What Is Imperialism?

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Through this lesson, you will learn what defines imperialism and explore the five motives for spreading a nation's empire into new territories. When you are through, test your new knowledge with the quiz.

What Is Imperialism?

Have you ever wondered how your state or country got its shape? Maybe you've spent some time thinking about why you and your neighbors believe the things that you believe or have the social systems that you have? Well, no matter where you live, you can bet that imperialism played some part in why things are the way they are in your society.

Imperialism is the act of expanding a country's empire through the use of force, colonization, or coercion. During the 15th and 16th centuries, large and powerful European countries, like Spain and England, put forth considerable effort to acquire and rule other countries and territories. For example, the colonization and development of the United States was started because England wanted to expand its empire to new territories that could provide it with greater power and resources.

Although it has a fairly straight-forward definition, imperialism is actually a very complicated process that tends to unfold over the course of many decades and for several different reasons.

Reasons for Expanding Empires

Rather than having one motive for imperialism, the reasons tend to intersect and overlap, which can make it difficult to identify or understand the objective. Broadly speaking, however, there are five motives for imperialism.

1) Exploratory. In certain cases, countries have sent out explorers to map new trade routes, find new territories, or simply find out what different areas were like. Christopher Columbus, for example, was sent on an exploratory voyage to find a faster route to the East Indies that would allow for easier trading, which would expand the Spanish Empire.

2) Economic. Among the five motives for imperialism, economic expansion is probably the most significant. For example, one of the biggest reasons why the American government wanted to settle the western territories was so that they could increase agricultural production and export more goods, which would give them more economic power in the global trade market.

3) Political. At times, a country might want to expand their political power and control over a particular region, which would make them more powerful in a global context. During WWII, the Nazis occupied and attempted to annex several neighboring countries in Europe with the intention of bringing those countries under Nazi rule, giving them the most power in Europe.

4) Ideological. While it is generally not the main reason why a nation would want to expand their empire to a new territory, ideological motives often play a big part in imperialism. For example, when the Spanish began to colonize South American territories in the 16th century, their main motive was to acquire the gold and other resources that the region possessed. Nevertheless, because they identified the local populations as being primitive and inferior to Europeans, they believed that their own superiority gave them the right to take the land and resources from the Indigenous peoples.

5) Religious. Like ideological motives, the spreading of one culture's religion is often a part of imperialism but not the main reason. For centuries, governments and churches have sent missionaries, priests, and civilians to other parts of the world to spread their beliefs to other cultures. This is often based on the belief that their own religion is superior or the one true religion, and in spreading it to other parts of the world, they hoped to save the souls of less civilized people.

As I've said above, there is generally not a single motive for imperialism but multiple motives that work together to achieve the colonization and control of a new territory. In South America, for example, the Spanish empire wanted to access the natural resources of the newly discovered territory, but while there, they also wanted to bring the Indigenous peoples under Spanish rule and impose their own ideological and religious beliefs on them in order to civilize who they believed were savage people. In this case, all five motives are working together so that Spain could increase their wealth, power, and influence in the New World.

Lesson Summary

In the broadest sense of the word, imperialism is the spread of one country's empire and influence to a new territory through colonization, force, or coercion. While this is often done for the purpose of gaining additional wealth, power, and control, there is generally more than one motive for imperialism that overlap in order to achieve the objective.

These five main motives for imperialism are exploration, economic expansion, increased political power, spreading of ideological beliefs, and imposing one's own religious beliefs on others. Although one of these motives tends to be the primary focus, like accessing another country's resources, they all tend to work together to a certain degree in order to achieve the desired outcome.

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