A List: Things in European and North American City Culture that Exist because of Colonialism

-Sugar (molasses)

We love our cafe culture here in Europe, but our tea and coffee would not be sweet without the molasses imported from the colonies in the Americas, specifically the West Indies (Jamaica, Barbados, etc) and French colonies. We would have no tea diversity or variety without colonization in Asia, and it certainly would not be so cheap. For all those coffee lovers, you mostly realize where the coffee you drink comes from when cafes have names for them like: “Colombian Java” or “Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee.” Before European colonialism, coffee had always been part of the culture in the Arab world. The Europeans tried to become apart of that coffee trade (which included the horn of Africa), but had to compete with Arab nations and it was expensive. As a result of colonialism they were able to avoid the Arab coffee trade by creating coffee plantations in the Americas, producing a mass popular culture of coffee in Europe.


We can thank Asia for many of the spices that make food so delicious. Spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and cloves just to name a few are a result of the Spice Trade with Asia (and North Africa) during the period of colonialism. The Spice Trade between Asia and Africa had existed long before colonialism, however because of tariffs Europe was marginal in this trade system and it was very expensive for Europeans to buy spices. With colonialism, these tariffs were dropped and the balance of power shifted allowing Europeans to have access to spices in Asia without much difficulty.


Because who doesn’t love rum! We all know rum comes from the Caribbean and is a staple for tourists who visit countries like Jamaica and Cuba. It’s also become apart of popular drinking culture in cities like London with their RumFest, and is a relatively popular alcohol to make cocktails out of in other European cities as well.

-Palm Trees (and a whole host of other tropical trees)

Of the many things taken from the colonies during colonialism plants, not just for spices, and trees were among them. Palm trees, which you can find in many Spanish cities, were brought from South America some centuries ago to adorn the gardens and parks of the royals in Spain. Although some species of palm tree, mainly in Southern Spain, have descended from palm trees brought over by North Africans during Islamic Spain (beginning in the 8th century), many that we see in Spanish cities come from species originally brought over during colonialism. The tropical trees and plants that make Spain so wonderful are largely taken from South America and the Caribbean during colonialism.


Currency! Gold and silver existed in the Americas for centuries. When the Europeans came and attached their value to it, these precious metals became a justification for violence, slavery, and displacement of indigenous communities. It was with gold taken from South America that Spain was able to bolster its first treasury. The expansion West in the United States was largely about finding more gold. Before there were dollars in the U.S., gold (and silver) was used as money. Remember, the one and two euro coins have their origins in colonialism in the Americas. So when we buy our coffee or tea (with sugar) using our euro coins, we are transacting using the legacy of colonialism.


Basically a good amount of our clothes are made from cotton and are made rather cheaply from it as a result of the enslavement of Africans in the American south who were picking cotton in huge numbers on cotton plantations. In addition to our clothes, sheets, and towels, cotton is also used to make things such as coffee filters and fishing nets, so it’s very useful and relatively cheap because of slavery in the U.S. colonies.


To many people in the world a stereotypical French man is a person sitting at a cafe drinking a coffee, wearing a beret, smoking a cigarette (two out of three of those things have their origin in colonialism). One of the most amazing things I witnessed in Amsterdam was seeing young people ride their bikes with no hands while they rolled a cigarette. In some bars in Vienna, people are still allowed to smoke inside. Additionally, in Europe it is very common for people to roll their own cigarettes with tobacco. In the U.S. it is more common to buy cigarettes, but you can always find some hipsters attempting to roll their own. The Mayans were smoking tobacco before the Europeans came to the Americas. Tobacco is from South America, and yet we do not think about that when we witness the pervasive cigarette culture in European cities.

-Bauxite (aluminum)

Bauxite in its raw form is still sent from Jamaica to Western countries to be processed and then resold to Jamaica as aluminum. These global trade deals, many orchestrated by the World Trade Organization, largely benefit Western nations and continue the colonial legacy of extracting natural resources from former colonial nations, processing them in Western nations, then reselling them back to these nations where the original product came from. In addition to the devaluation of currency in much of Africa, Asia, and the Americas (Caribbean, excluding the French compartments, and Central/South America), in European and North American cities we are able to buy aluminum other products made from bauxite for relatively cheaply. It’s no wonder there is migration to Western nations where there is access to better education, better paying jobs, and in some ways a better quality of life.

-Popcorn (corn in general)

It seems taboo to go to a movie theatre in the United States and not have popcorn. Even if you’re at home watching a movie we love to eat popcorn. When British settlers came to the United States and formed the 13 colonies they learned about maize (corn) from the indigenous people who over the course of the next centuries they would almost completely decimate. Corn has become integral to food production in the U.S. and especially corn syrup, which is in most popular American foods.


Thought these were Irish? Nope! They are from South America and imported from the colonies there.


Thought these were traditionally Italian? Yeah, no. They also come from South America. Without the colonies on the continent of Africa, Asia, and in the Americas much of the food we think is traditionally European would not be able to exist. Many of the main ingredients and almost all of the spices were brought to Europe as a result of the free labour and resources of the colonies across the world. Tapas in Barcelona would not be possible without the colonization of the Americas and Caribbean.




so many more…

There are so many ways in which colonialism helped to develop Europe. The Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, which largely urbanized the Netherlands, was made possible from the profit of the colonies they had in East Asia. Similarly, much of the wealth of Copenhagen in the 18th century was due to the revenue from their colonies: the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). Urbanization in Europe, the beautiful architecture we see in the cities and the culture, cafe culture among other things, are due to the profit from the colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas. The free labour from enslaved Africans along with the cheap labor of indentured servants, extraction of natural resources, plants and spices, agricultural skills learned from indigenous populations, more territory and more subjects. All of these factors have aided in giving life to the European and American (urban) culture we know and love.

So please stop asking aggrievedly what colonialism/postcolonialism has to do with current culture in and the current state of European cities & nations.