Tracing the impact and spread of imperialism in the 19th century.


The 19th century was a period of unparalleled European imperial expansion. If the broad dimensions of Europe’s expansion overseas are uncontroversial, every other aspect of the subject has been exposed to intense scrutiny and debate. The intellectual giants of the period, from Adam Smith to Lenin, and including writers like James Mill, Karl Marx and J.A. Hobson among many others, formulated interpretations of the causes and consequences of imperialism that echoed throughout the 19th century and beyond to the present day. Eminent scholars, such as Seeley, Froud, and Leroy-Beaulieu, placed the study of modern empires on a professional footing for the first time.


Scholarly opinion on the subject is split into two main camps. One group, drawing on radical intellectual sources, chiefly on Marx, linked 19th century imperialism to the development of industrial capitalism. According to this interpretation, the process of capital accumulation generated internal contradictions that found expression during the last quarter of the century in new forms of imperialism. [In most great industrial states a vast amount of surplus capital seeking profitable outlets was invested in various colonies, plantations, etc. in Africa and Asia.]


The struggle for the control of the world was not confined to the acquisition of colonies but culminated, in Lenin’s views, in the First World War. Although capitalism was everywhere aggressive and exploitative, it was also inescapably progressive in ‘showing the face of the future’, as Marx put it, to the rest of the world. The spread of capitalism through the agency of imperialism was destined, in dialectical fashion, to throw up the forces that would eventually lead to the downfall of colonialism and usher in a new, socialist order.


The other camp, larger in number but less focused in purpose, was grouped around a liberal-conservative banner. Critics and defenders of empire reject Marxist viewpoint and elaborate a range of alternative accounts of empire and imperialism, giving diplomatic, political, social and cultural, as well as economic, reasons of empire building. The role of individuals like Rhodes was also emphasized. Lenin’s belief that capitalism was inherently aggressive was met by Schumpeter’s argument that it was pacific by nature and assertive by default. The claim that imperialism was exploitative nature was countered by pointing out that it brought benefits as well.


This long running debate has been repeatedly surveyed and summarized, but current approaches to the subject are no longer derived from the conflict between capitalism and socialism. The subject has recently been opened to new ideas and approaches as a result of changes in the world. [For example- other considerations such as national prestige, military ambitions, civilizing missions, power politics, also provided sufficient motives for colonial expansion.] Two developments in recent years have influenced scholarship: the end of the European empires in the 1960s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the great age of empires has profound implications for the way the subject would be treated in future. To study the history of imperialism and empire is now to investigate an important aspect of world history and not to take sides in an ideological debate on topical issues.


Imperialism was not a new factor in history. By 1815 the world had known some four hundred years of expansion of Spain, Portugal, Dutch, French, and British colonial empires. Therefore, in 1870s there was nothing new about extension of European control over other parts of the world. Yet imperialism was almost a mid-19th century invention, and the generation after 1870 has come to be known, in some specially significant and discreditable sense, as ‘the age of imperialism’ for its peculiar features.


The basic motive, in spite of giving political, religious or idealistic explanations, was the capitalistic greed for cheap raw materials, advantageous markets, good investments, and fresh fields of exploitation. It cannot be denied that the search for lucrative and secure overseas investment played a great part in the European urge to acquire colonies at the end of the 19th century. Lenin in his pamphlet on Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism (published 1916) emphasized the priority to find new outlets for investment rather than new markets. In the backward colonial peoples, Lenin argued, capitalism had found a new proletariat to exploit. But the Marxist argument ignores the fact that all foreign investment of the European powers was not in colonial territories only but in countries like South America and Russia, and that the standard of living of the working classes was high in countries like Denmark and Sweden which had no colonies, but low in France and Belgium which had large colonies.


The motivating factor of this new imperialism therefore needs further explanation. In fact, during the first three quarters of the 19th century, few European states had shown keenness in acquiring territories outside Europe. Most states were preoccupied in their fission with their immediate neighbours. Even Britain, which had emerged from the Napoleonic wars with greatest dependencies all over the world, had no plans to acquire territories in Asia and Africa, but the situation began to change in the 1870s and 1880s with the appearance of major economic, political and cultural trends that began to emerge from about the middle of the century.


It marked the beginning of intense imperialist competition that characterized the years leading to the First World War, called the period of new imperialism. By 1870, a number of interlocking economic and technological changes began to transform the landscape of continental Europe, especially of Germany, France and Belgium. With the use of steam power striking gains were made in production and transport efficiency. Railways had been built from mid-century onwards. These developments cut the cost and increased the movement of goods and people dramatically. The use of electricity, telegraph, and submarine cable further speeded technological advancement. These developments greatly strengthened the connections between Europe and the rest of the world. The volume and value of trade also expanded to unprecedented levels. Even more significant was the change in the structure of the international economy as increasing specialization produced the pattern of exchange whereby Europe exported manufactures and the rest of the world concentrated on producing raw materials and food stuffs.


The expansion of world trade was closely associated with the export of capital and the movement of people. From mid-19th century, financial flows from Europe were of growing importance in funding the development in the rest of the world, for example – in the Ottoman Empire and Latin America. From the 1870s, growing proportion of finance was raised for private ventures and also for railways. With increasing scale and specialization, a new set of large banks and complementary commercial and shipping firms emerged to manage the international economy.


The political developments of 1870 onwards are highly relevant to understanding overseas expansion and imperialism. It has been argued that late 19th century imperialism was an expression of changing balance of power and also that it was the product of nationalism. The new states opened up the prospects of manipulating and responding to public opinion, for example – the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) is probably the bet-known example of popular support for imperialism. Its result was that imperialism became a prominent item in the political agenda after 1870.


The late 19th century was a period of intense rivalries. The idea of enhancing national prestige was also an important consideration as in case of Italy and in the 1880s and 90s empire building became an accepted policy of all major powers. In 1883, John Seeley published his book The Expansion of England in which he pointed out that the growth of Russia and the United States would completely overshadow states like France, Germany, and even Britain, if it remained as “simply a European state”. Similar arguments were put forward in France by Leroy-Beaulieu, who stated that colonial expansion for his country was “a matter of life and death”, and that, if France did not become a great African power, it would only be a question of time before it would be reduced to the position of Greece and Rumania. Similar views were expressed in Germany.


Another striking factor about the new imperialism was its concentration upon two continents – Africa and eastern Asia. These were the only two important regions on the globe which had not been brought under European influence before 1870. It was this combination of new economic conditions with rival political ambitions and power politics which explains the nature of the new imperialism.


Besides, the direct political motives such as the desire to strengthen national security by acquiring strategic naval bases such as Cyprus and the Cape or to secure additional sources of manpower as the French sought in Africa. Christian missionaries, administrators, and soldiers also played their roles in colonization.