European Imposition of New Imperialism in 19th Century

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As Europe, beginning with Great Britain, was progressively regaining political stability in the mid to late 19th century, it entered a transitional era of exponential technological and industrial development, better known as the Industrial Revolution. This caused many changes in Europe and may be linked to the advent of a new way of considering overseas conquests: New Imperialism. New Imperialism characterises a period of colonial expansion mostly by European nations, which featured an unprecedented pursuit of overseas territorial acquisitions. As mentioned here above, rapid industrialisation is regarded as one of its origins. More specifically, four main factors may be identified when discussing the causes of this. They include the need of natural resources in order to support the said development and geopolitical grounds, but also exploratory and ethnocentric reasons. Looking at what motives prevailed, it is clear that the economy of the home country and the size of its Empire prevailed at the time, as shown by the fact that they were the focus of those in power. Thus, greed should be considered as the dominant cause for New Imperialism.

Looking at exploratory grounds for mass territorial expansion, it can be seen that this cannot have been a paramount factor. Indeed, in this period of time, over three and a half centuries after the 1492 discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, very little was left to discover for the European Powers. This can be proven by how advanced cartography already was prior to New Imperialism. For instance, German cartographer and lawyer Adolf Stieler came up with an extremely accurate world map in 1832, on which only the unexplored polar regions were imprecisely depicted. This shows that people in Europe already had a rather clear idea of what lied beyond their continent. Thus, exploration could not have represented a driving factor for colonial expansion in the late 19th century. Some factors however were far more important.

This is the case for conquests on an ethnocentric basis. In those times, a large proportion of the people in European countries strongly believed in their superiority in respect to other ethnical groups, especially the populations of the African continent, which was largely impacted by New Imperialism. In fact, this feeling was expressed in two distinct ways. Firstly, it was attempted to impose Christianity upon colonised folk. Missionaries were sent to overseas territories with the goal to convert indigenous populations to, for example, Catholicism. During the Scramble for Africa, countries like France deeply encouraged missionary enterprises. For instance, cardinal Lavigerie emphasised the importance of planting churches in sub-Saharan Africa from 1867 to 1892. Even though converting populations to the religion of the colonising country was sometimes used as a tool to keep control over the said populations by changing their mentality about the “invading” country, it would be unfair to deny its advantages, which also have a longer-term impact. Indeed, it allowed for increased education and access to infrastructure with for instance schools and hospitals being implemented in Africa, as encouraged by French colonisation officials in western Africa at the time. However, the long-term effects described hereabove constitute more of an effect of New Imperialism than a cause, and while the idea of Christian missions did contribute to the widespread acquisition of territories in Africa, it should not be identified as one of its main causes.

Secondly, a perhaps more impactful factor for ethnocentric expansion was Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a theory which applies the biological concept of natural selection to sociology, and has often been used in the 1800s to justify racist ideologies, including the viewpoint that European or Caucasian people are in effect superior to other ethnic groups. As a result, supporters of this doctrine used it to justify the colonisation of foreign countries, and to establish their authority and supremacy in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In fact, these people defended that Europeans had the right to claim overseas territories as theirs because they were superior to the populations living there. This gave European governments a way to market New Imperialism and to motivate people in taking part, like for instance soldiers. Evidence of Social Darwinism can be provided by the poem The White Man’s Burden, by English writer and novelist Rudyard Kipling, published in 1899. The text describes how America should pursue Imperial expansion in the Philippines, on the basis that it was its right as a predominantly white country to rule over “backwards” people. In essence, what the author wished to achieve was to promote New Imperialism as something natural, because, according to him, it was the white man’s duty to impose his rule over people considered inferior. The fact that the poem was remarkably popular in the United States and did contribute to the colonisation of the Philippines shows how this way of thinking exploited people into thinking colonial expansion was the natural thing to pursue. Therefore, it can be said that Social Darwinism was an important factor in New Imperialism. However, its use was limited to a manipulative tool, and merely served as a motivation for supporting colonialism. Thus, it should be considered that this was not the real reason for territorial expansion, and that other factors, perhaps undisputable, may prevail.

In fact, one of the prevailing causes of New Imperialism was the thirst for territorial expansion serving the purpose of making the empire of the home country grow in size and status. In fact, colonisation was largely pushed for by the fact that people strongly believed that their country should be the most expanded and powerful. This can be explained by two factors. Firstly, the fact that great European Powers wanted to secure key, strategic territories in order to guarantee a position of power for themselves in comparison to other western nations. This is due to the fact that both Europe and North America were transitioning from a long period of political unrest, i.e. warfare. Indeed, the Concert of Vienna having previously failed, these important powers were very concerned with avoiding another period of war.

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A common viewpoint at the time was that the best way to avoid being attacked by another country was to be the most powerful. Thus, an era of fear-driven competition between European nations began. We have evidence of this with the outcome of the Scramble for Africa. When Britain started to gain a lot of power by claiming strategical trading locations on the African west coast, all other European nations got worried and started to pursue their own mass territorial expansion in the African continent. All of these great powers rushing to claim foreign lands resulted in the 1878 Congress of Berlin. This reunion of European Nations had for goal to divide Africa between its participants, which included Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany. The idea of resolving potential conflicts linked to competition between European countries can in fact already be observed as early as 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, where such an issue was also managed with a redistribution of territories and the establishment of new geopolitical frontiers. The fact that such a conference had to be organised in order to preserve the fragile peace shows how greed was impactful when it came to the essence of New Imperialism. Indeed, every country wanted to be the most powerful, which is partly what caused this thirst for colonialism.

The desire for the acquisition of overseas land for the purpose of contributing to the invading country´s standing does in effect represent greed. This factor being one of the most impactful, it can therefore be said that greed was the primary cause of New Imperialism. Secondly, the XIXth century saw the advent of a new school of thought, Nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. In effect, nationalistic thoughts had the same outcome as the first idea discussed in this paragraph, in that it made people at the time push for renewed or maintained national prestige. The link between New Imperialism and this ideology is for example highlighted in an essay by Carlton J.H Hayes. In this piece of writing, which was published in 1941, many pieces of evidence are mentioned. For instance, British writer and politician Charles Dilke wrote a significantly impactful book entitled Greater Britain, which glorified British Imperialism in 1868. This shows that New Imperialism was greatly fostered by ideas in favor of expanding a country’s empire solely for prestige, which without discussion constitutes a greedy approach.

Furthermore, another primary factor of New Imperialism was the extraction of raw materials from the colonies. As the said resources almost never benefited the place they were withdrawn from, this aspect of mass territorial expansion must be considered to have taken place in a greedy fashion. As previously mentioned, the Industrial Revolution taking place in Europe at the time consisted in the fact that numerous technological advances were made, especially in fields like manufacturing, where production processes gained in efficiency and speed. This meant that the resources available in the home countries in Europe were not sufficient anymore, both as an input to be transformed into a marketable good or as an input destined to the functioning of machinery, like for example coal. Thus, the conquest of land containing a high concentration of natural resources needed on international trading markets or home industries became key.

In addition, the colonies provided the European powers with large areas of land for cash crops as well as cheap indigenous labour. Evidence that colonial expansion in the XIXth Century was mostly pushed for by the need of economic resources includes for instance the fact that the Scramble for Africa only began when Britain realised that central Africa contained a high concentration of precious minerals such as gold, coal or diamonds. Another example is the relentless mining and harvesting of resources of all kinds in Congo while it was under Belgian rule. The Central Belgian government delegated this to private concessions, who took care of excavating gold, diamonds, copper, zinc, tin and cobalt. They also grew crops such as cotton, coffee, cotton, palm oil and tobacco. All of the work was provided by local populations, who were brutally mutilated or killed when failing to meet the quotas set by the government. European nations used to force to appropriate natural resources who only benefitted themselves, without any regard for the way in which local people were impacted, whether in be socially or economically. Such behaviour demonstrates high levels of greed as it shows only their interests prevailed.

In conclusion, it can be said that New Imperialism was the result of the combination of numerous factors, ranging from exploratory reasons or ethnocentrical grounds, as demonstrated by missionary enterprises and the rise of Social Darwinism, as well as primary factors, like a thirst for geopolitical expansion pushed for by Nationalism, or for strategic reasons, in addition to the need for economically important resources. As the first two factors mentioned were merely a way of convincing the masses of the relevance on this mass expansionary period, the latter two, which were also pushed for in times prior to the second half of the 19th Century, in addition to constituting the actual reasons why this renewed era of colonialism was crucial to the governments of European Powers at the time, it can be said that they in effect are the main causes for New Imperialism. Finally, since these same factors were focused on fostering the prestige and economical success of the home country, they do represent a greedy approach. Therefore, it can indubitably be claimed that greed was in truth the primary cause of New Imperialism.

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