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Old Wednesday, April 02, 2008
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Post New Imperialism as a reflection of 19th cetury Europe

Here goes,

To what extent was “the new imperialism” a reflection of developments in 19th century Europe?

“Imperialism signifies the process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people” . European civilization has always shown a tendency to expand, from the medieval spread of Latin Christendom to the overseas exploration and colonialism from 15th century onwards Europe has continued this trend in one form or the other. The period of ‘new imperialism’ (1870 – 1914) saw these colonial questions come to the fore again in a rather abrupt fashion. The zeal with which they were pursued can be attributed to the many developments that took place in the 19th century Europe.

New imperialism saw European civilization experience a period of unprecedented rapid expansion around the globe; resulting in the colonization of almost all of Africa and major parts of Asia. But, “new imperialism differed both economically and politically from the colonialism of earlier times. Under the new imperialism the Europeans were no more content to simply purchase what local merchants provided” . They moved into the colonies, invested capital in them and taking over the productive and political reins of the country made them into extension of their own countries. This coupled with the fact that the ‘older powers’ were joined by the ‘new’ nation-states likes Germany, Russia, U.S.A, Italy and Japan, this quest for land abroad fuelled imperialism, with countries now aspiring to political and territorial domination.

It was normally the coexistence of economic interests with political aims which made a country imperialistic. The spread of ‘industrial revolution’ starting from Britain in late 18th century can be viewed as a major catalyst. The scientific improvements and increased productivity associated with the revolution intensified the urge to find new outlets for the ‘glut of capital’. The Industrial Revolution also created an exceeding demand for raw materials and new markets along with the intense pressure to “sustain the dense population, complex industry and high standard of living” that had accompanied the technological advancements in Europe. These forces of industrialization caused nations to look outside their borders for cheaper and more abundant raw materials, furthermore foreign populations were also viewed as vast markets where goods produced in domestic factories could be sold at great profits. Hence pillaging of these colonies natural wealth to enrich private interests in Europe was carried at a massive scale.

The stimulus provided by the rise of ‘nationalism’ in European nations, and the development of a political structure in which military organizations in these countries began to wield greater political power: ‘militarism’, were crucial factors in the propagation of imperialism. European nations wanted to demonstrate their power and prestige to the world, and at the same time they were doubly apprehensive of the strength of their neighbors. Hence they were ‘forced’ to acquire new colonies to achieve a balance with their neighbors and competitors. During these years there was immense distrust amongst the European nations, and with the ‘jingoistic’ air surrounding the region which was ever prone to war. Hence according to Rempel, “no possible strategic or prestige-giving advantage could be forfeited”. And, “Once the scramble for partitioning Africa had begun, the powers were confronted with the choice of grabbing such advantages for themselves or seeing them snatched by potential enemies”. Hence the race for colonies could have been caused by the fear of imminent war rather than the popular belief that “imperialism had led to war”.

The European nations also became more conscious of their economic interests, and started levying high tariffs to keep each other’s products out. “It was therefore argued that each industrial country must develop a colonial empire dependent on itself, an area of ‘sheltered markets’” . Furthermore, now countries like Germany which had formerly been markets for British and French goods had emerged as new ‘nation-states’ with national fervor less than none. They developed industries of their own and stopped importing good from the former, who felt that a ‘great market’ had been lost hereby prompting them to look beyond Europe. Hence the competitive and protectionist tone of European politics and the fact that the governments were responsive enough towards national needs, resulted in their choice of an imperialistic solution to the problem which was reflected by a willingness to undertake the political and economic ‘conquest’ of undeveloped territories.

The undeveloped realms of Africa and Asia offered the best opportunities for such territorial conquest. On scrutiny we see that the response of the European nations was not exclusively economic but was also related to the ‘national security’ of their countries. The East Asian and African ports which were located at strategic location along the waterways were invaluable as naval bases and ports of call. Moreover they also served the purpose of ‘inroads’ for trade and investment; hence the rapid colonization. The urge in European governments of the era to be stable was as high as the region had ever seen. This approach to stability at home was translated and maintained by a policy of keeping the citizens satisfied by acquiring new territories, which were aimed to soothe and sublime their nationalistic fervor. Moreover the invention of steam engine and development of superior communication infrastructure on Europe’s part was not only a great help in administering these colonies but can also be regarded as a proponent in the spread of imperialism as it made colonizing much more ‘easier’ and productive.

During this period along with the economic reasons, the support and justification of the colonization at such a mammoth scale was based on socially discriminatory ideas that became prevalent in Europe. The rise of ‘social Darwinism’: the survival of the fittest, British view of the ‘White Man’s Burden’, French speaking of their ‘mission civilisatrice’, and the Germans of diffusing ‘Kultur’, were all aimed at portraying the Whites’ as the superior most race . This sense of superiority based on such racism and anti-Semitism made the Europeans feel obligated to “civilize the heathen savages” they encountered. Theses colonized people were deemed as inferior and in need of guidance and leadership. Others argued that although this backwardness of the non-Europeans was due to their history rather than race, but still “the civilized whites must keep guardianship over their darker protégés” . Furthermore, this process of the domination of one civilization by the other was termed as the source of human progress throughout the world's history and a natural eventuality based on ‘social Darwinism’. Christian missionaries played their part too in the spread of colonialism and hence imperialism, though it was certainly not as mammoth and far-reaching as the other developments during that time. The European religion; Christianity, was perceived as the true religion and the Europeans believed it to be their duty to spread it to the unwary.

On scrutiny we see that as much as the economic forces may propel imperialism forward, they do not alone make a country imperialistic. The examples of pre 1860 Britain who with all the economic urges of population, capital and export, did not run madly after colonies, the Italian and Russian scramble for colonies despite having no surpluses of capital or exports and the much later embarkation on colonization by Germany as compared to France even though the formers’ industrial development was far superior to the other hint that there is more to colonization than just the economic forces of industrialization. Infact imperialism has really been a potent and motivating force for colonization when there has been a presence and urge from a group of individuals; who are more often than not are politicians anxious to ensure national security and self-sufficiency, patriotic commanders and publicists or otherwise intellectuals and economists rather than the economic conditions of the country itself. To conclude it was really the novel economic conditions of the 19th century Europe who coupled with anarchic political relations that were prevalent explain and reflect the nature of the new imperialism.


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