This chapter discusses Europe’s pursuit of imperialism in the late nineteenth century. The years after 1870 witnessed an unprecedented growth of European influence and control over the rest of the world. Europe’s achievement was made possible by its advanced technology, the institutional advantages of the national-state, and, more intangibly, a certain European sense of superiority.
The eighteenth-century collapse of Spain, Portugal, and France as major colonial powers left Britain as Europe’s dominant imperial power. Until the 1860s and 1870s, the expansion of British control came largely through the imperialism of free trade. British colonial interests shifted from the Atlantic world to Asia, with India the most important piece of its empire.
The imperialist movement of the late-nineteenth century has been called the New Imperialism in recognition of its several novel features. Like earlier imperialism, the new movement involved a policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial hegemony over others. Unlike their predecessors, the New Imperialists did not seek to settle their overseas land with people, nor did they remain content with mere establishment of trading posts. They sought to transform the entire economy and culture of the dominated area to their own profit, and to that end, they assumed legal or factual political control. Another novelty was the great speed with which European expansion proceeded; such imperial action was deemed necessary to maintain the reputation of a great power. The New Imperialism is exhibited by the “Scramble for Africa,” Russian expansion in mainland Asia, and imperialistic flexing in Asia by other Western nations as European nations expanded their economic and political influence.
European Imperialism was built on technological advances. The conquest of tropical diseases, the invention of steamboats, and improvements in firearms all gave Europeans important advantages. At the same time, religious motives, embodied in the modern Western missionary movement, continued to play an important role in European imperialism. The expansion of European influence was always accompanied by missionaries seeking to convert colonized peoples and influence the development of European colonies. In the late nineteenth century, women played a particularly important role in missionary activity. Scientists too, became part of the imperialist project, seeking new knowledge, but often imposing their cultural assumptions on their observations.