The Age of New Imperialism, 1870-1914
Although the Industrial Revolution and nationalism shaped European society in the nineteenth century, imperialism—the domination by one country or people over another group of people—dramatically changed the world during the latter half of that century.
Imperialism did not begin in the nineteenth century. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, an era dominated by what is now termed Old Imperialism, European nations sought trade routes with the Far East, explored the New World, and established settlements in North and South America as well as in Southeast Asia. They set up trading posts and gained footholds on the coasts of Africa and China, and worked closely with the local rulers to ensure the protection of European economic interests. Their influence, however, was limited. In the Age of New Imperialism that began in the 1870s, European states established vast empires mainly in Africa, but also in Asia and the Middle East.
Unlike the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century method of establishing settlements, the new imperialists set up the administration of the native areas for the benefit of the colonial power. European nations pursued an aggressive expansion policy that was motivated by economic needs that were created by the Industrial Revolution. Between 1870 and 1914, Europe went through a “Second Industrial Revolution,” which quickened the pace of change as science, technology, and industry spurred economic growth. Improvements in steel production revolutionized shipbuilding and transportation. The development of the railroad, the internal combustion engine, and electrical power generation contributed to the growing industrial economies of Europe and their need to seek new avenues of expansion.
The expansion policy was also motivated by political needs that associated empire building with national greatness, and social and religious reasons that promoted the superiority of Western society over “backward” societies. Through the use of direct military force, economic spheres of influence, and annexation, European countries dominated the continents of Africa and Asia. By 1914, Great Britain controlled the largest number of colonies, and the phrase, “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” described the vastness of its holdings. Imperialism had consequences that affected the colonial nations, Europe, and the world. It also led to increased competition among nations and to conflicts that would disrupt world peace in 1914.
European imperialism did not begin in the 1800s. In their efforts to find a direct trade route to Asia during the age of Old Imperialism, European nations established colonies in the Americas, India, South Africa, and the East Indies, and gained territory along the coasts of Africa and China. Meanwhile, Europe’s Commercial Revolution created new needs and desires for wealth and raw materials. Mercantilists maintained that colonies could serve as a source of wealth, while personal motives by rulers, statesmen, explorers, and missionaries supported the imperial belief in “Glory, God, and Gold.” By 1800, Great Britain was the leading colonial power with colonies in India, South Africa, and Australia. Spain colonized Central and South America. France held Louisiana and French Guinea, and Holland built an empire in the East Indies.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, colonialism became less popular. The Napoleonic Wars, the struggle for nationalism and democracy, and the cost of industrialization exhausted the energies of European nations. Many leaders also thought that the costs to their respective empires outweighed the benefits, especially the cost of supervising the colonies. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, Europe—especially Great Britain and France—began an economic revival. During the Victorian Era, which lasted from 1837 to 1901, Great Britain became an industrial giant, providing more than 25 percent of the world’s output of industrial goods. In France, Napoleon’s investment in industry and large-scale ventures, such as railroad building, helped to promote prosperity. Thus the Industrial Revolution stirred ambitions in many European countries and renewed their confidence to embark on a path of aggressive expansion overseas.
From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, Western Europe pursued a policy of imperialism that became known as New Imperialism. This New Imperialist Age gained its impetus from economic, military, political, humanitar-ian, and religious reasons, as well as from the development and acceptance of a new theory—Social Darwinism—and advances in technology.
By 1870, it became necessary for European industrialized nations to expand their markets globally in order to sell products that they could not sell domestically on the continent. Businessmen and bankers had excess capital to invest, and foreign investments offered the incentive of greater profits, despite the risks. The need for cheap labor and a steady supply of raw materials, such as oil, rubber, and manganese for steel, required that the industrial nations maintain firm control over these unexplored areas. Only by directly controlling these regions, which meant setting up colonies under their direct control, could the industrial economy work effectively—or so the imperialists thought. The economic gains of the new imperialism were limited, however, because the new colonies were too poor to spend money on European goods.
Military and Public Reasons
Leading European nations also felt that colonies were crucial to military power, national security, and nationalism. Military leaders claimed that a strong navy was necessary in order to become a great power. Thus, naval vessels needed military bases around the world to take on coal and supplies. Islands or harbors were seized to satisfy these needs. Colonies guaranteed the growing European navies safe harbors and coaling stations, which they needed in time of war. National security was an important reason for Great Britain’s decision to occupy Egypt. Protecting the Suez Canal was vital for the British Empire. The Suez Canal, which formally opened in 1869, shortened the sea route from Europe to South Africa and East Asia. To Britain, the canal was a lifeline to India, the jewel of its empire. Many people were also convinced that the possession of colonies was an indication of a nation’s greatness; colonies were status symbols. According to nineteenth-century German historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, all great nations should want to conquer barbarian nations.
Humanitarian and Religious Goals
Many Westerners believed that Europe should civilize their little brothers beyond the seas. According to this view, non-whites would received the blessings of Western civilization, including medicine, law, and Christianity. Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) in his famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden” expressed this mission in the 1890s when he prodded Europeans to take up “their moral obligation” to civilize the uncivilized. He encouraged them to “Send forth the best ye breed to serve your captives’ need.” Missionaries supported colonization, believing that European control would help them spread Christianity, the true religion, in Asia and Africa.
In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) published On the Origin of Species. Darwin claimed that all life had evolved into the present state over millions of years. To explain the long slow process of evolution, Darwin put forth the theory of natural selection. Natural forces selected those with physical traits best adapted to their environment. Darwin never promoted any social ideas. The process of natural selection came to be known as survival of the fittest. The Englishman Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was the first to apply “survival of the fittest” to human societies and nations. Social Darwinism fostered imperialistic expansion by proposing that some people were more fit (advanced) than others. The Europeans believed that they, as the white race, were dominant and that it was only natural for them to conquer the “inferior” people as nature’s way of improving mankind. Thus, the conquest of inferior people was just, and the destruction of the weaker races was nature’s natural law.
Superior technology and improved medical knowledge helped to foster imperialism. Quinine enabled Europeans to survive tropical diseases and venture into the mosquito-infested interiors of Africa and Asia. The combination of the steamboat and the telegraph enabled the Western powers to increase their mobility and to quickly respond to any situations that threatened their dominance. The rapid-fire machine gun also gave them a military advantage and was helpful in convincing Africans and Asians to accept Western control. The following table summarizes the causes of the new imperialism:
Imperialism in Africa
Africa was known as the “Dark Continent” and remained unknown to the outside world until the late nineteenth century because its interior—desert, mountains, plateaus, and jungles—discouraged exploration. Britain’s occupation of Egypt and Belgium’s penetration of the Congo started the race for colonial possessions in Africa.
In 1875, Britain purchased a controlling interest in the Suez Canal from the bankrupt ruler of Egypt who was unable to repay loans that he had contracted for the canal and modernization. of the country. The French, who organized the building of the Suez Canal under Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1859, owned the other shares. The Suez Canal was important because it shortened the route from Europe to South and East Asia. The canal also provided a lifeline to India, which Britain had made part of the British Empire in 1858. In 1882, Britain established a protectorate over Egypt, which meant that the government leaders were officials of the Ottoman Empire, but were really controlled by Great Britain. The British occupation of Egypt, the richest and most developed land in Africa, set off “African fever” in Europe. To ensure its domination and stability in the area, Great Britain extended its control over the Sudan as well.
Exploration of the Congo
In 1878, Leopold II of Belgium (b. 1835, ruled 1865–1909) sentAnglo-American newspaperman Henry Stanley (1841–1904), to explore the Congo and establish trade agreements with leaders in the Congo River basin. Stanley, in 1871, had “found” the great Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone (1813–1873), who had traveled throughout Africa for over thirty years. When several years passed without a word from him, it was feared that he was dead. Stanley was hired in 1869 by the New York Herald, an American newspaper to find Livingstone. His famous greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” became legendary, even though there is some question about its authenticity. Stanley’s account of their meeting made headlines around the world and helped make him famous. Stanley eventually sold his services to Leopold II, who had formed a financial syndicate entitled The International African Association. A strong-willed monarch, Leopold II’s intrusion into the Congo area raised questions about the political fate of Africa south of the Sahara. Other European nations were fearful that Belgium wanted to extend control over the entire area.
The Scramble for Africa
Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), Chancellor of Germany, and Jules Ferry (1832–1893), Premier of France and considered the builder of the modern French Empire, organized an international conference in Berlin to lay down the basic rules for colonizing Africa. The Berlin Conference (1884–1885) established the principle that European occupation of African territory had to be based on effective occupation that was recognized by other states, and that no single European power could claim Africa. The Berlin Conference led to the “Scramble for Africa.” Between 1878 and 1914, European powers divided up the entire African continent except for the independent countries of Ethiopia and Liberia. Liberia was settled by free slaves from the United States and became an independent republic in 1847. Ethiopia, which was already independent, routed an Italian invasion in 1896. Defeating the Italians assured that the country would stay independent. European countries divided Africa as follows
The French had the largest colonial empire in Africa, over 3 1⁄2 million square miles, half of which contained the Sahara Desert. In 1830, France had conquered Algeria in North Africa. Between 1881 and 1912, France acquired Tunisia, Morocco, West Africa, and Equatorial Africa. At its height, the French Empire in Africa was as large as the continental United States.
Britain’s holdings in Africa were not as large as France’s but it controlled the more populated regions, particularly of southern Africa, which contained valuable mineral resources such as diamonds and gold. In 1806, the British displaced Holland in South Africa and ruled the Cape Colony. However, the British soon came into conflict with the Boers (farmers), the original Dutch settlers who resented British rule. In the 1830s, the Boers left British territory, migrated north, and founded two republics—the Orange Free State and Transvaal. The Boers soon came into conflict with the powerful Zulus, a native-African ethnic group, for control of the land. When the Zulus and the Boers were unable to win a decisive victory, the British became involved in The Zulu Wars and eventually destroyed the Zulu empire. In 1890, Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), who was born in Great Britain and had become a diamond mine millionaire, became prime minister of the Cape Colony. He wanted to extend the British African Empire from Cape Town to Cairo and decided to annex the Boer Republic. In the Boer War (1899–1902), the British, with great difficulty, defeated the Boers and annexed the two republics. In 1910, Britain combined its South African colonies into the Union of South Africa. Whites ran the government, and the Boers, who outnumbered the British, assumed control. This system laid the foundation for racial segregation that would last until the 1990s.
Late unification delayed Germany’s imperialistic ventures, but it also wanted its place in the sun. Germany took land in eastern and southwestern Africa.
Italy was another late entry into the imperialistic venture. Italy took control of Libya, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea, which is the north-most province of Ethiopia, near the Red Sea. Italy’s efforts to gain control of Ethiopia ended in bitter defeat.
Portugal carved out large colonies in Angola and Mozambique.
Imperialism in Asia
The British took control of India in 1763, after defeating the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). The British controlled India through the British East India Company, which ruled with an iron hand. In 1857, an Indian revolt, led by native soldiers called sepoys, led to an uprising known as the Sepoy Mutiny. After suppressing the rebellion, the British government made India part of the empire in 1858, as mentioned previously. The British introduced social reforms, advocated education, and promoted technology. Britain profited greatly from India, which was called the “Crown Jewel of the British Empire.” The Indian masses, however, continued to live close to starvation and the British had little respect for the native Indian culture.
The Dutch held the Dutch East Indies and extended their control over Indonesia, while the French took over Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). The Russians also got involved and extended their control over the area of Persia (Iran).
Since the seventeenth century, China had isolated itself from the rest of the world and refused to adopt Western ways. The Chinese permitted trade but only at the Port of Canton, where the rights of European merchants were at the whim of the emperor. Imperialism in China began with the First Opium War (1839–1842), when the Chinese government tried to halt the British from importing opium. This resulted in a war in which Britain’s superior military and industrial might easily destroyed the Chinese military forces. The Treaty of Nanking (1842) opened up five ports to the British, gave Britain the island of Hong Kong, and forced China to pay a large indemnity. In 1858, China was forced to open up eleven more treaty ports that granted special privileges, such as the right to trade with the interior of China and the right to supervise the Chinese custom offices. Foreigners also received the right of extraterritoriality, which meant that Western nations maintained their own courts in China and Westerners were tried in their own courts.
Between 1870 and 1914, the Western nations carved China into spheres of influence, areas in which outside powers claimed exclusive trading rights. France acquired territory in southwestern China, Germany gained the Shandong Peninsula in northern China, Russia obtained control of Manchuria and a leasehold over Port Arthur, and the British took control of the Yangzi valley. The United States, which had not taken part in carving up China because it feared that spheres of influence might hurt U.S. commerce, promoted the Open Door Policy in 1899. John Hay, the American Secretary of State, proposed that equal trading rights to China be allowed for all nations and that the territorial integrity of China be respected. The imperial nations accepted this policy in principle but not always in practice. For the United States, however, the Open Door Policy became the cornerstone of its Chinese policy at the beginning of the twentieth century.
By the 1900s, China was in turmoil. There was rising sentiment against foreigners because China had been forced to give up so many political and economic rights. This anti-foreign sentiment exploded into the Boxer Rebellionor Uprising (1899–1901). The Boxers were a secret Chinese nationalist society supported by the Manchu government, and their goal was to drive out all foreigners and restore China to isolation. In June 1900, the Boxers launched a series of attacks against foreigners and Chinese Christians. They also attacked the foreign embassies in Beijing. The imperialistic powers sent an international force of 25,000 troops to crush the rebellion, which ended within two weeks.
The Boxer Rebellion failed, but it convinced the Chinese that reforms were necessary. In 1911, revolutions broke out across the country and the Manchu emperor was overthrown. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), the father of modern China, proclaimed a republic and was named the new president. He advocated a three-point program of nationalism (freeing China from imperial control); democracy (elected government officials); and livelihood (adapting Western industrial and agricultural methods). The Chinese republic faced many problems and for the next thirty-seven years, China would continue to be at war with itself and with foreign invaders.
Japan was the only Asian country that did not become a victim of imperialism. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Japanese expelled Europeans from Japan and closed Japanese ports to trade with the outside world, allowing only the Dutch to trade at Nagasaki. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry (1866–1925), an American naval officer, led an expedition to Japan. He convinced the shogun, a medieval-type ruler, to open ports for trade with the United States. Fearful of domination by foreign countries, Japan, unlike China, reversed its policy of isolation and began to modernize by borrowing from the West. The Meiji Restoration, which began in 1867, sought to replace the feudal rulers, or the shogun, and increase the power of the emperor. The goal was to make Japan strong enough to compete with the West. The new leaders strengthened the military and transformed Japan into an industrial society. The Japanese adopted a constitution based on the Prussian model with the emperor as the head. The government was not intended to promote democracy but to unite Japan and make it equal to the West. The leaders built up a modern army based on a draft and constructed a fleet of iron steamships.
The Japanese were so successful that they became an imperial power. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, Japan defeated China and forced her to give up her claims in Korea. Japan also gained control of its first colonies—Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands—and shocked the world by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Japan’s victory was the first time that an Asian country had defeated a European power in over 200 years.
Imperialism in the Middle East
The importance of the Middle East to the new imperialists was its strategic location (the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa), vital waterways (canals and the Dardanelles), and valuable oil resources. The Europeans divided up the Middle East in the following manner:
- Great Britain: Britain’s control of the Suez Canal forced her to take an active role in Egypt as well as to acquire the militarily valuable island of Cyprus to secure oil resources for industrial and military needs. The British also secured concessions in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Pipelines were built to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
- Russia: Traditionally, Russia sought to gain control of the Dardanelles as an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and an area of expansion. Russia helped to dismember the Ottoman Empire and gain independence for several Balkan states.
- Germany: In 1899, German bankers obtained the Ottoman Empire’s consent to complete the Berlin-Baghdad Railroad.
Consequences of Imperialism
The new imperialism changed both Western society and its colonies. Through it, Western countries established the beginning of a global economy in which the transfer of goods, money, and technology needed to be regulated in an orderly way to ensure a continuous flow of natural resources and cheap labor for the industrialized world.
Imperialism adversely affected the colonies. Under foreign rule, native culture and industry were destroyed. Imported goods wiped out local craft industries. By using colonies as sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured goods, colonial powers held back the colonies from developing industries. One reason why the standard of living was so poor in many of these countries was that the natural wealth of these regions had been funneled to the mother countries.
Imperialism also brought confrontation between the cultures. By 1900, Western nations had control over most of the globe. Europeans were convinced that they had superior cultures and forced the people to accept modern or Western ways. The pressures to westernize forced the colonial people to reevaluate their traditions and to work at discouraging such customs as foot binding in China and sati in India. Sati was the custom in which a virtuous woman (sati) threw herself onto her husband’s funeral fire in the hope that the sacrificial act would wipe away the sins of both her husband and herself. Although imperialism exploited and abused colonial people, Western countries introduced modern medicine that stressed the use of vaccines and more sanitary hygiene that helped to save lives and increase life expectancy.
Imperialism created many political problems. European nations disrupted many traditional political units and united rival peoples under single governments that tried to impose stability and order where local conflicts had existed for years, such as in Nigeria and Rwanda. Ethnic conflicts that developed in the latter half of the twenti-eth century in many of these areas, can be traced to these imperial policies. Imperialism also contributed to ten-sion among the Western powers. Rivalries between France and Great Britain over the Sudan, between France and Germany over Morocco, and over the Ottoman Empire contributed to the hostile conditions that led to World War I in 1914.
European Society at the Turn of the Century
The latter half of the 1800s and the early 1900s saw great changes in all aspects of European society. In the earlier period, the arts had been restricted primarily to the wealthy, who had money and leisure time to enjoy culture. In most industrial countries, the working day had become limited to ten hours a day and a five-and-a-half-day work week. This created more leisure time which earlier generations never had the time to enjoy. A popular leisure activity was a trip to local music halls. These music halls offered a variety of different acts that included singers, dancers, comedians, and jugglers. By 1900, arts, music, and other forms of entertainment reached a wider audience. The invention of the phonograph and records brought music directly to people’s homes. During the 1880s, new technology contributed to the rise of motion pictures. By the early 1900s movies quickly became a big business, and by 1910, close to five million Americans attended some 10,000 theatres each day to watch silent movies. The European movie industry experienced a similar growth.
Middle- and working-class people began to enjoy sports and outdoor activities. European professional soccer clubs were formed. In1913 at the Football Association Cup finals at the Crystal Palace Stadium in England, Burnet defeated Liverpool 1–0 before a crowd of 120,000 people. The growing interest in sports led to the revival of the ancient Olympic games among countries. In 1896, the first modern Olympics were held in Athens.
Travel, which formerly had been reserved for the wealthy, now became popular with the middle class as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers became part of the industrial society. Thomas Cook (1808–1892), an Englishman who had organized his first excursion in 1841 for 500 people to attend a temperance rally for 1 shilling, popular-ized tours for the middle class. In 1851, he promoted day trips for over 150,000 to the Great Exhibition in London, which had been conceived to symbolize the industrial and economic superiority of Great Britain. Cook’s excursions became so popular that he offered trips all over the British Isles, Europe, and North America. By the late 1870s, Cook had organized the first worldwide tour. The success of the Cook Travel Agency symbolized how travel had also become more popular with many segments of society, rather than just the upper class.
Changes in the Arts and Literature
In the early nineteenth century, Romantic artists and writers rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment and stressed the importance of human emotions and feelings. In the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, realism, impressionism, and post-impressionism (expressionism) would dominate the artistic and literary worlds.
The writers and artists of the Realist movement focused on contemporary everyday life, especially of the urban working classes, neglected in imaginative literature before this time. These writers also stressed that human behavior was influenced by such factors as environment and heredity.
New Ideas in Medicine and Science
The late nineteenth century also brought about advances in medicine and science. The following table summarizes some key changes.
Women and the Struggle to Vote
By the 1890s, several industrial countries had universal male suffrage. However, no countries allowed women to vote. Since the 1840s in the United States, women such as Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) had organized campaigns for women’s rights. In Great Britain, there was a split over the question of suffrage (voting rights) for women. Both men and women thought that women’s suffrage was too radical a break with the past. Some claimed women did not have the mental ability to be involved in politics. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) called the struggle for suffrage wicked. Women also disagreed on how to achieve it.
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) of Great Britain formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU believed that after years of peaceful protest only aggressive or militant action would bring victory. The term suffragette was applied to the radical members of the WSPU. Besides peaceful demonstrations, many of these suffragettes heckled speakers in Parliament, cut telegraph wires, smashed windows, and burned public buildings. Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel (1880–1958) and Sylvia (1882–1960) were arrested and jailed many times. In jail, the Pankhursts went on hunger strikes to dramatize their cause. In June 1913, one radical suffragist died when she threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the English Derby.
In France, Jeanne-Elizabeth Schmahl (1846–1915) founded in 1909 the French Union for Women’s Suffrage. She rejected the militant tactics of the English movement and favored legal protests. French women did not gain the right to vote until after World War II. When Great Britain entered World War I, Pankhurst suspended her activities. When the war ended in 1918, Parliament granted the right to vote to women over the age of 30. In 1928, the required age was lowered to 21, making the voting age for both sexes the same.
Originally published by the Tamaqua Area School District under a free and open access license.