The industrial revolution had led to a demand for goods aimed at specific markets and appealing to national fashions.
Higher-quality goods made for a critical market required European control over the processes of manufacture, over methods of planting and cultivation, over port facilities, storage depots, communications systems, and even local finance. Home industries often related to colonial markets and sources of materials in startling ways.
The need for rubber, for instance, led the British to experiment with trees brought from Brazil to Kew Gardens, near London, and then to the introduction of rubber trees into Malay; the desire to control prime rubber-growing areas would lead in turn to further British expansion in southeast Asia. The need for skilled rubber tappers led the British to introduce Indian and Ceylonese laborers into Malaya in the 1920s, creating an ethnic division that plagues Malaysia to this day.
European commerce required trained Europeans, who moved to the colonies in greater numbers each year. There they created their own housing compounds, offices, hotels, recreational facilities, schools, and resorts. Few among the local population could afford to use such facilities, even if granted access to them, so that whites came to be physically separated from native populations. Relations once relatively friendly became distant.
The local inhabitants became employees of European companies that were in distant European capitals. The whites who supervised them were promoted within their companies largely on the basis of keeping costs low and production high, so that the welfare of local populations was not primary in their priorities. The labor situation was, by its nature, exploitative. Racial differences accelerated the obvious class problems.
Many areas in the tropics were thought to be unsuitable for whites to live in; therefore, Europeans preferred to work through friendly, stable, and powerful local rulers: the Egyptian khedives, the Indian maharajahs, or the shahs of Persia. Such rulers often became collaborators, their nations client states of the major powers.
With massive investments at stake, European business people often sought to pressure their governments into direct intervention in the affairs of the client states if the pliant rulers appeared to be in danger of being overthrown. Often such intervention was entirely legal, under protective treaties signed by the local rulers who sought outside support for their regimes; where intervention was not legal, sheer force of arms made it possible nonetheless. Equally often, the threat of the use of force—”gunboat diplomacy”—was sufficient to secure concessions.
Gradually European governments were drawn deeper and deeper into the affairs of Africa and Asia. The Fiji Islands were ceded by King Thakambau to Britain in 1874; Britain left its island base in southeast Asia, which rested upon the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and Labuan, to intervene directly in the Malayan mainland states of Perak and Selangor in 1875; and the British displaced the Dutch on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), in Africa, in 1872.
In South Africa the British expanded north and east time and again, despite an expressed desire not to, because of incursions into white settlement areas by Bantu tribes, clandestine raids upon native areas by the Boers, and disruptions by successive Zulu chiefs. The British took such action because the mercantile community wanted peace, stability, and dependable communications with the interior, so that raw materials might flow freely into the ports that Europeans controlled.
The period from 1815 to 1870 saw a partial decline in imperialist fortunes, as most of Spain’s American colonies gained their independence, as Brazil broke away from Portugal (1822), and as Britain took the first major steps leading to the independence of Canada.
But other nations surged forward: the French established themselves in Algeria in 1830; the Americans, through a society which sent free blacks to West Africa, established ties with Liberia in 1821; and the British annexed Lagos, the nucleus for Nigeria, in 1861. Russia parted with its vast but thinly inhabited possession in North America when the czarist government sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. But it began the effective settlement of the great areas east of the Urals and began to push into the borderlands of the Middle and Far East.
Throughout the century, the Americas and the old British settlement colonies were generally outside the scramble for empire. The Monroe Doctrine helped to keep both American continents free from further annexation by outside powers. So, too, did the British navy.
One major field of rivalry and penetration was the Near or Middle East. The whole “Eastern Question,” as it was called, revolved around the problem of what was to be done with the Balkan and eastern Mediterranean territories, which were peopled principally by Muslims.
They were backward regions by nineteenth-century Western standards, their farmlands exhausted by centuries of simple agriculture and their ancient irrigation systems often in disrepair. They were poor also in natural resources, for their great wealth in petroleum would not be important until the twentieth century. England, France, Austria, and Russia were in active competition over the Near East early in the nineteenth century, and they were later joined by Italy and Germany.
Africa was the scene of the most spectacular imperial rivalry. In 1815 Africa was largely untenanted by Europeans and its interior almost unexplored. Islam had penetrated well below the Sahara, especially in the western Sudan, in Futa Jalon (northern Guinea), and in the empire of the Sokoto (roughly northern Nigeria), from which a flourishing trade had developed. Between 1840 and 1860 trade also developed substantially from the east African centers of Mombasa and Zanzibar, with Indians acting as moneylenders and Arabs leading the caravans that penetrated well into the interior.
Traders brought out information about the interior, and the first missionaries, who established themselves in Mombasa after 1844, added to Western knowledge of African customs, geography, and resources. Soon exploration was well under way. In the latter half of the century the great powers blocked out territorial units over most of the continent. The only exceptions were the small Republic of Liberia and the mountainous inland state of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).
The Far East was also a major scene of imperialist rivalries. European powers strengthened their hold on older colonies and acquired new ones in southeast Asia: the mainland areas of Burma, Indochina, and the Malay states, and the island groups of Melanesia and Polynesia. The ancient, thickly populated, highly complex Chinese Empire was never subjected to actual partition and direct annexation. However, China was not sufficiently united politically or advanced industrially to resist European penetration, and by the end of the century it was subjected to a de facto partitioning among Britain, France, Germany, and Russia.
Each power operated from certain treaty ports and exercised some control over considerable areas—spheres of influence, as they were called. Often they conducted business through local go- betweens, or compradors. Rivalry among the European powers and the United States, which favored an Open Door policy of permitting as much free trade in China as was possible and of preserving Chinese sovereignty, served to counterbalance Chinese weakness and left China an independent nation.
Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. This compact island empire was closed to foreigners during the period when European powers strengthened their small holds in China. Then in 1854 an American naval officer, Matthew C. Perry (17941858), persuaded Japan to open two ports to outside trade.
By adopting some Western ways and by capitalizing on its own military tradition, Japan was able not merely to preserve real independence during the late nineteenth century but to begin its own imperial expansion on the mainland of Asia after winning a brief war with China in 1894-1895.