Between 1800 and roughly 1870 European nations acquired new territories mainly from other European powers. Britain rested its continuing ascendancy upon sea power, and those colonies it kept after victories over Continental nations were retained largely for strategic reasons, such as the need to protect the sea route to India and the Far East.
Thus Mauritius was taken from the French because it had the best harbor in the south Indian Ocean, Ceylon from the Dutch for its port of Trincomalee, and Malacca (by treaty in 1824, also from the Dutch) because it controlled the straits to China. Concern for trade routes led the British to found Singapore in 1819 and to retain Gibraltar, Malta, and the Ionian Islands in the Mediterranean.
The principles of free-trade imperialism were compromised toward the end of the century. On the whole, Britain professed to hold to a free-trade position from the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 until 1932. France moved toward protectionism. Germany and Belgium, despite moderate tariffs directed against Britain, generally held to free trade, and the Dutch belatedly went over to it in the 1870s.
Yet, Britain was manipulating imperial preferences to its benefit while espousing the general principles of free-trade competition. Thus a modified form of mercantilistic thought came to be applied to the colonies. They would provide cheap raw materials for the industrial machine in Europe, since labor in the colonies cost a fraction of that at home; they would purchase finished products and provide strategic protection for the trade routes by which the bulk of these products moved to other nations; they would become centers for investment, absorbing surplus capital as well as produce; and, by helping to eliminate the surpluses that led to domestic cycles of unemployment, they would help to forestall the social revolution many feared.
The modern capitalist state would need new kinds of trading partners capable of sustaining a trend toward consolidation, large-scale marketing, and giant trading firms—a trend that made possible economies of scale that, in turn, either increased profits or lowered prices and broadened markets.
Underconsumption at home was the primary cause of low wages, according to John A. Hobson (1858-1904), in his 1902 book Imperialism: A Study. Underconsumption prevented the profitable employment of capital at home and forced governments to seek out colonies as an outlet for their surpluses. Hobson saw this as a correctable problem, but another analyst, Lenin, saw it as the inevitable, irreversible, and destructive “highest stage of capitalism.” This being so, he argued, colonies were adjuncts to capitalist balance-of-power politics, since colonies were needed as outlets for surplus capital.
The European state system had been remolded at the Congress of Vienna around the concept of a balance of power—a distribution of power among many states, so that no one state would be dominant. The purpose was to preserve independence of action and to protect national sovereignty. While this balance of power rested largely within Europe until the mid-nineteenth century, the growing importance of overseas trade appeared to shift the balance toward nations with colonial possessions after 1870.
To these economic and political motives for imperial expansion after the midcentury were added more emotional or psychological motivations, of which the desire for national and personal glory was the most evident. Imperialism was closely allied to nationalism. For a nation to be without a colony—an imperial “place in the sun”—was to confess to weakness. Colonies helped to assert the pride of the nation and to give it security. The quest for security on the ground that one’s country is dearer than all others and must at all costs be made safe in a competitive world was basic to modern thought.
A related motive for the acquisition of territory was strategic. Islands, river mouths, or peninsulas that dominated trade routes and on which forts might be built were coveted because they could make economic and political goals more accessible. Often colonies were little more than adjuncts to some larger area of an empire; for example, after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 Britain took Perim, Aden, and Socotra solely to protect the new route to India and the East.
Strategic considerations also altered with the new technologies—the telegraph, the steamship, and the airplane. Even so, an area was of strategic importance only in relation to the prevailing economic and political theories of the powers, and thus the strategic motive may largely be subsumed under the others. This was especially true in the acquisition of territories in East Africa after 1880 by Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Britain wished to maintain control in Egypt, although without formal annexation; conquest of the Nile to its headwaters seemed a strategic necessity. To stabilize the Nile holdings, the highlands and parts of Kenya were therefore taken by Britain, while Germany acquired the vast land from Lake Tanganyika to the coast.
As strategic needs changed, the tenacity with which a nation held to an area might also have been expected to change, if imperialism were a wholly rational system of world organization. To some extent such changes did occur; yet for the most part empires continued to grow in defiance of economic wisdom and strategic planning. Nonrational impulses to empire were clearly at work.
Foremost among these was the humanitarian desire to reform, to help the native who was felt to need more efficient, liberal, or rational forms of government, economic organization, or worship. Christian missionaries desired to save souls. Evangelical Protestants in particular sent missionaries to China, Africa, and India to educate non-Christians. Some Christians saw the machine as an instrument of God, and many embraced the new imperialist trinity—railroads, sanitation, and good government—as the pathway to temporal elevation of humanity and ultimately to spiritual triumphs.
From the time of John and Charles Wesley, who preached to the colonists in Georgia in the 1730s, independent Methodist churches had grown among the middle and lower class in Britain. The Wesleyan Methodists were competitive, especially where Anglican or Roman Catholic missions were present, as in Indo-China for example, where the latter were conscious instruments of the French expansion. Most of those missionaries who actively promoted imperialism, however, did so for their church, not their nation.
Humanitarianism also had its ethical, secular goals, as in the campaign to end slavery. Indigenous groups often practiced slavery or, as on the Malay peninsula, a form of debt bondage. A Western nation would be a powerful secular ally in the battle against cannibalism, suttee (the custom of burning a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband), child marriage, bride price, and nakedness. Frequently, the central authority of the imperial power was used to protect a local minority against exploitation by a local majority.
Britain slowed the pace of self- government in Australia in the 1850s in order to speak out for the rights of the aboriginal population, accepted a form of constitutional government for Canada in 1867 only after French-speaking rights were entrenched in the enabling acts, and refused independence to Rhodesia in the 1960s because the blacks there were not accorded a progressively equal political standing with whites in the colony’s draft constitution. In the late nineteenth century the United States’ federal government sought to slow the growth of statehood in certain western American territories because it feared that, once sovereign, they would create unrepresentative institutions.
In the final analysis, imperialism also rested upon humanity’s acquisitive nature, the desire to influence, control, dominate, own, or crush another people. Racism fed upon such desires and also fed them, and racism usually was one facet of imperialism, in the sense that the imperialists held themselves to be superior to nonwhites.
Some theorists of empire argued that racial differences were largely environmental; that is, that while the other races might appear inferior to the white, they were so only by virtue of historical circumstance and that sufficient exposure to more advanced customs and technologies would, in time, make the “lesser breeds” functionally equal within the law. This position helped justify taking and retaining land occupied by another race. Other theorists argued that some races were inherently inferior and would always need the protection of the stronger. The latter tended to think of the indigenous populations as useful labor forces, while the former thought of them as societies in need of transformation.
These motives were sustained by an infrastructure within most imperial nations that strengthened the ties between mother country and colony. The settlement colonies would absorb surplus population and often draw the military-minded to them. Civil servants and youthful adventurers, usually sons who could not expect to inherit their father’s property, added to the spiral of imperial expansion.
But annexation was not necessary to imperial expansion. Not only was annexation expensive, it was also dangerous, perhaps bringing a reaction from another power; it produced shock waves within the interior of an area that might force further annexations to calm and control turbulent frontiers; it led local administrators to intervene in intertribal, interethnic, or interpolitical affairs that might draw a nation far more deeply into moral and political involvement than its population at home would accept. There were, therefore, other “empires,” the so- called informal empires.
Informal empires were areas that were technically independent but whose economies, communication systems, and often politics and social life were inextricably bound up with an imperial power. The United States exercised such informal control over portions of Latin America and the Pacific. Russia came to hold influence over vast,
contiguous territories, some of which were eventually absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Germany and France sought to dominate much of the eastern end of the Mediterranean prior to World Wars I and II. In the nineteenth century Britain thought of Argentina as virtually another dominion, so closely connected were Argentine rails, beef prices, and minerals to the British Empire’s needs. Did formal colonies pay? In psychological terms, undoubtedly; in financial terms, generally no. Statistics are difficult to compare, given competing systems of trade,
inaccurate data, and the fact that different nations kept their statistics in different ways; nonetheless, for the neomercantilist period, certain conclusions can be drawn. Some historians have asserted, for example, that the profits from the slave trade paid for nearly 20 percent of Britain’s industrial revolution. Others have argued that the midcentury industrial progress of Britain was financed largely from the cheap labor of India.
Such judgments are at best guesses, although revenues from the colonies undoubtedly were drained to serve imperial interests. The Dutch drew 18 million guilders a year from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) from 1831 until 1877, at a time when the entire Dutch budget was only 60 million guilders. In 1890, 42 percent of Indian revenues went to finance the Indian Army, under British officers, which primarily served imperial purposes, when Britain’s entire defense budget was 38 percent of its revenue.
Against such financial gains from empire must be set the heavy costs of the colonies, which ordinarily faced deficit budgets that had to be met by the imperial power, involved many small wars of great expense, and were also costly to administer in terms of health.
French expenses in Morocco more than wiped out any profits from trade. Italy’s colonies cost it 1,300 million lire, more than was produced by all Italian colonial trade between 1913 and 1932. Germany’s external trade with its colonies was 972 million marks between 1894 and 1913, while the expenses of the colonies were 1,002 million marks. For Britain the colonies were more important, but there, too, the balance was generally unfavorable; in 1850 the empire took 28 percent of Britain’s overseas trade and 40 percent in 1934.
Of the 1934 figure, however, well over half was with the dominions, that is, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa; 7 percent was with India; and only 9 percent was with the remainder of the empire. In short, for Britain the chief economic advantage lay in the former settlement colonies and in India, while the new African possessions were of little importance in economic terms.
Yet the nations of Europe, joined after 1808 by the United States, continued to acquire colonial possessions, until by 1930, 84 percent of the land surface of the globe was under control of the Western nations. Clearly there were powerful motivations toward empire, and clearly (in retrospect) they were not truly economic motivations. Yet we must remember that at the time many imperialists felt that the colonies could be made to pay eventually, and that the search for a balance of power lent special credence to those who wished to deny to another nation a new acquisition, initiating annexations intended only to deny land to a rival.
To these four causes of imperial expansion—the desire for economic gain, whether immediate or deferred; the need to dominate strategic passages; the emotional search for national prestige; the fervor to convert others to a more “civilized” religion or form of government— would be added a fifth, now referred to as the collaborator model. During the 1870s official British policy was outspokenly against the acquisition of further territory overseas; yet, that same decade saw the British Empire expand greatly.
This new imperialism, as the post-1870 movement was called, arose in part because of growing British and French relations with indigenous leaders who cooperated with the imperialists and drew reluctant and penny-pinching administrators into costly new acts of expansion and annexation. “Native uprisings” and local conflicts with rival European powers or indigenous leaders were reported in the European press in increasingly emotional terms, and toward the end of the century the British, French and Germans were clamoring for imperial adventure.