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German and British Imperialism at the end of the 19th Century - Part 1

Updated on October 13, 2020
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.
The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo. | Source

The period between 1870 and 1890 was a time when there was a significant interest by European nations in territorial expansion into Africa, South Asia and the pacific Islands. Germany and Great Britain were just two of the nations to colonize these areas. There were many factors involved in both nations’ decisions to colonize this area and both had similarities in their execution of colonization, but there were also many differences as well. This hub will compare and contrast the backgrounds of both the German and British areas of conquest and colonization, as well as the outcomes that their political and economic control had on their colonies. Lastly, compare their successes and failures, similarities and differences and what the modern day outcomes of their colonization of their respected areas were.

In understanding the areas that both Germany and Great Britain conquered, there has to be an understanding of why they went to those areas in the first place. In the nineteenth century, exploration and colonialism had achieved great wealth for Spain and to the envy of other nations. Great Britain initially had pursued their imperialistic endeavors not out of need for land, but out of want for fortunes and power. Niall Ferguson points out that British colonialism was not acquired in a fit of absence but rather, since the time of Henry VIII, through the insatiable search for the Empires own pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He adds that to further insult, the Spanish played the religion card on Great Britain and let them know that they “had a religious duty to build a Protestant empire to match the ‘Popish’ empires of Spain and Portugal.”1

In this vein, the search for fortunes for the Empire, the British set forth to India with the intent to trade and rule. There was never any initial desire to settle in the area. Britain’s, like their American cousins, were clinging to the Social Darwin views of manifest destiny and that the superior civilization had a duty to convert the natives of India into, as D.A. Washbrook explains, “changes aimed at drawing it more closely under the authority of Britain and converting its culture and institutions wo Western and Anglicist norms and forms.”2

Germany on the other hand had minimal imperialistic notions prior to the establishment of the Second Reich by Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck’s focus was on unifying the German states into the Second Reich, not to expand outside of Europe. However, by the late 1870’s, expansionism was becoming more than just a means to acquire wealth. It had become for the Germans “Torschlusspanik – literally, a panic that the door was being closed to Germany in the race for empire.”3 Bismarck still held an anti-colonization position. He did not herald the acquisition of lands, had no plans on creating a strong navy, which would be necessary to maintain any plans of colonialism, and even argued that Germany had no plans to acquire Samoa in 1889.4

It will be remembered that he was accustomed to reply to anyone who wished to persuade him to adopt a policy of colonization, Ich bin von Haus kein Kolonialmensch ("I am not naturally a colonial man”), and what he one day said to Gerhard Rohlfs, who had returned from one of his explorations in the Cameroons: "We do not wish, nor can we, colonize. We shall never possess a fleet like France. On the other hand our workmen, our lawyers, our retired soldiers are not worth anything for colonization.5

However, Bismarck appears to have been playing the shrewd politician that he was by stating to the Foreign Office Councilor Friedrich von Holstein, that “He [Bismarck] told me repeatedly, and said so again quite recently, 'so long as I am Chancellor, we shan't pursue a colonial policy'. And yet he has now begun.”6 In addition, Home Secretary, Karl Henrich von Boetticher stated that Bismarck had told him: "All this colonial business is a sham, but we need it for the elections.”7

Bismarck with German spiked helmet, 1871
Bismarck with German spiked helmet, 1871 | Source

There were, however, strong positions for and against colonialism. The “Scramble for Africa”, the want of the German people to be a world power and what Dr. Friedrich Fabri believed was necessary to addressed, an “economic situation which is oppressive” and that in embracing imperialism, Germany would be able to stunt the expanse of Socialism and would be doing a benefit to the world by promulgating Germany’s “civilizing mission.”8 The real push came, once again, in the form of wealth for the Empire. Just like Great Britain, the chances of riches to be found in faraway lands were too much for the Germans to walk away from. With the creation of the German East Africa Company, Bismarck seemed to have a coming to of sorts in regards to African colonization, but still portrayed himself as totally against any German colonization. The German East Africa Company needed money to secure their place in Africa and in turn provide that pot of gold for the German people and their posterity. The Kaiser was asked to provide 500,000 marks in support of the company and Bismarck explained this clearly colonial action by stating, "Nicht Regie, sondern Subvention" (no imperial undertakings, but subsidies for the enterprises).”9

European colonization of Africa and India had a variety of residual effects on not just the natives of the colonized land, but on the Europeans as well. The Berlin West Africa Conference in 1884 to 1885, put into motion 'the rules to be observed in future with regard to the occupation of territory on the coasts of Africa’ and setup conditions that would ultimately present conflict in Africa. G.N. Uzoigwe points out that,

…any European nation which, in the future, took possession of an African coast or declared a 'protectorate' there, had to notify such action to the signatory powers of the Berlin Act… This was the so-called doctrine of spheres of influence to which was linked the absurd concept of the hinterland, which came to be interpreted to mean that possession of a coast also implied ownership of its hinterland to an almost unlimited distance.10

Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov and Benjamin Disraeli
Anton von Werner, Congress of Berlin (1881): Final meeting at the Reich Chancellery on 13 July 1878, Bismarck between Gyula Andrássy and Pyotr Shuvalov, on the left Alajos Károlyi, Alexander Gorchakov and Benjamin Disraeli | Source

Through this effective occupation, and European consensus and justification of their actions, that is, dividing up a land and people of an entirely different continent without reservation, the Europeans set up rivalries not only among themselves, but with the African sovereigns that would lead to bloody violence. From the outset, it was the German plan to leave “the administration of the colonies to the great colonial companies, bestowing on them sovereign powers and considering them as vassals of the Empire.”11 But it became apparent that these companies lacked any sort of technical or financial abilities in managing a colony that the German government was forced to get involved simply to prevent the prestige of Germany from being tarnished. Having taken control, the German government closed its views of the people of the colonies and viewed strictly as a business.

Part 2 can be found HERE

Was German colonialism in Africa a positive or negative influence for the Africans future?

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Marching on Pretoria, Boer War
Marching on Pretoria, Boer War | Source


1. Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Best Books, 2004), 2.Africa

2. John F. Riddick, The History of British India: A Chronology. (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 395.

3. Michael Rapport, Nineteenth Century Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 339.

4. Ibid., 343.

5. Paolo Giordani, The German Colonial Empire: Its Beginning and End. (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1916), 10.

6. Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, “Domestic Origins of Germany's Colonial Expansion Under Bismarck”, Past & Present, 1969. 146.

7. Ibid., 146.

8. Friedrich Fabri, "Does Germany Need Colonies?" Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866-1890, 1879. 46.

9. Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, Domestic Origins of Germany's Colonial Expansion Under Bismarck, 150.

10. A. Adu Boahen, ed. General History of Africa VII: Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880-1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 29.

11. Paolo Giordani, The German Colonial Empire: Its Beginning and End, 107.


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