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The Origins of New Imperialism

Updated on April 10, 2018
The British didn't take over all of Africa, but they did put a sporting effort into it. The Cape to Cairo railroad was similarly never realized, although after 1914 they did have a band of territory from Alexandria to Cape Town.
The British didn't take over all of Africa, but they did put a sporting effort into it. The Cape to Cairo railroad was similarly never realized, although after 1914 they did have a band of territory from Alexandria to Cape Town.

The reasons behind “New Imperialism” were varied and disparate. Not only was imperialism itself conducted in different ways, but each nation which undertook imperialism had its own goals for doing so. Even during the Age of Imperialism itself, the attempts to explain it varied, with just within the economic rationale behind imperialism, largely within the same strain of thought, holding dramatically different interpretations, an apt comparison being between the thoughts of John A. Hobson as compared to Vladimir Lenin.

Hobson was the progenitor of a structural, economic, based view of imperialism. Under his view, shadowy financial capitalists were the reason for the expansion of imperialism, and they aimed to use imperialism to extend their own profits. Capital would go overseas, where it would be able to get higher return of investments than at home. Lenin extended and altered this view, with the famous line "Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism", arguing that capitalism made imperialism inevitable (while Hobson thought that imperialism was only an accidental by-product of the development of the capitalist system, and not an inherent product in of itself). However, there were some problems with these ideas; while it is true investment did go to the colonies, the vast majority of investment went to the settler colonies, and not to the newly taken territories of New Imperialism. The investment patterns of Europeans in their colonies thus does not support financial obligations for their acquisition.

From this, my opinion of the causes of imperialism tend to veer principally to nationalistic ones. Nations, and very importantly individual officers, wished to expand their relative power - and almost as vitally deny such power to other nations. Economics is part of this, but again it is principally harnessed to national economics; a desire to appease the workers, and by merchants and traders in providing for greater benefits to themselves. I find the idea of a shadowy group of financial interests behind colonialism, for the most part, unlikely. Asides from the vast gold mines of South Africa, most of the colonial territory taken was of… questionable economic use, and I rather doubt the average London financier cared much about Burma, the German investor about German South-West Africa, or the French businessman about Niger.

Instead, with deadlocked European alliances, unstable internal politics, a crushing technological superiority that enabled easy expansion, and strong national sentiments, nations were driven - or led, as the many junior officers expanding their rule show - to imperial expansion. For the most part, the European nations also believed they were legitimately doing good work in colonizing as well, which shouldn’t be discounted in easing their expansion. There are of course, exceptions to this manner of colonization, with the British in South Africa and Egypt acquiring their territories for military security to established territories or for economic reasons (although even in South Africa there were nationalistic and security reasons as pointed out), but in my opinion such an argument is the one that holds up the best with the established facts.

As a general explanation of some of the justifications used, the broad nature of which I am afraid would be lost in the presented examples, one of the primary European justifications for colonialism was a “civilizing mission”. Essentially all European powers made at least some usage of the idea of a “civilizing mission”, claiming that they had a superior civilization, and that it was thus their right - or even their duty - to spread it around the world. Although France is most famous for this approach, the White Man’s Burden did not itself emerge in a vacuum for the British Empire, and Belgian imperialism began as a theoretically “humanitarian endeavor”( a dreadful irony given what ultimately transpired). Even German imperialism included its own humanitarian and “civilizing” elements. The Europeans thus based their imperialism commonly on an idea that they were simply helping the natives, abolishing slavery and bringing the benefits of modern commerce - and for the more religiously oriented nations, saving their souls.They were children, who could not protest the European’s actions. It is questionable whether the natives agreed with this perspective, but that doesn’t matter now does it?

Related to this was a tendency of the Europeans to assign native lands as “terra nullius” or to denigrate their productivity capacity in the hands of the natives. This was in particular used in little occupied lands, such as Australia - the land was “claimed by none” (never mind the people who lived there), so therefor it naturally passed to the colonists. Even in lands with more population than Australia, if the natives did not practice economics the European way, they could be subject to having their land confiscated. Here, an example would be the Belgian Congo; due to their usage of shifting cultivation (slash and burn in essence), which I might add is an effective and necessary method of dealing with the terrible soils that most jungles have, native usage of the land could be simply passed aside and land transferred to the state. Ultimately well over 50% of the land was simply transferred to the Congo Free State from the beginning of this. Of course, in other regions there were similar land transfers, but the Congo Free State is intriguing for the rapidity and whole-scale nature of such changes. While other states did not always have the same immediate and massive impact, few were unwilling to confiscate native land and to attempt to put their resources to more “productive” use - that for them to sit unused was a crime against humanity, not the brutal methods used in securing their extraction.

To examine imperialism, it is useful to explore a selected group of Imperial powers, the largest two being France and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom may very well have been the power responsible for kicking off the great scramble for Africa, when it occupied Egypt in 1882 (temporarily of course, that is why they didn’t leave for 40 years, very hard to restore order and leave I’m sure you’ll understand, we’ll be gone next year of course!). The British of course, already had a very significant empire at the start of the age of New Imperialism, centered upon their colony of India. Protecting the Empire they had already gained, was thus critical to the British, and so part of their imperial expansion was based on the safeguarding of their lines of communication to India. Controlling Egypt with the Suez Canal, adjacent territories that could potentially threaten it (the Sudan), the Cape, and select naval bases in West Africa were vital to this, providing security for British linkages to the East.

However, the British were not immune to the mostly imaginary economic allure of Africa as well. In this, the British faced a situation of relative decline; from their position as the “workshop of the world”. Their percentage of world industrial production was steadily declining towards the end of the 19th century. Of course, this would be somewhat compensated for by their significant overseas financial capital system which certainly isn’t going to be wiped out in a world war, but even still the British were increasingly having worries about their vitality in this new age, as compared to the rapidly industrializing United States and Germany. Thus, if the British were to have any chance in the modern world, they required a strong empire to provide them with the commercial advantage they needed to compete. It also would keep all of those annoying evangelicals off their back, who would be out humanizing the colonies and spreading the good word; this humanistic element was an important British justification for their imperialism, if not to the same degree as the French and conducted in different ways (the average British aristocrat isn’t going to look kindly on “anti-feudalism” for one policy differential).

One can say a lot of things about Jules Ferry, but his magnificent side burns almost equal the French Empire in size.
One can say a lot of things about Jules Ferry, but his magnificent side burns almost equal the French Empire in size.

France meanwhile, had its own numerous reasons for expansion. France, like Britain, had concerns over economic vitality. Jules Ferry repeatedly commented upon this subject, believing that as industrialization continued there was a crisis of overproduction, requiring more consumption. Having colonies ensured a good, steady consumption base, as well as sources of raw materials. This was abetted by a French “municipal imperialism” system, because those who had significant involvement in trade in foreign regions - such as French merchants with West Africa - pushed colonialism as a way to provide for themselves increased economic markets and benefits. As with the United Kingdom, but perhaps even more so, their expansion also was accomplished on the ground by low level units who pushed the tricolor forward to new lands, “forgetting” to inform Paris about their wonderful ideas, and commenting about what a shame it would be if they had to give the territories they had taken back to… somebody. France could win back the prestige, glory, and self-assurance that it had lost in the Franco-Prussian War through overseas expansion. Furthermore, if the French didn’t take the colonial region, the English would, and, in my opinion, annoying the English alone is a pretty good justification for colonial expansion (certainly a better one than pouring huge sums into naval armament races like the Germans did when they wanted to annoy the British. At least with the French you can see the results on a map). Of course, simply saying that we’re annoying the English isn’t a good enough justification in of itself, and so the French made the most of any power in the “Civilizing Mission” in their sacred right, nay, duty to bring the most enlightened and superior civilization to the natives so that they could ascend to a higher plane of civilization.

German colonialism in Africa as portrayed by the Germans ; orderly, rigid, and with the interests of the native people at heart. It actually launched several genocides or near-genocides...
German colonialism in Africa as portrayed by the Germans ; orderly, rigid, and with the interests of the native people at heart. It actually launched several genocides or near-genocides...

Germany was the only other great power in Africa besides France and Britain, unless if one counts Italian Libya (Italy sort of counts as a great power, if you squint really hard). Germany’s empire had strong domestic motivations, which is rather similar to Belgium (see next paragraph). Otto von Bismarck was initially anti-imperialist, although certainly not due to an ideological respect for the natives as connoted with the anti-imperialist tag nowadays. Mr. Blood and Iron wasn’t having any of that nonsense and switched to pro-imperialism after seeing it as a potential political gain. With socialism on the rise in Europe, Bismarck hoped to build a coalition around the idea of Empire and wean workers and unions from such godless leftist practices.

Furthermore, there was a belief that as Germany was a great power, and great powers needed colonies, Germany thus needed colonies. This was a significant element of public support behind colonialism, as witnessed at the Program of the Pan-German League 1890-1898. “We are ready at the call of our Kaiser to step into the ranks and allow ourselves dumbly and obediently to be led against the enemy's shots, but we may also demand in exchange that the reward come to us which is worth the sacrifice, and this reward is: that we shall be a conquering people which takes its portion of the world itself! Deutschland wach auf!” (you can’t come up with better German nationalist parodies if you tried). Northern cities, wanting naval and trade subsidies, supported the building up of an empire to provide for their economic prosperity. As a conquering people (friendly reminder that the Germans haven’t won a war since 1870) and great power, the Germans were thus entitled to the colonies that would provide them a stabilizing influence, both politically and through the economic enrichment of their port cities. Of course, like with most colonial schemes the economic benefits never quite panned out and the whole “build a navy thing” wound up with them fighting the British and losing WW1, so not a really successful result of their foray into colonialism.

Yeah, maybe it sucks that you lost your hands, but we had to figure out something to encourage you to harvest rubber....
Yeah, maybe it sucks that you lost your hands, but we had to figure out something to encourage you to harvest rubber....

Belgium has acquired a certain unfortunate reputation concerning their colonial empire, not for fallacious reasons. Their reasons for the acquisition of such an empire, however, were still similar to many other European nations. In this, a particular source that is interesting for study is “King Leopold's Imperialism and the Origins of the Belgian Colonial Party, 1860-1905”, which relates numerous reasons for the Belgian’s attempts to enter the Congo. As with other European powers, there were important prestige and economic reasons. King Leopold wished to create an imperial identity for Belgium, with Brussels as an imperial city “Brussels was to become the center of an imperial metropolis, “the principal and the most beautiful agglomeration of Belgium, which will itself have become the capital, the center of the Belgian Empire”. Economic reasons were vital as well; it was common for Belgian pro-colonialists to attempt to portray the Belgian Congo as being of significant benefit to the common worker, enabling the import of raw materials and the export of finished goods, and thus significant benefit to Belgian factory workers. King Leopold had similar views concerning the economic benefits of colonialism, reportedly hoping that the Belgian Congo “would allow the abolition or reduction of the import duties and consumption taxes (such as those on salt or beer) that weighed most heavily on the lower classes”. In effect, Belgians hoped that their colonies would be economically a safety valve for their nation, enabling the negative effects of industrialization to be ameliorated by colonialism, and that it would help to create a common shared sense of nationalism and thus build national unity. In this they were not very different than other European nations, with their principal distinguishing element being the key role Leopold II helped in fomenting the rise of Belgian colonialism, and of course the brutality of their role. That it came from initial justification as a humanitarian endeavor, to end slavery, bring christianity, enlightenment, and to do it under fair and progressive government, is all the more dreadfully ironic.

Of course, the Belgian Congo was not quite as economically useful to the average Belgian as hoped, and at most ½% of Belgian trade was directed there. In this, it represents the aforementioned amusing element of New Imperialism; that although it routinely crowed about the possibilities for profit, these were conversely very rarely achieved for the nation, although parts of the nation invested heavily in the colonies could make tremendous profits, Michelin rubber in Indochina being an example. So too, the goal of making the Belgians an “Imperial people” never quite worked out, despite Brussels getting a fair number of monuments.. But they killed half of the people in the Congo, so they did do something at least.

Rubber plantations in French Indochina weren't as brutally genocidal as the Belgian Congo but were still quite harsh.
Rubber plantations in French Indochina weren't as brutally genocidal as the Belgian Congo but were still quite harsh.

Portugal makes an interesting study of minor power because of its unique reasons for imperialism. Portugal was certainly one of the oldest of the European states in Africa, with colonies - really glorified trading posts - on the coast of Africa since the 16th century. Despite the length span of Portuguese colonial presence in the region, they did not expand significantly into the interior. It was only in 1885 that the Conference of Berlin prompted their change in approach, as the principle of “Effective Occupation” was emplaced, requiring territory to be administratively occupied in some way rather than simply claimed on a map. Portugal, in order to actually be recognized as holding the vast interior territories it had claimed, had to occupy them, being recognized by those of the interior as holding sway in a legitimate manner. Resulting from this, Portugal began a campaign out from its coastal enclaves, seeking to unite its twin colonies of Mozambique and Angola in Southern Africa. This was not looked kindly upon by the British, who proceeded to issue an ultimatum requiring them to desist in their attempts to expand into the interior because the British care about the rights of little nations like Belgium/Portugal and their formal "ally".

It was as a result of the ultimatum issued to Portugal by the United Kingdom in 1890 that Portugal’s colonial conceptions emerged. Humiliated and forced to comply by the overwhelming threats of force that the British could wield, Portugal saw the rise of a new generation of officers, the Generation of 1895, who sought re-generation in the colonies. Their name came from a campaign against an African state, the Gaza Nguni, which was successfully prosecuted in the 1890s after severe losses in the earlier part of the century. For Portugal, the conflict became very much psychological, attempting to overcome their feelings of inferiority and to defeat a feared enemy. This in of itself can be a metaphor for their entire colonial project; to attempt to finally industrialize Portugal, and to engage in national renewal. Given the rest of their history, we can say that the actual proceeds of this were rather questionable. Actually one can apply that about imperialism as a whole during the era; questionable benefits and terrible costs.

Map of World, 1914

By 1914, there was precious little territory around the world that had not been divided up...
By 1914, there was precious little territory around the world that had not been divided up... | Source

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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