The Age of Global Empires

It is a sad but axiomatic fact of history that stronger societies have and continue to attempt domination of those societies less strong than they, and exercise some degree of hegemony, often to the point of imperial rule over those weaker societies. This has been true from the days of Mesopotamia, and is certainly well illustrated by the Roman Empire. Western European states began to exercise hegemony over areas of Asia and Africa based on strong nationalist sentiments which allowed them to mobilize their populations. Industrialization brought additional advantages, as they had the most effective tools and most lethal weapons available in the world. The effects of imperial expansion proved to be widespread and long lasting.

Foundations of Empire: The world imperialism has been used to refer to Western European domination over subject lands in other areas. It later came to apply to similar domination by the United States and Japan. Although imperialism often arose as a result of the use of armed force, on occasion it was the result of trade, investment or even business activity which allowed imperialist nations to profit from subject societies and influence their affairs without the necessity (or trouble) of direct political control. In modern times, the phrase colonialism has been used to indicate not just the settlement of colonists in new lands but also to political social, economic and cultural influence over subject peoples. European nations turned lands in India, southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa into colonies without a large influx of settlers; but they did manage to profoundly affect those areas by introducing European business techniques, reforming educational systems to European standards and promoting European cultural preferences.

Many Europeans believed by the end of the nineteenth century that colonial domination and imperial expansion were necessary if their societies were to survive. Private individuals considered it necessary at times in order to preserve their personal fortunes. Many of these merchants and entrepreneurs became unbelievably wealthy, and argued for their home states to pursue imperialist policies for no other reason than to secure and promote their own private interests.

A classic example of this is Cecil Rhodes, (1853-1902) who left Oxford in 1871 for South Africa to find a climate to relieve his tuberculosis. He managed to gain claims to several diamond mines, supervised his business carefully and bought up others such that by 1889 at age thirty five, he controlled ninety percent of the world’s diamond production. He also had a substantial (though not controlling) stake in the gold mining business. From 1890-1896 Rhodes was Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony. He hoped the Cape Colony would serve as a base of operations for more British control of Africa and even beyond. He dreamed of Britain’s empire embracing the entire world, hoping even to rejoin the United States to the Empire. He considered British society the most noble, moral and honorable in the world, once commenting that "we are the finest race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit; the better it is for the human race." In 1895, present day Zimbabwe became part of the British Empire and was named for Rhodes: "Rhodesia."

Personal ambition alone was insufficient to promote imperial expansion in the late nineteenth century. Among the more prominent motives were economic interests, such as the availability of raw materials in areas outside Europe which were not available there. Rubber, tin, copper and petroleum were among the raw materials to be found elsewhere. Rubber trees were indigenous to the Amazon River basin but rubber plantations were established in the Congo River basin and Malaya. Tin and copper were available in southeast Asia and Africa, and oil was available in southwest Asia. Those who supported imperial expansion also argued that colonies would serve as markets for manufactured goods which were produced at home; and also would provide a home for those wishing to migrate there at a time when Europe’s population was exploding.

In point of fact, manufactured goods did not flow to colonies in large quantities but were rather sold to other developed nations; however the argument in support of imperialist expansion was still made.

Still another argument for expansion was the usefulness of colonies for political and military reasons. Overseas colonies could occupy strategic areas near the world’s sea lanes and offer harbors or supply stations for commercial and naval vessels. The idea of course was not so much to obtain these areas for their own use, but to deny them to rival nations. A somewhat cynical political motive also dominated the argument for expansion. At a time when socialist and communist movements were gaining strength in Europe, focusing attention on an expanding empire would bolster nationalism and patriotism and thus draw it away from these movements. Cecil Rhodes once commented that imperialism was an attractive alternative to Civil War. Otto von Bismarck of Germany argued to both industrialists and workers that expansion would benefit all of them. In another cynical move, European leaders drew attention toward imperial expansion by organizing exhibitions in which people of subject lands displayed their native music, dress and customs for tourists and the public. In fact, the term "native" was soon used to describe the native inhabitants of lands controlled from Europe. Hence the phrase, "the natives are restless."

Yet another motive was the desire to spread Christianity. Although missionaries often opposed imperialist ventures and defended native people against colonialists, Christianity provided a powerful justification for imperialism. Missionaries often facilitated exchanges between natives and imperialists and often provided European officials with information they needed to maintain colonial control. Missionary settlements served as convenient meeting places for Europeans in colonial areas and as distribution centers for European manufactured goods.

Some Europeans worked not so much to "Christianize" native peoples as to "civilize" them. French imperialist often invoked the mission civilisatrice "civilizing mission" to justify expansion in Africa and Asia and the English poet Rudyard Kipling argued in his famous poem, The White Man’s Burden that European and Americans had a duty to bring civilization to distant lands.

Innovations in technology and European competition to develop advanced military techniques proved effective in facilitating expansion. Among the most important were the steamship and railroads. Steamships could travel faster than any sailing vessel and could ignore winds. They could also travel upstream easily and were easily armed. They thus enabled imperialists to use force in dominating areas deep in the interior of foreign lands. The Opium War was in fact ended when the British steamer Nemesis led an expedition up the Yangtze River. Railroads allowed raw materials and manufactured goods as well as armies to be transported quickly through colonies. Steamships also substantially improved travel and communication time. A letter from India to Britain in the 1830’s would require two years for a reply. By 1850 the time had been reduced to four months. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, steamships could travel between Britain and India in two weeks.

Communications were also improved with the introduction of the telegraph. By the 1850’s submarine cable was laid and by 1870, messages could be exchanged between London and India in roughly five hours. By 1902, cable linked all parts of the British empire. Imperialist powers monopolized telegraph operations and used them to rapidly mobilize forces when needed; merchants also could respond quickly to developments.

Improvements in firearms, particularly the introduction of breech loading weapons with rifled barrels proved more reliable than smooth bore muzzle loading muskets. By 1870, Europeans were experimenting with rifled machine guns. In the 1880’s they used the Maxim gun, which fired eleven rounds per second. Modern weapons gave Europeans a devastating advantage over native armies, such that they could impose imperial control almost at will.

An example is the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898. A British force with twenty machine guns and six gunboats killed eleven thousand Sudanese in five hours of fighting. British losses were 368.

European Imperialism: British domination of India began with trading posts founded by the British East India Tea Company. The company obtained permission from Mughal rulers there to build fortified posts on the coastline from where they traded for pepper and cotton as well as Chinese silk and porcelain. Later, tea and coffee became prominent trade items. After the death of emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal dynasty went into decline when local authorities asserted their independence. The Company took advantage of Mughal weakness and extended authority inland, using a small British army and Indian troops known as sepoys. With this military force they won right to rule in many areas.

The sepoys revolted in 1857 because of cultural differences. They had been trained to use Enfield Rifles that fired bullets from cartridges which were packed in paper waxed with animal fat. They were told by British officers to tear the paper with their teeth. The Hindu sepoys refused as the wax might contain the fat of a cow which was sacred; the Muslim sepoys refused as it might contain the fat of pigs, which was unclean. British officials changed the packaging and opening procedure but it was too late. A bloody revolt erupted with atrocities committed on both sides; however superior European weaponry and the telegraph allowed the British to crush the rebellion and re-establish British rule. After the revolt the British government preempted the East India company and imposed direct imperial rule. In 1858 Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) gave authority over India to the Office of Secretary of State for India. A viceroy was appointed to administer the colony through an elite civil service whose members were almost exclusively British.

Under British rule, officials cleared forests, restructured landholdings and encouraged the cultivation of tea, coffee and opium. Railroad and telegraph lines were constructed as well as canals, harbors and irrigation systems. Little effort was made to promote Christianity. However, English authorities did establish English style schools for the children of Indian elites, and English soon became the official language of India. They suppressed Indian customs which conflicted with European laws or values, particularly the practice of sati, where a widow threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The practice was banned in 1829 but did not end until many years later.

In time, French and Russian authorities attempted to break British power and establish a position in India. The French failed after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of the Nile, but Russia provoked a prolonged contest. Cossack forces conquered Samarkand and other areas on the Silk Road caravan routes and were near the Indian border which was not clearly defined. Russian and British explorer ventured into parts of central Asia never visited by Europeans and mapped terrain, scouted passages and sought alliances with local rulers from Afghanistan to the Aral sea. Much of central Asia fell under Russian influence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The long expected contest for India was precluded by the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

British officials in India worked to expand British interests in Asia. By the 1880’s they defeated the kings of Burma with whom they had fought for almost sixty years. Burma became a source of teak wood, ivory, rubies and jade. In 1824, Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the port of Singapore, which became the busiest center of trade in the Strait of Melaka. It was administered by the colonial regime in India and allowed the British navy to control sea lanes linking the Indian Ocean to the South China sea. Malaya was also soon conquered and became a source of tin and rubber. During the same time, French officials built the colony of French Indochina which consisted of present day Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. They introduced European style schools but unlike the British, encouraged conversion to Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church soon became prominent throughout Indochina. By the end of the nineteenth century, all of southeast Asia was under European rule except for Siam (present day Thailand) because colonial officials considered it a convenient buffer between British Burma and French Indochina.

The Scramble for Africa: European powers maintained a limited presence in Africa as late as 1875; the only substantial possessions were the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, and the French colony of Northern Algeria. By 1900, imperialist nations partitioned and colonized almost all of Africa. This occurred amidst nationalistic rivalries and a frenzied land grab which became known as the "scramble for Africa." Most information about Africa was obtained from explorers and missionaries, the most famous of whom was Dr. David Livingstone, a Scottish minister who set up mission posts in Africa and the American journalist, Henry Morton Stanley who led an expedition to find Livingstone. Two English geographers, Richard Burton and John Speke, searched for the source of the Nile River. The work of these men held great interest for merchants who wished to exploit African business opportunities.

Stanley was employed by King Leopold II of Belgium (r. 1865-1909) to establish a colony known as the Congo Free State in the Congo River basin. Leopold stated that the region would be a "free trade zone" accessible to merchants from all lands in an attempt to avoid competition from larger European nations. In fact, he carved out a personal colony filled with rubber plantations staffed by forced labor, where conditions were exceptionally brutal. In 1909, the Belgian government took control of the colony which was thereafter known as the Belgian Congo. At the same time, Britain established a presence in Egypt. Muhammad Ali and other rulers had relied on European lenders to oppose Ottoman rule. When high debt and taxes led to revolt, the British army occupied Egypt to protect British financial interests and protect the Suez canal.

Earlier, European presence was established in the southern tip of Africa where the Dutch East India Company established Cape Town in 1652 as a supply station. Later, company employees and settlers moved into areas beyond company control to set up farms and ranches. They were first known as Boers (Dutch for "farmer") and later as Afrikaners (Dutch for "African.") The colony grew with a large influx of Europeans, largely Dutch, Germans and French Huguenots. They firmly believed that God had predestined them to claim the people and resources of the area. Eventually, as land under white control expanded, they came into conflict with the Khoikhoi and Xhosa people. Competition for land led to warfare. The combination of warfare, enslavement and smallpox virtually extinguished both groups. Britain took over the Cape colony during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) which deeply disrupted Afrikaner society as British law and language was imposed on them. Britain abolished slavery in 1833 which eliminated the primary source of labor for white farmers. Afrikaners eventually began to leave the Cape Colony and move east in the Great Trek. They became known as voortrekkers. (Africaans for "pioneers.) They came into conflict with Ndebele and Zulu peoples, but prevailed due to superior fire power. Again, they interpreted their success as a sign that God approved of their expansion. By 1900 they had created several independent republics: the Republic of Natal, the Orange Free State, and the South African Republic. However, with the discovery of gold and diamonds, the British, who had previously been lenient with the voortrekkers, thousands of British miners and prospectors moved into the area. The result was the South African War, often called the Boer War (1899-1903.) It was a white/white conflict; however Africans fought on both sides and many were slaughtered. The Afrikaners surrendered in 1902 and Britain reconstituted the territory into the Union of South Africa, which was largely an autonomous British dominion. To improve British/Afrikaner relations, the British encouraged white supremacy and domination of black Africans.

Tensions in Europe led Otto von Bismarck to call the Berlin Conference, also known as the Berlin West Africa Conference (1884-85.) Fourteen European states were represented along with the United States. No African delegates were present. The Conference agreement stated that any European state could establish African colonies after it notified the others of its intention and occupied previously unclaimed territory. Using the conference as justification, European powers, armed with superior weapons, soon occupied all of Africa except for Ethiopia (where native forces fought off Italian forces in 1896) and Liberia, which was populated by freed American slaves and was a dependency of the U.S.

All occupying powers assumed that the cost of colonizing would be minimal and that African colonies would soon be self sufficient. Their first attempt at rule was through "Concessionary Companies" whereby private companies were granted concessions of territory to mine, establish plantations or build railroads. They had the power to tax and recruit labor. This system was later ended due to outcry over the brutality of forced labor and smaller profits than were anticipated. By the early twentieth century, European governments established as system of direct rule, whereby administrative districts were headed by government personnel who handled tax collection, labor and military recruitment Administrative boundaries deliberately cut across traditional African boundaries in an attempt to keep African populations under control and engage in a "civilizing mission." There were problems with this approach as there were never enough European personnel. In French West Africa, thirty six hundred Europeans attempted to rule nine million Africans. Further problems arose from slow communication and transport from remote areas and limited understanding of local customs. Later, Frederick D. Lugard, (1858-1945) a British administrator, developed the doctrine of indirect rule. He wrote The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa in which he stressed the advantages of establishing control though indigenous institutions: using "tribal" authority and "customary" laws. The system worked well in areas where Africans had established strong, organized states; but did not elsewhere. British misunderstanding of African societies led to the imposition of artificial boundaries, which became a tremendous obstacle to nation building after African nations were liberated.

Imperialism in the Pacific: In Australia and New Zealand, European powers established settler colonies and dominant political institutions. The first British settlers in Australia in 1788 were prisoners who established the colony of New South Wales. They supported themselves by herding sheep. Voluntary migrants followed in search of gold and land. They first visited New Zealand in search of whales and seals, but were attracted to its fertile soils and abundant timber. Indigenous populations were decimated by smallpox and measles and were soon vastly outnumbered by European migrants. Since the people of Australia here nomadic foragers, settlers considered the land terra nullius—land belonging to no one—which they could seize at will. Brutal military campaigns evicted aboriginals who were soon confined to reservations mostly in desert regions. In New Zealand, missionaries and settlers persuaded the Maori leaders to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, which placed the Maori people and all of New Zealand under British protection. A series of land wars led to the confinement of the Maori to reservations.

In the Pacific islands, most European visitors in the nineteenth century were whalers, merchants and missionaries. There was no effort throughout that time to establish direct rule. This changed in the late nineteenth century when European stations needed coaling stations and ports for their navies. France established a protectorate over Tahiti, the Society Islands and the Marquesas and later New Caledonia. Britain made Fiji a crown colony and Germany annexed the Marshall Islands. The Berlin Conference saw agreement on dividing the remaining Pacific Islands such that by 1900 only the kingdom of Tonga was independent; however even it accepted British protection against other European powers. Aside from their value as coaling stations, the Pacific Islands were rich sources of sugar cane and copra—dried coconut, used to manufacture soap, candles and lubricants. Some had large deposits of guano (bird droppings) which made a rich fertilizer.

New Imperial Powers: The United States and Japan became Imperialist powers toward the end of the nineteenth century. The first U.S. extraterritorial acquisition was the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, followed by the establishment of a protectorate over Hawai’i in 1875. American sugar cane planters overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and drew a constitution which stated that the Islands would seek annexation by the U.S. Annexation became official in 1898. That same year, the Spanish American war broke out which resulted in U.S. acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Presumably, the U.S. took the last three to prevent their acquisition by Japan. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. assisted Panama in securing independence from Colombia, and sponsored the construction of the Panama Canal which opened in 1914. The canal greatly strengthened the economic and military power of the U.S.

Japan deeply resented the unequal treaties forced upon it by the U.S. and European powers in the 1860’s. They adopted representative institutions, including a Parliament known as the Diet to show their trustworthiness to America and Europe, but also commenced a campaign of imperialist expansion. In the 1870’s they annexed Hokkaido (the northernmost of the large Japanese Islands) and the Kurile Islands. They encouraged Japanese settlers to migrate there to prevent acquisition by Russia. By 1879, the Japanese had established hegemony over Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands. Japan purchased modern warships from Britain in 1876 and used them to force Korea to accept domination under an unequal treaty. When rebellion broke out in Korea in 1893, Japanese businessmen feared anarchy and that Korea would become a target for European or U.S. imperialism. The Qing dynasty of China sent an army to restore order and reassert Chinese authority there; but the Japanese were not happy and declared war on China. In the ensuing Sino-Japanese War, China was quickly defeated. Under the treaty of peace, Qing authorities recognized Korea’s independence, although it was a dependency of Japan, and ceded Taiwan, the Pescadores Islands and the Liaodong peninsula to Japan. Japan also gained unequal treaty rights in China like those enjoyed by European and American powers. European powers, especially Russia, were disturbed by Japan’s easy victory and the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904. The Japanese navy destroyed the Russian Baltic fleet at Port Arthur, which had sailed halfway around the world to join in the conflict. By the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905, Japan received from Russia railroad and economic interests in Manchuria and the southern half of Sakhalin Island. Japan was now a major imperialist power.

The Legacy of Imperialism: Imperial powers reorganized the societies they overcame to become efficient sources of timber, rubber, petroleum, gold, silver, diamonds, tea, coffee, and cacao which resulted in a surge of trade. The advantages of the trade went mostly to the imperialist powers. Railroads were constructed to enhance shipment of raw materials within subject nations. An example is India, where production of cotton surged and where the market was soon flooded with cheap British textiles, which undermined Indian cloth production. India had been the world’s principal producer of cotton cloth; but soon became a supplier only of raw cotton and a consumer of British textiles. New crops were also introduced: tea from China was introduced to Ceylon and India solely for supply to the European market. Malaya and Sumatra saw importation of rubber trees for rubber plantations to meet the growing demand for rubber products.

Mass migrations of workers also occurred. Between 1800 and 1914, fifty million European migrants traveled overseas. Although a substantial minority went to the United States in search of cheap land and economic opportunity, others traveled to Canada, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa. Most were free agents, but some were indentured servants. All were able to find economic opportunities in temperate portions of the world due to European and American imperialist practices. Other migrants from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands traveled as Indentured Servants. Indentured servitude became necessary when slavery was abolished. They received free passage to distant countries and were offered food, shelter, clothing and a very modest compensation in exchange for an agreement to work for five to seven years. At times, those who completed a second term of service were offered a free passage back home. Most indentured servants came from Africa, but many came from China, Japan, Java, Africa and the Pacific Islands. Many worked on French sugar plantations in the Indian Ocean and later on rubber plantations in Malay and sugar plantations in Africa and the Pacific. Many Chinese migrated to Hawai’i and Cuba and to the United States to work on railroad construction. Japanese workers also migrated to Hawai’i to work on sugar plantations or guano mines in Peru. All this became possible because imperialist nations were able to recruit workers and send them to distant lands to work on established plantations and mines.

With the interaction of people of different societies and culture, conflict was inevitable. Thousands of insurrections by discontented local people erupted constantly. In Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) the Maji Maji Rebellion broke out in an attempt to expel German authorities. Rebels sprinkled themselves with Maji Maji ("magic water") which they believed would repel German bullets. Over 75,000 rebels died. Other native peoples resisted not by violence but by boycotting European goods, organizing political parties, publishing and anti-colonial newspapers. They also pursued anti-colonial policies in churches and religious groups.

Scientific Racism was among the more regrettable developments to result from Imperialism. Among the "scholars" who promoted this idea were the French nobleman Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) who in 1853 wrote a four volume Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. He divided humanity into four main groups which each had its own peculiar characteristics. He characterized Africans as unintelligent and lazy, Asians as smart but docile, Native Americans as dull and arrogant and Europeans as intelligent, noble and morally superior.

Adolf Hitler was an avid scholar of Gobineau, and formulated many of his ideas on racism from his reading.

Racist thinkers throughout the nineteenth century sought to identify racial groups based on skin color, bone structure, cranial capacity, nose shape, etc. All agreed that European people were superior to other population groups, which was reflected by European dominance of the larger world.

Many scientific racists relied heavily on Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which he argued that all living species had evolved over thousands of years through a process of "natural selection." Darwin argued that those species that adapted well to their environment survived while those that did not became extinct. Darwin never used the phrase "survival of the fittest;" but the phrase was adapted from his teachings by Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher, who argued that Darwin’s theory justified the superiority of Europeans. Thus was born the doctrine of Social Darwinism, a hideous philosophy of Anglo Saxon Superiority. Most Imperialist powers developed attitudes of racial superiority without the necessity of reading Spencer’s work. U.S. soldiers in the Philippines characterized them as "gooks." Japanese newspapers portrayed Chinese and Korean people as dirty, backward, stupid and cowardly. After the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, some scholars speculated that the Japanese were more akin to the Aryans who had overspread Eurasia than to the "Mongolians" of China and Korea. There was even some belief that Japan had an obligation to civilize their "little Asian brothers."

A byproduct of imperialism was the birth of nationalist feeling and a sense of national identity among subject peoples, especially in India. Among the movers and shakers were Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), often called the "father of modern India. He supported some British policies, such as the abolition of sati; yet he was himself a Hindu who drew inspiration from the Vedas and Upanishads. He sought to practice Hindu spirituality to solve the problems of his time, and published newspapers and founded societies to mobilize educated Hindus and advance social reform. By the mid nineteenth century, reformers called for independence for India. Many leaders received advanced education at British universities and drew inspiration from the European Enlightenment, with ideas such as equality, freedom and popular sovereignty. The most important reform group was the Indian National Congress founded in 1885 as a forum for educated Indians to express opinions on public affairs to colonial officials. In 1906, it joined with the All India Muslim League to promote self government. Through a process that at times turned violent, India achieved Independence in 1947. Indian nationalism and independence movements served as models for independence movements in other lands.