by ProfDave, ©2022
(May 31, 2022) — Last term we examined in some detail the remarkable expansion of Western civilization across the globe in the 16th century. We concluded that it rested upon western technological advances, organizational advantages, and the distinctive will to go (a combination of religious and economic optimism) on the one hand and the inland location, internal weakness, and pessimism of indigenous empires on the other. Disease may have been the greatest factor of all in America. In the 16th and 17th centuries Atlantic Europe acquired empires with factories (trading posts) in the Indies and in the New World, on the theory of Mercantilism: to provide bullion and trade profits to the sponsoring states [Heughins, “The Expansion of Europe,” 2011]. By the 19th century, it was widely recognized that Mercantilism had failed to take into account the cost of administering and defending these empires. Colonies were more trouble than they were worth to the home government. In particular, the American Revolution had been a bath of cold water. Now the new economics was laissez faire and free trade. The wealth of the nation depended on the success of its entrepreneurs, not its gold reserves.
What we usually think of as Imperialism (or Colonialism), however, appeared in a second wave at the end of the 19th century, and can be seen as an ideology as well as a geopolitical phenomenon. It is not as though Western penetration – or infiltration – of the non-Western world ever stopped. But for a century after the end of the American Revolution it was carried on in an unofficial and case by case manner, generally against the policy of the foreign offices of Europe.
Typically, so the story goes, the flag followed the Bible, or the flag followed investment, or the flag followed unforeseen events. For example, David Livingstone went into the heart of Africa in 1841 to convert the heathen. He observed first-hand the depredations of the Arab slave trade (based in Zanzibar) and appealed to his Queen to put a stop to it. Europeans felt a moral duty to improve the lot of indigenous people wherever and whenever egregious evil was uncovered. Missionaries kept up a steady stream of reports to churches and newspapers back home. Whenever they, or expatriate merchants, got in trouble, they appealed as citizens to their government for rescue [Duiker & Spielvogel 615].
Another example is what happened in Egypt. French investors saw a business opportunity in building a canal in Egypt between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea – a short cut to India, where French interests were being crowded out by the British. The Suez Canal was completed in 1867 as a joint venture with Egyptian authorities. Unfortunately, Egypt, like other North African Ottoman provinces, was deeply into deficit spending, sold its shares to the British, then defaulted on its debts anyway. British and French governments were importuned by powerful investors to intervene and establish protectorates – eventually encompassing all North Africa except Ethiopia [Duiker & Spielvogel 627-28].
Generally, European prosperity rested on freedom to do business. Entrepreneurs who sailed to the far corners of the earth found it difficult to accept native interference with their rights (as they saw it) to make money, not to mention arbitrary confiscations that local absolutists might be in the habit of making. They appealed to their home government for redress and compensation. Nevertheless, the Hobsbaum-Lenin thesis is not sustained. While fortunes were made by individuals in new colonies, the bulk of British investment followed the flag into the old empires: North America, India, Australia, and other places [Duiker & Spielvogel 628, Kieft 1/28/71].
Another example would be South Africa. The Dutch had established Cape Colony in 1652 as a waystation en route to India. Settlers followed, due to the temperate climate and fertility of the relatively undeveloped land. No strong native society was in the area to resist encroachment. A slave holding agricultural colony of Boers was established in the vacuum. 150 years later (1806) Britain acquired the Cape with its Dutch-African population. British settlers came. In 1836 they abolished slavery. Friction between British and Boers led to The Great Trek, in which most of the Boers loaded their movables onto covered wagons and marched north into the interior. They fought a bloody war to conquer the powerful Zulu peoples and established agricultural republics, Transvaal and the Orange Free State, more or less independent of Britain. Conflict followed them, however, as English prospectors found gold and diamonds in their land. In 1899 Britain fought the bitter Boer War to subdue them and form the Union of South Africa, but the Boers soon won all South Africa back in elections reserved for whites only [Duiker & Spielvogel 630-31].
In other places as well, European powers intervened to prevent each other from intervening or to protect territories or rights already acquired. A new stage was reached when King Leopold II of Belgium formed a semi-private, semi-royal Society for the Civilization of the Congo. In order to prevent conflicting claims and counterclaims, Otto von Bismarck, founding Chancellor of Germany and arbitrator of European peace, called an international Congress of Berlin in 1882. It is suggested that he deliberately wished to encourage France to find glory outside Europe rather than in plotting revenge for their humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War (1870). In any event, the Congress set forward international rules of colonization that regulated the ensuing race to absorb the rest of the unclaimed world into new empires. Britain and France were the prime contenders, followed by Russia, along her own frontiers. Germany (after the fall of Bismarck) and Italy were late comers joined by Japan and (ambivalently) the USA. Americans continued to think of themselves as former victims of imperialism, even as they acquired external territories of their own [Duiker & Spielvogel 631-35]. All of Africa (except Ethiopia, which beat off the Italians), south Asia, southeast Asia (except Thailand, left as a buffer between British and French), and the islands of the sea were taken up by 1914, and the penetration of China and the Ottoman Empire had been greatly accelerated. The feeding frenzy was not without conflict, but war between European powers was avoided (just barely in the Russo-Japanese war).
The narrative of Imperialism is told in any textbook, but what I want to look at is why what seems to us today as so wrong seemed so right at the turn of the 20th century. This is not for a moment intended to minimize the abuse of power and ignorant disrespect for indigenous cultures by individuals (and sometimes regimes) from the West. We should note, however, that paternalism was not considered at all an unkind word a hundred years ago. Imperialism was primarily a popular movement, an ideology like liberalism or romanticism. Its primary support came from the so-called yellow press (printed on cheap paper that soon turned yellow) and the general public, not the elites (with some notable exceptions), the intellectuals, or the captains of industry. Wilhelm II of Germany talked largely of “a place in the sun,” but what he really wanted was respect from his aunt, Queen Victoria of England, and her admirals. Governments took up imperialism to gain popular support and to distract attention from domestic problems [Kieft].
There certainly was a lot of national pride and competition back home, but if the actual participants really loved England, why did they leave it? Truth is, they were much better Englishmen in India than they had been in England, where they had been alienated misfits in a mass society. You do not know how American you are until you are dropped off in the Philippines. Industrialization and urbanization produced alienated masses in Europe, Japan, and North America. From them came the foot-soldiers of imperialism: urban, bored, with weakened religious convictions and connections, and periodically unemployed [Arendt, as abstracted by David Kieft, 1/28/71].
A second factor in the “Imperial mystique” was “St. George and the Dragon:” the spirit of noble adventure. The European, on his white horse (or his black ship), rushed in to save damsels (figurative or literal) in distress in exotic places. It made for great fantasies, great novels and great newspaper stories. And there was plenty of distress, real and imagined, to be found in foreign parts. There were merchants and missionaries to be rescued, great evils to be righted, and great anarchies to be organized – as well as great opportunities for power and profit. Europeans were larger than life overseas.
Beyond the sheer impulse to adventure and desire to be a hero, many imperialists felt a sense of what Kipling called “the white man’s burden.” The evident superiority of Western civilization (as demonstrated in technological, political, and economic advancement) brought with it responsibility towards those less fortunate. Coming from the most materially advanced nations of their day, Europeans encountered everywhere else intolerable material conditions among the common population, despotic native rulers consuming fantastic wealth, and (by European standards) unacceptable social and ethical behavior. While many were tempted to take to themselves the status and liberties of native elites, others felt a sense of obligation to introduce the blessings of Christianity, Western morality, Western medicine, Western education, Western technology and infrastructure, and Western administrative – if not political – structures. The debate was whether non-Western peoples could become equals politically, economically, socially, and religiously or whether they must continue permanently in subjection to “superior races” [Duiker & Spielvogel 618].
The final factor that colored imperialism at the end of the 19th century, was social Darwinism: the idea that human societies evolved by conflict and competition between racial groups of differing physical and moral capabilities [note: late 20th century DNA studies indicate that there is only one race of homo sapiens]. Christianity had taught that all people were of equal value before God, but the new science taught random variation, natural selection and survival of the fittest. This could be applied to businesses, to classes, and to “races” or ethnicities. To abstain from competition and dominance would be to perish as a people. The Western triumph over the rest of the world was self-justifying evidence of the superiority of Western blood and institutions.
Since the Anglo-Saxons had been selected – “the sun never sets on the British Empire” – they must rule. Question: would this struggle continue until one people ruled the whole world, crushing and/or exploiting all “lesser breeds?” Or (modified by Christian morality) would the successful imperial peoples be morally obligated to care for and mentor their weaker charges, “transform[ing] colonial societies in[to] the western image?” [Duiker & Spielvogel 606, 615]
The option of leaving the rest of the world more or less as the West found it was indeed advocated by many nationalists in the 19th century and applied in some parts of the world where indigenous elites were well-organized, well-educated and well-entrenched. But in the excitement of 1885 to about 1909, those voices tended to be drowned out by those who quite naturally considered their own values and institutions superior to those of the rest of the world. In some cases, we can still see that they were objectively right, but pride is not a good thing – or is the latter statement itself an expression of Christian chauvinism?
Were there benefits to imperialism? Well, yes. In general imperialism brought law and order, modern medicine, literacy and education, new crops, railroads, telegraph and telephones. It ended slavery, greatly reduced the oppression of women and the exploitation of children. It brought mission schools and the Christian gospel – welcomed as “good news” indeed in many places. On the other hand, it brought mission schools and the gospel, disrupted social patterns, cultural distinctives and traditional religions. Colonies experienced overpopulation, rapid urbanization, environmental disasters, loss of local crafts and industries – the pain of the industrial revolution while much of its benefits were siphoned off to foreign markets and investors. In addition, many colonial boundaries and colonial policies made little sense on the ground were the people lived, and land policy was often backward or just wrong. Colonial administrators were a mixed lot, ignorant of local realities, and subject to temptations of prejudice and indolence exaggerated by a lack of accountability to the people they administered [Duiker & Spielvogel 619-20, 639-40].
Could Africa and Asia have been brought into the modern world without imperialism? Would they have eventually come to industrialization and democracy without Western intervention? Would they be better off without Christian and capitalist influence? Good questions [Stark 233-35]!
The bulk of these notes refer to Duiker & Spielvogel, others to my current reading, but I confess that some of the ideas have been roaming around in my head for forty years and I am unable to identify their precise origins.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1958.
Unable to identify exact references of Dr. Kieft’s synopsis, see below.
Craig, Gordon A. Europe since 1815. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961.
Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 6th edn., Boston:
Gilbert, Martin. Recent History Atlas 1860 to 1960. London, WI: Weidenfeld &
Heughins, David W. “The Expansion of Europe,” Post University, (HIS 101 PowerPoint
Lecture, Unit 7) 2011.
Kieft, David. Lectures on Diplomatic History, University of Minnesota, 1971.
Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason. New York: Random House, 2005.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.