially France and everything west of it on the continent) on them, but most of it still belongs to the Native Americans. Same goes for Middle and South America. It’s also suggested that those colonies were most likely not won through battle, but through bartering.

        Colonisation and slavery have been possible, because Europeans proved more warmongering and had better technology (when it came to war) than people in Africa, parts of Asia, or the Americas. In another reality, where technology is more evenly spread or where there’s a common enemy (as the demons), things would look different. In the Lord Darcy stories, they look different, because magic can be used by people on both sides of the battlefield and that means the ‘savages’ may not have the same culture, but they have enough power at their disposal to win the battle. Had this been true during the age of colonisation, there wouldn’t have been an age of colonisation.

        With your example, there’s the demons as a unifying power, but it also might mean that there are more battle-ready people all over the world, which would make colonising an area much more difficult.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Yeah I also had rather vague ideas about the development of tech being indirectly affected by all this, even though you cannot use tech directly against demons (like, you can’t shoot them with guns). You’d have more incentive to develop new ways of Communication, for instance, or maybe just living closer together, if only about 1 in 15 000 people can do magic at all, and it’s even more rare to be able to take on stronger demons. It would affect the whole structure of society, and therefore indirectly affect a ton of things.

          • Cay Reet

            Quick travel and stronger building materials might also be something tech would be used for – to make cities or even individual houses more protected against demon attacks – and to make sure that people who have to travel spend less time between protected areas. So engines might have come about sooner and people might have built something like armoured transports instead of regular coaches or cars or trains.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Another shitty thing about these demons, is that they can phase through material obstacles…

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Just for the record, while shortages of one kind or another certainly can be a motivation for conquest, that doesn’t mean conquest scales directly with how badly a society has been devastated. A society still needs to have the strength necessary for conquest.

        So while Example Country might be motivated to go out and conqueror their neighbors by a drought, they’re less likely to do so if half their population has been wiped out by plague or some other disaster because they simply wouldn’t have the strength to do so.

  5. Leon

    In real life, every people faces the same problems; plague, famin, disease, and the resulting struggles between the haves and the have not’s.
    In the same way that zombies are interchangeable with a storm or a scorching desert or a raging ocean. Throwing demons into the mix would only have an aesthetic impact. They are just another plague.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Gotta disagree with you there, since my demons are invulnerable to anything but magic, and only very few people can do magic.

      All the things you mentioned are handled by physical means, physical barriers, physical weapons etc, that anyone (at least in principle) can handle.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Also just for the record, different societies are effected differently even by the same type of disaster, let alone different disasters.

        Just one example, the Justinian Plague was so devastating to the Roman Empire that it is generally considered a major contributing factor to Rome’s decline and eventual collapse.

        Meanwhile, when the same plague struck Western Europe a few centuries later, possibly inflicting even more casualties this time, it was followed up by the age of Western Europe completely dominating the world.

        The reasons why are myriad and complex, and it shows you shouldn’t expect every group of people in every time to respond similarly to whatever type of crisis.

        • Leon

          The point i was making is that these monster demons are one of two types of antagonistic force an author can use in a story. Hostile human scale forces for heroes to face (a demon army that Batman can punch for example), and indifferent forces of nature that reveal the character of ordinary people (zombies, plagues, mindless demon infestation).
          Think about the number of people in America campaigning for a wall, there’s not even a real problem there. But they imagine Latino hordes taking over the country . Compare that to the number of people doing something about climate change or plastic island, these are real problems but there is no obvious strategy for dealing with these.
          In the monster demon senario, the only thing people can do is make sure their mages are well funded so that they can focus on smiteing the demons.
          I haven’t heard of any massive multinational initiatives for developing and implementing solutions for climate change – if you have let me know.

        • Leon

          Lol. I just imagined the the mages as sexy warrior priests and sword sisters and nuns with powers like Green Lantern. I want to read it!

  6. Leon

    Also, the mistrust and resentment that comes with a history of brutal colonialism – especially in a scenario where nations can develop strategies to herd demons toward one another (maybe even tame and exploit them) – can only be an asset for your story.

  7. Leon

    Of course a nation of demons with armies that can be defeated would be something for the world to unite against, but if these demons are just a persistent nuisance people aren’t going to invest resources and the lives of their warriors in solving somebody else’s problems.

  8. Dvärghundspossen

    In any case, this discussion is interesting, but my story is actually DONE now! (It was a while since I sent this question to Oren.) Also, the lack of colonialism is really just something that appears in the background in a couple of places… My aim wasn’t to investigate “what’s a world without colonialism like”, it’s more that I wanted to show that the world of my story did NOT (implausibly) revert back to history as we know it after a world-wide devastating event that doesn’t correspond to anything in the real world.

    Right now I’m going through everything for weird sentence structures, unnecessary words etc… And then, I’m actually gonna let people read it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s awesome, congratulations on finishing the draft!

    • Cay Reet

      Congrats on your first draft!

      You’ll have to do a lot of editing and proofreading and stuff, but getting a story done is the most challenging part … the rest is just a lot of work

      • Dvärghundspossen

        No shit! I read that Mythcreants article titled “42 words to seek out and destroy”, and I thought ok, gonna go through the novel and look out for these (or rather their Swedish equivalents), but surely this won’t be a big problem.

        YEAH RIGHT!

        I had aprox one thousand instances of “a little” where it was just clutter and could be deleted, one HUNDRED thousand instances of people “beginning” to do something instead of just doing it, and like a MILLION “again” (which I don’t even think was on your list), everyone did everything AGAIN instead of just doing it, even though they usually did it for the first time in that scene, chapter or at all? WHY did I put one million unnecessary “again” in the novel? It makes NO SENSE.

        Maybe I’m actually WORSE at writing in my own mother tongue than I am writing in English, since I have a fair number of scholarly papers in English published in international journals, so that’s something I’ve capable of… but more likely is that I’ve never written a novel before, and it’s a different thing to scholarly prose, and therefore I’m suddenly incapable of basic writing.

        Ah well. I’m on page 145 now, fixing all this crap…

        • Cay Reet

          First drafts are always horrible, don’t worry. And fiction tends to be more challenging in editing than non-fiction. Non-fiction is mostly about finding all those grammar errors and typos, because you write it with a different mindset, already tightening the text and staying with the facts you have (and your own theories, depending on the subject). Novels are about letting it all out in your first draft and then spending hours upon hours editing it so it becomes readable for all.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Yeah, that’s true. When you write scholarly or scientific stuff, you’re just getting the facts down, as clear as possible. In fiction you wanna express emotions, atmosphere, have people talking to each other in a way that sound natural, etc…

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Yeah, as Cay said, it’s not a big deal to have these problems in a draft, especially if you know to look for them. Frankly if wordcraft issues are your draft’s biggest problem, you’ll be way ahead of the curve.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Well, I did tell you over email how I realized some time ago that the MC was a jerkass, so I had to rewrite the whole novel to fix that… There’s been LOTS of rewrites. LOTS. When I thought that I had FINALLY fixed everything that was wrong with the novel, I discovered all this word clutter…

    • Kat

      Where could someone read it? Is the story out yet? (I’m asking this as of 2020)

      • Jeppsson

        Sorry, still trying to get it published, and I write in Swedish…

      • Jeppsson

        Hi again, Kat! I actually made an English translation, by request from a non-English-speaking friend (also in order to expand my English vocabulary, turns out it wasn’t as big as I thought it was). I put up a version of that on Wattpad. There are probably some typos in and so on, but… It’s there if you wanna read it. First chapter is here: https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/217897860/write/854128001

  9. Jimbo Slice

    Honestly, I think Dvärghundspossen might be splitting historical hairs here, which will only serve to make the demon rampages seem even more egregious. At that point, you’re writing a story instead of history, and you’d be better served by throwing caution to the wind and going full “Ye Olde Doome: A Saga in Three Parts, by Sir Johnathan Carmac”

    As for colonization specifically: it may sound like a Nazi Superweapon sent back in time to let Mighty Whitey fight the Brown Horde, the fact of the matter is that conquest is a universal language.

    • Cay Reet

      Conquest has been around since people settled somewhere for good (because otherwise, what is there to conquer?), but colonisation is a very specific thing and very European-centric.

      I think Dvärghundspossen wants an alternate history setting and for that one, thinking about how something might change the course of history is important.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Well, I’m NOT writing an alternate history novel, as those are usually understood? I wrote a novel that takes place during three months in a single Scandinavian city, narrowly focused on a single girl trying to get rid of a bunch of demons that are out to get her personally. The story really isn’t grand in scope.

        But an important part of this world’s backstory is a massive global demon attack in the thirteenth century, and so I thought I wanna show, in passing, that the world is pretty different for it. Not in that everyone became nice to each other and peaceful as a result, but as in world history isn’t just gonna revert back to how it was in the real world after such a massive event. I thought ok, no colonization could be one way to show, in passing, that this is a pretty different world than the one we live in. It doesn’t really affect the story, though.

        I can’t really respond to all the comments without going into really lengthy explanations of how magic works in my world, what demons are like etc. But no, you can’t train them or use them as weapons.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        In any case, I’ve decided that I don’t really have the time for fiction writing during the months to come… Writing a novel was SUPER FUN, but it began eating into my dayjob.
        I posted my draft in a book group on Facebook and a couple of people read it; they were really positive in their response, and one of them said she’s now addicted to my fantasy world and wants a sequel! So that’s really cool, I think. My husband and sister are gonna read it too when they have the time (they’re both really swamped now), so I’ll hear what they say too, although obviously they aren’t impartial.

        But if there are positive responses all around, I think I’ll probably pick it up again towards the fall when I might have a bit more time, go through it again with fresh eyes and revise if I want to, and then send it out to publishing houses. Like, I know that almost everyone just get rejected, but I’ll give it a try anyway!

        For now, though, it’s: Dayjob, dayjob, dayjob!

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