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New Imperialism refers to the colonial expansion adopted by Europe's powers and, later, Japanmarker and the United Statesmarker, during the 19th and early 20th centuries; expansion approximately took place from the Franco-Prussian War to World War I (c. 1870–1914). The period is distinguished by an unprecedented pursuit of what has been termed "empire for empire's sake," aggressive competition for overseas territorial acquisitions and the emergence in some colonizing countries of doctrines of racial superiority which purported to explain the unfitness of backward peoples for self-government.

Rise of New Imperialism

The Rise of the New Imperialism overlaps with the Pax Britannica period (1815-1870). The American Revolution and the collapse of the Spanish empire in the New World in the early 1810-20s, following the revolutions in the viceroyalties of New Spain, New Granada, Peru and the Rio de la Plata ended the first era of European empire. Especially in the United Kingdom (UK), these revolutions helped show the deficiencies of mercantilism, the doctrine of economic competition for finite wealth which had supported earlier imperial expansion. The 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws marked the adoption of free trade by the UK. As the "workshop of the world", the United Kingdom was even supplying a large share of the manufactured goods consumed by such nations as Germany, France, Belgium and the United States. The Pax era also saw the enforced opening of key markets to European, particularly British, commerce. This activity followed the erosion of Pax Britannica, during which Britishmarker industrial and naval supremacy underpinned an informal empire of free trade and commercial hegemony.

During this period, between the 1815 Congress of Vienna (after the defeat of Napoleonic Francemarker) and the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871), Britain reaped the benefits of being the world's sole modern, industrial power. As the "workshop of the world," Britain could produce finished goods so efficiently and cheaply that they could usually undersell comparable, locally manufactured goods in foreign markets.

The erosion of British hegemony after the Franco-Prussian War was occasioned by changes in the European and world economies and in the continental balance of power following the breakdown of the Concert of Europe, the balance of power established by the Congress of Vienna. The establishment of nation-states in Germanymarker and Italymarker resolved territorial issues that had kept potential rivals embroiled in internal affairs at the heart of Europe (to Britain's advantage).

Economically, adding to the commercial competition of old rivals like France were now the newly industrializing powers, such as Germany and the United States. Needing external markets for their manufactured goods, all sought ways to challenge Britain's dominance in world trade – the consequence of its early industrialization.

This competition was sharpened by the Long Depression of 1873-1896, a prolonged period of price deflation punctuated by severe business downturns, which added to pressure on governments to promote home industry, leading to the widespread abandonment of free trade among Europe's powers (in Germany from 1879 and in France from 1881).

The resulting limitation of both domestic markets and export opportunities led government and business leaders in Europe, and later the U.S., to see the solution in sheltered overseas markets united to the home country behind imperial tariff barriers: new overseas colonies would provide export markets free of foreign competition, while supplying cheap raw materials.

The revival of working-class militancy and emergence of socialist parties during the Depression decades led conservative governments to view colonialism as a force for national cohesion in support of the domestic status quo. Also, in Italy, and to a lesser extent in Germany and Britain, tropical empires in India and Burma were seen as outlets for what was deemed a surplus home population.

Britain and the New Imperialism

In Britain, the latter half of the 19th century has been seen as the period of displacement of industrial capitalism by finance capitalism. As the country's relative commercial and industrial lag encouraged the creation of larger corporations and combines, close association of industry and banks added to the influence of financiers over the British economy and politics.

The unprecedented control of industry on the part of London financial houses by the 1870s aided their pursuit of British "protection" of overseas investments —particularly those in the securities of foreign governments and in foreign-government-backed development activities, such as railroads.

Britain's lag in other fields deepened her reliance on invisible exports (such as banking, insurance and shipping services) to offset a merchandise trade deficit dating from the beginning of commercial liberalization in 1813, and thereby keep her "out of the red."

Although it had been official British policy for years to support such investments, the large expansion of these investments after about 1860 and economic and political instability in many areas of high investment, (such as Egyptmarker), brought increased pressure for their systematic protection.

Britain's entry into the new imperial age is often dated to 1875, when the government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler Ismail's shareholding in the Suez Canalmarker to secure control of this strategic waterway, since its opening six years earlier as a channel for shipping between Britain and India. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.

Fear of Russiamarker's centuries-old southward expansion was a further factor in British policy: in 1878, Britain took control of Cyprus as a base for action against a Russian attack on the Ottoman Empire, and invaded Afghanistanmarker to forestall an increase in Russian influence there. The Great Game in Inner Asia ended with a bloody and wholly unnecessary British expedition against Tibet in 1903-1904.

At the same time, some powerful industrial lobbies and government leaders in Britain, exemplified by Joseph Chamberlain, came to view formal empire as necessary to arrest Britain's relative decline in world markets. During the 1890s, Britain adopted the new policy wholeheartedly, quickly emerging as the front-runner in the scramble for tropical African territories.

Britain's adoption of the New Imperialism may be seen as a quest for captive markets or fields for investment of surplus capital, or as a primarily strategic or pre-emptive attempt to protect existing trade links and to prevent the absorption of overseas markets into the increasingly closed imperial trading blocs of rival powers. The failure in the 1900s of Chamberlain's campaign for Imperial tariffs illustrates the strength of free trade feeling even in the face of loss of international market share.

France and the New Imperialism

Government leaders, such as Jules Ferry of France, concluded that sheltered overseas markets would solve the problems of low prices and over-accumulation of surplus capital caused by shrinking continental markets.

The expansion of the French colonial empire was also seen as a method of 'rejuvenating' the country after its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871; the military actions needed to secure empire were seen by colonial enthusiasts as 'the first, faltering steps of convalescence'. This plan, however, did meet with some popular resistance, and Ferry himself was removed from office twice over colonial disputes.

The New Imperialism and the newly-industrializing countries

Just as the U.S. emerged as one of the world's leading industrial, military and political powers after the Civil War, so would Germanymarker following its own unification in 1871. Both countries undertook ambitious naval expansion in the 1890s. And just as Germany reacted to depression with the adoption of tariff protection in 1879 and colonial expansion in 1884-85, so would the U.S., following the landslide election of William McKinley, be associated with the high McKinley Tariff of 1890.

United States expansionism had its roots in domestic concerns and economic conditions, as in other newly industrializing nations where government sought to accelerate internal development. Advocates of empires also drew upon a tradition of westward expansion over the course of the previous century.

Economic depression led some U.S. businessmen and politicians from the mid-1880s to come to the same conclusion as their European counterparts — that industry and capital had exceeded the capacity of existing markets and needed new outlets. The "closing of the Frontier" identified by the 1890 Census report and publicized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 paper The Significance of the Frontier in American History, contributed to fears of constrained natural resource.

Like the Long Depression in Europe, the main features of the U.S. depression included deflation, rural decline, and unemployment, which aggravated the bitter social protests of the "Gilded Age" — the Populist movement, the free-silver crusade, and violent labor disputes such as the Pullman and Homestead strikes.

The Panic of 1893 contributed to the growing mood for expansionism. Influential politicians such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt advocated a more aggressive foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression. However, opposition to expansionism was strong and vocal in the United States. Whatever the causes, the result of the war was that the U.S. came into the possession of Cubamarker, Puerto Rico and the Philippinesmarker. It was, however, only the Philippines that remained, for three decades, as a colonial possession.

Although U.S. capital investments within the Philippines and Puerto Rico were relatively small (figures that would seemingly detract from the broader economic implications on first glance), "imperialism" for the United States, formalized in 1904 by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, would also spur on her displacement of Britain as the predominant investor in Latin America — a process largely completed by the end of the Great War.

In Germanymarker, Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck revised his initial dislike of colonies (which he had seen as burdensome and useless), partly under pressure for colonial expansion to match that of the other European states, but also under the mistaken notion that Germany's entry into the colonial scramble could press Britain into conceding to broader German strategic ambitions.

Japanmarker's development after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 followed the Western lead in industrialization and militarism, enabling her to gain control of Taiwanmarker in 1895, Korea in 1910 and a sphere of influence in Manchuria (1905), following her defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan was responding in part to the actions of more established powers, and her expansionism drew on the harnessing of traditional Japanese values to more modern aspirations for great-power status; not until the 1930s was Japan to become a net exporter of capital.

Social implications of the New Imperialism

The New Imperialism gave rise to new social views of colonialism. Rudyard Kipling, for instance, urged the United Statesmarker to "Take up the White Man's burden" of bringing European civilization to the other peoples of the world, regardless of whether they wanted this civilization or not. While Social Darwinism became current throughout western Europe and the United States, the paternalistic French-style "civilizing mission" (In French: mission civilisatrice) appealed to many European statesmen.

Observing the rise of trade unionism, socialism, and other protest movements during an era of mass society in both Europe and later North America, elites sought to use imperial jingoism to co-opt the support of part of the industrial working class. The new mass media promoted jingoism in the Spanish-American War (1898), the Second Boer War (1899-1902), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900).

Many of Europe's major elites also found advantages in formal, overseas expansion: large financial and industrial monopolies wanted imperial support to protect their overseas investments against competition and domestic political tensions abroad; bureaucrats wanted and sought government offices; military officers desired promotion; and the traditional but waning landed gentries sought increased profits for their investments, formal titles, and high office. Such special interests perpetuate empire building today and throughout history.

Despite apparent benevolence existing in the notion of the "White Man's Burden", the unintended consequences of imperialism might greatly outweigh the potential benefits. Governments become increasingly paternalistic at home and neglect the individual liberties of their citizens. Military spending expands, usually leading to an "imperial overreach". Imperialism creates clients of ruling elites abroad that are brutal and corrupt to their own people. Consequently, the corrupt elites are able to consolidate power through imperial rents and impede social change and economic development. Furthermore, "nation building" can create cultural sentiments of racism and xenophobia.

The notion of rule over tropical lands commanded widespread acceptance among metropolitan populations: even among those who associated imperial colonization with oppression and exploitation. For example, the 1904 Congress of the Socialist International concluded that the colonial peoples should be taken in hand by future European socialist governments and led by them to eventual independence.

Imperialism in Asia

The transition to formal imperialism in Indiamarker was effectively accomplished with the transfer of administrative functions from the chartered British East India Company to the British government in 1858, following the Indian Mutiny (Also known as the Sepoy Rebellion or Mutiny) of the previous year. Acts in 1773 and 1784 had already empowered the government to control Company policies and to appoint the Governor-General, the highest Company official in India.

The new administrative arrangement, crowned with Queen Victoria's proclamation as Empress of India in 1876, replaced the rule of a monopolistic enterprise with that of a trained civil service headed by graduates of Britain's top universities. India's princely states (with about a quarter of the country's population) retained their quasi-autonomous status, subject to British overlordship and official "advice."

In South-East Asia, the 1880s saw the completion of Britain's conquest of Burmamarker and France's takeover of Vietnammarker and Cambodiamarker; during the following decade France completed her Indochinese empire with the annexation of Laosmarker, leaving the kingdom of Siam (now Thailandmarker) with an uneasy independence as a neutral buffer between British and French-ruled lands.

Imperialist ambitions and rivalries in East Asia inevitably came to focus on the vast empire of Chinamarker, with more than a quarter of the world's population. China survived as a more-or-less independent state due to the resilience of her social and administrative structures, but can also be seen as a reflection of the limitations to which imperialist governments were willing to press their ambitions in the face of similar competing claims.

On the one hand, it is suggested that rather than being a backward country unable to secure the prerequisite stability and security for western-style commerce, China's institutions and level of economic development rendered her capable of providing a secure market in the absence of direct rule by the developed powers, despite her past unwillingness to admit western commerce (which had often taken the form of drug-pushing).

Western powers did intervene militarily in China to quell domestic chaos, such as the epic Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864, against which General Gordon (later the imperialist 'martyr' in the Sudanmarker) is often credited with having saved the Qing Dynastymarker.

But China's size and cohesion compared to pre-colonial societies of Africa also made formal subjugation too difficult for any but the broadest coalition of colonialist powers, whose own rivalries would preclude such an outcome. When such a coalition did materialize in 1900, its objective was limited to suppression of the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion because of the irreconcilability of Anglo-American and Russo-German aims.

David Livingstone's explorations, continued from the 1870s by H.M. Stanley, opened tropical Africa's interior to European penetration. In 1876, King Léopold II of Belgium organized the International African Association, which, by 1882, obtained over 900,000 square miles (2,300,000 km²) of territory in the Congomarker basin through treaties with African chiefs.

France and Germany quickly followed, sending political agents and military expeditions to establish their own claims to sovereignty. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 sought to regulate the competition between the powers by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims.

Léopold was allocated the misnamed Congo Free Statemarker in 1885, which became his personal possession. There, the atrocities committed by his agents and European concessionary companies (majority owned by the King) eventually led to international scandal, which forced him to turn over the territory to the Belgian government in 1908.

The codification of the imposition of direct rule in terms of "effective occupation" necessitated routine recourse to armed force against indigenous states and peoples. Uprisings against imperial rule were put down ruthlessly, most spectacularly in German South-West Africa and German East Africa in the years 1904-1907.

Britain's 1882 formal occupation of Egypt (itself triggered by concern over the Suez Canal) contributed to a preoccupation over securing control of Nile valley, leading to the conquest of the neighboring Sudanmarker in 1896 -1898, which in turn led to confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashodamarker (September 1898).

In 1899, Britain set out to complete its takeover of the future South Africa, which it had begun in 1814 with the annexation of the Cape Colony, by invading the Afrikaner republics of the gold-rich Transvaalmarker and the neighboring Orange Free Statemarker. The chartered British South Africa Company had already seized the land to the north, renamed Rhodesia after its head, the Cape tycoon Cecil Rhodesmarker.

British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Rhodes and Alfred Milner, Britain's High Commissioner in South Africa, to urge a "Cape to Cairo" empire linking by rail the strategically important Canal to the mineral-rich South, though Belgian control of the Belgian Congo Free State and German control of German East Africa prevented such an outcome until the end of World War I, when Great Britain acquired the latter territory.

Paradoxically the United Kingdom, a staunch advocate of free trade, emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire, thanks to its long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the conquest of Africa, reflecting its advantageous position at its inception. Between 1885 and 1914, Britain brought nearly 30% of Africa's population under its control, to 15% for France, 9% for Germany, 7% for Belgium and 1% for Italy: Nigeriamarker alone contributed 15 million subjects to Britain, more than in the whole of French West Africa, or the entire German colonial empire.

Imperial rivalry

The extension of European control over Africa and Asia added a further dimension to the rivalry and mutual suspicion which characterized international diplomacy in the decades preceding World War I. France's seizure of Tunisiamarker (1881) initiated fifteen years of tension with Italy, which had hoped to take the country and which retaliated by allying with Germany and waging a decade-long tariff war with France. Britain's takeover of Egypt a year later caused a marked cooling of her relations with France.

The most striking conflicts of the era were the Spanish American War of 1898 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, each signaling the advent of a new imperial great power, the United States and Japan, respectively. The Fashodamarker incident of 1898 represented the worst Anglo-French crisis in decades, but France's climbdown in the face of British demands foreshadowed improved relations as the two countries set about resolving their overseas claims.

British policy in South Africa and German actions in the Far East contributed to the dramatic policy shift, which in the 1900s, aligned hitherto isolationist Britain first with Japanmarker as an ally, and then with France and Russia in the looser Entente. German efforts to break the Entente by challenging French hegemony in Moroccomarker resulted in the Tangier Crisis of 1905 and the Agadir Crisis of 1911, adding to tension in the years preceding World War I.


The accumulation theory adopted by Karl Kautsky, J.A. Hobson and popularized by Lenin centered on the accumulation of surplus capital during and after the Industrial Revolution: restricted opportunities at home, the argument goes, drove financial interests to seek more profitable investments in less-developed lands with lower labor costs, unexploited raw materials and little competition.

Some have criticized Hobson's analysis, arguing that it fails to explain colonial expansion on the part of less industrialized nations with little surplus capital, such as Italy, or the great powers of the next century — the United States and Russia — which were in fact net borrowers of foreign capital.

Opponents of Hobson's accumulation theory often point to frequent cases when military and bureaucratic costs of occupation exceeded financial returns. In Africa (exclusive of what would become the Union of South Africa in 1909) the amount of capital investment by Europeans was relatively small before and after the 1880s, and the companies involved in tropical African commerce exerted limited political influence.

The World-Systems theory approach of Immanuel Wallerstein sees imperialism as part of a general, gradual extension of capital investment from the "core" of the industrial countries to a less developed "periphery." Protectionism and formal empire were the major tools of "semi-peripheral," newly industrialized states, such as Germany, seeking to usurp Britain's position at the "core" of the global capitalist system.

Echoing Wallerstein's global perspective to an extent, imperial historian Bernard Porter views Britain's adoption of formal imperialism as a symptom and an effect of her relative decline in the world, and not of strength: "Stuck with outmoded physical plants and outmoded forms of business organization, [Britain] now felt the less favorable effects of being the first to modernize."

Other Readings

  • Ankerl, Guy: Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. INU PRESS, Geneva, 2000. ISBN 2-88155-004-5.

Recent imperial historians Porter, P.J. Cain and A.G Hopkins contest Hobson's conspiratorial overtones and "reductionisms," but do not reject the influence of "the City's" financial interests.


  1. Kindleberger, C. P., (1961), “Foreign Trade and Economic Growth: Lessons from Britain and France, 1850-1913”, The Economic History Review, Vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 289-305.
  2. Porter, B., (1996), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-1995, (London: Longman), pp.118ff.
  3. Coyne, Christopher J. and Steve Davies. "Empire: Public Goods and Bads" (Jan 2007). [1]
  4. Coyne, Christopher J. and Steve Davies. "Empire: Public Goods and Bads" (Jan 2007). [2]

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