Imperialism Research Paper

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Although many governments and political bodies have been labeled “empires” throughout world history, the related term imperialism today refers to a set of ideological principles whereby one group sets out to impose its belief systems on another. This imposition is most often political but can also be cultural, religious, economic, or even ecological.

At its core the term imperialism is defined by power relationships and the ability of one group to assert some form of power or control over another. Historians who examine imperialism tend to study either one aspect of this power or one concrete example, such as a particular empire or the spread of a particular system. Most commonly, imperialism refers to the particular type of political organization that emerged during the nineteenth century, the “New Imperialism” by which Europe established empires in Africa, Asia, and Oceania (islands of the central and south Pacific).

The major impact of imperialism was the spread of ideas among different peoples, particularly in highly cosmopolitan empires. Empires operate on two key principles: acquisition of wealth, whether in money or in other resources, and the spread of belief systems to other peoples in order to establish unity under one imperial structure. This structure comes with an attendant worldview on religious, social, cultural, and political matters that subjects of the empire are expected to accept or at least accommodate. Internal conflicts within empires usually come as a result of resistance to the imperial worldview by subject peoples. Modern empires built upon these foundations and added more sophisticated bureaucratic structures and explicit drives for religious conversion, particularly Islam and Christianity. Improved means of transportation, particularly sailing and later steam vessels, and the discovery of the New World added opportunities for overseas expansion and more diverse empires.

Origins (Sixteenth–Eighteenth Centuries)

The discovery of the New World opened up new paths for exploitation on many levels. After the initial pillage of the Mexica (Aztec) and Inca empires by the Spanish conquistadors, silver mines in Bolivia and Mexico gave the Spanish Empire tremendous revenue. This revenue helped finance the wars of the Habsburg (a European ruling house) against European rivals such as the Dutch, English, and Ottoman Turks. Spain was ultimately overextended by these wars, and the Habsburg emperors found such a large empire difficult to manage effectively. Spain’s rivals also set about exploiting the New World and pushed into the Indian Ocean and the Pacific as well. The biological consequences of the conquest were much more profound in the long run than was silver. Old World diseases decimated up to 90 percent of the native population, leading to the importation of African slaves to labor on the new sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations. New crops, such as maize and the potato, were exported to the Old World, allowing for diversified agriculture and large population growth. This package of crops would also allow Europeans to establish themselves in areas with similar climates, opening up areas of settlement in the Americas, South Africa, and Australia. The increase in population and resources promoted increased trade as demand went up and new opportunities for trade were opened.

Increasingly, European wars took on a global dimension as conflicts in Europe were fought on the high seas around the world and by small groups of European soldiers and their native proxies in locations as far apart as Canada and India, with the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) being the best example. Settlements were initially seen as less important than trading posts, and they were certainly less lucrative. British, French, and Dutch East India Companies were established and were given extraordinary powers to administer territory, raise armies and fleets, and wage wars to promote and manage trade.

Europeans settled areas that had a climate similar to Europe’s and that had few natives to put up resistance (largely due to diseases introduced by Europeans). Such areas were largely seen as a useful outlet for excess or discontented populations in Europe and were given a large degree of autonomy in exchange for sending back resources for the home country. This practice was referred to as “mercantilism” and became a source of discontent in colonies as their economies developed. Until the American Revolution, the British were the major success story of the eighteenth century, supplanting the Dutch as the dominant naval power and winning a series of wars. These victories gave Britain a dominant position in the Caribbean and North America and made Britain the dominant European power in India.

British involvement in India would be crucial for the development of imperialism in both theory and practice during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Previously European empires had been trade oriented, establishing trading posts to facilitate exchange, or colonial, taking advantage of favorable circumstances to transplant populations and essentially replicate themselves abroad. The New Imperialism was a shift in philosophy whereby European powers attempted to impose their political, economic, and cultural systems upon subject peoples.

Britain and India

Britain had become the dominant power in India through a series of wars with both local powers and the French. The British East India Company (EIC) had been chartered to solidify the British trade position in Asia, particularly in the tea trade. Increasingly as a result of military conquests and political maneuvers, the EIC became a governing body over large sections of India, particularly in Bengal, by the end of the eighteenth century. The mission of the company was heavily questioned in the aftermath of corruption scandals that attracted parliamentary investigation. The British government was also under pressure to allow more missionary activity, something resisted by the EIC for fear that such activity would anger the Hindu and Muslim populations in India.

Through the first half of the nineteenth century the EIC expanded its political control over India through conquest and legal seizure of princely states when the heirs died without a successor. By the mid-1800s the British were in control of almost all of India, through either direct rule or “indirect rule” whereby princes retained their states, but the company directed foreign and trade policies. This gradual conquest led to questions over the purpose of British involvement in India. People raised moral questions as the missionary movement wanted to make more attempts at conversion, and some people objected to the increasing exportation of opium grown in India to China, an exportation that led to the Anglo-Chinese First Opium War (1839–1842). This war dramatically demonstrated the technological superiority of Europeans and helped lead to an important strain of thought in modern imperialism: that technological superiority implies cultural and eventually racial superiority.

The outbreak of the Great Mutiny in India in 1857 led people to reassess the goals of imperialism. The EIC was removed as the governing power, and India was placed under Crown rule. With trade no longer the top priority, the concept of a civilizing mission took over, whereby the British would bring the benefits of their technology, government, and culture to India while still exploiting India’s resources. This shift was crucial for the New Imperialism because now the “civilizing” aspects of imperialism would be the prime justification for conquest.

The Scramble for Africa

The slave trade led Europeans to hold a number of concepts about Africans. The first of these concepts was that Africans were an inferior race, thus justifying the practice of slavery. The second was that Africa was an uncivilized “dark continent” waiting for exploration and exploitation. The primary obstacle to greater European penetration of Africa was the tropical disease belt that took a heavy toll on European settlers, traders, and missionaries. Advances in medicine, particularly the discovery of quinine, which gave a resistance to malaria, allowed for greater European activity in central Africa during the 1860s. Dr. David Livingstone was perhaps the most important of the new explorers. Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and explorer, and his accounts of Africa and the search for him conducted by another explorer, Henry Morton Stanley of England, captured the public imagination. Lurid accounts of the slave trade and living conditions in Africa increased calls for intervention.

Although European powers had previously established colonies in north and south Africa, the late nineteenth century brought a remarkably swift conquest of the rest of Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 set the precedent for the immanent division of Africa among European powers, with no input from the natives, creating arbitrary divisions with no account for tribal and ethnic groupings. Europeans justified their rule on the basis of the civilizing mission, ending the slave trade and bringing Europe’s superior way of life to Africa. The reality was much different because the conquest was marked by significant brutality and exploitation. Natural resources were a major factor as gold, diamonds, ivory, and rubber were extracted, frequently with forced native labor. Resistance was largely futile, although the Italians failed to conquer Ethiopia at the turn of the century (although they would conquer Ethiopia under Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1936), and Britain suffered early setbacks in South Africa against the Zulu and the Boers and in the Sudan against the Mahdists.

Ideologies of Imperialism

The Enlightenment (a philosophic movement of the eighteenth century marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism) had given the minds of Europe a drive to order things by the use of reason and deduction. Scientific advancement and orderly societies were the measuring posts by which the Europeans ordered the world. Other peoples were encountered and measured by these measuring posts, and imperialism was justified when peoples came up wanting. Bringing the benefits of progress, science, and reason to the benighted people of the Earth was the positive drive of imperialism. In reality, this drive became more of a drive for “God, gold, and glory” at the expense of the people who were told that all was done for their benefit. The economic benefits of imperialism were mixed, with some colonies that had extensive natural resources yielding vast profits but others being financial drains on the home country. Critics of imperialism, such as the English economist John Hobson, saw colonies as an unnecessary financial burden that hindered free trade, whereas Russian Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin saw colonies as the last stage of capitalism before the inevitable worldwide proletarian revolution that the German political philosopher Karl Marx had predicted. Imperialism was therefore to some extent irrational because informal empires of economic dominance were more logical from a business standpoint than the expense of direct military and political control.

But business and scientific curiosity blended with a romantic sense of adventure, and the general public who followed the accounts of Stanley and Livingstone avidly consumed serial stories and novels with imperial themes. The English writers Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and their counterparts outside Britain gave readers an exciting version of the imperial mission: that even if most people could not take part, readers could feel part of a greater project. Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” was aimed at a U.S. audience, calling on people to “send forth the best ye breed” to govern Filipinos “half-devil and half-child” (Kipling 1899). Adventure appealed to men who were increasingly desk bound and out of touch with nature after the emergence of the white-collar middle class after the Industrial Revolution. Imperialism was a chance to reorder the world in a way that made sense, creating a world in which men were active and women were subordinated. However, women also found opportunities to fight for equality, using the treatment of women by colonized peoples as a way of equating women’s rights with greater civilization.

The English naturalist Charles Darwin’s ideas lent credence to philosophies of competitive social hierarchies that weed out the weak and reward the strong. Social Darwinism justified imperialism by twisting Darwin’s theories of adaptation and natural selection to human societies. By this logic European nationstates competed with one another for colonies, and subject peoples were the victims of natural selection, not fit to govern themselves. Some of the more horrific brutalities inflicted in Africa were justified by this logic, leading to massacres and forced labor on a massive scale. Nationalism and race were increasingly blended, and the idea of races as Darwinian species competing with one another took hold, driving Europe to more aggressive militarism before World War I.

Anticolonial Movements

Although resistance to imperialism had existed from the beginning, a more articulate version emerged during the twentieth century. People had fought wars against imperialism during the late nineteenth century, but European military superiority made these wars largely futile gestures. Millennial movements (apocalyptic antimodernist religious movements) were in part a reaction to this superiority, with visions of religious faith triumphing over technology, guiding movements among the Sioux in the United States, the Boxers in China, and the Mahdi’s jihad (holy war) in the Sudan. Although these movements were failures in the short term, they did lead to moral questions about the imperial mission, and the vast number of natives massacred by European firepower was soon mirrored in the mud of Flanders in northern Europe as a generation of young European men died in the trenches of World War I.

Large numbers of colonial native troops were used by the Allies in World War I, with many serving in France. The horror of war and the squalid conditions that the troops served in led many people to question the supposed superiority of Western society. Movements such as the Indian National Congress had emerged before the war but now took on new urgency. The Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign for Indian self-rule, Hind Suaraj, was based on the perception that although Britain may claim noble goals, in essence racism defeats these goals. Gandhi’s genius lay in passive resistance and the realization that the West’s own values could be turned against imperialism. In India and elsewhere claims to self-rule, freedom of expression, and racial equality became stronger as the ideals that Europeans professed took hold.

If World War I rattled the structure of imperialism, World War II was a finishing blow. A war fought against the ultimate form of racial nationalism in the name of freedom led to the overwhelming desire for independence. India was the first to achieve independence, although with traumatic consequences for those people caught on the wrong side in the division between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Similar results and consequences came with decolonization in other parts of the world as tribal, ethnic, and religious tensions reemerged amid frequently bloody struggles for independence against colonial powers. These struggles merged with the Cold War as Communism championed itself as a liberator from the capitalist structure of imperialism. The arbitrary dividing lines of colonies fed civil and national wars in Africa and Asia and led to a sense of bitterness and resentment that is still felt today.


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