10 Countries Which Have Never Been Colonized by Europeans

Western colonialism is a political and economic phenomenon in which numerous European countries compete to control, conquer, and exploit other countries. By the end of the 20th century, Europeans had colonized nearly 80 percent of the world. There are a few countries that avoided Western colonialism, below you’ll these countries’ encounters with Western colonial powers.

Bhutan

The Potala Palace is a dzong fortress in Lhasa, Tibet
The Potala Palace, a dzong fortress in Lhasa, Tibet

Bhutan was formed as an independent nation after an uprising led to its separation from the Tibetan Empire around the year 1634. The British Empire had its eyes on Bhutanese territory, and the two states were involved in multiple conflicts over the next two hundred years. The last such conflict, known as the Duar War, ended with the British Empire controlling nearly a fifth of Bhutanese territory by 1865. However, Bhutan managed to retain independence from the rest of the country, and this was recognized by the British Empire in the 1910 Treaty of Punakha. The treaty stipulates that the British recognize Bhutan as an independent nation, but maintain control of its foreign policy. India inherited this power over Bhutan two years after Indian independence in 1947, and the arrangement continues today.

Iran

Battle of Khushab (1857) by Illustrated London News
Battle of Khushab (1857) by Illustrated London News

The British Empire never colonized Iran but maintained control over many of its resources during different periods in history. After the Anglo-Persian war in 1857, Iran’s ruling Shah granted many concessions to the British Empire, including the rights to the cultivation and sale of all Persian tobacco. This concession was canceled after a mass protest movement in the country and was a catalyst for the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The revolution established an Iranian parliament and curbed the powers of the Shah, who was closely allied with British interests.

Furthermore, the British Empire owned most of the country’s oil via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It was only in the 1950s that Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized the company. In response, the UK and USA helped organize a coup in cooperation with the Shah. The country remained firmly within Western spheres of influence until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Nepal

Bhimsen Thapa's troops, right, at Segauli, 1816, with India Pattern Brown Bess muskets and chupi bayonets
Bhimsen Thapa's troops, right, at Segauli, 1816, with India Pattern Brown Bess muskets and chupi bayonets

During the early 1800s, Nepal and the British Empire were competing for territory and influence in the Indian Subcontinent. Eventually, Nepal’s ambition for expansion clashed with British economic interests, prompting the Anglo-Nepalese War following failed trade negotiations.

The war ended with the British Empire controlling much of the Nepalese territory. However, Nepal maintained its status as an independent nation.

China

The Battle of Palikiao (Baliqiao) took place on 21 September 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-1860)
The Battle of Palikiao (Baliqiao) took place on 21 September 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-1860)

China’s major confrontation with the British Empire came in the form of The Opium Wars. The British Empire was heavily reliant on China for its tea and was able to balance its trade by exporting opium, which many Chinese merchants and citizens were addicted to. Eventually, the Chinese government banned the sale of opium due to the negative political, economic, and social effects of the drugs. The strict enforcement of the ban dealt a severe blow to the coffers of Britain’s merchants.

This opened the door for Britain’s invasion of China over two large wars known as the two Opium Wars. The two wars ended with China signing several humiliating treaties granting trade concessions and territory to Western powers, namely the UK, France, and the US. Most famously, the UK took control of Hong Kong as a result of its victory over China.

Japan

1854 Japanese print depicting the expedition
1854 Japanese print depicting the perry expedition

Fearing the West’s continued expansion and colonization, the ruling Japanese government enacted the policy of Sakoku in 1633, isolating Japan from the rest of the world. Japanese nationals for banned from travel and foreign nationals were prevented from entering Japan. Trade with outside powers was severely limited in a bid to “protect” Japan’s sovereignty. The policy lasted for nearly 220 years and was only ended by a US military expedition known as the Perry Expedition.

The Perry Expedition was led by Commodore Matthew Perry, who was ordered by President Fillmore to end Japan’s Sakoku and open its markets to the outside world. Perry traveled to Japan with a large military fleet to intimidate the Japanese into opening their ports to the US, allowing for more trade with Western powers.

Korea

Lithograph depicting British-Indian force storming the fortress during the Battle of Ghazni, 23 July 1839
Lithograph depicting British-Indian force storming the fortress during the Battle of Ghazni, 23 July 1839

Korea was never colonized by Europeans, but by Japan in 1910. Japan’s 35-year-old colonization of Korea was among the most short-lived as it was one of the last countries in the world to be colonized. Korea had a strong resistant movement within its borders, but the Japanese country was able to suppress it.

Korea was liberated from colonization upon the surrender of Japan during the Second World War as Manchuria, a Japanese colony, was being invaded by the Soviet Union. The US dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompting Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces. With the surrender of Japan and during the aftermath of WWII, Korea became an independent nation.

Afghanistan

Lithograph depicting British-Indian force storming the fortress during the Battle of Ghazni, 23 July 1839
Lithograph depicting British-Indian force storming the fortress during the Battle of Ghazni During the First Anglo-Afghan War

Afghanistan was never formally a colony under Western rule. However, it was the target of invasions by multiple countries over time, namely the UK, the USA, and Russia.

The British Empire fought Afghanistan in the three Anglo-Afghan Wars to counter Russian influence in the region. The first Anglo-Afghan War ended in a disastrous and humiliating defeat for British forces. The second war ended with Afghanistan’s defeat, and the British installed a leader favorable to them but did not move to formally colonize Afghanistan. Finally, the third war began with Afghanistan attacking Britain, successfully regaining control of its foreign policy.

More recently, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the USA occupied Afghanistan in 2001, withdrawing in 2021 following negotiations with the Taliban.

Ethiopia

Atse Tewodros II of Ethiopia with his lions
Atse Tewodros II of Ethiopia with his lions

By 1913, Europe had colonized over 90% of Africa, and Ethiopia remains one of the few countries in Africa not colonized by European powers. The British, however, did invade Ethiopia in response to the kidnapping of British missionaries by Emperor Tewodros II. Tewodros had written to the British Empire requesting military assistance to fight revolutionaries in his own country. Having received no response, the Emperor held British missionaries in a bid to force Britain to grant his request.

Instead, the British Empire invaded Ethiopia in what is known as the British Expedition to Abyssinia. The invasion resulted in the successful rescue of British hostages.

Saudi Arabia

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir at the international Syria meeting in London, 16 October 2016
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir at the international Syria meeting in London, 16 October 2016

Saudi Arabia was part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. In 1915, the British Empire signed the treaty of Darin with Abdulaziz Al Saud. The treaty established Saudi Arabia as a British protectorate, but not a colony. In return, the British aided Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in their cessation of the Ottoman Empire, and Saudi Arabia were officially founded in 1932.

Thailand

Sappaya-Sapasathan, the current Parliament House of Thailand
Sappaya-Sapasathan, the current Parliament House of Thailand via Wikipedia

Present-day Thailand was referred to as the Kingdom of Siam during the 19th century. The Kingdom was situated between British-ruled Burma and French-ruled Indochina (modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) (now called Myanmar). In an effort to stop colonization, King Chulalongkorn of Siam sought to embrace a number of European traditions and developed an interest in European technology. By engaging in high level diplomatic efforts, the King was able to sway the British-French alliance in his favor and keep the majority of his country free from European domination.

Though these countries avoided formal colonialism, its effects still influenced their history and continue to shape the world today. Through invasions, threats, and economic pressure, colonial powers found different means to exploit surrounding countries

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