|As the great European powers of France and Great Britain along with Germany and Italy sought to colonize vast areas of Africa in the late nineteenth century, they were motivated by a variety of factors. Germany and Italy were each newly unified states looking to prove themselves as major powers while Britain and France sought to expand their already large overseas empires. The search for new markets and raw materials in a context of heightened nationalism and national rivalry created the proper conditions for the imperial project when combined with Social Darwinism and popular curiosity with "the other". Though scholars often differentiate the political, economic and moral catalysts for the new imperialism, each of these factors worked to reinforce the other, making it difficult to determine which was more important.
By the advent of the "Scramble for Africa", Europe already had many precedents for colonization, which according to one definition is the "assertion [of] control over a previously independent region."1 The first era of colonial expansion began in the fifteenth century with the expansion of Spanish and Portuguese territories into several African island chains and eventually the Americas. This expansion had several economic and political motives, including serving the interests of the socially mobile, and potentially dangerous, conquistador mercenary class.2 When the first adventurers told stories of immense quantities of gold and silver, economic motives for conquering new territory became clear. The missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas, while harshly condemning the practices of many colonists, gave perhaps the best moral justification of the system of imperialism at the time. He emphasized that Indigenous Americans were "particularly receptive to learning and understanding the truths of our Catholic faith", and thus Europeans had a moral obligation to ensure that "the poor souls [were not] despatched to everlasting Hell."3
As with the second wave of imperialism in the 1800s, the success of one imperial power stimulated intense competition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Motivated by a mix of nationalism and religious tension with the Catholic empires, Britain, the Netherlands and France used the colonial territories as an outlet for European rivalry. These countries justified their actions through the 'Black Legend' of Spanish atrocities in the Americas along with a similar moral duty to spread Christianity.4 By the 1640s, they began to realize the further economic benefits of colonies in which cotton, tobacco, indigo and sugar could be grown on plantations with forced labour.5 Thus, placating domestic social groups such as the conquistadors, plundering natural resources, spreading Christianity and looking to 'keep up' in national imperial rivalries were catalysts for the first wave of colonization.
Many of the political motivations for nineteenth century imperialism were similar to those of several centuries earlier. Though no longer based on religious affiliation, national rivalries were easily transferred into imperial competition in both cases. Much as northern European powers had sought to contain the expansion of Spanish imperial ambitions, so too did each power of the nineteenth century look to contain the other. Unlike the first period of colonialism, however, European states in the nineteenth century operated within a complex system of alliances that were consciously meant to avoid conflict among the increasingly nationalistic powers.
The French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon had demonstrated two dangers to European conservatives in the early nineteenth century: popular revolution and the military and political supremacy of one state over all others. During the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799, various members of the urban middle class contested the legitimacy of absolute monarchy in a context of economic chaos and social instability. The execution of Louis XVI and the French invasion of much of Europe by pro-republican forces threatened the authority of many European monarchs and aristocrats. Following the decline of the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a military coup and proceeded to conquer most of Europe with France's superior military organization. With Napoleon's defeat, Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich attempted to construct a conservative monarchist Congress system among the great imperial powers of Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia in which they would work together to avoid conflict and suppress nationalist or other revolutionary movements.6
Metternich's system did not survive into the latter half of the century as consciously nationalist movements arose throughout the continent. Nationalist ideology, in which the history, culture and identity of one's own ethno-linguistic group motivates all political action, was enormously influential in the European "Scramble for Africa". Though several nationalist revolutions occurred in 1848 that threatened the stability of Europe's major powers, nationalism was soon adopted by supporters of these existing states. The two most significant events that occurred as a result of nationalism were the unifications of Italy and Germany, which were not realized within a republican context, as Metternich had feared. Instead, the Italian and German states merely emerged as new European powers, and the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck operated as an heir to Metternich's system by supporting a complex system of alliances among the major European states.7
Nationalism, though often used by rulers such as Bismarck, created new obstacles for conservative leaders looking to preserve a balance of power. Typical of these nationalist rivalries was that between France and Germany, centering on the region of Alsace-Lorraine that Germany had claimed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Each side claimed the region as part of its "natural boundaries", and many French nationalists wanted war with Germany as early as the 1870s.8 Bismarck, though forced to satisfy domestic nationalist sentiment, preferred to maintain a balance of power in Europe rather than expand Germany's borders. Thus, he encouraged France to seek overseas colonies in order to make up for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. However, once France had begun its colonial quest and taken some of the most desirable territory of Africa, German nationalists became furious that Germany was losing ground. As a result, Bismarck had to bow to domestic pressure and enter the colonial process.9 Still the arbiter of Europe's balance of power, he organized the Conference of Berlin from November 1884 to February of the following year at which the major powers established the rules by which they could take new colonies in order to avoid conflict among themselves.10
The case of France and Germany is representative of the ways in which the precarious balance of power led to the political expediency of colonialism. The conquest of new territory became a matter of national pride as well as another measure of political supremacy. From a European perspective, the subjugation of Africa was not very costly due to two factors, the first of which was the recent technological advances in weaponry. Secondly, many African states whose economies had depended on the slave trade had not fully recovered from the social and economic instability caused by the abolition of the trade.11 Thus, the conquest of Africa became a relatively safe means for addressing regional political conflicts. Some historians, such as D.K. Fieldhouse, argue that colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century gave a temporary safe outlet for European tensions.12
However, the "Scramble for Africa" was not the result of any single issue, and each motivating factor was intertwined with the others. Many historians have pointed to the allure of economic profit in the explosion of Euro-imperialism in the late nineteenth century.13 These assessments are valid, though economic reductionism does not explain how economic motives were tightly connected with political and social considerations. Similarly, a political history of imperialism does not adequately explain why colonies came to be seen as an issue of national progress. The rise of capitalism, industrialization and the middle class were tightly connected with the imperial ambition of European states and business. To European entrepreneurs and statesmen, Africa represented a market for manufactured goods and a source of many natural resources needed for industrialization.
The middle class that was to have an enormous influence on the push for the "Scramble" had its origins in the rise the European capitalist economy. A wealthy and powerful merchant class emerged in the seventeenth century by managing trading vessels and producing manufactured goods that were used to purchase slaves in Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.14 In Britain, large landowners promoted the enclosure of land in order to produce food more efficiently for sale in a capitalist market. Some historians, such as Christopher Hill, have linked the fall of the British Stuart monarchies to a rise in the capitalist economy.15 Likewise, the capitalist class in France was at the forefront of the early stages of the French Revolution in order to promote free trade and an end to mercantilism.16 Most independent merchants wished to be able to conduct their business freely wherever they pleased without barriers by the imperial governments.
Following the French Revolution, free trade and liberalism allowed industry to take off in Europe. Britain, with the largest colonial empire was first to experience massive industrialization, followed by Germany, which had abolished its internal trade barriers in the process of unification. France and northern Italy also experienced a significant rise in industrial output. Though often referred to as an "industrial revolution", the political, social and economic processes that led to the rise of industry throughout Europe were more complex than the term "revolution" implies. Rondo Cameron has attacked the term by emphasizing the gradual nature of the industrialization process.17 Likewise, though it was supported by a middle class, industrialization was not a conscious "revolt" against any previous system. Rather, industrialization grew out of cottage industry, agriculture and other forms of economic production. However, by the late 1800s, European economy and society had evolved into a completely different form than what they had been a century earlier.
The new factories and industrial producers could not survive without a market. The rise of the middle class, basic education in some areas, and mass culture led to an expansion of the domestic market, but there was a limit to how far it could grow. Thus, many industrialists looked abroad and encouraged colonial expansion in order to guarantee them new outlets for their goods. The link between industrial production and exportation to colonial markets is made by Lance Davis and Robert Huttenback who assess how the increase in pig iron, coal and cotton textile production coincided with a massive increase in the percentage of these products absorbed by the export market. In their analysis, "It is not that the domestic market was dormant, but rather that, in the overseas market, British business had found a new source of strength."18
The business class of Britain and the rest of Europe did not merely stumble upon this new overseas market. The origins of industrialization in France and Britain lay, in part, with the production of cheap manufactured goods to facilitate the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This outward orientation did not collapse, and many merchants sought replacements for this lost market. Commerce with Africa declined rapidly without the slave trade, but both African and European merchants sought to initiate new forms of commerce. Indeed, some historians identify the African coastal merchant class as the collaborators with whom Europeans were able to colonize the continent.19
Though some colonial strategists may have considered this collaboration, it was the voice of the European middle class that was most influential to European politicians. Many historians contend that most industrialists in the late nineteenth century had come to oppose free trade in fear that the domestic market had become too saturated. Instead, they wanted guaranteed markets that colonies could provide. As Kevin Shillington notes, "'Free trade' gave way to 'protectionism'. Britain's main trading rivals, France, and later Germany, realized that the way to beat British competition was to establish colonies or protected areas in Africa."20 In the context of heightened nationalist rivalry, the chance to increase their country's economic performance was enticing to many politicians.
In addition to new markets for their own goods, many Europeans believed that Africa had many untapped natural resources that would be useful to exploit. British, French, Dutch and American traders already traded for gum arabic (a dye useful in the textile industry), gold, rubber, and industrial lubricants such as palm oil in West Africa.21 In the context of the European balance of power, each country sought to gain exclusive access to these materials in order to maintain an advantage over its rivals. In this way, the interests of the middle class and national governments coincided regarding colonial policy. Just as the Spanish crown had looked to satisfy the socially mobile conquistadors, nineteenth century leaders were eager to defend the interests of their industrialists.
Though they are the most convenient "rational" explanations the rise of the new imperialism, neither economic nor political assessments explain the strong moral arguments that made colonization possible. The rise of the middle class, social Darwinism and the influence of religious groups associated with the abolitionist movement helped to link and justify the economic and political motivations for imperialism. Many historians treat these moral justifications as afterthoughts used to justify an essentially greedy colonial policy.22 However, it is important to note that humanitarian groups such as abolitionists and evangelical churches were among the first Europeans to advocate the colonization of Africa, and they did so from a moral perspective. So-called "philanthropists" became the most ardent supporters of the colonial enterprise in order to, as they believed, "civilize" inherently inferior peoples. Thus, unlike the post facto religious excuses used by Las Casas in the sixteenth century, European morality was central to the initiation, and not just the continuation, of the new imperialism in Africa.
European worldview in the latter nineteenth century was heavily influenced by the rise of the middle class. Unlike the small elite merchant class of the eighteenth century, the new middle class created by industrialization was large, diverse and consciously sought to distinguish itself from the upper classes or old nobility. Though divided by degrees of prosperity, this group of mostly businessmen was united by a similar philosophy regarding work and discipline. They valued the idea of the "self-made" entrepreneur who, through hard work and frugality, worked up from rags to riches. They despised the wastefulness of the nobility, and spent most of their profits reinvesting in their business.23 Philosophers such as the Scotsman James Mill identified the middle class as the saviour of Europe, whose interests would promote the general welfare of each nation.24
The rise of social Darwinism was closely tied to middle class ideology. Social Darwinism evolved from the theory of evolution proposed in 1859 by the British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose observations fit well into the Victorian values of his time. He hypothesized that the earth was in a constant state of evolution and only the species most suited to their environment would survive. Social Darwinists applied Darwin's findings to human society and nations, a practice that Darwin himself engaged in. Referring to human society in the 1870s, he wrote, "It is chiefly through [the] power [of the arts] that the civilized races have extended, and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races."25 Though he warned, "We civilized men… do our utmost to check the process of elimination [by building] asylums for the sick, [instituting] poor laws, [etc.]… No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man."26 Thus, though Darwin's views remained controversial into the late part of the century, they served to justify middle class disdain for the lower classes.
The most important implications of Darwin's work came from his judgments of non-European "races". In his 1871 The Descent of Man, the chapter "On the Races of Man" contains a comparison of "civilized" and "savage" races in which he suggests that non-Europeans are not as intellectually capable as Europeans;
With civilized nations, the reduced size of the jaws from lessened use - the habitual play of different muscles serving to express different emotions - and the increased size of the brain from greater intellectual activity, have together produced a considerable effect on their general appearance when compared with savages.27
Unlike social Darwinism, this hypothesis by Darwin himself posited that racial characteristics were key to determining one's intellectual capability. It did not take long for many scientists, philosophers and philanthropists to pick up on this in order to justify European superiority.28
The rise of "race" as a factor in science coincided with several other social trends that worked to promote the colonization of "unknown" lands. The first humanitarian movement in Europe to gain widespread grassroots support was the British abolitionist movement that, at its peak, had millions of active participants and followers. Led mostly by evangelical churches, this movement sought to establish the humanity, if not equality, of enslaved Africans. However, many supporters of abolition did not think that it was enough simply to abolish slavery. They believed that it was the duty of Europeans to bring Christianity and civilization to Africa directly so that Africans could "civilize" themselves. The settlements of freed slaves in Sierra Leone from 1787 and Liberia from 1822 were seen by some as the first step in the Christianization of Africa.29
With the rise of science and Darwinism, the "civilizing mission" lost credibility, only to be replaced by another approach equally supportive of colonization. Africans, according to this attitude, were naturally inferior as proved by scientific study. They were naturally lazy, lived in the midst of enormous natural resources that they refused to develop, and would not work unless they were forced to.30 Thus by the late nineteenth century, many European philanthropists did not believe that Africans could ever be fully assimilated to civilized European standards. Nevertheless, they believed that exposure to the European work ethic could help to promote African self-improvement.31
In the interest of philanthropy, several geographical societies were opened and supported the work of explorers looking to map the African continent for its future "opening up". The first explorer in this tradition was David Livingstone, a British missionary who sought to bring Christianity to the interior of the continent in order to end the continuing slave trade in some areas. Though he did not support colonization, Livingstone paved the way for other explorers, mainly Henry Morton Stanley, to popularize myths of Africa consistent with the scientific and social Darwinist trends of the time.32
Explorers such as Stanley found a receptive audience in the new mediums of mass culture such as newspapers. Industrialization had created massive urban populations of lower and working class people, many of who were gaining access to basic education and voting rights. Newspaper tabloids were read by millions of people, and thus held enormous sway over public opinion. Stanley became a hero throughout Europe as he wrote about his adventures in unknown lands, with people he described as "savages" and "cannibals".33 The combination of humanitarian pieces regarding the destruction of the continuing slave trade and the sensationalist tales of inferior savage peoples sparked widespread support for colonization by those who wished to see the spread of the superior European race's influence. As Stanley lamented in 1878, "Oh for the hour when a band of philanthropic capitalists shall vow to rescue these beautiful lands."34
In the 1880s, the working class, industrialists and political elite were all generally supportive of the colonial enterprise. 'Selfish' motives such as political expediency and economic profit were accompanied by social and moral arguments that predated other considerations. Social Darwinism and pseudo-scientific racism provided a social and moral framework within which other motives easily fit. The lead up to the new imperialism was not dissimilar from that to the first wave of colonization, though the specific society within which these forces interacted was quite different. As with the first wave, the cause of imperialist expansion was not the result of any single factor, and the ways in which political, economic and social influences intersected makes it difficult to isolate any particular motive as more important than the others.