What is exactly the difference between being a colony and being a territory?


By Kevin Stoda

As many of my readers know, this week I am with my family on the island of Guam and am fascinated by its history and its peculiar relationship with the rest of the United Sates. In visiting here–one of “America’s so-called outlying territories”–I have begun pondering what it means exactly to be a territory  or to be a colony.  Guam, like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Saipan, is one such outlying territory of the U.S.A.   (I believe nearly half Americans have no idea where Guam is located and do not know that the USA has outlying territories so far away.)

A list of so-called outlying territories world-wide can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outlying_territory

“An outlying territory or separate area is [defined as] a state territory geographically separated from its parent territory and lies beyond Exclusive Economic Zone of its parent territory.”

In many cases, one-time foreign colonies of a regime have been redefined or redesignated in modern times to be territories, rather than states or colonies.

What is exactly the difference between being a colony and being a territory?

I have tried to find out on line and the best distinction I can find is that [a] “a colony is a territory under the immediate political control of a state” while [b] “a territory is a defined area, including land and waters, considered to be a possession of a person, organization [or nation state]”.

With such a definition, I begin to see why the concept of a ‘territory” contrasted with the concept of a “colony” is a bit difficult to determine historically.  That is, a territory was often previously a colony of the current protector or possessor of the “territory”. (In other cases, the protected territory came into the hands of another state after one state gave up its colony or former colony to the United Nations or some other organization or regime.)

Currently, the citizens of “outlying territories” of the USA cannot vote in national elections, nor can they have direct representation in Congress or in most forms of federal governance.   To me, this appears to be similar to the role of colonies in many large empires or colonies under a kingdom, empire or a regime. I would, for example, still see Gibraltar as a colony of the UK and Palestine to be a colony of Israel.

In Guam’s case, there appears to be a desire to become a state.  This has, however, been ignored by the US Congress.  In turn, there is also a significant Independence movement there–perhaps stronger than Hawaiian independence movements but not as vocal historically as in Puerto Rico.   I think both Guam and Puerto Rico could do better financially and geopolitical as either (1) actual US states with all there rights and privileges or (2) as independent sovereign states.

What do you readers think?

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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4 Responses to What is exactly the difference between being a colony and being a territory?

  1. James Newton says:

    I agree. I feel that Puerto Rico and Guam are enjoying a similar standing to that of the US during the colonial times, except that, of course, they are allowed their own form of independent self-governance to only a certain degree. When it comes down to it, we have such political control over these “territories” that they are, in effect, colonies and this is clearly an un-American and immoral abuse of a group of people. Hopefully, with the inevitable death of Republican power, they shall be able to gain statehood.

  2. Richard Lawton says:

    I would say the key factor is the nature of governance. In a colony, executive power would normally lie in the hands of a person or group appointed by the ruling nation and would be limited to domestic affairs; responsibility for foreign affairs would remain with the ruling nation. In a territory, one might expect significant, perhaps full, domestic self-governance; but with the ruling nation maybe having a veto on domestic legislation and retaining full responsibility for foreign affairs. In the modern age it does appear anachronistic. But I believe the decision should lie with the citizens of the territory. What do they want the relationship to be?

    One example you mention – Gibraltar, a territory of the UK. An overwhelming majority of the population are happy with the current arrangement: almost complete domestic self-government. The UK is responsible for defence. This suits Gibraltar. If they became independent, Spain might just walk in and take over.

  3. Most times that Guam has talked about statehood it has failed as they know that they lose a lot of federal benefits and Puerto Rico has voted to cease being a territory, but they can’t afford to become a state even if they are recognized. Incidentally, Saipan is NOT a US territory it is part of the commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, hence the CNMI in their name.

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