I'm trying to find the best translation for the German phrase "koloniales Erbe" as applied to a former colonial power, e.g. as used in the title of this conference. Both "colonial legacy" and "colonial heritage" seem to be in common use, but I'm wondering about the nuances.

"Erbe" is a general, neutral word meaning "what was inherited", whereas to my mind "legacy" and "heritage" have slightly different connotations: "Heritage" seems more positive, and "legacy" seems more appropriate to the meaning "colonial burden" that's intended here.

It seems to me that "colonial heritage" might be more appropriate to refer to potentially positive things like architectural styles in colonized countries (the Ilha de Moçambique comes to mind), but the phrase here applies to coming to terms with a colonial power's colonial past, which isn't positive.

However, one finds both terms applied with this negative meaning, often interchangeably in the same text (e.g. here). Do you find one of them more appropriate?

  • The problem is that the debate on ethics of colonization is often centered on the dark path of conquest and exploitation. So, whatever term you choose, the negative aspect may come to mind first. A balanced formulation could be "beneficial and detrimental effects of colonization".
    – Graffito
    May 27 at 18:05

1 Answer 1


In the sense you use them, both verbs have their extended/figurative meaning, and I would choose “legacy” as (i) it is the neutral term and can thus be given negative attributes. (ii) is defined, see below, as a long-lasting effect of an event or process.

Heritage devolves in a direct and natural line from someone to someone; (or more recently something to someone or something)

OED Heritage

4. That which comes from the circumstances of birth; an inherited lot or portion; the condition or state transmitted from ancestors.

To which I would add “an indefinite number of ancestors”

1621 J. Fletcher et al. Trag. of Thierry & Theodoret v. i. sig. I3 The peoples charity was your heritage, and I would see which of you deserves his birth-right.

a1872 F. D. Maurice Friendship Bks. (1874) i. 22 To earn bread by the sweat of the brow is the common heritage of the sons of Adam.

Heritage tends to be positive and quite capable of stretching backwards through generations. For example:

“They claimed to be of Inuit heritage.” (See https://www.kingstonist.com/news/queens-responds-to-potential-fraudulent-claim-of-inuit-heritage-by-former-students/) whereas “They claimed to be of Inuit legacy” is clearly wrong.

Regardless of the prior owner’s original source, a legacy is received by someone, who may or may not be related, and who may or may not want it.

OED Legacy

b. In extended use. A tangible or intangible thing handed down by a predecessor; a long-lasting effect of an event or process.

1962 Listener 18 Oct. 593/2 The legacy of Britain's policy of indirect rule in this region of Nigeria is clearly visible in the comparatively static nature of these societies.

Legacy tends to be neutral and have no history beyond the donor.

Britain gave Nigeria a colonial legacy in the sense of a long-lasting effect of an event or process.– it goes back as a colony to British rule but no further.

Nigeria has a colonial heritage – it received it from the British who were the originators of the status.

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