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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 13
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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In the context of nineteenth-century Europe, imperialism—from the Latin root imperium, meaning power or rule—signifies domination or control by a strong nation over weaker ones. Its most dramatic manifestation between 1789 and 1914 was Napoleon I's conquest of much of Europe up until 1812. There is no logical reason why the term should not also embrace Russia and the United States' huge territorial expansions during the course of the nineteenth century. Before the 1870s however the word was nearly always used in the context of the Napoleonic Empire alone and then afterward to describe something else: the expansion of European states overseas, usually to found colonies in the world beyond the confines of their own continent. This is the most common use of the word in the twenty-first century. It can also be taken to mean the advocacy of such expansion. Thus, an imperialist is someone who believes that his or her nation should pursue imperial policies.


Imperialism of this kind long predates the nineteenth century in effect if not in name. Since the seventeenth century at the latest, Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden—the great seafaring nations—had all beenPage 1115  |  Top of Article grabbing overseas colonies, many of which still remained in their possession in 1789. By that time the most vigorous imperial nations were Britain and France, who had already clashed seriously over North America and India in the mid-eighteenth century, and were to continue this rivalry, mainly in the Caribbean, as a by-product of the Napoleonic Wars. The process continued thereafter, with Britain in particular—the major victor from the wars—extending its rule in western and southern Africa, India, and Australasia, and France in North and West Africa and southeast Asia. This was in spite of the fact that the rising ideology of the day in both countries, free market capitalism, painted imperialism as anachronistic and commercially unsound. Europeans at this time (before the 1870s) were not intentional imperialists. It happened, one could say, in spite of them.

The reasons were the expansion of Europe's trade under the impetus of industrialization; the self-confidence of European culture; and the material and technological gap that had opened up recently between European capacities and those of what was seen as the more "backward" world. Typically, the chain of events was this: a European trader sought a market in a "primitive" country; this created instability there; which in turn made force necessary to secure the market; which was then usually backed up with outside—that is, metropolitan—help. The same could occur with settlers seeking new lands to cultivate in the underexploited parts of the world; with missionaries eager to enlighten those in darkness; and with humanitarians aiming to extirpate slavery (both European and indigenous) and also some of the less attractive forms of trade: drugs, arms, and alcohol. Usually in this period governments were reluctant to support their nationals more than was minimally necessary. This accounts for the very limited and scattered extent of most European overseas empires before the 1870s—usually just a few coastal stations—and their dependence on local collaboration to sustain them. The big exceptions were Britain's great colonies of settlement (British North America, Australia, New Zealand, Cape Colony in South Africa), where responsibility could be largely devolved to the emigrants, and British India, an inheritance from those eighteenth-century wars, which even at the time appeared anomalous to many.

As well as these, however, Europe also dominated other countries in ways that could be said to be at least quasi-imperialistic, through diplomacy, for example, ruling through puppets, or by virtue of the advantage that the free market invariably confers on powerful economies over weaker ones. The name given to this is informal imperialism; and it inevitably raises the question of how much domination, and of what kind, is required in order to qualify as imperialism. The mere spread of European trade and culture should almost certainly not be seen in this light. This is because some of it was also genuinely accepted—even demanded—by its recipients, and because many of the cultural values that are sometimes associated with Europe had a much wider provenance. (It is patronizing, even racist, to assume that every "progressive" idea could only have had a "Western" origin.) Two things were happening here. The first was the expansion of European institutions, people, and ideas—or ideas carried on the back of that expansion—into the wider world. The second was the mutation of that expansion into direct or informal imperial rule in some cases. The two were related, but not identical. The causes of each, also, were distinct: general and European in the first case, particular and local in the second. It is not always easy to see where the former shades into the latter, which is one reason why imperialism is so contentious a term. But the effort needs to be made. Otherwise we are left only with the choice of a narrow and misleading definition (formal empire), or a broad, vague, and analytically unhelpful one (Westernization).


From the 1870s onward this difficulty recedes a little, as many more areas of Western penetration in the world became hardened into colonies proper. The chief example of this is the scramble for Africa, which took place in the 1880s and 1890s. Before 1880 Africa was largely empty from a contemporary European perspective: that is, unfilled by what Europeans regarded as nations, and only significantly colonized at its northern and southern tips; or, from an alternative (African) viewpoint, free. By 1900 it was nearly all neatly parceled out among the imperial powers. In fact this exaggerates the changes that took place. Not only was European influence there greater before 1880 than those tiny enclaves on the

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coasts indicate; it was also often less so after 1900 than all the solid imperial colorings imply. Some colonies were purely nominal. But this should not detract from the significance of what at the time was dubbed the "new" imperialism: new not in the sense of unprecedented, but fiercer, more deliberate, and competitive.

It also involved more European countries than before. Britain and France were still the leading imperial actors. Britain expanded its empire substantially in West, eastern, and southern Africa, and in the north of the continent too, albeit there (in Egypt) thinly disguised as a kind of protectorate, over a puppet khedive (ruler). Britain also picked up important colonial territories in southeast Asia and the Pacific. Most of these acquisitions were extensions of what earlier had been informal influence, exerted from coastal toeholds. France advanced south from Algeria and Tunisia, taking in most of the Sahara region; expanded its West African territories; and created a new empire—bordering Britain's—in Indochina. The other main expansionary power was Russia in central Asia. Of the remaining older imperial powers, Portugal and the Netherlands mainly consolidated what they already had; Spain lost ground, as it had been doing throughout the century; and Sweden sold its last remaining colony—Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean—to France in 1878. In the 1880s these were joined by five other powers, for most of whom this was a novelty. The exception was the United States—no stranger at all to imperialism on the North American continent, of course—which first joined the overseas colonial game in the Caribbean, central America, and the Pacific (at the expense of the Spaniards, which made it a kind of anti-imperial imperialism) in the 1890s and 1900s. The others were Japan in the Far East; Germany in Africa and the Pacific; Italy in North Africa and Abyssinia; and, most surprisingly, King Leopold II of the Belgians (r. 1865–1909)—the person himself, not his nation—who took over the vast area of the Congo basin in Africa in 1884. It was the entry of these new players that turned the process into a competitive one, which it had not generally been before.

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Again, however, the difference should not be exaggerated. The competition was rarely cutthroat. Many feared it would become so: with so many nations in the race now, and the "waste" places of the earth rapidly diminishing under their constant encroachment, the time must come when they would need to battle with one another to achieve their imperial ambitions. One interpretation of World War I sees it in this light. Before then, however, the partition of the wider world was done mainly cooperatively. Crises flared occasionally: between Britain and France at Fashoda in thePage 1118  |  Top of Article Sudan in 1898, for example (when France eventually backed down), and between Britain and Germany over southern Africa in 1896 (the "Kruger telegram" affair). There were also some minor skirmishes, especially in West Africa and Southeast Asia. The United States' colonial wars, of course, were with another—albeit decrepit—colonial power. More typical of this stage of Europe's imperial history, however, were the agreements between European governments that parceled out the world among them without needing to resort to war: the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which divided up western and central Africa with almost insulting ease, for example, and gave the Congo to King Leopold II partly to stop the others squabbling over it; the Anglo-German agreement over the eventual fate of the Portuguese African colonies in 1898; the Anglo-French Entente of 1904 over Egypt and North Africa; and the series of deals in the 1890s and 1900s that ensured that every alien power was given what it wanted in China without conflict. This may indicate the marginality of these colonial concerns to most European nations at this time.

This consensus, of course, did not embrace these nations' new colonial subjects. They were not generally asked for their views. Colonial boundary lines in Africa, for example, were notoriously drawn with little regard for what the indigenes regarded as national (that is, ethnic) divisions. Making good the Europeans' colonial claims often required wars with those indigenes: a continuous feature of this (post-1870) period, in Africa, Southeast Asia, China, and elsewhere. In Britain's case they have been characterized as "Queen Victoria's little wars," but they were not so little, of course, to their victims. The reason they appeared so to the conquerors was their vast technological superiority, well described in Hilaire Belloc's cynical (but satirical) lines: "Whatever happens, we have got / The maxim gun, and they have not" (The Modern Traveller, London, 1898, part 6). Even with that, however, things did not always go to plan militarily for the predators. The British were repeatedly repulsed from Afghanistan. A British squadron was overwhelmed by sheer numbers of Zulus at Isandlwana in South Africa in 1879. Italy suffered a humiliating defeat, at the hands of the "natives" at Adowa in 1896, that effectively put paid to its colonial claim to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) until the 1930s. Britain's seizure in 1899–1902 of the republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State—the last pieces (before World War I) of its new southern African empire—was successful, but stretched Britain dangerously, which was probably the main factor persuading Britain to put a brake on colonial expansion thereafter. (Britain's adversaries there were the Afrikaners, or "Boers": of European—mainly Dutch—origin.) "Native" resistance was often vigorous, and could compromise the outcome even when the natives were defeated. (The Afrikaners, for example, were allowed to keep their racist electoral franchise.) Imperialism was not a simple matter of the West's imposing its power and wishes on its victims. Nor, incidentally, did it need to be enforced militarily in most instances, though the threat—or bluff—of force was nearly always there in the background. Empire-building often involved a degree of give and take.

Nonetheless, it was a major feature of the period from 1870 to 1914. Its effect on the world can be seen by comparing maps from both ends of the period, bearing in mind the proviso made already: that maps are often very crude representations of the realities of power. Imperialism was also an important factor in the diplomatic relations between European powers. For example, Germany sought to ease and divert France's pain over the wounds France had suffered during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) by backing French claims to "compensation" in the form of colonial acquisitions outside Europe. And it may have struck deep into European culture and society also.


By the end of the nineteenth century most major European countries contained parties that positively advocated imperialism, unlike earlier. These parties were headed by prominent politicians like Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) in Britain and Jules Ferry (1832–1893) in France, supported in their turn by a number of publicists, economists, and historians, often organized into bodies like the (British) Royal Empire Society and the Deutsche Kolonialverein. Attempts were made to spread enthusiasm for empire more widely, through colonial

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exhibitions, for example, and other forms of propaganda. The impact of this is controversial. There were various manifestations of popular imperialism, for example in the wild celebrations that gripped Britain after the relief of Mafeking during the second Boer War in March 1900, but these may have been superficial, not really indicating any great regard for or pride in the empire itself. The propagandists were certainly not satisfied. One of the great obstacles to popular imperialism, as they saw it, was the rise of socialism in Europe almost exactly contemporaneously. ForPage 1120  |  Top of Article their part many socialists believed that imperialism was intended mainly as a cynical device to counter the latter's appeal.

It also had, however, a rationale of its own; or rather, several, for "imperialism" was by no means a homogeneous or consistent ideology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, imperialists could be nationalists or internationalists, authoritarians or liberals, capitalists or anticapitalists, and racists or egalitarians—in theory, at any rate. This goes far to explain the breadth of imperialism's appeal among intellectuals. But it had at least two common underlying characteristics. The first was a belief in the essential superiority of European civilization over other forms, usually seen in terms of "progress": that is, Europe (and America) represented the latest stage of humanity's "advance." This belief was natural for a continent that had itself self-evidently progressed or at least changed in so many ways in recent years, by contrast with what seemed to be the inertia of other cultures. It had two possible riders. One was to justify Europe's ruling other peoples, if those peoples were felt to be incapable of progressing to the same extent. That was if you were a racist. Alternatively, however, if you believed that Europe was merely "ahead" of other peoples along a road that was common to all of them, then it qualified Europe for showing those other peoples the way. Imperialism was justified as tutelage. That was its best, or at least its best-intentioned, side.

The other feature common to most imperialist ideologies arose out of a reading of the power politics of the time. Polities were getting bigger. The United States, Russia, and Germany were the chief contemporary examples. Many Europeans predicted these rising nations' domination of the world in the near future. (Some looked beyond that, and warned of the rise of Islam and China too.) Small states had no chance against powers like these; or, for some socialists, against the rising power of international capitalism, to which they were equally vulnerable. The only way to avoid being dominated was to become a dominating power yourself, with the proviso—which all empires at least claimed—that your domination would be better both for your own nation and for those you dominated than others' dominations might be. In the coming struggle for national survival in the world that many imperialists believed was inevitable—Social Darwinism had an obvious influence here—imperial expansion was the only way forward.

Imperialism was also commonly (but not universally) associated with other attitudes, most of them regarded as reactionary in the discourse of the time. Racism is one that has been mentioned already. There is no necessary and inevitable connection between these two ideologies: one could be an imperialist without being a strict racist, and obviously vice versa; but that connection could be difficult to avoid, especially in situations where the "native" subjects rejected the "enlightenment" offered them, as had happened during the Indian "Mutiny" (1857–1858), which was easier or more comfortable to explain in terms of racial inferiority. Another reactionary doctrine widely associated with imperialism was protectionism. This arose out of the defensive aspect of the "survival of the fittest" scenario. Nations and empires had to be self-sufficient. Most imperialists were therefore trade protectionists, and with some success so far as their nation's fiscal policies were concerned, although not in Britain's case before 1914. They were also notably "masculinist"—it required male strength to win and sustain an empire—and antiliberal, for much the same reason. Few leading imperialists, for example, were democrats. Imperialism therefore was usually, though not invariably, associated with the political Right.

It also however made some of the Right think again about their traditional conservative stances on domestic matters, and particularly social welfare, which became an issue for many of them in the light of the imperial struggles that seemed to be looming. "The Empire," wrote one (British) imperialist, "will not be maintained by a nation of outpatients." In Britain's case the problem was "physical deterioration" (as it was perceived); in France's the low birth rate; in Germany's the vulnerability of discontented workers to the sirens of socialism. Imperial nations needed healthy, vigorous, and loyal populaces to sustain themselves as such. It was this that turned many imperialists into social reformers, allying them with more progressive trends in their respective polities. For "genuine" socialists this merely confirmed their

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British officers are carried across a shallow river by Africans. Engraving from The Graphic, 1890. MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY

British officers are carried across a shallow river by Africans. Engraving from The Graphic, 1890. MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY

suspicions that the main object of imperialism was to take the wind out of their sails. For this and other reasons, anti-imperialism was probably as powerful an ideology throughout Europe as imperialism was, among those who were susceptible to any ideology at all.


That explanation—imperialism as a tool of domestic reaction—was one of a number that were around at the time and have proliferated since. It went hand in hand with another similarly critical one, which saw imperialism as a means of bypassing some of the difficulties the capitalist system seemed to be facing just then, so working to defuse socialism in another way. The argument was this: capitalism was overproducing—that is, turning out more products than could find markets domestically, which caused trade depressions, and might even lead it to collapse, to the advantage of the socialists, if additional markets could not be found elsewhere. An apocalyptic expression of this was the following alleged statement by Cecil Rhodes, the great British capitalist-imperialist, in the 1890s:

In order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists. (quoted in Semmel, p. 16)

Others felt the same; for the French statesman Jules Ferry colonies were a "safety-valve" for the "superabundance of capital invested in industry" (quoted in Langer, p. 287); for the German economist Friedrich Fabri (1824–1891) they were "a matter of life and death," no less (quoted in Townsend, p. 80). There is no doubt that contemporaries conceived the colonies in this way. This was even before the argument became harnessed to a left-wing critique of empire at the hands of John Atkinson Hobson (1858–1940)—whose Imperialism: A Study (1902) attributed it to certainPage 1122  |  Top of Article accidental malfunctions in the capitalist system: low wages, reducing the home market, and the disproportionate and malign influence of certain sectional interests—and of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), whose Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) saw the former as rooted in the essence of the latter, and especially in what he called "finance" (or investment) capitalism. For years the "capitalist theory of imperialism" held the stage so far as explanatory models for the phenomenon were concerned. It is what mainly contributed to imperialism's poor image for much of the later twentieth century, when a mere sniff of "mercenary motives" was sufficient to damn any enterprise.

In the later nineteenth century there was much less of this kind of prejudice against capitalist enterprise, even in colonial situations, where it was generally accepted as a means to benefit both sides. It is for this reason that economic motives were rarely hidden then, and indeed—it has often been suggested—may have been exaggerated in order to win over public opinion for colonial projects that had other motives behind them or that were economically highly unsound, as many of them turned out to be. There are a number of good arguments against the "capitalist theory," or at any rate a too rigid and deterministic version of it. One is that the colonies acquired by the European powers during their "capitalist imperialist" period were in fact nearly all marginal to the economies of the powers. (Of course this might not matter if Europeans expected otherwise.) Another is that it is difficult to link these motives directly with the details of most of the various acquisitions. Many of the latter are much more rationally explained on other—often local—grounds. A third is that most capitalists were in fact not particularly imperially minded: did not much care, that is, which country "ruled" their markets, so long as they were safe. A fourth may be that capitalism is still a going concern. Lenin predicted that it was only imperialism that was keeping it alive. Now that imperialism has gone, capitalism should have collapsed. That is, if imperialism is really regarded as a thing of the past, and not something that in fact survived formal "decolonization"—via U.S. foreign policy, for example, or what in the early-twenty-first century is called "globalization." It is considerations like this that make it impossible to dismiss "capitalist" explanations entirely. But there are alternative possibilities.

So far as personal "motives" are concerned, others certainly played a part. No one would claim that every humanitarian who lobbied for European annexation of a country in order to facilitate Christian missionary work, for example, or for the eradication of Arab slavery, was really a capitalist in disguise, or even necessarily the ally of one. In relation to France's north African acquisitions, individual military ambitions—often in defiance of metropolitan orders—were often crucial. We have seen how European diplomatic considerations could be important, in the case of Germany in the 1880s. One of the favorite explanations for Britain's concentration on Egypt and South Africa in the 1880s and 1890s is a "strategic" one: to safeguard Britain's naval routes (through the Suez Canal and around the Cape) to India and the further East. Several European statesmen saw colonies as a mark of prestige: "There has never been a great power without great colonies," as one Frenchman wrote (quoted in Brunschwig, Mythes, p. 24; author's translation). When France took Tunis in 1881, Léon-Michel Gambetta (1838–1882) is reputed to have run around Paris shouting, "France is becoming a great nation again!" (ibid., p. 55). Even in Britain, whose imperial status looked secure, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) warned in 1872 of the damage that would be done to England's prestige if it ever let it go: "The issue … is whether you will be content to be a comfortable England, modelled and moulded upon Continental principles and meeting in due course an inevitable fate, or whether you will be a great country, an Imperial country, a country where your sons … command the respect of the world" (quoted in Faber, p. 64). Liberals of the time regarded that as highly reactionary. Perhaps it was; one other general theory of imperialism, associated with the Austrian sociologist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950), attributes it to an atavistic reversion to the "aristocratic" values of the past. Then there were those who felt Europe had a destiny to rule others, for the good of "civilization." "We happen to be the best people in the world," said Rhodes, again, "with the highest ideals of decency and justice, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity" (quoted in Faber, p. 64). Coming from Rhodes, these words may seem tainted by "mercenariness." But the same cannot necessarily be said of all these

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"idealistic" (as opposed to material) motives. Material considerations may have been the leading ones; or have set the invisible limits within which other factors might operate. That, however, is a question for theorists. The empirical evidence does not settle it on its own.

It may be that the true explanation for the distinctive imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—not of the general dispersal of Europeans, their goods and ideas, that is, but of the shift from that to formal colonial annexation and rule—is both more accidental and more trivial than the grand theories of the Leninists and the Schumpeterians would suggest. Extraneous events happening around the 1870s had much to do with it. These included the trade depressions of the 1870s to 1890s, mild by later standards but a shock after the much sunnier 1850s and 1860s, when capitalism had seemed to have straightened out its initial systemic glitches; the unifications of Germany and Italy, raising them for the first time to positions where they could contemplate colonial expansion, and provoking France and Russia to redouble their own expansions; and the culmination of all those technological advances—especially in transport, weaponry, and medicine—that widened, to its maximum, the power differential between Europe and most of the rest of the world. That differential was vital. It meant that it was comparatively easy now for Europe to dominate other countries—though by no means certain, as has been shown—as well as even more likely than before that she should regard herself as "superior" to them. This in itself, however, did not guarantee an imperialist outcome. Even in the 1880s and 1890s most European governments and peoples were more wary of new overseas commitments than the actual events of this period would seem to imply. No one had ever proved that they were really worth the candle, certainly economically.

Three factors prompted the various "scrambles" of this period. The first was the new competition for territory, released by the political events ofPage 1124  |  Top of Article the 1860s and 1870s, and crowding the colonial scene for the older imperial powers. The second was the very apparent decline of the ideal of "free trade," which had been meant to make colonies irrelevant—if you could trade with a country anyway it should not matter whether you ruled it or not—but whose undermining by the new "protectionists" inevitably opened up the question again. At the very least countries might need to be taken in hand in order to ensure that they remained "free trade": which was why King Leopold II was given the Congo, on that very condition; and why it was named—in a way that came to seem somewhat incongruous later—the "Congo Free State." The third was the discovery by many of the more benevolent of the older established imperialists that their benevolence was not always welcomed by the natives as it should have been (in view of the self-evident benefits and truths that they were trying to disseminate), and was sometimes resisted forcibly; which persuaded them of the necessity of formal control where informal influence had sufficed earlier. This gave rise to what are called "peripheral" reasons for colonial intervention, different in each set of circumstances, which seems to make "general" theories of imperialism all the more implausible: at least, to explain this particular phase of the phenomenon.

The causes of imperialism are still controversial. It partly depends on one's definition of the term. There were general factors at work. The energies released by the Industrial Revolution contributed to the wide dispersal of Europeans overseas during the nineteenth century. The European Enlightenment nurtured attitudes of superiority. If dispersal and superiority are sufficient on their own to denote "imperialism," then its explanation can be sought there. That kind of "imperialism," however, did not need to transmute into more formal—or even "informal"—kinds. The reasons for that may be more vague, uncertain, particular, and mixed. They will also depend on one's ideological disposition: to rate material above "idealistic" factors, for example; or vice versa; or to rate "culture" ahead of either. The jury is still out on this.


The legacy of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century imperialism is even more of an analytical minefield than the question of its causes. The reasons for this are threefold. The first is a general historical one: effects are always the most difficult things in history to divine. They involve considerations of alternative scenarios—what would India have been like without the raj? and so on—which can never be more than speculative. Second, on this particular issue: people have strong feelings about it, often unrelated—or only selectively related—to the "facts." Imperialism became a term of abuse on the political Left in the early twentieth century, and among Americans for different reasons (they would have to be, in view of the United States' own strong imperialist tradition), and remains so for probably the majority of people in the early twenty-first century. Third, there is the question of semantics, yet again. It depends what is meant by imperialism. In its broadest sense—Western expansion—it clearly had an immense impact: though it is difficult to be sure that some societies, at least, would not have "progressed" in roughly similar directions indigenously, and a matter of opinion whether those directions were on balance admirable or regrettable. There is also the question whether "Westernization" inevitably involves Western domination, which is surely the minimal prerequisite for a truly "imperialist" relationship.

Defenders of imperialism argued (some still do) that it was only through such domination that "civilized" institutions and practices could be introduced to "backward" societies. The answers to that are, firstly, that "imperialist" standards of "civilization," even at their best-intentioned, were often culture-based and ideologically driven (vide Christianity and the insistence of free markets); secondly, that imperial practice did not always meet the often exacting standards of the theories behind it; and thirdly, that imperial control might not be as effective a way of spreading these values as more subtle kinds of influence. "I know of no instance in history," wrote Alfred Lyall in 1882, "of a nation being educated by another nation into self-government and independence; every nation has fought its way up in the world as the English have done" (quoted in Owen, p. 169). In those cases where countries did emerge from periods of British rule into democracy—the United States and India are the greatest examples—it is debatable whether that was in obedience to or in reaction against their imperial masters. MostPage 1125  |  Top of Article former colonies did not make that happy transition. Again, that may not necessarily have been the imperialists' fault, though they are often blamed for it, still.

The contingent evils of imperialism are well known. Wars against "natives" have been mentioned already. Some of those turned into bloody massacres: like the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898. Other atrocities included Britain's "Opium Wars" with China in the middle of the nineteenth century; Germany's massacre of the Hereros of South-West Africa in the early 1900s; Leopold II's cruel exploitation of his Congo State in the 1890s and 1900s, despite all his idealistic professions; and—among more "passive" outrages—the terrible Indian famines that Britain did little to prevent or relieve. For Europe itself imperialism may have been a source of profit—that is controversial, depending on what we wish to list in the "expenditure" column—and probably boosted political reaction, in particular militarism and racism, though to what extent is unclear.

On the other side of the equation were countless acts of self-sacrifice and paternalistic altruism by individual colonial rulers who were not mainly motivated by racial prejudice and greed. The problem here, however, was that their altruism could be misdirected. Benevolence does not always guarantee beneficent results. Even the best imperial intentions could be manipulated by special material interests and distorted by cultural prejudices. Imperialism also produces atrocities almost inevitably, and provokes resistance. The problem, of course, is that the absence of imperialism can also have unfortunate effects: leaving peoples vulnerable to their own tyrants, for example, or to the "informal" tyranny that it is arguable that the free market (or "globalization") represents. It was for this reason that many of the leading imperial critics of the early twentieth century, among them Hobson, advocated not its abolition, but its internationalization: a multinational body to share the responsibility of "raising" "uncivilized" peoples and protecting them from predators. Eventually that materialized in the post–World War I League of Nations "mandates" system, making new colonial rulers answerable to the international community, not just themselves. But in 1914 that was still just a dream.


Bayly, Christopher A. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830. New York, 1989.

Brunschwig, Henri. Mythes et réalités de l'imperialisme colonial français, 1871–1914. Paris, 1960. Translated by William Granville Brown as French Colonialism, 1871–1914: Myths and Realities. New York, 1966.

Cain, Peter, and Tony Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688–2000. 2 vols. New York, 1993.

Etherington, Norman. Theories of Imperialism: War, Conquest, and Capital. Totowa, N.J., 1984.

Faber, Richard. The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims. London, 1966.

Fieldhouse, David K. Economics and Empire, 1830–1914. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973.

——. Colonialism, 1870–1945: An Introduction. New York, 1981.

Hobson, John Atkinson. Imperialism: A Study. London, 1902. The classic study.

Hyam, Ronald. Britain's Imperial Century, 1815–1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion. 3rd ed. New York, 2002.

Kiernan, Victor G. European Empires from Conquest to Collapse, 1815–1960. Leicester, U.K., 1982.

Langer, William L. European Alliances and Alignments, 1871–1890. New York, 1931. Still the best diplomatic history of imperialism.

MacKenzie, John. Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960. Dover, N.H., 1984.

Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Theories of Imperialism. Chicago, 1982.

Owen, Roger. Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul. New York, 2004.

Porter, Andrew. European Imperialism, 1860–1914. London, 1994. The best short introduction.

Porter, Bernard. The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850–2004. 4th ed. New York, 2004.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York, 1993.

Semmel, Bernard. Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought, 1895–1914. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.

Townsend, Mary E. The Rise and Fall of Germany's Colonial Empire, 1884–1918. New York, 1930.

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Wesseling, H. L. Imperialism and Colonialism: Essays on the History of European Expansion. Westport, Conn., 1997.


Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
PORTER, BERNARD. "Imperialism." Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 1114-1126. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446900404

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