Civilizing mission

The mission civilisatrice (in English "civilising mission") was a rationale for intervention or colonization, purporting to contribute to the spread of civilization, and used mostly in relation to the Westernization of indigenous peoples in the 15th – 20th centuries.

It was notably the underlying principle of French and Portuguese colonial rule in the late 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and early and mid 20th centuries. It was influential in the French colonies of Algeria, French West Africa, and Indochina, and in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea, Mozambique, and Timor. Similar ideas were widespread also in England,[1] Germany[2][3] and other European countries. The European colonial powers felt it was their duty to bring Western civilization to what they perceived as backward peoples. Rather than merely govern colonial peoples, the Europeans would attempt to Westernize them in accordance with a colonial ideology known as "assimilation".

Intellectual origins

The intellectual origins of the mission civilisatrice can be traced back the Christian tradition dating from the Middle Ages. European thinkers had naturalized social change by using the development metaphor. In the eighteenth century, history came to be seen as a unilinear, unending, inevitable process of social evolutionism with the European nations running ahead.[4] Colonialists saw the "backward" nations as intrinsically incapable. "Progressive" thinkers like the Marquis de Condorcet postulated a holy duty to help those peoples "which, to civilize themselves, wait only to receive the means from us, to find brothers among Europeans and to become their friends and disciples".[5]

Evolutionist views survived colonialism. Modernization theorists declared that traditional customs had to be destroyed, traditional societies had to adapt[6] or to disappear.[7]

Development criticism sees development therefore as continuation of the colonial civilizing mission. To become civilized has always meant to become "like us", therefore "Civilizing" now meant that in the long run all societies had to become consumer societies[8] and renounce their native traditions and habits.

By state

French colonialism

An early champion of this idea was French Republican political leader Jules Ferry. Equal rights and citizenship were extended to those peoples who adopted French culture, including primary use of the French language in their lives, wearing Western clothes, and conversion to Christianity. Despite granting French citizenship to the residents of the "Four Communes" (Dakar, Saint-Louis, Gorée, and Rufisque), most West Africans did not adopt French culture or Christianity. After World War I, "association" replaced assimilation as the fundamental tenet of the colonial relationships. It was thought that French culture might exist in association with indigenous societies and that these autonomous colonies might freely associate with France in the French Union.

British colonialism

Although the British did not invent the term, the notion of a "Civilizing mission" was equally important for them to justify colonialism. It was used to explain British rule over the colonized, especially when the colonial enterprise was not very profitable.[9]

The idea that the English were bringing civilization to the "uncivilized" areas of the world is famously expressed in Rudyard Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden.

Dutch colonialism

Portuguese colonialism

After consolidating its territory in the 13th century through a Reconquista of the Muslim states of Western Iberia, the Kingdom of Portugal started to expand overseas. In 1415, Islamic Ceuta was occupied by the Portuguese during the reign of John I of Portugal. Portuguese expansion in North Africa was the beginning of a larger process eventually known as the Portuguese Overseas Expansion, under which the Kingdom's goals included the expansion of Christianity into Muslim lands and the desire of nobility for epic acts of war and conquest with the support of the Pope.

As the Portuguese extended their influence around the coast to Mauritania, Senegambia (by 1445) and Guinea, they created trading posts. Rather than become direct competitors to the Muslim merchants, they used expanding market opportunities in Europe and the Mediterranean to increase trade across the Sahara.[10] In addition, Portuguese merchants gained access to the African interior via the Senegal and Gambia rivers, which crossed long-standing trans-Saharan routes. The Portuguese brought in copper ware, cloth, tools, wine and horses. Trade goods soon also included arms and ammunition. In exchange, the Portuguese received gold (transported from mines of the Akan deposits), pepper (a trade which lasted until Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498) and ivory. It was not until they reached the Kongo coast in the 1480s that they moved beyond Muslim trading territory in Africa.

Forts and trading posts were established along the coast. Portuguese sailors, merchants, cartographers, priests and soldiers had the task of taking over the coastal areas, settling, and building churches, forts and factories, as well as exploring unknown land and sea. A Company of Guinea was founded as a Portuguese governmental institution to control the trade, and called Casa da Guiné or Casa da Guiné e Mina from 1482 to 1483, and Casa da Índia e da Guiné in 1499.

The first of the major European trading forts, Elmina, was founded on the Gold Coast in 1482 by the Portuguese. Elmina Castle (originally known as São Jorge da Mina Castle) was modelled on the Castelo de São Jorge, one of the earliest royal residences in Lisbon. Elmina, which means "the port", became a major trading centre. By the beginning of the colonial era there were forty such forts operating along the coast. Rather than being icons of colonial domination, the forts acted as trading posts—they rarely saw military action—the fortifications were important, however, when arms and ammunition were being stored prior to trade.[11] The 15th-century Portuguese exploration of the African coast, is commonly regarded as the harbinger of European colonialism, and also marked the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, Christian missionary evangelization and the first globalization processes which were to become a major element of the European colonialism until the end of the 18th century.

Although the Portuguese Empire's policy regarding native peoples in the less technologically advanced places around the world (most prominently in Brazil) had always been devoted to enculturation, including teaching and evangelization of the indigenous populations, as well as the creation of novel infrastructure to openly support these roles, it reached its largest extent after the 18th century in what was then Portuguese Africa and Portuguese Timor. New cities and towns were purportedly designed to accommodate Portuguese settlers and their Europe-inspired infrastructure, which included administrative, military, healthcare, educational, religious, and entrepreneurial halls.

The Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais founded Luanda in 1575 as "São Paulo de Loanda", with a hundred families of settlers and four hundred soldiers. Benguela, a Portuguese fort from 1587 which became a town in 1617, was another important early settlement they founded and ruled. The Portuguese would establish several settlements, forts and trading posts along the coastal strip of Africa. In the Island of Mozambique, one of the first places where the Portuguese permanently settled in Sub-Saharan Africa, they built the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, in 1522, now considered the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. Later the hospital, a majestic neo-classical building constructed in 1877 by the Portuguese, with a garden decorated with ponds and fountains, was for many years the biggest hospital south of the Sahara.[12]

The establishment of a dual, racialized civil society was formally recognized in Estatuto do Indigenato (The Statute of Indigenous Populations) adopted in 1929, and was based in the subjective concept of civilization versus tribalism. Portugal's colonial authorities were totally committed to develop a fully multiethnic "civilized" society in its African colonies, but that goal or "civilizing mission", would only be achieved after a period of Europeanization or enculturation of the native black tribes and ethnocultural groups. It was a policy which had already been stimulated in the former Portuguese colony of Brazil. Under Portugal's Estado Novo regime, headed by António de Oliveira Salazar, the Estatuto established a distinction between the "colonial citizens", subject to Portuguese law and entitled to citizenship rights and duties effective in the "metropole", and the indigenas (natives), subject to both colonial legislation and their customary, tribal laws. Between the two groups there was a third small group, the assimilados, comprising native blacks, mulatos, Asians, and mixed-race people, who had at least some formal education, were not subjected to paid forced labor, were entitled to some citizenship rights, and held a special identification card that differed from the one imposed on the immense mass of the African population (the indigenas), a card that the colonial authorities conceived of as a means of controlling the movements of forced labor (CEA 1998). The indigenas were subject to the traditional authorities, who were gradually integrated into the colonial administration and charged with solving disputes, managing the access to land, and guaranteeing the flows of workforce and the payment of taxes. As several authors have pointed out (Mamdani 1996; Gentili 1999; O'Laughlin 2000), the Indigenato regime was the political system that subordinated the immense majority of native Africans to local authorities entrusted with governing, in collaboration with the lowest echelon of the colonial administration, the "native" communities described as tribes and assumed to have a common ancestry, language, and culture. After the World War II, as communist and anti-colonial ideologies spread out across Africa, many clandestine political movements were established in support of independence. Regardless it was exaggerated anti-Portuguese/anti-"Colonial" propaganda,[13] a dominant tendency in Portuguese Africa, or a mix of both, these movements claimed that since policies and development plans were primarily designed by the ruling authorities for the benefit of the territories' ethnic Portuguese population, little attention was paid to local tribal integration and the development of its native communities. According to the official guerrilla statements, this affected a majority of the indigenous population who suffered both state-sponsored discrimination and enormous social pressure. Many felt they had received too little opportunity or resources to upgrade their skills and improve their economic and social situation to a degree comparable to that of the Europeans. Statistically, Portuguese Africa's Portuguese whites were indeed wealthier and more skilled than the black indigenous majority, but the late 1950s, the 1960s and principally the early 1970s, were being testimony of a gradual change based in new socioeconomic developments and equalitarian policies for all.

The Portuguese Colonial War began in Portuguese Angola on 4 February 1961, in an area called the Zona Sublevada do Norte (ZSN or the Rebel Zone of the North), consisting of the provinces of Zaire, Uíge and Cuanza Norte. The U.S.-backed UPA wanted national self-determination, while for the Portuguese, who had settled in Africa and ruled considerable territory since the 15th century, their belief in a multi-racial, assimilated overseas empire justified going to war to prevent its breakup and protect its populations.[14] Portuguese leaders, including António de Oliveira Salazar, defended the policy of multiracialism, or Lusotropicalism, as a way of integrating Portuguese colonies, and their peoples, more closely with Portugal itself.[15] For the Portuguese ruling regime, the overseas empire was a matter of national interest. In Portuguese Africa, trained Portuguese black Africans were allowed to occupy positions in several occupations including specialized military, administration, teaching, health and other posts in the civil service and private businesses, as long as they had the right technical and human qualities. In addition, intermarriage of black women with white Portuguese men was a common practice since the earlier contacts with the Europeans. The access to basic, secondary and technical education was being expanded and its availability was being increasingly opened to both the indigenous and European Portuguese of the territories. Examples of this policy include several black Portuguese Africans who would become prominent individuals during the war or in the post-independence, and who had studied during the Portuguese rule of the territories in local schools or even in Portuguese schools and universities in the mainland (the metropole) - Samora Machel, Mário Pinto de Andrade, Marcelino dos Santos, Eduardo Mondlane, Agostinho Neto, Amílcar Cabral, Joaquim Chissano, and Graça Machel are just a few examples. Two large state-run universities were founded in Portuguese Africa in the early 1960s (the Universidade de Luanda in Angola and the Universidade de Lourenço Marques in Mozambique, awarding a wide range of degrees from engineering to medicine[16]), during a time that in the European mainland only four public universities were in operation, two of them in Lisbon (which compares with the 14 Portuguese public universities today). Several figures in Portuguese society, including one of the most idolized sports stars in Portuguese football history, a black football player from Portuguese East Africa named Eusébio, were another examples of assimilation and multiracialism. Since 1961, with the beginning of the colonial wars in its overseas territories, Portugal had begun to incorporate black Portuguese Africans in the war effort in Angola, Portuguese Guinea, and Portuguese Mozambique based on concepts of multi-racialism and preservation of the empire. African participation on the Portuguese side of the conflict ranged from marginal roles as laborers and informers to participation in highly trained operational combat units, including platoon commanders. As the war progressed, use of African counterinsurgency troops increased; on the eve of the military coup of 25 April 1974, Africans accounted for more than 50 percent of Portuguese forces fighting the war. Due to both the technological gap between civilisations and the centuries-long colonial era, Portugal was a driving force in the development and shaping of all Portuguese Africa since the 15th century. In the 1960s and early 1970s, to counter the increasing insurgency of the nationalistic guerrillas and show to the Portuguese people and the world that the overseas territories were totally under control, the Portuguese government accelerated its major development programs to expand and upgrade the infrastructure of the overseas territories in Africa by creating new roads, railways, bridges, dams, irrigation systems, schools and hospitals to stimulate an even higher level of economic growth and support from the populace.[17] As part of this redevelopment program, construction of the Cahora Bassa Dam began in 1969 in the Overseas Province of Mozambique (the official designation of Portuguese Mozambique by then). This particular project became intrinsically linked with Portugal's concerns over security in the overseas colonies. The Portuguese government viewed the construction of the dam as testimony to Portugal's "civilising mission"[18] and intended for the dam to reaffirm Mozambican belief in the strength and security of the Portuguese colonial government.

Colonial Brazil

When the Portuguese explorers arrived in 1500, the Amerindians were mostly semi-nomadic tribes, with the largest population living on the coast and along the banks of major rivers. Unlike Christopher Columbus who thought he had reached India, the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama had already reached India sailing around Africa two years before Pedro Álvares Cabral reached Brazil. Nevertheless, the word índios ("Indians") was by then established to designate the peoples of the New World and remains so (it is used to this day in the Portuguese language, the people of India being called indianos).

Initially, the Europeans saw the natives as noble savages, and miscegenation began straight away. Tribal warfare and cannibalism convinced the Portuguese that they should "civilize" the Amerindians,[19] even if one of the four groups of Aché people in Paraguay practiced cannibalism regularly until the 1960s.[20] When the Kingdom of Portugal's explorers discovered Brazil in the 15th century and started to colonize its new possessions in the New World, the territory was inhabited by various indigenous peoples and tribes which had developed neither a writing system nor school education.

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) has been since its beginnings in 1540 a missionary order. Evangelisation was one of the main goals of the Jesuits, but they were also committed to teaching and education, both in Europe and overseas. Their missionary activities, both in the cities and in the countryside, were complemented by a strong commitment to education. This took the form of the opening of schools for young boys, first in Europe, but rapidly extended to America and Asia. The foundation of Catholic missions, schools, and seminaries was another consequence of the Jesuit involvement in education. As the spaces and cultures where the Jesuits were present varied considerably, their evangelising methods were very often quite different from one place to another. However, the Society's engagement in trade, architecture, science, literature, languages, arts, music and religious debate corresponded, in fact, to the same main purpose of Christianisation. By the middle of the 16th century the Jesuits were present in West Africa, South America, Ethiopia, India, China, and Japan. In a period of history when the world had a largely illiterate population, the Portuguese Empire, was home to one of the first universities founded in Europe - the University of Coimbra, which currently is still one of the oldest universities. Throughout the centuries of Portuguese rule, Brazilian students, mostly graduated in the Jesuit missions and seminaries, were allowed and even encouraged to enroll at higher education in mainland Portugal. By 1700, and reflecting a larger transformation of the Portuguese Empire, the Jesuits had decisively shifted their activity from the East Indies to Brazil. In the late 18th century, Portuguese minister of the kingdom Marquis of Pombal attacked the power of the privileged nobility and the church, and expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and its overseas possessions. Pombal seized the Jesuit schools and introduced educational reforms all over the empire.

In 1772, even before the establishment of the Science Academy of Lisbon (1779), one of the first learned societies of both Brazil and the Portuguese Empire was founded in Rio de Janeiro - it was the Sociedade Scientifica. Also, in 1797, the first botanic institute was founded in Salvador, Bahia. During the late 18th century, the Escola Politécnica (then the Real Academia de Artilharia, Fortificação e Desenho) of Rio de Janeiro was created in 1792 through a decree issued by the Portuguese authorities as a higher education school for the teaching of the sciences and engineering. It belongs today to the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and is the oldest engineering school of Brazil, and one of the oldest in Latin America. A royal letter of November 20, 1800 by the King John VI of Portugal established in Rio de Janeiro the Aula Prática de Desenho e Figura, the first institution in Brazil dedicated to teaching the arts. During colonial times, the arts were mainly religious or utilitarian and were learned in a system of apprenticeship. A Decree of August 12, 1816 created an Escola Real de Ciências, Artes e Ofícios (Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts), which established an official education in the fine arts and was the foundation of the current Escola Nacional de Belas Artes.

In the 19th century the Portuguese royal family, headed by D. João VI, arrived in Rio de Janeiro escaping from the Napoleon's army invasion of Portugal in 1807. D. João VI gave impetus to the expansion of European civilization in Brazil.[21] In a short period between 1808 and 1810, the Portuguese government founded the Royal Naval Academy and the Royal Military Academy, the Biblioteca Nacional, the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, the Medico-Chirurgical School of Bahia, currently known as Faculdade de Medicina under harbour of Universidade Federal da Bahia and the Medico-Chirurgical School of Rio de Janeiro which is the modern-day Faculdade de Medicina of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.


Nineteenth century elites of South American republics also used a civilizing mission rhetoric to justify armed actions against indigenous groups. On January 1, 1883, Chile refounded the old city of Villarrica, thus formally ending the process of the occupation of the indigenous lands of Araucanía.[22][23] Six months later, on June 1, president Domingo Santa María declared:[24]

The country has with satisfaction seen the problem of the reduction of the whole Araucanía solved. This event, so important to our social and political life, and so significant for the future of the republic, has ended, happily and with costly and painful sacrifices. Today the whole Araucanía is subjugated, more than to the material forces, to the moral and civilizing force of the republic ...

See also


  1. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, 1991.
  2. Tezcan 2012, 21-33.
  3. Thurman 2016
  4. See Gilbert Rist,Le développement. Histoire d'une croyance occidentale.Chapter 2: «Les métamorphose d'un mythe occidental», Paris 1996, pp. 48-80, engl. The History of development, 3rd edition 2008
  5. Condorcet, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès historique de l'esprit humain, Paris: GF Flammarion, 1988, p. 269 (chapter 10)
  6. "Economic development of an underdeveloped people by themselves is not compatible with the maintenance of their traditional customs and mores. A break with the latter is a prerequisite to economic progress. What is needed is a revolution in the totality of social, cultural and religious institutions and habits, and thus in their psychological attitude, their philosophy and their way of life." J. L. Sadie, "The Social Anthropology of Economic Underdevelopment", The Economic Journal, No. 70, 1960, p.302, quoted in: Gérald Berthoud, "Market" in: The Development Dictionary, ed. by Wolfgang Sachs, London: Zed Books, 1992, pp. 70-87, citation pp. 72-73
  7. On the disappearance of indigenous people as a 'price' for modernization see John H. Bodley, Victims of progress, 3rd ed., Mountain View, Calif : Mayfield Pub. Co, 1990
  8. Walt Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-communist manifesto, 1960. - on Rostow see Rist 1996, Chapter 6
  9. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, Berkeley: University of California Press 1991.
  10. B. W. Hodder, Some Comments on the Origins of Traditional Markets in Africa South of the Sahara - Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 1965 - JSTOR
  11. H. Kuper, Urbanization and Migration in West Africa - 1965 - Berkeley, Calif., U. of California
  12. Patrick Lages, The island of Mozambique, UNESCO Courier, May, 1997.
  13. Alice Dinerman, "Independence redux in postsocialist Mozambique" Archived 2009-06-24 at the Wayback Machine
  14. George Wright, The Destruction of a Nation: United States' Policy Towards Angola Since 1945, Pluto Press, 1997 - ISBN 0-7453-1029-X, 9780745310299
  15. Colorblind Colonialism? Lusotropicalismo and Portugal’s 20th. Century Empire. in Africa. Archived 2010-05-31 at the Wayback Machine Leah Fine. Barnard College Department of History, Spring 2007
  16. (in Portuguese) 52. UNIVERSIDADE DE LUANDA
  17. (in Portuguese) Kaúlza de Arriaga (General), O DESENVOLVIMENTO DE MOÇAMBIQUE E A PROMOÇÃO DAS SUAS POPULAÇÕES - SITUAÇÃO EM 1974, Kaúlza de Arriaga's published works and texts
  18. Allen Isaacman. Portuguese Colonial Intervention, Regional Conflict and Post-Colonial Amnesia: Cahora Bassa Dam, Mozambique 1965–2002, Retrieved on March 10, 2007
  19. Megan Mylan, "Indians of the Amazon: Jewel of the Amazon", FRONTLINE/World, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), (24 January 2006)
  20. Clastres, P. (1974) Guayaki cannibalism. In Native South Americans: Ethnology of the Least Known Continent, P. Lyon, ed., pp. 309–321. Boston: Little, Brown.
  21. Sérgio Campos Gonçalves, "O pensamento civilizador e a cultura historiográfica brasileira no século XIX", Revista Fazendo História - CCHLA / UFRN (Natal), v. 1, p. 128-147, 2008, ISSN 1983-1439.
  22. "Ocupación de la Araucanía: El fin de la autonomía territorial mapuche", Memoria chilena, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, retrieved June 30, 2013
  23. Pinto Rodríguez, Jorge (2003). La formación del Estado y la nacion, y el pueblo mapuche (Second ed.). Ediciones de la Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivos y Museos. p. 194. ISBN 956-244-156-3.
  24. Ferrando Kaun, Ricardo (1986). Y así nació La Frontera ... (in Spanish) (Second ed.). Editorial Antártica. p. 583. ISBN 978-956-7019-83-0.


  • Robert Aldrich. Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. Palgrave MacMillan (1996) ISBN 0-312-16000-3.
  • M. B. Jerónimo, The 'civilising mission' of Portuguese colonialism. Palgrave Macmillan (2015) ISBN 978-1137355904.
  • Alice L. Conklin. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa 1895-1930. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998, ISBN 978-0-8047-2999-4.
  • Dino Costantini. Mission civilisatrice. Le rôle de l'histoire coloniale dans la construction de l'identité politique française, La Découverte, Paris 2008.
  • J. P. Daughton. An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-537401-8.
  • Michael Falser. Cultural Heritage as Civilizing Mission. From Decay to Recovery. Heidelberg, New York: Springer (2015), ISBN 978-3-319-13638-7.
  • Patrick Manning. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, 1880-1995. Cambridge University Press (1998) ISBN 0-521-64255-8.
  • Jean Suret-Canale. Afrique Noire: l'Ere Coloniale (Editions Sociales, Paris, 1971); Eng. translation, French Colonialism in Tropical Africa, 1900–1945. (New York, 1971).
  • Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, Berkeley: University of California Press 1991.
  • Diego Olstein / Stefan Hübner(eds.), special issue of the Journal of World History 27(3), 2016, on Preaching the Civilizing Mission and Modern Cultural Encounters.
  • Levent Tezcan. Das muslimische Subjekt: Verfangen im Dialog der Deutschen Islam Konferenz. Konstanz: Konstanz University Press 2012.
  • Kira Thurman. Singing the Civilizing Mission in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms: The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Journal of World History 27(3), 2016, 443–471.
  • Crawford Young. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. Yale University Press (1994) ISBN 0-300-06879-4
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