Imperialism, 19th-century European

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Imperialism, 19th-century European

Imperialism involves conquering other countries and forcing them to become part of your country. They are then referred to as colonies. Typically these countries do not want to become colonies, but they are not strong enough militarily or financially to oppose the takeover.

The empires of Europe, including those of the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and Russia, reached their greatest extent in the 19th century. Although partly a continuation of the expansionist policies of previous centuries, these nations increased their efforts to extend their power and influence across the globe. At various times during the 19th century Europeans held control over the continents of South America, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. European imperialism was driven by a combination of factors, from a desire for territorial strength, economic opportunities, and political prestige, to the need for cheap supplies to fuel Europe's industrial revolutions. Also significant was the Europeans' sense of duty to Christianize and ‘civilize’ other nations through mission work and the enforcement of European culture and administrative methods.

The form of dominance varied. While King Leopold II of Belgium held the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as a vast personal property, Queen Victoria was declared empress of India by the British government in 1876.


The imperialist policies of European nations in the 19th century were not driven simply by a desire to be powerful and hold land, but by a combination of a wide range of forces. The industrial revolutions that swept across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries were a major factor in the acceleration of European imperialism. Industries such as the production of cotton cloth required vast quantities of imported raw materials that could not be grown or produced in Europe. Cotton was grown in India, and the need for a cheap supply contributed to the spread of British interest and control in the region.

The opportunity to increase trading opportunities also motivated imperialist ambitions in the 19th century. European nations sought to open up new trade routes that gave them places to sell their goods. Interest in trade outside Europe was centuries' old – the Silk Road from China to Europe was an overland trading route in ancient and medieval times, and was followed in the 13th century by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo. While attempting to find an alternative route to Asia, Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in the 15th century. In the 19th century, however, the hunt for new markets speeded up as the mass-manufacture of new goods in the industrial revolution increased the amount of trade taking place.

As well as competition for trade and other economic factors, the European nations were motivated by competition for power. The UK and France, both leading imperial powers, had fought over control of India and North America (see India: history 1526–1858, America: colonial history to 1783, and Canada: history to 1867). The UK had also come into conflict with Spain over trading rights in South America. In the 19th century the European powers extended their influence whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself. The weakness of China was exploited throughout the 19th century by European powers who forced the Chinese to sign treaties opening up the country to trade (see China: late imperial 1279–1900). The prestige of having a great empire was also a key factor motivating European governments and nations. Pride in empire had already proved important in France and the UK, the two most powerful empire-builders, and its importance was demonstrated by the new states of Italy and Germany, who were quick to establish their own empires in the second half of the 19th century.

Political considerations also played a major part in motivating European imperialism in the 19th century. British politicians such as Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury promoted the glory of an empire on which ‘the Sun never sets’. In Germany, the kaiser and his government demanded that Germany be given equal status with France and the UK, including in colonial possessions. During the reign of King Louis Philippe of France (1830–48), France attacked and conquered Algeria in North Africa, making it a French colony in 1847. At the time Louis Philippe's rule was becoming increasingly unpopular, and the conquest was intended to boost his government's popularity with the French nation. In 1864 the French emperor Napoleon III made an Austrian Habsburg, Prince Maximilian, emperor of Mexico in an attempt to spread French influence over that country. French troops were even sent to support him. The troops left in 1866 on the insistence of the USA, and Emperor Maximilian was eventually executed by Mexican rebels in 1867, but the incident demonstrated the lengths to which European leaders and their governments were prepared to interfere in the affairs of other nations to boost their image at home. The idea of imperial glory reflecting on a government was a clear motivating factor for European imperialism in the 19th century.

Justification and motivation for imperialism also came from the belief that the Christian religion and European forms of government, education, and law would improve the lives of the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and Australasia, and that it was, therefore, a duty to spread European civilization. The work of the Christian mission was important for many Europeans who believed the native inhabitants of their nations' empires to be pagan or without true religion. Protestant and Catholic missionaries travelled throughout the world trying to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. Many of these, such as the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in Africa, helped to open up unexplored regions of a continent to European influence and eventual imperial activity.


European imperial involvement in Africa in the modern period began in the 15th century, when the Portuguese sent expeditions along the west coast of the continent. The Portuguese founded the colony of Angola in 1491 and Mozambique in 1505. Before the 19th century, the main impact of European involvement in Africa was the creation of a new slave trade to the Americas. Although a slave trade with the Muslim powers of Arabia already existed before the arrival of the Europeans, it was on a much smaller scale. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Europeans had well-established bases on the west coast of Africa, through which traders bought slaves and transported them to the Americas. A number of these trading posts had developed into formal colonies, such as the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), established in 1618.

In the 19th century control by European powers spread rapidly over the continent. This advance occurred mainly after 1875; before that date only 10% of Africa was under European control. After 1875 the ‘scramble for Africa’ took place, with European powers competing to take as much land as possible. The UK took official control of Sierra Leone in 1808, South Africa in 1814 (see South Africa: history to 1902), Nigeria in 1885, Uganda in 1894, and Kenya in 1895. France's empire in Africa by 1900 included Algeria, Tunisia (from 1883), Madagascar (from 1885), Mali (1895), Chad (1900), and the Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast; made part of French West Africa in 1901). Italy controlled Somalia (from 1889) and Libya (conquered 1911), Portugal held Angola and Mozambique, and Germany controlled Namibia (from 1884), Cameroon (from 1884), and Tanzania (from 1885). Belgium held the Belgian Congo, a vast area in Central Africa that became the personal property of King Leopold II in 1885. By 1900 most of Africa was controlled by the empires of Europe; only Ethiopia and Liberia remained free, although Ethiopia had to fend off an Italian invasion in 1896.

In 1884–85 the major European powers (France, Germany, the UK, Belgium, and Portugal) met at the Conference of Berlin in order to decide how the continent should be divided between them. No African rulers were invited to attend the conference, as their opinions and rights were regarded as irrelevant to the proceedings. With the expansion of imperial control, European missionaries and explorers were able to move in, closely followed by the traders and government officials sent to exploit and govern the new empires. European explorers travelled widely, mapping the continent's major features. The course of the River Niger was plotted by Mungo Park during his expedition of 1795–97, and John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant reached the source of the River Nile on their expedition of 1860–63. In 1855 David Livingstone sighted and named the Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria.

European imperialism saw the end of the European slave trade in Africa during the 19th century. The first nation to outlaw slavery was the UK, with a series of laws from 1807. The UK took measures to enforce this ban, and worked to encourage other European powers to stop the trade within their empires. By 1900 the legal trade in slaves from Africa had ended among the European imperial powers. However, the treatment of native African workers and the government methods used by European powers meant that the Africans remained subjected peoples in their own continent, denied the rights of self-government or equal treatment. In the Belgian Congo, for example, the brutal punishments meted out to disobedient workers by their European employers included the amputation of hands.


European trade links with Asia extended back to classical and medieval times – Marco Polo's father and uncle had already traded along the Silk Road to China 1260–69 before the Venetian traveller and writer joined them in 1271 to repeat the journey. Trade links continued to grow, but progress was hindered by the frequent closure of overland routes through the Middle East. After the opening of a sea route to India around the southern tip of Africa by Vasco da Gama in 1497, the 16th century saw increased involvement in Asia by European nations. The UK, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal made great efforts to establish trading posts in India, Japan, and China, as well as in the Malay Peninsula, to allow their traders access to local markets.

The Dutch took gradual control of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), while Spain took possession of the Philippines in 1565. Although missionaries and government officials did enter the colonies, the main priority was the control of trade and exploitation of local resources. The Dutch, for example, reorganized the production of raw materials in their colonies to suit their requirements, controlling which produce could be grown on which islands, and destroying plantations that did not fit in with their needs.

During the 18th century, the independent British East India Company established almost complete control over India (see India: history 1526–1858). Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, a wave of uprisings across central and northern India initiated by Indian sepoys (soldiers) serving the East India Company, India was made a full colony under British government control in 1858.

European imperialism was also effective in gaining control of the nations of Southeast Asia in the 19th century. The British had taken complete possession of Burma (now Myanmar) by 1886 and the Malay Peninsula (see Malay history to 1963). France took control of Cambodia in 1863, Annam and Vietnam in 1884, and Laos in 1893, the four territories forming French Indochina. All these areas were governed by Europeans and exposed to Christian missionaries. European traders exploited the region's raw materials and also traded with the local populations, offering them manufactured goods previously unavailable. Roads and railways were also introduced by the Europeans to their colonies.

Access to China and Japan proved to be harder for European imperialists and provided graphic examples of the tactics that Europeans would use to achieve their aims (see China: late imperial 1279–1900 and Japan: shogunate and restoration 1192–1869). The Chinese and Japanese governments had both been wary of foreign interaction for centuries, attempting to limit European traders to specific cities where they were allowed to trade only in certain goods. However by the 17th century both countries were under intense pressure to give greater access to European traders. By the 19th century this pressure was constant, and backed by military force. The Opium Wars (1839–42 and 1856–60) were brought about by China's attempts to block the British trade in opium from British India, which was damaging Chinese society. The UK, with its superior military strength, won both wars and forced the Chinese to open up more ports and cities to European nations, as well as to allow the importation of opium. Although the Chinese signed treaties such as the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) and the Treaty of Tianjin (1858), which legalized trading arrangements with European nations, these treaties are referred to as the ‘unequal treaties’ because of the concessions made by China. The willingness of European powers to use force against China in order to further their imperial interests underlines the aggressive character of 19th-century European imperialism.

Japan suffered a similar fate to the Chinese. Although the Japanese government had permitted some contact and trade with European powers in the 18th century, they were forced to open up their country and accept increased trade by the 1860s. The trade treaties agreed by Japan in the 1850s and 1860s were signed mainly because Japan feared the military might of the Europeans. Attempts to stop the spread of European influence occurred in the early 1860s, but these came to an end in 1864 when the united fleets of the USA, France, the UK, and the Netherlands bombarded the coastal city of Shimonoseki in 1864, threatening the Japanese in a major display of military power. In the 1870s the Japanese began to copy European methods and organization, particularly in military and educational matters, and sought to become a major power themselves. Forceful imperialist intervention in the affairs of a foreign nation, in order to gain trade and influence, led once again to the loss of aspects of a nation's indigenous culture.


European colonization of Australia (see Australia: history to 1901) and New Zealand was enormous in the 19th century, with more than 3 million settlers moving into these British colonies. The Australian Aborigine and the New Zealand Maori populations had their lands stolen, and the Europeans set about building colonies as if the native populations did not exist.

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were also occupied by European powers in the 19th century, providing naval bases and strategic outposts of empire. Areas such as the Bismarck Archipelago (a German sphere of influence from 1885), the Cook Islands (annexed to the UK in 1888), and New Caledonia (French from 1853) were part of the imperial expansion of the 19th century.

South America

South America is the only example of a continent in which European imperial power ended in the 19th century. The Spanish conquered and settled South America from the 16th century onwards, and by the end of the 18th century a structured system of government existed across the continent. However, with the decline of Spanish and Portuguese power in the 18th century, their grip over their mature colonies declined.

Between 1810 and 1825 all areas in South America controlled by Spain and Portugal gained independence. The independence movements were led by the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese settlers who had become estranged from their imperial governments. Starting with Argentina, which declared itself a republic in 1810 (recognized 1842), Spain lost control of Paraguay (1811), Venezuela (1811; recognized as independent 1830), Chile (1818), Colombia (1819), Ecuador (1822), and Peru (1824). Portugal lost control of Brazil in 1822. With the withdrawal of the Spanish and Portuguese rulers, other European nations soon formed trade alliances with the South American nations, and these gave them influence over the newly-independent countries. However, whereas in Africa, Asia, and Australasia, European imperialism was on the march, in South America it was on the retreat.

Imperialism Questions Name:_______________________

1. What is imperialism?

2. List 2 reasons European countries engaged in imperialism.

3. Why did Europe need more natural resources?

4. How did imperialism satisfy this need for natural resources?

5. What role did having power or looking powerful play in imperialism?

6. How was religion used to justify imperialism?

7. Name 3 countries in Africa that were made into colonies and the countries that controlled them.

8. What year is given as the year that European countries rapidly began taking African territory?

9. Name 3 countries in Asia that were made into colonies and the countries that controlled them.

10. How did China and Japan feel about imperialism?

11. On which continent did imperialism actually end in the 19th century?

12. Given the information in the article which country seems to have taken the most colonies?

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