Called by some ‘colonialism’ – a mistake – imperialism is a term frequently abused by being used pejoratively by politicians and journalists. For historians, the word can be applied to numerous epochs, in each of which there may be detected a shade of difference, always significant.
Persia, Macedonia, Ottoman Turkey, Spain, France, Soviet Russia and Britain have extended their respective domain over other societies at different times, giving way to imperial rule. Germany has attempted to rule over others, using force. Britain used commercial enterprise backed by a powerful navy. Spain used a powerful navy backed by the immense courage of the conquistadores. Persia used vast resources and her armies, while Alexander’s Macedonia used the outstanding personality and popularity of its leader to create an empire.
The industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, introduced a new form of imperialism, as European countries competed across the world in the search for raw materials, as well as for markets.
In the late nineteenth century imperial ambitions found motivation in part through the dire need for commercial expansion, the desire for military and naval glory, and, above all, diplomatic advantage. As it is seen now, though not then, imperialism generally assumed a racial, intellectual and spiritual superiority on the part of the imperialists (or colonists). The effects of it, while in some measure beneficial to the conquered indigenous population, more than often meant the breakdown of traditional ways of life – religions, clothes, attitudes towards other tribes, method of agriculture, methods of education etc. Native civilization was generally disrupted, new religious beliefs and social values were imposed, sometimes ruthlessly.
In the nineteenth century imperialism represented the urge of a nation (Britain for example) to acquire, administer, exploit and develop less materially advanced territories, primarily for purposes of trade or prestige, though sometimes to face a real or imagined strategic danger.
Imperialism was also caused, in many instances, by overcrowding in the home country. At the same time, the imagination of the newly educated millions in the middle classes was exhilirated by the thought of world empire. In Britain this attitude was encouraged by associations such as the Imperial Federation League (founded 1884), and the writings of Charles Dilke (Greater Britain 1870) and John Seeley (The Expansion of England 1883). Then there was the fiction of Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925) and Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936).
Improved methods of communication and the betterment of medical knowledge made it easier for the European Great Powers in the 80s and 90s to follow up the routes of earlier explorers and navigators, and indulge in ‘the Scramble for Africa’. African territories, wrested from their tribal kings, were developed mostly by chartered companies, though soldiers were always at hand. Britain did this successfully in Nigeria, Kenya and Rhodesia. Leopold of Belgium managed it in the Congo by private treaty. Germany did it by direct governmental action in the Cameroons.
The rival colonialist ambitions of Britain and France in Africa almost brought the two countries to war in 1898 with the ‘Fashoda Crisis’. But imperialist development was not limited to the European Great Powers; the United States acquired a massive ring of naval bases in the Pacific in the late 90s: the French developed Indo-China and created a hornet’s nest that was to trouble the world for a century afterwards. Russia’s overland expansion to Manchuria and Northern China led to a war with the Japanese, who in their turn had begun to encroach on Korea and Formosa.
Since the First World War and the end of British rule abroad, imperialism has more frequently taken the form of economic penetration of the planet by the United States – via the motor car, Coca Cola, Hollywood etc., rather than political domination.
British dreams of imperialism faded in the 1920s, as anti-imperialist and colonialist movements grew in strength and influence. From the 1940s the colonies gradually obtained their independence, primarily a socialist concept.
The term ‘neo-imperialism’ is sometimes used to describe certain (usually economic policies) of the USA and the former Soviet Union, towards the developing or third world countries following the II World War. Explanations for the causes of imperialism have provoked a lengthy intellectual debate, not always in a calm or rational atmosphere. With very few exceptions, most ex-colonies once managed by one of the great countries, have proved to be badly or disastrously managed after independence. This fact, intentionally unnoticed by liberals, does not excuse colonialism, but it does go a long way towards explaining the difference between imperialism and colonialism. Dean Swift