Colonization occurs when one country takes over the lands and people of another country or territory and subjects them to rule by its government instead of their own. For example, the American colonies before the Revolutionary War were land holdings of the British government and ruled by the British king—despite the fact that the Native Americans lived in North America for thousands of years before the European colonists arrived. When one country colonizes another country or territory, it usually exploits the land, resources, and people of the colonized lands for economic gain. Many countries celebrate a national Independence Day to rejoice that they are no longer under colonial rule.
Nearly every country on Earth has been either a colonized territory or a colonizing power at some point in its history (in fact, some countries have been both). Moreover, most of the tiny subset of countries that have not been colonized have had to forcefully repel attempts at colonization. For example, several foreign nations have attempted to colonize Afghanistan, but its rugged terrain and tribalistic culture have thwarted those efforts. Similarly, the British sought to colonize Nepal during the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816 but were hampered by the mountainous terrain. In the end, the Brits were able to claim some of Nepal's territory, but their attempts to declare the country a British colony were ultimately thwarted.
The term "colonization" means different things to different people. Because of this disparity, the list of countries that have never been colonized varies tremendously from one source to the next. In addition, many lists focus upon countries that were not colonized by European countries—which misrepresents countries that were colonized by a country from Asia or Africa. Ultimately, of all the countries in the world, only one consistently appears on every list of countries that have never been colonized: Japan.
Several other countries appear on various lists. However, they all have events in their history that arguably make them colonies according to one definition or another.
|Afghanistan||Never colonized, but occupied and controlled by U.S. 2001-2021.|
|Bhutan||Ceded territory to Britain in 1865, became British protectorate in 1866 and British-controlled "princely state" in 1910.|
|China||Conquered by Mongols in 1200s, who established Yuan dynasty and ruled until 1368 A.D.; Opium wars entrenched U.K. influence and gave U.K. control over Hong Kong from 1841-1997; portions annexed by Japan during WWII.|
|Ethiopia||Avoided becoming Italian colony due to a treaty mistranslation, but annexed by Italy 1939-1944.|
|Iran||Conquered by Greece in fourth century B.C., parts occupied by or ceded to Russia during Russo-Persian Wars, oil rights owned by U.K. for many years.|
|Liberia||Never forcibly colonized, but began as a colony: Founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society to return freed slaves to their homeland. Recognized as independent in 1862.|
|Mongolia||Absorbed by China's Qing dynasty in 1600s, ruled by China until 1921, then because satellite state of Soviet Union until 1924.|
|Nepal||Avoided outright colonization by Brits, but ceded significant territory and became British protectorate in 1815. Arguably functioned as British puppet state for some time.|
|North Korea||Never colonized by European country, but arguably colonized by Japan during WWII.|
|Saudi Arabia||Varying but significant areas controlled by Ottoman empire from early 1500s-early 1900s.|
|South Korea||Never colonized by European country, but arguably colonized by Japan during WWII.|
|Thailand||Never colonized by European country, but arguably colonized by Japan during WWII.|
|Tonga||British protected state 1900-1970, giving Britain preferential trade terms and control over foreign affairs.|
Countries that have been occupied by a foreign power are often considered to have been colonies. Case in point: Afghanistan was never officially colonized, but some historians say the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021 counts as colonization.
Thailand, known in the nineteenth century as the Kingdom of Siam, was surrounded by the colonized countries of French Indochina (modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) and British Burma (modern-day Myanmar). The Siamese king adopted many pro-European customs and developed strong relations with the British to prevent the full colonization of his land. However, Thailand (along with Korea and parts of Mongolia and China) was later occupied by Japan during World War II—which many historians classify as colonization rather than an occupation. This logic can be applied to many countries that were subjugated during World War II, from Italy's annexing of Ethiopia to Germany's conquest of Poland, as well as other wars throughout history.
Similarly, many countries have experienced a de facto colonization, in which their lands and people were exploited for economic gain but the colonizing power did not establish its government in that country. For example, for much of the twentieth century, Britain held the rights to virtually all of the oil under Iran's land. The British government did not officially rule Iran, but it did own the country's most valuable resource, which greatly affected the Iranian government's policies and operations. Likewise, China was never formally colonized, but the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 were fought to ensure that British opium merchants had access to Chinese markets.
Today, the effects of colonization can be seen worldwide, in the languages that a given nation's citizens speak (many Africans speak English or French as their primary language), the customs that they hold, and the exports they send out to the world.
Japan is the only country that was never colonized.