European Migration and Imperialism

The population of Europe entered its third and decisive stage in the early eighteenth century. Birthrates declined, but death rates also declined as the standard of living and advances in medical science provided for longer life spans. The population of Europe including Russia more than doubled from 188 million in 1800 to 432 million in 1900. From 1815 through 1932, sixty million people left Europe, primarily to "areas of European settlement," in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Siberia. These populations also multiplied rapidly in their new habitat; much more so than the populations of Africa and Asia. As a result, on the eve of World War One, 38 percent of the world’s total population was of European ancestry.

This growth in population provided further impetus for European expansion, and became the driving force behind emigration. Rising populations put pressure on land, and land hunger and led to "land hunger." Millions of people went abroad in search of work or economic opportunity. The Irish, who left for America during the great Potato famine, were an extreme but not unique example. Ultimately, one third of all European migrants came from the British Isles between 1840 and 1920. Italians also migrated in large numbers because of poor economic conditions in their home country. German migration also was steady until industrial conditions in Germany improved when the wave of migration slowed. Less than one half of all migrants went to the United States, although it absorbed the largest number of European migrants. Others went to Asiatic Russia, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Most European migrants were peasants or village craftsmen whose traditional way of life was threatened by too little land, estate agriculture, and cheap, factory made goods. Their response was often to sell out and move to the American Midwest where land was plentiful and cheap. Most migrants were not desperately impoverished landless peasants, but small farmers or skilled artisans who desperately wanted to stay out of poverty. Most were young and often unmarried. Others moved but remained within Europe, settling in other European countries. Jews from Eastern Europe and peasants from Ireland migrated to Great Britain; Russians and Poles moved to Germany, and Latin people from Spain, Portugal, and Italy moved to France.

Many migrants returned home whenever they could. One in two migrants to Argentina and perhaps one in three in the United States returned home. Seven out of eight people from the Balkans who moved to the United States also returned. On the other hand, only one in ten from Ireland and one in twenty of European Jews returned.

The possibility of owning land was a prime consideration. In Ireland, land was often tightly held by absentee landowner, and there was little land available for purchase. In Russia, Jews were the victims of pogroms and discrimination after the assassination of Alexander II. They were confined to market towns and small cities called the Pale of Settlement. Most land was held by non-Jews. Therefore, when they migrated to escape both factory competition and oppression, they typically left the old country once and for all.

Italians who migrated were not typically landless laborers from areas in which most land was owned in large estates; rather they were small landowning peasants whose standard of living had suffered because of overpopulation and agricultural depression. Migration provided them with an escape valve and possibly money with which to buy more land from working abroad. Most had no intention of staying abroad; rather many migrated back and forth during the harvest season, hoping to save enough money to buy an estate back home. They dominated the building trades and architecture in Latin America, giving cities in that area a very Italian character.

Many young Europeans were spurred to leave Europe by a spirit of revolt and revolution. Many felt frustrated by the privileged classes and therefore packed their bags and left. Later, when people won political and social reforms, migration slowed down.

Not all migrants were European. A large number of Asians (although quite a smaller number than Europeans) migrated to work in mines and plantations in various areas. Most assumed the labor that had previously been performed by black slaves. European settlers eventually demanded a halt to Asian migration, and discriminatory laws which kept Asians out were passed everywhere. A prime example is the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricted immigration of Chinese to America for ten years. This was another illustration of Western dominance of the world.

Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa: In the years 1880 to 1914, European migration not only reached a new height; but European nations rushed to create or enlarge political empires abroad. This was in sharp contrast to the economic domination which had been used to "open" China and Japan which remained politically independent. There was a frantic rush to "plant the flag" over as many people and as much territory as possible. As a result, new tensions arose among European states, leading to wars with both European and non-European countries. This new imperialism was aimed primarily at Asia and Africa, and put millions of black, brown, and yellow people under the rule of whites.

Early in the nineteenth century, the French had controlled Algeria and the British had taken possession of the Dutch colony at Cape Town during the wars with Napoleon I. The Dutch settlers, in response to the British takeover, had made the Great Trek into the interior, where they fought Zulu and Xhosa people for land. The Boers, or Afrikaners, as the descendants of the Dutch called themselves, proclaimed their independence and resisted British domination. The Portuguese still maintained Angola and Mozambique, but most of Africa was not dominated by Europeans. This changed drastically between 1880 and 1900. By 1900, nearly all of Africa was carved up and placed under European rule. Only Libya and Ethiopia remained independent.

The British under Cecil Rhodes established protectorates over large areas, including Rhodesia, named for Rhodes (present day Zimbabwe and Zambia). They attempted to undermine the Afrikaners without success in the Boer War (1899-1902).In 1910, the old Cape Colona and other areas were united into the Union of South Africa, which was largely self governing.

Belgium, under Leopold II became a player in Africa also. Leopold once commented, "The Sea bathes our coast, the world lies before us. Steam and electricity have annihilated distance, and the non-appropriated lands on the surface of the globe can become the field of our operations and of our success." Leopold formed a financial syndicate to send Henry M. Stanley to explore the Congo River basin. Stanley established trading stations, signed "treaties" with native chieftains, and planted Leopold’s flag. The French were alarmed and sent their own expedition and signed a treaty of protection with a chief on the north of the Congo. With Britain’s control of Egypt, the race for Africa was on.

Jules Ferry of France and Otto von Bismarck of Germany arranged an international conference in Berlin to lay down some ground rules for occupation of Africa. The Berlin conference established the principle that European claims to Africa must rest on "effective occupation" to be recognized by other states. Otherwise, Europeans might push in from all sides. This would prevent any one European power from claiming the entire continent. The conference recognized Leopold’s personal rule over a neutral Congo Free State, and declared the entire Congo basin a free trade zone. It also agreed to stop slavery and the slave trade in Africa.

The conference coincided with Germany’s emergence as an Imperial power. Bismarck had previously seen little value in colonies. He once said that the reminded him of a poor but proud nobleman who wore a fur coat when he could not afford a shirt underneath. He changed his policy in 1884-5, however, and Germany established protectorates over tribes in Togo, Cameroons, southwest Africa and later East Africa. In the meantime, the French, Germans, and British pressed onward for further occupation of Africa.

In Egypt, a British expedition under General Horatio H. Kitchener moved up the Nile River, building a railroad to supply arms and reinforcements as it went. In 1898, they met Muslim forces at Omdurman armed only with spears. The tribesmen charged time and again, but were repeatedly cut down by British machine gun fire. Winston Churchill, a young officer at the battle, wrote it was like "a pantomime scene. These extraordinary foreign figures…march up one by one from the darkness of Barbarism to the footlights of civilization…and their conquerors, taking their possessions, forget even their names. Nor will history record such trash." In the end, eleven thousand brave but poorly armed tribesmen were killed to only twenty eight Brits.

Kitchener’s forces eventually met a small French force and the possibility of war between France and Britain existed; but France, weakened by the Dreyfus affair, backed down and allowed the British to take over. It is amazing that the European forces thought nothing of ruthlessly cutting down native forces who were ill prepared to resist them, but stopped short of fighting each other. They were civilized people, after all.

Imperialism in Asia: All major imperialist powers gradually extended their influence over Asia. The Dutch, who had controlled little move than the island of Java in Indonesia, gradually extended their control over the entire Archipelago although they had to share some of the spoils with Britain and Germany. France took Indochina; Russia extended its control over Muslim areas to the south of the Caucasus Mountains and also nibbled away at China’s outlying provinces. Even the United States got into the act with its acquisition of the Philippines as a result of the Spanish American War. When it became apparent that the U.S. did not intend to grant independence to the Philippines, a revolt broke out which was suppressed only after long, bitter fighting. A timetable for independence was not discussed until 1934.

Causes of the New Imperialism: A number of clear cut reasons are apparent for European Imperialism, although any number of other reasons are argued often vociferously by various historians:

Economics was a primary motivation, particularly in Britain. By the late 1870’s, France, Germany and the U.S. were industrializing rapidly and raising tariff barriers against British goods. Britain came to value their old possessions of India and Canada more highly. When continental powers began to grab any unclaimed territory, the British followed suit. They feared the French and Germans would seal off their empires with high tariffs and future economic opportunities would be lost forever.

Actually economic gains were quite limited. The new colonies were too poor to buy much in the way of European manufactures and offered few profitable investments. Even so, all were guarded jealously, and none were abandoned. They had become important for political and diplomatic reasons. Each country saw colonies as important to national security and international prestige. An example is the Suez Canal, which Britain saw as important to its occupation of Egypt, and led to a bloody conquest of the Sudan. National security was a key factor in the U.S. keeping the Canal Zone in Panama. Far flung possessions offered safe havens for navies far from home and coaling stations when needed.

Many people believed that owning colonies was an essential element of greatness. "There has never been a great power without a great colony," wore a French publicist in 1877. "Every virile people has established colonial power, said a German. "All great nations in the fullness of their strength have desired to set their mark upon barbarian lands and those who fail to participate in this great rivalry will play a pitiable role in time to come."

Social Darwinism and harsh racial attitudes also were an important factor in European Imperialism. One English economist wrote that "the strongest nation has always been conquering the weaker, and the strongest tend to be the best." A professor in 1900 wrote that "the path of progress is strewn with the wreck…of inferior races. Yet these dead peoples are, in very truth, the stepping stones on which mankind has risen to the higher intellectual and deeper emotional life of today."

Three aspects of the industrialized world’s technological and industrial superiority were crucial to European imperialism: The machine gun was the ultimate weapon to make warfare decidedly unequal against those armed only with spears and arrows. Quinine, which controlled malaria, prevented the disease from decimating white populations in Africa. Also, the combination of the steamship and international telegraph permitted Western powers to quickly concentrate firepower in a given area when it was needed there.

Social tensions and domestic political conflicts were also a factor. Critics of imperialism charged that political leaders were manipulating colonial issues to divert popular attention from problems at home and create a false sense of national unity. Those favoring colonies stressed that they benefited workers as well as capitalists, as they provided jobs and raw materials that raised the worker’s standard of living. Government leaders encouraged the masses to savor foreign triumphs and glory in the increase in national prestige.

Special interest groups were another factor. Shipping companies wanted subsidies; white settlers wanted more land and greater protection from native populations; missionaries wanted to spread religion and stop the slave trade. Even so, further arguments were thrown into the stew. A favorite idea was that Europeans should "civilize" more primitive, nonwhite people. This way, nonwhites would receive all the blessings of civilization, such as advanced medicine, cities, and an increased standard of living. The French spoke of their "sacred civilizing mission;" and Rudyard Kipling exhorted Europeans and Americans to:

Take up the White Man’s Burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
So serve your captives’ need,
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples
Half-devil and half-child.

Kipling’s challenge was especially embraced by Americans who believed that they civilization had reached unprecedented heights and they had unique benefits to spread to all the less advanced peoples of the world. This thinking was a prominent factor in the failure of the U.S. to immediately grant the Philippines independence.

The spread of Christianity, which Europeans considered the "true" religion, cannot be underestimated. Many Africans had their first contact with whites in mission schools. As late as 1942, 97 percent of Nigeria’s student population was in mission schools. Although missionary efforts were successful in Africa, they failed spectacularly in India, China, and areas in which Islam was prominent. These people were unwilling to accept Christianity, despite the efforts of missionaries.

Critics of Imperialism: Imperialism had its critics throughout Europe. After the Boer War, an English economist, J. A. Hobson published Imperialism, a book which influenced Lenin and others. He contended that the rush to acquire colonies was due to the economic appetite of unregulated capitalism, particularly the needs of the rich to find outlets for their surplus capital. He further argued that only unscrupulous special interests profited at the expense of the taxpayer and the natives. He further argued that his quest for empire diverted attention from domestic reform and the need to close the gap between rich and poor.

Hobson’s arguments fell on deaf ears; however arguments about moral condescension and Social Darwinism struck home. "O Evolution, what crimes are committed in thy name!" said one foe. Another created a new beatitude: "Blessed are the strong, for they shall prey on the weak." Henry Labouchère, a Member of Parliament lampooned Kipling as a racist bully by writing:

Pile on the Brown man’s burden!
And if ye rouse his hate
Meet his old fashioned reasons
With Maxims up to date.
With shells and Dum-Dum bullets
A hundred times plain
The Brown Man’s loss must never
Imply the White Man’s gain.

Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, (A book every AP European History student should read) railed against the selfishness of Europeans "civilizing" Africans. In the book his main character, once a liberal scholar, turns into a savage brute. Critics accused Europeans of applying a double standard and not living up to their own ideals. While at home they were championing representative government and individual liberty, they imposed military dictatorships on Africans and Asians, forced them to work involuntarily, and discriminated against them shamelessly. Europeans who denounced imperialism provided colonial people with the Western ideology of liberation.