Guest Essay: A Colony by Any Other Name: The Latin States of Syria-Palestine

Above Image: Historian Alfred J. Andrea walking along the famous markets at Portobello Road in London.

The following essay is the text, slightly revised, of a brief talk given by historian Alfred J. Andrea at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, U.K., on July 3rd, 2019. Dr. Andrea, Professor Emeritus of the University of Vermont and former President of the World History Association, gave these introductory comments as part of a panel considering crusade myths that also included historians Natasha R. Hodgson, Alan V. Murray, and Aphrodite Papayianni. Here Dr. Andrea provides a nuanced reassessment of the issues of colonialism and crusading. In keeping with current scholarly views of the crusades, Dr. Andrea agrees that comparisons of the crusader states with modern 19th and 20th century western colonial models are wrong. Yet, as a world historian, Dr. Andrea also points out that historically there have been many forms of colonialization worldwide.


A Colony by Any Other Name: The Latin States of Syria-Palestine

Guest Essay by Alfred J. Andrea

Joshua Prawer famously argued in his 1972 study of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem that the economies, societies, and institutions of the states of the Latin East, and predominantly those of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, are understandable only if one realizes that they were colonies of Western Europe and especially so of Franco-Europe.[1] He further maintained that it was only with the crusades that colonialism became a major factor in world history, and in that sense  “the Crusader kingdom” was the first European colonial society.

Leaving aside for the moment Prawer’s argument that the states of the Latin East were Western Europe’s initial venture into global colonialism, the fact is that the states of the Latin East are viewed in the popular imagination as examples of early Western colonialism. In the words of Karen Armstrong, whose best-selling books have misguided many who seek to understand the crusades, “These soldiers of Christ established European colonies in the Middle East and began to dream of world domination.”[2]

In reaction to similar popular, often overstated and erroneously envisioned notions of crusader colonialism—a colonialism misrepresented in numerous media, including such films as The Kingdom of Heaven (2005)[3]—a significant number of eminent scholars have derided the very idea of a colonial Latin East as unadulterated myth.[4]  Thomas Madden, for example, referring to the four states that comprised the Latin East, argues that:

They were not colonies…in the sense of plantations or even factories, as in the case of India. They were outposts. The ultimate purpose of the Crusader States was to defend the Holy Places in Palestine,  especially Jerusalem, and to provide a safe environment for Christian pilgrims to visit those places. There  was no mother country with which the Crusader States had an economic relationship, nor did Europeans economically benefit from them.[5]

Indeed, Madden is somewhat correct if one uses the model of mercantilist colonialism that became the West’s dominant form of colonialism from the sixteenth century onward. But note that I said, “somewhat correct,” because one can quibble about the distinction between Portuguese factories in India and Italian  fondaci in Acre and Tyre. Moreover, the mercantile quarters of the port cities of the Latin East were rich sources of profits for the Pisans, Genoese, Venetians, and others who lived and traded within them. But such nit-picking aside, the larger issue is: does the model offered by Madden encompass all colonial enterprises everywhere and in all ages? As a world historian, I answer “no.”

From the perspective of world history, colonialism appears to me to be a multi-faceted phenomenon that has taken on a variety of forms across the millennia and around the world. From that perspective, perhaps the simplest and most all-embracing definition is:

Transplantation onto foreign soil of a people who become a dominant element there in one manner or other.

Granted, this is a general and even vague definition. But it appears to me to nicely encompass the convoluted century of colonial rule enjoyed by Britain’s Honourable East India Company in India.

Established by royal charter in 1600, the East India Company, a monopolistic joint-stock company dedicated to trade, effectively governed large portions of India from 1757 to 1858 (and by 1850 held sway over almost all of the subcontinent). To be sure, “John Company” was often aided by Parliament and the Crown, as a loan of ₤1,500,000 in 1773 bears witness. Moreover, Parliament regulated it, and in 1813, Parliament largely ended the Company’s monopoly over trade in India (except for tea and opium) and asserted the ultimate sovereignty of the Crown over all lands that the Honourable Company governed in India. Likewise, royal military units served alongside Company troops since 1668 in an effort by the Crown to both control and further the interests of the Company in India.[6] But from start to finish (even after 1813 and until 1857-58),  the Company was a semi-independent mercantile entity that governed major areas of South Asia as essentially a private fief, and it did so largely through native surrogates and in accord with local laws and traditions. Was this colonialism? Most historians who specialize in the history of India label it as such.[7] And the British government, which took over direct control of the Company’s vast Indian holdings following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, certainly thought it was. If the British Raj of 1858-1947 was a colonial enterprise, so was its immediate predecessor, even before 1813.

Was the East India Company’s colonialism in India a match for that of the so-called (and mislabeled) Crusader States of the Latin East? Not at all. To be sure, we can find some superficial similarities, but the two were more dissimilar than alike. But the point here is not to find equivalencies but to point out the rich varieties of colonialism across time and space. In that regard, let’s look at another form of colonialism, namely that practiced in ancient Hellas. Even more so than the colonial policies and institutions established by the Honourable East India Company, Hellas’s colonies were radically different from the model presented by Madden.

Hellenic colonization from the eighth century B.C.E. onward more or less  followed the colonial model established by the Phoenicians. That is, driven by the necessity of reducing an excess population, a number of Hellas’s poleis created overseas colonial cities, each of which maintained religious, cultural, and commercial ties with its mother polis but was politically independent. Thus, Corinth established Syracuse in Sicily as a colony in 734 B.C.E., and by the fifth century, Syracuse was a major economic, cultural, and political power in the Hellenic world but still retained cultic and commercial ties with Corinth.

But Hellas and Phoenicia aside, let’s look at the four states of Latin Syria-Palestine, namely the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291), the County of Edessa (1097-1150), the Principality of Antioch (1098-1268), and the County of Tripoli (1109-1289). The four states were governed by a small minority of Latin Christians, who depended on a constant influx of immigrants and pilgrims from the West to maintain their hold over these lands and peoples. And Western powers, especially the papacy, found ingenious means for attracting and dispatching people and funds to the East. These efforts included, but were not limited to, numerous calls over the next several centuries for crusades in support of their co-religionists in the East and the lands they possessed. Conceivably, three of the states, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem, would never have lasted as long as they did were it not for the lifeline to the West’s human and material resources that Europe’s Mediterranean powers, especially the great maritime cities of Italy, provided. Moreover, although the Latin East’s first two military orders, the Templars and the Hospitalers, were created in the Kingdom of Jerusalem as a means of providing a force-in-readiness for the defense of the kingdom, both orders and those that followed in their wake, such as the Teutonic Order, depended on patrons, rich holdings, and organizational structures that were centered in Europe. Finally, although a distinctive culture took shape in the Latin East through the settlers’ cultural interchange with the many different peoples, religions, and ways of life of this region, the core of that culture remained Latin and the religious focus of its people was fixed on Rome. Given that reality, I maintain that Latin Christendom was the “mother country” of the so-called crusader states of Syria-Palestine.

Although historians might quibble over whether or not these four polities fit some ideal colonial model  (as if there is an ideal, one-size-fits-all model), there is no disputing the fact that other crusades and crusading ventures, following the precedent of the Latin East, produced distinct colonies in other lands. They included colonies carved out by various participants in the Baltic Crusades and the lands colonized in mainland and insular Greece by Venice and others following the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the forces of the Fourth Crusade. They also included colonies that the Portuguese and Spaniards created in the South Atlantic in the fifteenth century as extensions of their crusading enterprises. I speak, of course, of the archipelagos of the Canaries, Madeira, the Azores, and Cape Verde, and the West African island of São Tomé, all of which were functioning colonies before Columbus and da Gama ever set sail for the Indies.

I submit, therefore, that Joshua Prawer and Karen Armstrong were not off the mark when they saw the First Crusade as the springboard of Western colonialism, although we should dismiss as nonsense Armstrong’s claim that in establishing their colonies in the Levant the crusaders thereby began to dream of world domination. We should not impute to twelfth- and thirteenth-century people motives that drove other colonial endeavors centuries far later. We should also reject Prawer’s contention that only with the crusades did colonialism become a major factor in world history. Try telling that to the peoples of Central and East Asia who, for more than a millennium before the Age of the Crusades, had to contend with aggressive Chinese colonialism. After all, the empire of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) bestowed the name Annam (the pacified South) on that portion of mainland Southeast Asia that today is northern Vietnam—a region that the emperor’s armies had “pacified” in the late first century B.C.E. Arguably, except for momentary interludes, Chinese colonialism has been a driving force in world history for well over 2,000 years and continues as such to this very day. No, colonialism was not invented by the evil West at the end of the eleventh century nor has it historically been unique to it. Indeed, even China did not invent colonialism. It had already flourished across swarths of Afro-Eurasia long before the rise of a unified China in the third century B.C.E.

But enough of China. After all, our focus is the Latin States of Syria-Palestine. Within the broad spectrum of world history, there was nothing unique or new about them as colonial enterprises, but they were, with the exceptions of Iceland and Greenland, the European West’s first significant overseas colonial ventures. They set the tone, and many more would follow.

Alfred J. Andrea

University of Vermont


[1] Joshua Prawer, The Crusaders’ Kingdom: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages (New York: Prager, 1972).

[2] Karen Armstrong, “The Crusades, Even Now,” (accessed 12 June 2019).

[3] See Thomas Madden’s delightful sendup of The Kingdom of Heaven at (accessed June 13, 2019).

[4] Corliss Slack, “The Quest for Gain: Were the First Crusaders Proto-Colonists?”,  in Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt, eds., Seven Myths of the Crusades (Indianapolis, IN and Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 2015), 70-90, addresses the issue of whether or not the First Crusaders, as a cohort, set off for the East with the intention of enriching themselves by establishing colonies there. She provides a brief survey of current historical thought (and debate) on the issue of whether or not the Latin States of the Levant were colonies on pages 74-79.

[5] Thomas Madden, “Myth 4: The Crusades were just medieval colonialism dressed up in religious finery” in  “Crusade Myths,”

(accessed June 12, 2019).

[6]  As time went on, British regular forces in India increased in size. In 1850, nearly 30,000 regular British troops were stationed in India—roughly a quarter of the entire British Army. In contrast, the Company’s forces employed about 15,000 Europeans, who largely served as officers, non-commissioned officers, and technical experts. But the Company’s force of native troops (Sepoys) numbered almost 30,000.

[7] A good introduction to the topic of the East India Company’s colonial rule in India is the 2004 special issue of Modern Asian Studies that contains seven articles that focus mainly on the development of the Company’s colonial rule in India between the 1780s and 1840s. Ian J. Barrow and Douglas E. Haynes, “The Colonial Transition: South Asia, 1780-1840,” Modern Asian Studies 38 (2004): 469-78, provide an overview of the articles.