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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


I would annex the planets if I could.


One of the most dramatic, morally debatable, and significant activities of the nineteenth-century European social order was its outward movement into a dominant position on several continents and among many islands cast about the earth. Of course, empire was hardly a new institution. It has been a rather constant characteristic of the Western world since well before the days when Roman legions sallied forth to make alien peoples bow beneath standards surmounted by bronze eagles. And even the first years of the nineteenth century were witnesses to Napoleon's effort at surpassing imperial Rome. But never before the end of the century were there so many expressions of imperialism, with rival colonial systems competing in so many areas of the world. Great Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, even Russia (not to mention the United States and Japan outside of Europe) intruded forcefully into Africa, or Asia, the Middle East, or the South Pacific--and finally sought the North and South Poles in the early years of this century. As an American senator of the time remarked, the Western world had an acute case of land hunger.

The intensity of this activity has led it to be called a "scramble," more specifically a scramble for Africa and Oceania (the islands of the South Pacific). Because it appeared to be so sudden and so competitive, and yet so much a part of late nineteenth-century political and economic power, this particular phase of overseas expansion has been labeled the "New Imperialism"in order to distinguish it from the "Old Colonialism" that supposedly ended in the late eighteenth century. Between the two, according to an older school of historians, existed a hiatus, a lull, during which Europe remained at home.

Today there is rather common agreement that European overseas expansion was a constant factor of the nineteenth century, with British commercial activities the most obvious aspect, but with both Great Britain and France seeking new trade outlets, strategic sites, and--on more than one occasion--a political advantage of one over the other. At the end of the century political annexation was the dominant characteristic of imperialism. If one considers that the major European land holdings in Africa before 1870 were Algeria (France) and South Africa (England), and then regards the political map of 1914 when only Liberia and Ethiopia were independent African states, one can appreciate the rapidity of the political change. Why?

The Causes of Modern European Imperialism
Along with the French and Industrial Revolutions, imperialism has been a mine of causes picked at by many generations of historians. The Marxist-Leninist argument would have it that an ever-increasing capitalism needed new places for financial investment and for markets of its goods in order to avoid its necessary collapse. This is the analysis contained in the title of Lenin's most famous work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, published first in 1917. "Highest" here has reference to a scale of historical progression: it is the last stage beyond which capitalism cannot go because it can find no other outlets to relieve the pressure that capital accumulation has generated. Thereafter the system (in today's parlance) will self-destruct.

Even the pro-imperialists of the late nineteenth century used a somewhat similar argument, but not to condemn capitalism. A famous French supporter of empire referred to colonies as the safety valve of the industrial steam engine, without which it would explode. And more than one publicist exclaimed, "No exportation without colonies." Thus, in the minds of contemporaries imperialism was the process of expansion by which to assist the industrial system in its search for new markets and, consequently, new profits. But where the imperialists considered this process a commercial policy, Lenin deemed it a historical necessity, a particular phase of capitalism, when financial interests controlled industry and were helpless to do anything but place their gold overseas, if they did not want an overwhelming glut.

The distinctions between the two economic approaches to imperialism may seem highly refined at first glance. Yet what the imperialists were urging as policy--a conscious state decision to better the society's economy--Lenin was analyzing as part of an unavoidable, necessary, or fated historical process; for him it was not policy, but inevitability: it could not be reversed or changed, and beyond this "highest" stage lay the necessary fall of the entire capitalist system.

This particular argument is stressed somewhat, not because it effectively accounted for the European history of the moment, but because Lenin's thesis grew in historical importance in the twentieth century to become the most popular explanation of modern imperialism, and one still vehemently proclaimed today.

Yet the commercial argument was and remains an important one, particularly if it is not reduced to a simple correlation between the amount of colonial territory acquired and the amount of goods and money exported. Europe's traditional and then current areas of principal export were the Americas and Europe itself. Very little money or goods went to tropical Africa or the islands of the Pacific. If anything in the commercial domain, the newly acquired colonial territories were "claims" "pegged out" for the future, as Lord Roseben, late nineteenth-century British prime minister, described them in a consciously chosen mining metaphor.

What this idea suggests is the growing political consciousness of the competitive European industrial system. With the United States and Germany added to the great producing nations of the world--alongside England, France, and Belgium--there was concern that national industries would be disadvantaged, that national treasuries would suffer accordingly. Add to this concern another dimension, that stemming from the "social question." The so-called Long Depression of 1873-1896 was a downward trend in cyclical economics which meant chronic unemployment and possible social unrest. When Cecil Rhodes said that imperialism was a "bread-and-butter" question it was this problem that he had in mind: new markets overseas would relieve the economic slump at home by generating the need for more products, hence reemployment of workers. Modern analysts, following the thought of an outstanding English imperialist of the turn of the century, Lord Alfred Milner, have called this "social imperialism."

Alongside the economic argument sturdily stands a political one, as old and as much discussed. In brief, it would read: imperialism is overseas nationalism. The rivalry traditionally demonstrated by European states was extended overseas in the late nineteenth century, as it had been earlier in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the later instance, it was Africa and Oceania that were the fields of political and military maneuver, as it had been North America and India earlier.

The coincidence between the political establishment of modern Europe--with the unification of Italy and Germany in 1870-1871--and the dramatic acquisition of new territory--say that of Tunisia by France in 1881 or Egypt by England in 1882--tempts the conclusion that the old diplomatic grounds of Europe, Germany, and Italy, where the major powers struggled and bickered, were now gone and had to be replaced elsewhere. In this argument Africa was of no European interest in and of itself; it was an area in which European diplomatic negotiation could be played out. But there is more to the thesis than this.

Nationalism must be considered. As has frequently been asserted, nationalism had the qualities of a secularized religion; it suggested the purposes and the destiny of the society upholding it. In the United States the idea of "Manifest Destiny," of the belief that divine purpose directed this nation westward to the Pacific, is a well-known expression of this sentiment. The German soldiers who wore belt buckles in World War I with the words Gott mit uns on them is a less significant, but no less telling example. Each western nation tended to develop a grand national myth about its unique and destined goals. In broad and poetic terms, these myths were all translated to the colonial world in variations of Kipling's famous words: "the white man's burden."

France, Great Britain, and the other colonizers had a duty to bring the benefits of their advanced civilization to the world beyond their geographical limits. Here is a smug and simple argument, but one of great appeal in the late nineteenth century when European technological superiority could be measured. It was easy to conclude that the steam engine was a manifestation of European cultural superiority in all domains. As one French cynic put it: the Chinese were supposedly inferior because they had no machine guns or generals like Moltke, the Prussian who directed the stunning German military defeat of France in 1870. This failure or unwillingness to distinguish wisely between technology and culture allowed the Europeans to be arrogant, and, moreover, to assume that in any arrangement of the world they were at the head or in the center.

Buttressing this contention was a pseudo-scientific attitude known by the name "Social Darwinism." Darwin's theory of evolution, first espoused in his famous book On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was extended and distorted to include social organisms as well as biological ones. Not Darwin, but lesser minds and less cautious ones, suggested that the state or society was like a biological organism: it grew or it died--the alternatives were that stark. In a world already described by capitalist economics as being "competitive," the biological contentions that all species "struggle for survival" and that the strongest would survive could be and easily were made social laws.

Nationalism now carried the striking corollary that the state needed to expand, to grow in size as proof of its vitality and as confirmation of its historical destiny. Given the fact that this was the age in which bigness had already acquired qualitative value, it was easy for nationalists to conclude that the bigger the state in size, the greater it was in culture or civilization. The terms "Greater Britain," "Greater France," and even "Greater Germany" were bandied about as expressions of national pride in overseas political enterprises. The notion that the "sun never sets on the British Empire" was a comforting thought for the late nineteenth-century English. When the German foreign minister, Prince von Bulow, asserted that Germany seeks "her place in the sun," he was hoping for a similar condition.

These new perceptions of the place of European nations in the world suggest that an age of global politics was emerging. Naval power was then at its zenith: the Americans sent the "Great White Fleet" around the world during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt; the British launched the latest in battleship design with the Dreadnought in 1906. And the Germans, hoping to threaten, if not compete equally with the British, began a large navy in 1898 under the watchful eye of Admiral Tirpitz and the proud gaze of Kaiser Wilhelm II. To support these new oceanic fleets in their world mission, coaling stations and naval ports were deemed necessary. The port of Singapore, the city of Dakar in Senegal, the base at San Diego--and many other lesser known geographical locations--were linked into grand "lifelines of empire," of which the British "red line" was the most famous: going from England, past Gibraltar, through the Suez Canal, beyond Aden to India. And the new canals--the Panama and the Kiel--were manifestly assets in this naval age, the means by which to move fleets quickly from one body of water to another. Thus, a strategic component was added to the many reasons, or justifications, for imperialism.

The causal pattern of modern imperialism was complicated and extensive. Equally important, it was not all Eurocentric. The explanations adduced above clearly suggest that imperialism radiated from its center in Europe out to the peripheries of the non-Western world. However, historical patterns are neither so symmetrical nor so singularly directed. Beyond the grand generalizations concerning an expansionist capitalism or a glory-seeking nationalism are the vexing peculiarities of the "local scene": the activities carried on by merchant, adventurer, soldier, or missionary, far from the capitals of Europe--and often equally far from the thinking taking place in them.

Many contemporary historians are persuaded that the periphery often acted on the center: in terms of physics, the activity was centripetal as well as centrifugal. A local revolt, coastal competition among vying European merchants, problems with local rulers or local pirates, all were factors upsetting the local balance of power and necessitating the intervention of the home country, if the position of its local nationals--again the merchant, missionary, adventurer, and soldier--was to be maintained. As the peculiarities of regional history are examined, the simple pattern of a Eurocentric imperialism is found wanting. The activity occurring on the local scene in Africa or Asia may have propelled an unwilling or unprepared government into imperialist activity it really had no national interest in. In this respect, imperialism can be considered national reaction to local "accidents."

What remains important, regardless of the causes that inspired it, is the acquisition of such incredibly large and varied colonial empires throughout the world.

NEXT:  Europe's Imperial Age

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