Monday, March 07, 2011


Above is Punch's cartoon of Cecil Rhodes striding the map of Africa. This is a comment on his projected Cape to Cairo Railway.

Reasons for imperialism
By the end of the nineteenth century European national prestige came to be associated with imperial dominions. The great age of imperialism was 1880-1914 when France, Germany, Russia, Italy and Belgium contested Britain’s role as the world’s major imperial power. Though some intellectuals such as J.A. Hobson (Imperialism, 1902), were strongly hostile to imperialism, politicians could find themselves under pressure from public opinion to gain territories overseas. This happened to Bismarck in 1884 and to the Italian Prime Minister Giolitti when in 1911 he succumbed to nationalist pressure and seized Libya from Turkey. Politicians did not always control events. It was the people on the ground, thousands of miles from home (people like Cecil Rhodes (left), Karl Peters and Pierre de Brazza) who set the pace and governments were forced to acquiesce in their annexations.

Politicians were vulnerable to the failures of imperialism. Jules Ferry’s government fell in March 1885 over their annexation of Tonkin, which most French regarded as wasteful and unnecessary. Gladstone’s government fell in the same year over the death of General Gordon. Crispi the Italian prime minister, fell over the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Ethiopianst Adowa in 1896.

Some historians now argue that imperialism was stirred less by the prospect of overseas dominion over non-Europeans than by a defensive reflex to national humiliation and defeat. But those who argued for a consistent imperialist policy were extremely influential and often had the ear of government. These included Rhodes in Britain and the firms of Krupp and Siemens in Germany.

The European powers openly competed with each other for colonies. In 1885 the French minister Jules Ferry warned that
‘in today’s Europe, in this competition of the many rivals whose power we see growing round us … abstention is very simply the road to decadence’.
This attitude created a knock-on effect: nations believed that they would miss the bus if they did not colonize quickly. In Germany in particular there was a panic that they were being left behind in the race. In 1883 the German newspaper the Korrespondent argued that Germany could not watch ‘other nations appropriate great tracts of territory and the very rich natural resources that go with them’.

Imperialism was also seen as a safety valve for societies undergoing huge social and economic changes. In 1895 Cecil Rhodes argued
‘in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population’.
In 1910 the Italian nationalist Enrico Corradini argued that if the Italians emigrated to Africa they would not lose their national character as they were (unfortunately) doing in the United States.

At a time when Europeans were losing faith in free trade and were turning to protectionism, colonies came to be seen as sources of raw materials and as opportunities for investment. The Germans imported palm oil, rubber, ivory, cotton and peanuts from Africa. By 1914 Portugal was shipping wine and cotton fabrics to its colonies; the French empire accounted for 9.4% of its imports and 13% of its exports. Between 1898 and 1902 the European powers moved in on the collapsing Chinese empire and forcibly opened China’s markets, securing trade privileges and the exclusive use of Chinese ports. But Lenin’s famous argument that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism can be over-done. The French found that the European market (especially the Russian) was more lucrative than the colonial. Up to 1914 colonial trade accounted for only 1 % of Germany’s imports and exports.

Imperialism can be seen as a result of perceived weakness. In Britain there were worries that the nation was falling behind the United States, which by the beginning of the twentieth century already had a population of 77.5 million and was providing formidable economic competition. Following their defeat in 1870 the French were trying to compensate for their national humiliation. Like Britain Germany feared for the loss of export markets and therefore sought new territory.

But imperialism was also a mark of European confidence in their civilization – and their race. Racial superiority was taken for granted and used to justify rule over colonial peoples. The British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury identified Maoris, Aborigines, ‘Hottentots’ and Native Americans as ‘dying nations’. When the Commons debated Britain’s administration of Egypt in June 1910 the future Viceroy Edward Wood spoke conventionally of ‘the white man’ ruling ‘inferior races’ of ‘black people’.

The view, prevalent in the eighteenth century that human nature was everywhere uniform and that therefore cultures could easily be transformed was slowly relinquished in favour of a belief in the underlying reality of permanent racial divisions. This view was often set out in a social-Darwinist fashion - for example the argument of the ‘social efficiency’ of the Anglo-Saxon race. Contemporaries attributed many imperial achievements to the progressive tendencies of their race.

Social Darwinist ideas also circulated widely in Germany. In 1881 the Hamburg lawyer Wilhelm Hübbe-Schleiden published a book arguing that international competition was a struggle to the death between races and only those peoples who managed to spread their culture over wider areas of the earth would survive. It was commonly argued that the peoples of the tropical regions were childlike and would benefit from white rule.

There were thus two contradictory motives behind imperialism: a sense of weakness and of superiority.

The culture of imperialism
This was especially intense in Britain. The novels of G. A. Henty sold in huge numbers. Poets laureate penned imperial verses. The makers of Pears soap were especially fond of the imperial leitmotif, proclaiming their product a ‘potent factor in brightening dark corners of the earth as civilization advances’. Imperialism inspired two great novels, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (first published in serial form in 1899) and Kipling’s Kim (1901).

It was above all through the popular press that the Empire reached a mass audience at home. Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, popularized the Empire through the Evening News and then the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. In 1899, the year the Boer War broke out, the Mail sold a million copies. In 1879 the Boys’ Own Paper was founded by the Religious Tract Society. Along with its sister title, the Girls’ Own Paper, it reached a circulation of half a million. An even stronger imperial message was proclaimed in Boys of the Empire (1909) which sought to indoctrinate its readers with articles like ‘How to be Strong’ and ‘Empire Heroes’. A specific model of masculinity was being set up, mirrored with an image of femininity which stressed the importance of physical health and team games.

After 1857 the administration of India with its 250 million inhabitants passed from the East India Company to a Secretary of State in London to whom the Governor-General and the Viceroy were subject. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of a submarine cable to India in 1870 brought the Viceroy and his Council under more control from London. In 1876 Queen Victoria was made Empress of India.

The Suez Canal, built between 1859 and 1869 with mainly French capital and expertise, increased French economic interests in the Far East. In 1867 Cochin-China, the southern part of present-day Vietnam, was brought under French rule in 1867 and protectorates were established over the local rulers of Cambodia in 1863 and Annam, central Indo-China, in 1874. In 1885 China ceded Tonkin (north Vietnam) as a protectorate.

The (British) India Office saw this as a potential upsetting of the balance of influence in south-east Asia. As a result Burma was annexed to the British Empire in January 1886.

The scramble for Africa
Late 19th century imperialism is mainly (though not exclusively) associated with the 'scramble for Africa', as the continent was opened up to traders and explorers.

In Germany the Colonial Society was founded by Carl Peters in 1882 to argue for Germany’s ‘place in the sun’. Between May 1884 and February 1885 Germany joined the imperial club announcing its claims to territory in South-West Africa, Togo, the Cameroons and part of the East African coast opposite Zanzibar. Bismarck had initially been sceptical about colonialism but he had come round to the view that colonies would provide markets and raw materials for German exports. But after this brief excursion into colonialism he lost interest in the project and this was one of the reasons for his dismissal in 1890.

France’s rule in Algeria was established between 1830 and 1847. From the 1880s France was acquiring territory in West Africa.

Bismarck allowed the French to occupy Tunisia in 1881-2 because he wanted to channel their energies away from revanchism.

But French public support for imperialism was elusive in the 1880s, with only the small parti colonial arguing for an aggressive policy. French nationalists argued that the main priority should be the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine.

Italy also dreamed of an African empire. Political unity alone had not forged a strong sense of nationhood and many veterans of the Risorgimento, such as Francesco Crispi, believed that this sense would only come from a common imperial purpose in a ‘baptism of blood’. With their position in Egypt shaky after the Mahdists had conquered the Sudan, the Italians were encouraged to take over the British garrison of Massawa on the Red Sea. In 1889 Italy established a protectorate in Ethiopia under King Menelik.

The Conference of Berlin, 1884-5
In 1876 Leopold II of the Belgians had invited geographers from all over the world to Brussels to talk about Africa. The meeting that followed set up an ‘International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Africa’.

In the 1880s, European interest in Africa increased dramatically as Henry Morton Stanley's discovery of the Congo River Basin (1874–1877) removed the last bit of terra incognita from the maps of the continent. The vast Congo basin had already aroused Leopold’s interest and he had acquired large parts of the area under cover of the International Association of the Congo. From 1879 to 1884, Stanley returned to the Congo, this time not as a reporter, but as an envoy from Leopold with the secret mission to organize a Congo state, which would become known as the Congo Free State. He made hundreds of treaties with native chiefs and established many stations in the Congo basin.

But between 1875 and 1885, the French marine officer Pierre de Brazza had travelled into the western Congo basin and raised the French flag over the newly-founded Brazzaville in 1881, in the modern Republic of Congo. In the following year, without the authorization of the French government, ‘Moyen Congo’ was ceded to France. Portugal was also claiming the area on the grounds of old treaties with the native Kongo Empire.

To settle the dispute Bismarck called an international conference in Berlin from November 1884 to March 1885. This was the last time the great powers met in congress to regulate a matter of common interest. The United States also attended.

The Conference accepted Leopold’s claims, giving him a vast territory named the Congo Free State south of the river Congo. This became his personal fiefdom and when it became a by-word for brutality (see the picture of amputated Congolese young people), the Belgian government took it over in 1908. France’s claims to the right bank of the Congo were recognized, as was the German seizure of the Cameroons and South-West Africa and the Portuguese occupation of Angola.

The results of the Conference
The Conference failed to satisfy the European hunger for expansion or to relieve the underlying tensions which seem to have increased in the last decade of the century. Some historians have seen an intensification of popular imperialist sentiment in the 1890s.

Between 1888 and 1890 Carl Peters explored Uganda and Tanganyika, and seemed to be encroaching on British territory on the Nile. When Britain protested, the Germans withdrew their claims in return for British withdrawal from Heligoland.

In the 1890s Britain and Portugal were again at odds as Cecil Rhodes’ dream of the Cape to Cairo Railway was an attack on the Portuguese ambition to link Mozambique with Angola. In 1890 the Portuguese were forced to back down.

In 1890 the French Africa Company was founded to protest against what it saw as French subservience to British imperial ambitions. Its aim was to extend French influence eastwards from the Congo to the upper Nile to prevent the completion of the Cape to Cairo route and to force the British to reconsider their position in Egypt. In June 1896 an expedition under Captain Marchand set out for Africa. However, the French were forced to climb down at Fashoda in September 1898. Earlier in the month Kitchener had decisively defeated the Mahdist army at Omdurman.

Within a few years of the Conference, Africa was divided up south of the Sahara. By 1895, only the settlements in Liberia and the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal remained independent. Abyssinia was able to fend off an Italian invasion from Eritrea, which lasted from 1889-1896, in what is known as the first Italo-Abyssinian War, remaining the only free native state; but this was an exception in the continent of Africa. By 1902, 90% of all the land that makes up Africa was under European control. A large part of the Sahara was French, while after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudan remained firmly under joint British–Egyptian rule.

The Boer states were conquered by Great Britain in the Boer War (the South African War) from 1899 to 1902. Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish in 1911, and Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912. The official British annexation of Egypt in 1914 ended the colonial division of Africa. By this point, all of Africa, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, were under European rule.

The zenith of imperialism
Imperialist fever reached a peak in the 1890s. In contrast to the earlier decade, public opinion now applauded imperial conquests and imperialism was taking on religious connotations. Britain’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 were celebrations of imperialism. Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’ was published in 1899.

Paradoxically, this occurred at the moment when European dominance was being challenged. 1898, the year of the Spanish American War, marked the beginning of the United States’ rise to globalism.

By this time nationalist movements were beginning. The Indian Congress Party was founded in 1885. In 1912 the African National Congress was founded.