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New Imperialism

This article is part of
the New Imperialism
Origins of New Imperialism
Imperialism in Asia
Scramble for Africa
Imperial rivalry
Theories of New Imperialism

The term "New Imperialism" refers to the policy and ideology of imperial colonial expansion adopted by Europe's powers and later the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; approximately from the Franco-Prussian War to World War I (c. 1871 - 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 colonizing countries of doctrines of racial superiority which denied the fitness of subjugated peoples for self-government.

The term imperialism was used from the third quarter of the nineteenth century to describe various forms of political control by a greater power over less powerful territories or nationalities, although analytically the phenomena which it denotes may differ greatly from each other and from the "New" imperialism.

A later usage developed in the early twentieth century among Marxists, who saw "imperialism" as the economic and political dominance of "monopolistic finance capital" in the most advanced countries and its acquisition– and enforcement through the state– of control of the means (and hence the returns) of production in less developed regions.

Elements of both conceptions are present in the "New imperialism" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But along with the adoption of ultra-nationalist and racial supremacist ideologies, the period saw a shift to pre-emptive colonial expansion, fuelled by the imposition of tariff barriers aimed at excluding economic rivals from markets.

English writers have sometimes described elements of this period as the "era of empire for empire's sake," "the great adventure," and "the scramble for Africa." During this period, European nations added 20% of the Earth's land area (nearly 23,000,000 kmē) to their overseas colonial holdings (primarily occupying land in Africa). As it was mostly unoccupied by the Western powers as late as the 1880s, Africa became the primary target of the "new" imperialist expansion, although conquest took place also in other areas; notably Southeast Asia and the East Asian seaboard, where the United States and Japan joined the European powers' scramble for territory.


Rise of the New Imperialism

For details see the main article Origins of New Imperialism.

The breakdown of Pax Britannica

The expansions of the New Imperialism took place against a background of increasing competition (over resources, strategic power, and prestige) between the industrialized nations. This activity followed the erosion of Pax Britannica, during which British 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 France) 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 other 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 Germany and Italy resolved territorial issues, which had kept potential rivals embroiled in 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 industrialising powers, such as Germany and the United States. All sought ways of challenging what they saw as Britain's undue dominance in world markets– the consequence of her early industrialization and maritime supremacy.

This competition was sharpened by the Long Depression of 1873-96, 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 subjects 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. In Italy, but to a lesser extent also in Germany and Britain, tropical empire was seen as an outlet for surplus population.

Britain and the New Imperialism

Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria
Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria

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 government "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 Egypt) 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 Canal to secure control of this strategic waterway, since its opening six years earlier a channel for shipping between Britain and India. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.

Fear of Russia'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 Afghanistan 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 1903-04.

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

The Depression of 1873-96 also struck the powers of Continental Europe, prompting their abandonment of free trade. As opportunities in the European market thus became further limited, some business and 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 New Imperialism and the newly-industrializing countries

While Germany, Italy, the United States and Japan, the recently industrialized powers, were under less pressure to offload surplus capital than Britain, these nations would resort to protectionism and formal empire to end Britain's advantages on international markets.

Just as the U.S. emerged as one of the world's leading industrial, military and political powers after the Civil War, so would Germany 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 (1896) of William McKinley, already 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 empire also drew upon to 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: their agitation was rewarded with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and their country's seizure of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

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 her displacement of Britain as the predominant investor in Latin America—a process largely completed by the end of the Great War.

In Germany, 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 broader German strategic ambitions.

Japan's development after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 followed the Western lead in industrialization and militarism, enabling her to gain control of Korea in 1894 and a sphere of influence in Manchuria (1905) following her defeat of Russia. Japan was responding in part to the actions of more established powers, and her expansionism drew on the harnessing of traditional 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 States to take up the "White Man's Burden" of bringing "civilization" to the other races of the world, whether they wanted such 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 of 1898 and the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Many of Europe's major elites also found advantages in formal, overseas expansion: mammoth monopolies wanted imperial support to secure overseas investments against competition and domestic political tensions abroad; bureaucrats wanted and sought offices, military officers desired promotion, and the traditional but waning landed gentries sought formal titles and high office.

The notion of rule over tropical lands commanded widespread acceptance among metropolitan populations: even among those who associated imperial colonization with oppression and exploitation, 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

For details see the main article Imperialism in Asia.

The transition to formal imperialism in India 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 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.

A shocked mandarin in Manchu robe in the back, with Queen Victoria (UK), Wilhelm II (Germany), Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan) stabbing into a plate with Chine ("China" in French) written on it
A shocked mandarin in Manchu robe in the back, with Queen Victoria (UK), Wilhelm II (Germany), Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan) stabbing into a plate with Chine ("China" in French) written on it

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 Burma and France's takeover of Vietnam; during the following decade France completed her Indochinese empire with the annexation of Laos, leaving the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) 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 China, 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).

This may explain the West's contentment with informal "spheres of influences". Western powers did intervene militarily to quell domestic chaos, such as the epic Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64, against which General Gordon (later the imperialist 'martyr' in the Sudan) is often credited with having saved the Qing Dynasty.

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 Uprising because of the irreconcilability of Anglo-American and Russo-German aims.

The Scramble for Africa

For details see the main article Scramble for Africa.

In 1875 the two most important European holdings in Africa were Algeria and the Cape Colony. By 1914 only Ethiopia and the republic of Liberia remained outside formal European control. The transition from an "informal empire" of control through economic dominance to direct control took the form of a "scramble" for territory in areas previously regarded as open to British trade and influence.

David Livingstone's explorations, continued from the 1870s by H.M. Stanley, opened tropical Africa's interior to European penetration. In 1876 King Leopold II of Belgium organized the International African Association, which by 1882 obtained over 900,000 square miles of territory in the Congo 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 1884-85 sought to regulate the competition between the powers by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims.

Leopold was allocated the misnamed "Congo Free State" where the activities of his agents and European concessionary companies led to international scandal (1903-04) over atrocities committed by Leopold's agents and concession-holders, forcing him (1907-08) to submit the territory to formal Belgian colonial rule.

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 South-West Africa (now Namibia) and German East Africa in the years 1904-07.

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 Sudan in 1896-98 and confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashoda (September 1898). .

In 1899 Britain set out to complete her takeover of South Africa, begun with the annexation (1795) of the Cape, by invading the Afrikaner republics of the gold-rich Transvaal and the neighboring Orange Free State. The chartered British South Africa Company had already seized the land to the north, renamed Rhodesia after its head, the Cape tycoon Cecil Rhodes.

British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Rhodes and Alfred Millner , 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 German occupation of Tanganyika prevented such an outcome until the end of World War I.

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

Changes in African society

As in Asia, imperial rule in Africa utilized divisions within African society and between ethnic and cultural groups to maintain control. A section of the subjected population came to terms with the new imperial administration and took part in its imposition or maintenance, as many chiefs or communities sought to overturn their pre-colonial status.

Both traditional and emerging elites sought a place in the political framework and sent their sons to be educated in metropolitan schools and universities, though many of the professional classes came to resent the limitation of political and government opportunities, contributing to the later growth of modern colonial nationalism.

Colonialism revolutionized traditional economies, inducing far-reaching social changes and political consequences. Balanced, subsistence-based economies shifted to specialization and the production of surpluses for sale. Traditional social structures were undermined, as land and labor became commodities to be bought, sold, or traded.

Imperial rivalry

For details see the main article 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 Tunisia (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. Britain's takeover of Egypt a year later caused a marked cooling of 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 Fashoda 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 with first Japan as an ally, and then with France and Russia in the looser Entente. German efforts to break the Entente by challenging French hegemony in Morocco resulted in the Tangier Crisis of 1905 and the Agadir Crisis of 1911, adding to tension in the years preceding World War I.

It may be debated whether the New imperialism itself contributed in large measure to the subsequent global conflict, except to the extent that it broadened the geographical area of military operations. Both the European divisions of the 1870s onward and the accelerated colonial drive of the period can be said to derive from the same causes: strategic conditions, aggressive competing nationalisms and the economic and political imperatives of the new mass society.

Theories of the New Imperialism

For details see the main article Theories of New Imperialism

The accumulation theory adopted by J.A. Hobson and later 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."

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.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45