Empire and Imperialism: Europe

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Empire and Imperialism: Europe

Few subjects have generated as much controversy as that of European imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Because of the term's pejorative connotations, even attempting to define it causes difficulties. What, precisely, constitutes an empire? Is any relationship between two societies involving an imbalance of power in some way "imperial"? For many years, imperialism was narrowly defined as applying only to actual conquest and administration of one state by another. More recently, it has been accepted that imperialism can be perceived in broader terms, and that a variety of methods of exerting influence by one state over another, stopping short of conquest, can amount to imperialism; this "informal" imperialism, it is argued, is as imperial as the more "formal" conquest more usually described. Even accepting this distinction, there is considerable debate over the meaning of the term. Marxist scholars would see imperialism as a relationship involving economic exploitation, with economic benefits flowing from subject to ruler; some conceive of this in the broadest terms, with imperialism represented by an unequal economic relationship that involves a degree of continuing dependency going well beyond formal colonial rule. Critics of these economic models, however, would see imperialism in political terms and restrict its application to the assertion of political or strategic goals by one society over another.

For the purposes of this entry, imperialism is defined to involve the subordination of one society by another to the benefit of the latter, in a relationship that involves some degree of control over a period of time.

In historical terms, imperialism is herein taken to refer to the subjugation of the states and societies of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific by the European powers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such expansion, of course, did not begin in this period and can be traced back to the Iberian voyages of discovery of the fifteenth century. Yet clearly this phenomenon took on new impetus in the nineteenth century, when much of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific came under European rule in what is sometimes called the "New Imperialism." What characterized this period was how extensive this process became, not only in incorporating most of the world under European rule but also in involving most of the major European powers. By 1900, the British ruled 400 million subjects and a quarter of the globe, while French possessions encompassed 6 million square miles and 52 million subjects. Germany, united only in 1871, by 1900 had acquired an empire of 1 million square miles and 15 million people, while Italy and Belgium also obtained significant overseas territories in the years before 1914. By that year most of the globewith China and the Middle East the main exceptionshad experienced formal European rule; this was to expand to include the Middle East after 1919 and was to continue in most parts of the world until after 1945. This was a remarkable transformation in the relationship between Europe and the wider world.


The explanation for the change in this relationship during the nineteenth century remains complex. Initial explanations for the development of nineteenth-century imperialism located the causes as lying within Europe and focused in particular on economic factors. Such a view, derived ultimately from J.A. Hobson's seminal Imperialism: A Study, and which was taken up by Lenin and Marxist writers, saw imperialism as driven by the exploitation of the economic resources of the wider world, with financiers pressing governments to annex colonies in order to protect their overseas investments. However, because of the limited returns from imperial conquest in this period and because colonial expansion did not, in practice, follow overseas investments, this view has been criticized. Alternative explanations have emphasized the importance of chauvinist ideas in the origins of European expansion, stressing how deep-rooted militaristic values in nineteenth century European society, alongside racist and nationalist theories, and reinforced in turn by ideas of social Darwinism and of Europe's "civilizing mission" overseas, led to the assumption that colonies were essential for national prestige.

However, historians are skeptical of interpretations that locate imperialism's origins solely within Europe. Such views, it is argued, erroneously see Africans and Asians as passive ciphers in a process that ought to be seen as involving a shifting relationship of power between Europe and the wider world. The historians writing in the 1950s and 1960s as the societies of Africa and Asia threw off European rule acquired an awareness of the role played by developments in what was termed "the periphery"that is, areas on the frontiers of existing European territories overseas. The most influential of such historians were Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher. Their work stressed how Britain's expansion was driven by strategic imperatives in the defense of the route to the Indian empire, and the threats to it that developed within Africa and Asia in the 1870s and 1880s. Robinson and Gallagher emphasized the variety of methodsincluding gunboat diplomacy and "influence" as much as formal annexationBritain used to defend these interests, these varying according to the relationship Britain was able to negotiate with those Africans and Asians living on "the periphery."

Certainly any explanation of European expansion has to include developments outside Europe as well as factors within it, and has to be located in the existing, and already growing, overseas interests of the European powersprimarily Britain and Francein the mid-nineteenth century. Important in this was the corrosive impact of an industrializing West on societies in Africa and Asia, and the problems this impacteconomic, social, cultural, and technologicalgenerated within these societies and in relations with Europeans. What transformed this process into the large-scale conquest of Africa and Asia was Germany's intervention overseas in 18831885. For the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (18151898), colonial expansion was relatively cheap and was popular within Germany, but most significantly, it brought with it major diplomatic gains for Germany's position in Europe. By threatening the existing possessions of Britain and France, German colonial expansion showed the importance of German diplomatic friendship. The ensuing furor not only diverted the danger of diplomatic isolation for Germany but also ensured that Britain and France had to expand in order to defend their overseas interests.

Impact of Imperialism on Europe

The overall economic profit and loss from empire is complex. While European economies no doubt benefited from cheaper access to raw materials and markets, that has to be weighed against the increased taxation to pay for defense. In the British case, to take one example, the positive economic impact of empire on the British economy in the period 1870 to 1914 has been calculated as marginal at best, while historians have suggested that reliance on imperial markets diverted Britain from the more difficult but more productive road of modernizing her economy.

Perhaps the most significant impact of empire on Europe was cultural. By the 1920s and 1930s there could have been few Europeans, in the cities of Europe at least, whose lives would not have been influenced in some way by empire. This was of course a process that went back several centuries, but in the nineteenth century this influence took on more profound forms. One can see this most obviously in language, as in the way Hindi words such as bungalow, pajamas, and thug, to name but a few, entered English, or in the way cheap tropical foodstuffs enriched the European diet. Empire also had an important impact in art and design, with the various colonial exhibitions set up by European governments, such as in London (1924) and Paris (1931), prompting new interest in colonial and African and Asian motifs. Pablo Picasso (18811973) and Henri Matisse (18691954), famously, were deeply influenced by their encounter with collections of African art in the 1900s, while colonial topics became the subject of interest to novelists, poets, filmmakers, and artists such as Rudyard Kipling (18651936), Joseph Conrad (18571924), Alphonse Daudet (18401897), and Julien Viaud (18501923).

Much of this interest in empires and colonial peoples lay within traditional structures of European fascination with an exotic "orient." Indeed, the most significant impact empire had was the impetus it gave to racial stereotyping in European society in these years. This process was reinforced by the influence of pseudoscientific racism in the late nineteenth century that propagated the idea that races had immutable identities and were ordered in a hierarchy of civilization; central to the whole imperial project was the notion of racial distinction between supposedly superior Europeans and supposedly inferior Africans, Asians, and Pacific islanders. Equally important, it should be noted, was the role of imperial expansion in reinforcing existing European constructions of femininity and masculinity.

Relationship between Metropole and Colonies

For all the European powers, policies toward overseas areas of influence, or so-called informal empire, were dictated by local circumstances. As far as formal colonies were concerned, however, the European powers evolved policies that were justified by imperial theories. For the French Empire, the universalist ideals of the French revolution meant that some colonies, such as Algeria, were regarded as an integral part of France. The administration of such colonies was centralized on Paris, with metropolitan laws applied directly to the colonial territory; deputies from the colonies sat in the legislature in Paris from the 1870s onwards. Indigenous chiefs or agents who were utilized within the French administrative system were seen as employees of the French state. Underlying this was the idea of "assimilation," that subjects of the empire would in time become citizens of France. This centralization was reflected in economics too, with the introduction of tariffs around French colonies during the 1880s and 1890s. Belgian colonialism was equally centralized, while German autocratic centralization meant that the German Emperor was the sole legislative authority for the colonies.

British imperial ideas in theory differed. British policies, rooted in earlier approaches toward the so-called colonies of settlement, stressed the ultimate aim of colonial self-government. Underlying this was the idea of trusteeship with regard to colonial subjects, with the aim of British rule being to enable subjects ultimately to stand on their own feet. In a process beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, these colonies of settlement, including Australia and Canada, were granted self-government from Britain, culminating in the 1931 Statute of Westminster. Such ideas of trusteeship also influenced the rest of the British Empire in the shape of what came to be termed "indirect rule." This is reflected in the ideas of Frederick Lugard (18581945), a hugely influential governor of Nigeria in the early twentieth century, and involved acceptance of, and administration through, the existing political structures of indigenous society, with local chiefs given considerable latitude as agents of imperial rule.

Whatever the theoretical distinctions between these colonial policies, over time there came to be little difference between them. A pragmatic adjustment to the realities of indigenous society became the norm as the European colonial powers attempted to make their empires pay their way. One way of doing this was through encouraging settlement from the imperial mother country, or metropole, as it is more usually termed by scholars. For the French, Algeria was their main settlement colony; by 1954 nearly one million French people lived in Algeria. For British emigrants, their main destinations in the British Empire were the colonies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, though significant numbers, encouraged by the Empire Settlement Act (1922), settled in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia.

Changing Attitudes to Empire

There were many in Europe who responded to the newly acquired possessions with enthusiasm and propagandized about their potential benefits. The German Kolonialverein, a society set up in 1882 to campaign in support of Germany's colonial expansion, was one such example, while the French Union Coloniale Française, an association of business leaders with colonial interests established in 1893, was another. Many politicians enthusiastically supported imperial causes, Joseph Chamberlain (18361914) and Leo Amery (18731955) in Britain and Jules Ferry (18321893) and Albert Sarraut (18721962) in France being the most prominent. Supporters justified empire on the grounds of economic self-interest and the alleged moral goodthe "civilizing mission"that Europe brought to the conquered populations of Africa and Asia.

Yet popular enthusiasm for empire, at least before 1914, was limited. For the working classes in particular, conscious of increased taxation and the human cost of wars, support for empire was episodic. Chamberlain's campaign for tariff reform as part of a broader policy of imperial federation in 19031906 came to little. "Little Englander" ideas that emphasized the cost of colonies to the taxpayer, so prevalent within mid-nineteenth-century Britain, remained strong. Such ideas reinforced a moral critique of empire that questioned Europe's assumed right to rule other peoples, given the horrific human, environmental, and economic cost of conquest to Africans and Asians. The South African War (18991902) between the British Empire and two Boer republics was an important moment in this critique, as the stories of the deaths of white civilians in British camps stimulated a burgeoning movement of imperial critics in Britain, a process reinforced thereafter by revelations of appalling atrocities in the Belgian Congo. Such atrocities were all too common.

This anti-imperial trend was reinforced by the changing international climate of opinion generated by World War I, and particularly new ideas of self-determination. Following the war, in which colonial personnel and resources had played a significant role, and with the emergence of the League of Nations in 1919 and its concept of colonial "mandates" (the term applied to the former possessions of defeated Germany and Ottoman Turkey), colonial rule had increasingly to justify itself with ideas of trusteeship. This view, best summed up in Lugard's Dual Mandate (1922), was that imperial rule combined self-interest and moral good. This was reflected in Britain's Colonial Development Act of 1929 and, later, in the French Fonds d'investissement et de développement économique et social, established in 1946, whereby funds were made available for investment in the colonies' economic and social welfare.

Perhaps more significantly, these ideas coincided with critics from within the colonies who, from the late nineteenth century, took up European ideas of national self-determination and applied them to the colonial situation to demand reforms. The most significant of these was the Indian National Congress, established in 1885. In time these critics moved from an accomodationist position to a rejectionist one, demanding independence from their colonial rulers. With the growing importance of trusteeship arguments after 1919, such critics found an increasingly appreciative global audience by the interwar years.

Decline of Empire

One striking aspect of the European empires was how quickly they disappeared. In 1947 the British withdrew from India, and after 1956, from their African colonies; in 1962, the French left Algeria. With the Portuguese withdrawal from their African colonies in 1975, the colonial empires were virtually over. The reasons for this withdrawal are manifold. The increasing criticism from nationalists was undoubtedly significant; the pressure exerted by the Indian National Congress, skillfully shaped by Mohandas Gandhi (18691948) in a series of major civil disobedience campaigns between the 1920s and 1940s, for example, succeeded in forcing major concessions from the British. After 1945, nationalist unrest throughout the colonial empires showed colonial rulers just how costly maintaining colonial rule would be.

Yet colonial powers had successfully resisted nationalist pressure before, and by itself nationalism was not enough to end European imperial rule. Of major significance was the weakening of European powers consequent to the two world wars. Not only did these wars drain European economies, they also fatally undermined the very bases of colonial rule, empire's myth of impregnability, and its claim to protect colonial peoples. The defeat of several of the colonial powers by Germany in World War II and the loss of European colonies in Southeast Asia to the Japanese were clearly critical to this process. Even where colonial rule had survived, as in Africa, the promises made to nationalists in return for help for the war effort had changed things fundamentally.

Perhaps the key consequence of the world wars, however, was the emergence of new world powers, namely the United States and the Soviet Union. These two, in the shape of the Cold War, divided global politics between them. Colonial rulers, to avoid driving nationalists into Soviet hands, made major concessions to nationalist critics after 1945. Equally important in prompting such reforms was the need to maintain support from the Americans, a need that was clearly shown in the experience of Britain and France in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Moreover, U.S. global dominance after 1945, with its stress on open markets and free trade, showed that the age of European empires, at least in a formal sense, was dead. In its place came institutions like the Commonwealth and the French Union.

Legacy of Imperialism

Although the age of formal imperialism was relatively short, the impact of Europe on the wider world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and vice versa, was immense. European society and culture was deeply influenced by its colonies. This process of interaction between metropole and the wider world continued after independence, and the development of immigration from former colonies into the former metropoles has contributed immensely to the development of multicultural societies in Europe through the turn of the twenty-first century.

Equally, the impact of Europe on the wider world has been significant. On a cultural level, this can be seen in the way European languages such as English and French are spoken, European education systems are widely copied, and European sports like cricket or football (soccer) are widely played across much of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Europe also has profoundly shaped the economic sphere, where the legacy of imperialism can be seen in the economic structures, communication networks, and ties to metropolitan economies that typify the former colonies. Imperialism in this sense was the precursor of the globalization that characterizes the contemporary world. This legacy is by no means entirely benign. The consequence of this process of structuring of the economies of former colonies has been dependency: on exports, on a monoculture economy, and on the fluctuations of the world market; ultimately this has been a dependency on the economies of the metropoles. This has proved difficult to remove.

Similarly, the political legacy of empire has proved by no means entirely positive. The attempt by colonial rulers on their departure to establish Westminster-style or Paris-style democracies has been seen by some as inappropriate to African or Asian societies. Only in relatively few cases, such as India, have these Western-style political systems flourished; more usually they have broken down into serious instability with repeated military coups the consequence. This instability had deep roots in the colonial period. A political system based, ultimately, on force left behind it the lesson that force had a place in politics. Equally, the artificiality of colonial boundaries, drawn to suit European interests but bearing little relation to ethnic reality on the ground, combined with the colonial privileging of one ethnic group over another, reinforced these political difficulties and made civil war a problem for several former colonial states. Empire shaped the modern world, and for many former colonial peoples, its legacy is still being played out.

See also Anticolonialism ; Colonialism ; Empire and Imperialism: Overview .



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Martin Lynn