Age of Imperialism

Age of Imperialism Map


  • Define the term imperialism and relate it to events in the late 1800’s—early 1900’s
  • Explain the motivations of imperialist nations for adopting this foreign policy
  • Evaluate justifications for imperialism, such as “White Man’s Burden” and “Social Darwinism


Imperialism (the belief in building empires) is a foreign policy in which a strong nation seeks to dominate weaker countries politically, economically and/or socially.  The colonization that took place during the Age of Exploration (after Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492) is sometimes called the Old Imperialism.  In the late 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution caused a renewed interest in colonies, sometimes called the New Imperialism.


Causes of Imperialism

A major cause for the renewed interest in colonies was the Industrial Revolution.  It caused European countries to want new colonies for large quantities of cheap raw materials for industry and markets to sell their manufactured goods.  These colonies gave the mother countries a source for making money with high profit for little risk (since they exploited their colonies with mercantilist policies).

Other motivations behind imperialism are tied to nationalism—the belief in the superiority of your nation (people with a common culture and history) over others.  In addition to the money to be made from imperialism, European countries also wanted colonies as a matter of prestige and national pride.  European countries were in a competition with each other, as they all tried to show their nation’s power by collecting colonies.  In addition, colonies were also strategic, providing key places for important military bases and also convenient coaling stations for trade routes.

Yet another motive behind imperialism was based on spreading European religion.  European Christians believed that they had a religious duty to spread Christianity to people in Africa and Asia.  Missionaries—people who go abroad to convert people to their religion—were often the first Europeans to settle in Africa and Asia.  Often after missionaries came, more Europeans came for other reasons, particularly to establish businesses.

In addition to using religion to justify the spreading of European culture, Europeans—as well as the United States who was also involved in imperialism—had several justifications for imperialism that made them think they had good reasons to do what they were doing.

One of these ideas used to rationalize European dominance over Africa and Asia was called “White Man’s Burden.”  This idea came from a famous poem written by the same guy that wrote the Jungle Book, a British author named Rudyard Kipling (born to British parents in Bombay, India).  White Man’s Burden was the belief that it was the duty of white, European countries to “civilize” people in Africa and Asia by bringing European technology and culture to them.

Associated with White Man’s Burden, the concept of Social Darwinism was also used to excuse European control of Africa and Asia, as well as culturally insensitive practices that came with it.  Scientist Charles Darwin—in his famous book Origin of the Species—observed that in nature species either adapt to their environment for survival.  Those that don’t adapt, die off.  This is the theory of natural selection, also called the theory of evolution.  Social scientists—like Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”—applied this idea to human society.  They said that people that were successful were better adapted and that people who weren’t successful were inferior.  To Europeans this meant that the people who got taken over through imperialism deserved to be taken over because they were weaker and inferior.

These two ideas also translated into paternalism, the treating a group of people like they are dependents (in other words, children).  Europeans believed that they were like parents to the native people in Africa and Asia.  They thought they knew what they needed better than they do.


Key Events of Imperialism

To British, using their superior navy, built a vast empire that covered the globe.  To understand the British Empire is to understand the general theme of European imperialism.  And of that Empire, the best example is how Britain ruled India.

British control of India began when the British East India Company took over the trade with India from the Dutch.  They controlled 3/5 of India.  The British East India Company hired its own army to keep control of India.  Many of the troops in their army were natives from India.  They were called sepoys and were given special privileges for working for the English.

In 1857, the sepoys rebelled against the British in an event called the Sepoy Mutiny.  The British East India Company began punishing sepoys for not following orders that they believed were against their religious beliefs (Hindu and Muslim).  When the sepoys revolted and were crushed.  The event caused the British government—not just a company—to take control.

The British government sent troops and invaded and took direct control over India.  They established a colonial government with British officials and set up a legal system modeled on British law.  The colonial government, above all, set to control the colony to allow the British exploit India for its resources.  Mercantilist laws were also adopted, giving British companies monopolies in India. To help administer the colony, the British educated a class of Indian civil servants to help them keep control.  These people were tempted to cooperate with the British because they could live a better life than the rest of their people by earning stable government jobs.

Most European colonies functioned more or less like British India.  A European controlled government asserted control over the native peoples as the mother country made huge profits off the colonies natural resources.  Superior military technology, aided by mass production made possible by industrialization, allowed European countries to dominate African and Asian peoples.


The Scramble for Africa

Sparked by Belgian’s taking of the Congo in the 1870’s, all of the European powers rushed to take colonies in Africa.  The Berlin Conference (1884-1885) was a meeting organized by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the man who built his nation through war, but then used his influence to create a balance of power to maintain his country’s dominance.

To avoid wars started over the competition for colonies, the European powers sent representatives to a meeting in Berlin to divide up Africa.  As a result of this meeting, most of Africa was under European control, causing problems.  The Europeans paid no attention to who lived where in Africa as they were only interested in gaining resources.  The Conference created new boundaries in Africa—many of which are still the borders today—that made sense to the Europeans, but have caused many problems ever since.  Tribes were divided between countries or, on the other hand, rival tribes were put together.  Once imperialism ended (which was until after World War II), African countries remained divided by these arbitrary boundaries.


The Union of South Africa

While the Berlin Conference shows a major attempt to avoid conflict over imperialism, sometimes European countries did fight over colonies.   For example, war was not avoided in South Africa.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in South Africa in the 1600’s.  They fought against African tribes, such as the Zulu, for control of the area.  Then, the British took control of South Africa and came into conflict with the Dutch settlers, called the Boers.  The Boer War lasted from 1899-1902.  It is often cited as one of the first modern wars because it utilized new technology and had heavy casualties as a result.


Imperialism in Asia

China, with its exotic resources was highly coveted as a trading partner by all European countries (and the United States).  But no one invaded and took direct control over China.  Instead, the Americans and Europeans carved out “spheres of influence” where they made exclusive trading agreements in smaller areas of China.

European influence in China caused problems.  A major conflict erupted between the British and the Chinese, called the Opium Wars.  British merchants were trading opium grown in British-controlled India to China.  The Chinese government tried to stop the trade of opium, as its people started to get addicted, causing severe economic problems.  The British fought a war with China to continue the opium trade.  Britain’s military superiority led to a quick victory over the Chinese in the Opium War.

The war ended with the Treaty of Nanjing, which imposed harsh terms on the Chinese.  They had to pay for the Britain’s war costs (reparations), open their ports to trade with the British, give British citizens “extraterritoriality” rights (living under British rules even though they’re in China), and lost control of the port of Hong Kong (the British controlled Hong Kong until 1998).

Unable to defend themselves effectively against modern military power, China was opened to western trade and many western countries used their spheres of influence to make huge profits off of China.  This, naturally, led to resentment and sometimes native peoples in European colonies tried to fight back.

There are a few examples of this in China.  One was the Taiping Rebellion.  It took place from 1850-1864.  Chinese peasants revolted against the corrupt Qing dynasty that was too friendly to European imperialists.  European countries helped the Chinese crush this revolt, resulting in millions of Chinese deaths, but no change.

Another example of Chinese resistance to imperialism was the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  Chinese rebels—called Boxers—savagely attacked Westerns in China to try and get them to leave.  Again, European troops were sent to crush the rebellion and nothing changed. In fact, these attempts to rebel led to greater European control of the colony as the imperialist powers used the events to justify harsher measures to maintain order.


Japan’s reaction to imperialism

Japan stands out as a very different story than all the countries around it.  Japan had been “opened”  to trade by the United States in the mid-1800’s.  Before this, Japan was fiercely isolationist—they didn’t want anything to do with other countries, especially European countries.  That’s why the United States sent it’s naval fleet under Commodore Mathew Perry to Tokyo harbor to bully the Japanese into trading.

After this—and after seeing what was happening to other countries in Asia, the Japanese decided that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  They transformed their entire society over the next twenty years during what is called the Meiji Restoration.  They adopted Europe’s economic system (capitalism/industry), education system, western forms of dress, etc.  At the end of it, Japan became an imperialist power itself, also competing for colonies in Asia.


Effects of the Age of Imperialism

The Age of Imperialism effected world history in many ways.  It impacted the imperialists as well as the exploited, native peoples, in both positive and negative ways.  And its effects were felt in the short and long terms.

Among the positive, short-term effects was the development of the colonies.  European countries developed infrastructure—technology such as railroads, roadways, communications systems, irrigation systems, etc.—that helped raise the standard of living a little in most of their colonies.  Europeans brought order and their systems of justice (creating law and order, equality under law of all social classes, etc.) to their colonies.  Europeans also introduced their system of education to many of their colonies, giving many more people the benefits of education (but still not everyone).  In addition, many customs and practices that threatened human rights were ended by European, such as slavery.

Imperialism also had many negative, short-term effects.  Mercantilist policies of the mother countries made colonies dependent on European powers, stunting economic growth.  European insistence on growing cash crops—agriculture that is profitable but can’t sustain life—caused famines—severe food shortages that result in famine, causing many people to die, hurting the people being controlled by the imperialists.  And European countries trampled on the cultures of the people they took over as they spread their culture (cultural diffusion).  Instead, assimilation—to take on the values and traditions of another culture to blend in—was forced on native people.  And above all, the wealth of the colonies—their natural resources—were taken—or stolen, to use stronger words—by the Europeans.  And with all of these bad things, resistance by the native people to European imperialism resulted in harsh crackdowns and tighter control by the imperialists.

Long-term effects of imperialism were equally mixed.  Industrial nations gained influence over the global economy.  Countries became increasingly more dependent on each other, which is called interdependence.  Western nations profited from imperialism, further building their economic dominance.  But competition between the imperialists led to tension that would later World War I.  European countries did damage to African and Asian economies and societies that still cause problems today.  When imperialism ends after World War II, the native people were left with a host of issues caused from the time Europeans ruled over them.  And even today, these problems continue to plague many of these former colonies are still struggling to overcome them.

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