The Future of Space Colonization

by William K. Storey

Modern science fiction stories are grounded in contemporary skepticism about politics as well as concern about public-private partnerships and for the future of Earth’s environment. These plausible fictions about the colonization of space resonate with U.S. and world history, in that they extend ideas about technology, business, and migration that are deeply rooted in our consciousness—including our fears. As Sheila Jasanoff observes in her book about science and democracy, “Designs on Nature“, public skepticism about science and modern politics has produced newfound anxiety about the capacity of the modern nation-state to provide order in the midst of new technological challenges.

As the line between corporate influence and public policy continues to blur, there are strong reasons to explore, in science fiction, what it would be like for capitalists to be in charge of space exploration. Technologies pose benefits and risks that societies regulate, in such a way that the law may be said to co-evolve with technologies. Automobiles became safer—with seat belts, airbags, and mandatory seat-belt laws surrounding them–even as the safer cars became faster and more agile. And the development of nuclear weapons ushered in an era of international rulemaking through treaties.

The future domination of space by grasping capitalists is all too easy to imagine. We are already seeing national space programs like NASA scaling back, while private entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk scheme about the future of private space travel and of modifications to the Earth’s atmosphere.

History of colonization and governance

One key element of colonization has always been migration, from Neolithic times to the present. Migration depends on a number of different factors—“push” factors and “pull” factors—as well as individual and group calculations about opportunity costs. How bad is it at home? How challenging is the process of migration? How good is the new area of settlement?

Domestic transformations such as these are often related to the conquest and colonization of new territories, as Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper maintain in “Empires in World History“.

Imperial conquests, though based in the desire for domination, enrich the home countries with new commodities, ideas, and migrants. Empires bring resistance, too, and in the case of the British, French, and U.S. Empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the credibility of cherished domestic freedoms was called into question. Even so, in world history, imperial governance has been the most widespread and stable form of governance, ranging from the empires of Rome and Han China to the European empires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Modern nation-states are only a recent development and they, too, have been susceptible to engaging in their own empire-building.

The upcoming New Space age suggests the emergence of a significant corporate role in governance, but from a historical standpoint this is not new. There are many examples of colonial domination by companies, such as the British East India Company, founded in 1600. For a century and a half, it was mainly concerned with securing its trading posts, but during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it came to govern much of India.

The Dutch East India Company established European settlement in Southern Africa in 1652, laying the groundwork for many subsequent racial problems. In both places, direct rule from home was thought to be prohibitively costly, but company rule was gradually found to be less than public-spirited. The British East India Company famously lost its mandate in the wake of the 1857 rebellion of its own soldiers, while the Dutch East India Company was replaced in Southern Africa by direct British rule during the Napoleonic Wars.

Today these company-states might be called public-private partnerships. Entrepreneurs from the companies sought to undermine indigenous people and rulers who resisted their inroads. The companies created their own governments in overseas territories, with the sanction of their home governments through charters. The home governments, in turn, reaped the benefits of having friendly governments in overseas territories, while administration by chartered companies helped home governments to avoid the costs of administration.

Unfortunately for those who advocate such public-private partnerships today, the history of colonialism contains famous examples of ways that such arrangements have tended to produce clashes between public values and private actions. The companies were set up to make money, not only for the shareholders, but also for their home countries. Making money came first, the common good came second. Chartered companies tended to become controversial when they started to become costly in terms of money and good will.

The British East India Company began with trading posts in India’s port cities. As the company became rich and influential over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it expanded its territory to a great extent. The idea that underlaid the company’s expansion was mercantilism. Raw, unrefined produce would be bought in India, then shipped to Britain, where manufacturers turned it into goods that could be sold at home or even sold in India. The model worked to some extent, but there were problems inherent in this public-private partnership. Such arrangements would work best as monopolies, which were naturally resisted by competing merchants, as John Darwin points out in his magisterial survey, “Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain”.

Darwin also explains that at home, imports were bought with gold and silver, which then flowed back to India and into the pockets of company traders—in other words, the company profited not only at the expense of Indian competitors, but also at the expense of British consumers. Company policies became unpopular in India, too. Cotton exports led to the decline of indigenous cloth manufacturing. Opium cultivation by Indian landlords tended to throw peasants off their customary lands and reduce them to rural proletarians. Even Niall Ferguson, a historian who is sympathetic to Britain’s imperial projects, points out in his book “Empire” that tension between the East India Company’s profit-seeking leaders, on the one hand, and Indian princes and peoples on the other, had produced a state of near-perpetual warfare on the subcontinent. The company’s propensity to annex territory and to antagonize Indians led to the great rebellion of 1857, the abolition of the company, and direct rule from Britain.

In fact, public-private partnerships in the form of chartered colonial companies helped to produce some of the worst cases of misrule in modern history.

The most notorious example took place in the late nineteenth-century Congo. The constitutional monarch of Belgium, King Leopold II, became interested in trade in the Congo Basin. In the 1870s, he bought large financial positions in several companies that traded in Congo, but he failed to persuade the Belgian parliament to create a formal colony there. Under pressure from the British, French, and Germans, who were formalizing their own colonial boundaries in Africa, Leopold founded his own colony, the Congo Independent State. Leopold claimed that his private colony had a humanitarian mission, yet the colony, which was recognized by all the European powers, became a horror-show of colonial exploitation. To fill Leopold’s pockets, many of the people of the Congo were sent out as gang laborers to collect rubber and other raw materials. Failure to meet company goals resulted in torture, maiming, and killing.

The best-known history of imperialism in the Congo, “Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschil, quotes a Swedish missionary who recorded the following song from desperate Congolese people:

“We are tired of living under this tyranny.

We cannot endure that our women and children are taken away

And dealt with by the white savages.

We shall make war ….

We know that we shall die, but we want to die.

We want to die.”

When the brutality of Leopold’s public-private partnership was exposed by journalists, the Belgian government was shamed into taking over the colony and ruling it directly from Brussels. Leopold’s actions in the Congo were much worse than any of those imagined in science fiction anthology.

In British India, as Daniel Headrick has written in “The Tentacles of Progress”, the introduction of railroads enhanced imperial control, while opening opportunities for both imperialist and indigenous businesses. In South Africa, the introduction of technologies for mining and processing minerals such as diamonds and gold increased the demand for migrant labor and its regulation through racial segregation. In A “History of South Africa”, Leonard Thompson argues that in the late nineteenth century, the coming together of racism and capitalism was thought by many intellectuals to be generating the rapid acceleration of imperialism. It should be noted that in some cases, exploration can lead to imperial dominance, which in turn sometimes leads to colonization and sometimes does not.

The colonization of New England and New Zealand by farmers was partly planned, while Australia was initially intended to be settled by convicts. In all cases of colonial settlement, though, colonists were attracted by unplanned discoveries, such as gold in California, Australia, and South Africa. In many cases, though, settlement never occurred. Disease environments were sometimes hostile to Europeans, as was the case in West Africa, while a combination of climate, disease, and lack of available land made India unattractive for colonial settlement.

Colonization follows domination only when the opportunities outweigh the costs. When opportunities are too costly, more purely extractive imperialism may be preferable. Plans for the future exploration (or domination) of space will face similar limits, whether or not the projects are run by private or public institutions. Natural circumstances will shape the characteristics of dominion. And much will be left unplanned.

Rethinking governance in a spacefaring age

European colonizers rethought governance, too, and presented the people of the Americas, Africa, and Asia with a range of choices. They could accept European domination or resist it, in ways large and small. Association and assimilation were options, too, that provided new ways to organize resistance. It is significant to note that key figures of resistance, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were attorneys with a traditional British education, who nonetheless remained comfortable in their home traditions.

In contemplating a future for the colonization of space, international Space Agencies will be keen to address issues of equality. In previous centuries, colonization tended to amplify inequality, not equality, in two significant ways. On the one hand, the initial stages of colonization were led by hierarchical organizations, either businesses or armed services. This historical example has often been followed by science fiction authors: it is no coincidence that the name of Star Trek’s Captain James Kirk bears some resemblance to the British Empire’s famous naval officer and explorer, Captain James Cook. The armed services get the job of exploration done but they are hardly theaters of equality. The captain’s authority is complete, a situation attributable to the necessities of navigation as well as tradition. This authority has a special, public-spirited nature. As Greg Dening writes in his account of a famous mutiny, “Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language“, there is a special authority that comes with an officer’s commission from the king’s government: “The Commission, direct from the Crown, in some way displaced the person commissioned, leaving much more room for a sense of public altruism and its rhetoric.

The challenge to future space exploration will be to make certain that the martial values associated with initial exploration do not become the permanent values of colonial settlements, which should instead adopt the values of the broader public.

The future of the nation and the world are linked to decisions about colonization.

Future space travel is a form of escape from a dysfunctional Earth. This sort of plotline reveals a degree of pessimism about the present world and its ills, yet it resonates with U.S. history itself, which, at its bedrock, is a story of migration and colonization. The New England colonies were founded by Protestant dissenters who left home believing that their High-Church Anglican countrymen were on a direct pathway to Hell. The colonization of New England involved social and technical challenges, such as farming in new, adverse circumstances, yet in the midst of those challenges, settlers were able to articulate new visions, in the Mayflower Compact, or in John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” that brought together old English values with the environment of the New World. By contrast, in Virginia, the initial project of colonization was undertaken by grasping businessmen, keen to find gold and grow tobacco. Decades of boom and bust, together with slavery and starvation, were eventually stabilized by control from London and by the establishment of a somewhat representative government.

If Space Agencies have a role in the future colonization of Low Earth Orbit, it is not only to promote and develop technologies; it is to articulate a vision of what that colonization might look like. The stakes are high. The enterprise of colonization has often shaped the values and identities of the home country, intensifying ideas about national identity. Nationalism and colonization are inextricably linked, and the choices we make about the “final frontier” of space may well define us in the coming century.


About the author

William K. Storey is a professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was the 2013 Carnegie-CASE professor of the year. He researches and writes about the history of technology and empire-building. He is currently working on a study about Cecil Rhodes’s vision for mining, farming, railroads, and telegraphy in Southern Africa.

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One Reply to “The Future of Space Colonization”

  1. I particularly enjoyed reading about the origins of colonialism although I don’t believe space colonization will bear any resemblance to these historical references. The driving forces behind space colonization are two: exploration and exploitation. Humans in space are exploring the limits of our species and attempting to overcome a hostile environment. Commercial colonies in space will focus on space resources and how they can serve two purposes: provide earnings for investors by delivering value to Earth-based humans; and develop an infrastructure for the human presence beyond Earth.

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