Responses to European Imperialism

The people of the Non-Western World experienced a painful crisis of identity at the hands of European imperialists, primarily due to the power as well as the arrogance of their white intruders. The initial response of the people of Africa and Asia was to attempt to drive out the intruders. Sadly, violent anti-foreign reaction was put down savagely by the superior military technology of the Europeans. Unable to defeat the Europeans militarily, many conquered people worked to preserve their own culture from westernization; while others, such as Ismail of Egypt, concluded that the West was indeed superior, and that his society should be reformed accordingly. Over time, those who wished to modernize their culture rather than preserve it won out.

The masses of people in Asia and Africa were accustomed to doing as they were told by their leaders; hence they often smoothly followed the rule of European taskmasters. Still, European domination was an edifice built on sand, as there were always some determined personalities who opposed European domination. The sedate masses followed them to varying degrees. Reasons for opposition were:

Empire in India: India was the jewel in Britain’s Imperialist crown; indeed Queen Victoria bore the title of "Empress of India." The British East India Company had conquered the last independent Indian state in 1848, and although some uprisings occurred from time to time, British rule was complete. By 1858, India was ruled by the British Parliament in London and administered by a tiny all white civil service in India. In 1900, there were fewer than 3000 top officials to rule a country of over 300 million. Although well disposed to the Indian people, strict job discrimination and social segregation was practiced. The British community in India protested and ultimately defeated a proposal to allow native Indian judges to judge white Europeans. Most British officials considered the native Indians to be racially inferior. Lord Kitchener once stated,

The British introduced a modern secondary education system in India in which all instruction was in English. High-caste Hindus emerged as skillful intermediaries between the British and the Indian people and soon formed a new elite, influenced by Western culture. Irrigation projects for agriculture, the world’s third largest railroad network and large tea and jute plantations were developed. Sadly, the masses saw little improvement, as such improvement as did occur was eaten up by massive population increases.

The British imposed a unified state system of government on India, thus placing Hindu and Muslim groups which had long fought each other under unified control. Even with all their reforms, however, European domination of India led to a rise in Indian nationalism. Everyone knew that no matter how advanced an Indian became, he would never be equal to the White Man. The best jobs, best hotels and certain railroad compartments were for whites only. Although the uneducated masses may have accepted this as their fate, the educated Indians—educated as a result of British educational auspices—saw this as racial injustice, and bitterly resented it. They believed, correctly, that it represented a dictatorship, no matter how benevolent, which flew in the face of the very concepts of human rights and equality their rulers had championed.

In 1885, educated Indians formed the Hindu Indian National Congress at which point there were increasing demands for equality and self government. Hindus and Muslims, long opposed to each other, joined in a common call for independence of India from Britain.

Japan: At the time of Commodore Perry’s entry into Japan, the country had a complex feudal system of government. At the top of the governmental structure was an Emperor with little power. Ultimate control lay with a hereditary military governor, the Shogun, who ruled with the help of a warrior nobility known as Samurai. The Samurai were proud and restless, and were humiliated by the sudden intrusion of Americans and the unequal treaties imposed by western countries.

Radical samurai engaged in anti-foreign terrorism and assassinations between 1858 and 1863; in response to which an allied fleet of American, British, Dutch and French warships destroyed several key forts and further weakened the prestige of the shogun’s government. In 1867, a coalition of patriotic samurai seized control of the government with little bloodshed and restored the power of the Emperor. This was the Meiji Restoration, a turning point in Japanese development.

The Meiji battle cry was "Enrich the state and strengthen the armed forces." Convinced that western technology was indeed superior, the Meiji dropped anti-foreign attacks and began reforming Japan along modern lines. They were convinced that "Japan must be reborn with America its mother and France its father." In 1871, the old feudal structure was abolished and a unified state instituted. Freedom of movement country was decreed (previously traveling abroad had been a serious crime), and railroads and modern factories were built.

Japan also instituted a powerful modern navy and army along French and German lines with mandatory three year military service for all males and a professional officer’s corps. Japan also borrowed western technology in industry, medicine and education. Many Japanese were encouraged to study abroad and foreign experts were hired at large salaries; however as soon as possible they were replaced with Japanese. However, by 1890, when the new state was firmly established, the Japanese adopted only those governmental features that were in keeping with their tradition. The government became authoritarian; democracy was rejected, the emperor and his ministers had vast powers and the legislature only limited power.

Having rehabilitated and modernized itself, Japan was now ready to take its place on the world stage. It "opened" Korea, just as Perry had opened Japan in 1876, and handily defeated China in a war over Korea. Later it took Formosa and competed aggressively with European powers for influence and territory in China, particularly Manchuria. In 1904, Japan attacked Russia without warning, and in the ensuing Russo-Japanese war, Japan gained Port Arthur in China, formerly a Russian protectorate. Despite protests from the United States, Japan had become a major imperialistic power by 1910.

Japan was the first non-Western country to use nationalism and love of Country to transform itself and meet the challenge of the West. Japan became an example for the people of Asia for national recovery and liberation.

China: The Manchu dynasty which had ruled China for 200 years appeared on the verge of collapse by 1860; however it managed to rejuvenate itself when the scholarly groups and members of the ruling class joined forces to put down rebellion, and when foreign aggression from Europe lessened. Europeans had achieved their primary goal of commercial and domestic relations, and saw no reason to interfere further, in fact they assisted the government in recovering. Although the country appeared to be well on the way to recovery, it was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. China’s weakness was revealed in the conflict, and European powers suddenly appeared ready to carve up China between them as a Christmas turkey. The government launched a desperate attempt to save itself, with a program known as the "hundred days of reform." Other, more radical reformers, such as Dr. Sun-Yat-sen wanted to overthrow the dynasty and establish a republic.

The traditionalists, including the famous "fists of righteous harmony" led the famous Boxer Rebellion in which several thousand Chinese Christians were killed. The Boxers had a fanatical hatred of "foreign devils" who they believed undermined reverence for ancestors and threatened Chinese family life, if not the whole society. In response to the rebellion, Western forces occupied Peking, and a heavy indemnity imposed. Troubled years followed as the Manchu dynasty’s power declined further. In 1912, a spontaneous rebellion brought down the dynasty and a republic was proclaimed.