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Imperialism and Free Trade: Rise of Neo-imperialism: Part I

Imperialism and Free Trade: Rise of Neo-imperialism- Part I


  • Imperialism is “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means”.
  • Two major subtypes of imperialism:
    • The first is the “regressive imperialism” identified with pure conquest, unequivocal exploitation, extermination or reductions of undesired peoples, and the settlement of desired peoples into such territories.
    • The second type identified is “progressive imperialism” founded upon a cosmopolitan view of humanity, that promotes the spread of civilization to allegedly backward societies to elevate living standards and culture in conquered territories, with the allowance of a colonised people to assimilate into the imperial society, an example being the British Empire which claimed to give their subjects a number of advantages.
  • The term as such primarily has been applied to Western political and economic dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • From a Marxist perspective, imperialism is a natural feature of a developed capitalist nation state as it matures into monopoly capitalism. Imperialism is the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
    • Competition between empires and the unfettered drive to maximize profit would lead to wars between the empires themselves, such as the World Wars, as well as continued future military interventions and occupations in the colonies to establish, expand, and exploit less developed markets for the monopolist corporations of the empires.
  • Both colonisation and imperialism have been described by some as early forms of globalization.

Justification of imperialism:

  • The justification of imperialism done on many grounds: “It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed, and developed, as far as possible, by the races which can do this work best, i.e. by the races of highest ‘social efficiency‘”.
    • Technology and economic efficiency were often improved in territories subjected to imperialism through the building of roads, other infrastructure, and introduction of new technologies.
  • British imperialism often used the concept of terra nullius (’empty land’). Australia was premised on terra nullius, and its settlers considered it unused by its sparse Aboriginal inhabitants.


  • Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colony in one territory by a political power from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and often between the colonists and the indigenous population.
  • The European colonial period was the era from the 16th century to the mid-20th century when several European powers (particularly, Portugal, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and France) established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
  • At first the countries followed mercantilist policies designed to strengthen the home economy at the expense of rivals, so the colonies were usually allowed to trade only with the mother country. By the mid-19th century, however, the powerful British Empire gave up mercantilism and trade restrictions and introduced the principle of free trade, with few restrictions or tariffs.
  • Socio-cultural evolution: As colonialism often played out in pre-populated areas, sociocultural evolution included the formation of various ethnically hybrid populations. Colonialism gave rise to culturally and ethnically mixed populations such as the mestizos of the Americas, as well as racially-divided populations such as those found in French Algeria or in Southern Rhodesia.

Colonialism vs. imperialism:

  • Colonialism and imperialism are often used interchangeably, but they have different meaning.
  • Though both the words underline suppression of the other, Colonialism is where one nation assumes control over the other and Imperialism refers to political or economic control, either formally or informally.
  • Colonialism can be thought to be a practice and imperialism as the idea driving the practice.
  • Colonialism is a term where a country conquers and rules over other regions. It means exploiting the resources of the conquered country for the benefit of the conqueror.
  • Colonialism is termed as building and maintaining colonies in one territory by people from another territory. Colonialism can altogether alter the social structure, physical structure and economics of a region. In the long run, the traits of the conqueror are inherited by the conquered.
  • Colonialism is a term used to describe the settlement of places like India, Australia, North America, Algeria, New Zealand and Brazil, which were all controlled by the Europeans. Imperialism, on the other hand is described where a foreign government governs a territory without significant settlement. The scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and the American domination of Puerto Rico and the Philippines can be cited as examples of Imperialism.
  • In Colonialism, one can see great movement of people to the new territory and living as permanent settlers. Though they lead the life as permanent settlers, they still maintain allegiance to their mother country. Imperialism is just exercising power over the conquered regions either through sovereignty or indirect mechanisms of control.
  • Imperialism has a longer history than Colonialism. While the history of colonialism dates back to 15th century, Imperialism has its origins dating back to the Romans.
  • Colonialism has its origins when Europeans started to look outside their country, pursuing trade with other nations.
  • Colony comes from the Latin word colonus, which means farmers. Imperialism also comes from Latin word imperium, which means to command.
  • Imperialism operates from the center, it is a state policy, and is developed for ideological as well as financial reasons, whereas colonialism is nothing more than development for settlement or commercial intentions.Thus it can be said that imperialism includes some form of colonialism, but colonialism itself does not automatically imply imperialism, as it lacks a political focus.

Impact of Colonisation and Imperialism:

  • (Collect Points from chapters like Scramble For Africa, Colonisation Of Latin America, India etc)

1. Political Impact:

  • In the political sphere, Imperialism proved to be a blessing in disguise for some countries. For example it provided political unity to India which had been torn by dissensions and strife before the arrival of the western powers.
    • Thus the British provided political unity to India which she had not achieved at any stage in her past history.
    • This was rendered possible due to development of railways, modern means of trans­port and communication, press, introduction of English language which served as lingua franca, and a uniform system of administration through­out the country.
    • This unity paved the way for the growth of political consciousness amongst people and ultimately motivated them to over­throw the colonial and imperialist yoke.
  • Secondly, the western colonialism and imperialism was responsible for the introduction of western ideas like nationalism, democracy, constitu­tionalism etc. in Asia and Africa. The various imperialist powers tried to implant their ideas and institutions in their colonies and thus unconsciously let loose liberal forces in the countries of Asia and Africa.
  • Thirdly, the colonial powers introduced efficient system of administration in the country.
    • It is true that the administrative machinery was evolved primarily to promote the interest of the imperialist powers and paid little attention to the well being and welfare of the natives.
    • Further, the natives were not given adequate representation in the civil services and generally excluded from higher positions. Despite these shortcomings, the system of administration, provided by the imperialist powers, exposed the colonial people to the system of western administration.

2. Economic Impact

  • In the economic sphere impact also the western imperialism had a mixed impact.
  • On the positive side it led to development of industries in Asia and Africa.
    • The various imperialist powers set up industries in their colonies to make profits and thus paved the way for the industrialization of the colonies.
    • The colonial powers established long lines of railways, built banking houses etc. in the colonies to fully exploit their resources.
    • They also set up certain industries in these colonies to make quick profits and fully exploited the resources available there.All this proved to be a boon for the colonies and led to their industrialization.
  • On the negative side, the imperialist powers exploited the colonies by importing raw materials at the cheapest possible rates and exported the finished products at very high rates.
  • They also tried to cripple local industries, trade and commerce by enacting necessary industrial and taxation laws. This policy of systematic exploitation resulted in the draining of wealth and greatly contributed to poverty, starvation and backwardness of the colonies.

3. Social and Cultural Impact:

  • In the social and cultural spheres the colonial and imperialist rule produced many consequences.
    • In the first place it adversely affected the religions of the local people because the local people were encouraged by the Western Missionaries to embrace Christianity by offering them certain material benefits.
    • As a result soon Christianity became a thriving religion in many Asian and African countries.
  • Secondly, the Christian Missionaries played an important role in providing certain social services to the local people in the form of hospitals, dispensaries, schools, colleges etc. and thus greatly contributed to the enlightening of the people of Asia and Africa.
  • Thirdly, colonial and imperialist rule led to racial segregation.
    • The European rulers treated their culture as superior to the Asian and African cultures and tried to impose the same on them.
    • Further, they believed that white races are superior to the black races and tried to keep aloof.
    • They often enacted discriminatory laws against the local people. For example, in India the Indians could not travel in the railway compartment in which the Europeans were travelling.
    • This policy of racial segregation greatly undermined the moral tone of the local population.
  • Fourthly, the imperialist rule led to the rise of slavery.
    • The slaves began to be sold and purchased as part of personal belongings. The practice commenced when Portuguese in the 15th century raided the African villages and enslaved the people.
    • These persons were then transported to America. In fact there existed a regular market of slaves in Lisbon. Even the English engaged themselves in the slave trade.
    • This slave trade resulted in the uprooting of millions of Africans from their homes. What is still worse that they were made to work under the most inhuman conditions and were treated with great cruelty.
  • Fifthly, the imperialist rule undermined the moral principles.
    • They foreshook all norms of morality to keep their hold on the colonial people. They tried to divide the local people and made them fight among themselves to retain power.
    • The policy of ‘divide and rule’ followed by the British in India best exemplifies this policy of the imperialist powers. It is well known that this policy of ‘divide and rule’ ultimately led to the partition of India.
  • Finally, the policy of colonialism and imperialism caused untold misery and suffering to the people. The various imperialist powers were involved in a number of wars with the local people as well as amongst themselves which resulted in loss of millions lives. Thus colonialism and imperialism resulted in untold misery to humanity.

We can say that colonialism and imperialism left a deep impact on colonies in the political, eco­nomic as well as social field.

Decline of old colonial movements

  • The American Revolution and the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the early 19th century ended the first era of European imperialism.
    • Most of the colonies were suffering losses and so colonial master were loosing interest in colonies. Empire building was hardly worth the trouble and money expended on it
  • In the United Kingdom, these revolutions helped show the deficiencies of mercantilism, the doctrine of economic competition for finite wealth which had supported earlier imperial expansion.
    • In 1846, The Corn Laws, which were the regulations governing the import and export of grain, were repealed after a great deal of protesting from the middle class.
    • Because of the repeal, manufacturers were faced with a tremendous benefit, as the regulations enforced by the Corn Laws had slowed their businesses. With the repeal in place, the manufacturers were then able to trade more freely. Thus, the UK began to adopt the concept of free trade.
    • Free trade movement was also reason of less interest in colonies.

(Note: Free Trade is covered in other topics of world history)

Rise of New Imperialism (Neo-Imperialism):

  • The New Imperialism was a period of colonial expansion—and its accompanying ideologies—by the European powers, the United States of America and the Empire of Japan during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • The qualifier “new” is to contrast with the earlier wave of European colonization from the 15th to early 19th centuries.
    • From the 15th century Europe had turned her eyes upon the non-European world and in course of the next two centuries Spain, Portugal, Holland, England and France laid the foundations of their colonial empires.
    • But in the early part of the 19th century the colonial movement seemed to have lost much its vitality. This was due to the fact that the colonial empires built up by European nations were crumbling to pieces on all sides and suffered loss. Great Britain had lost American colonies in 1783 and then Spanish colonies in America had revolted.
    • Also, the mercantile theory that colonies were beneficial and necessary to the mother countries was gradually losing its appeal on account of the sharp criticisms directed against it by Turgot and Adam Smith who stood for the new economic theory of laissez-faire. With the growth of Free Trade Movement, the very foundation of the old colonial policy was undermined.
    • But again, 1870s and 1880s witnessed a retreat from the free market and a return to state intervention in economic affairs. The foreign counterpart to this phenomenon was the New Imperialism.
      • This was largely the result of the new economic conditions produced by the Industrial Revolution.
      • The Great Powers of Europe suddenly shook off almost a century of apathy toward overseas colonies and, in the space of 20 years, partitioned almost the entire uncolonized portion of the globe.
      • This period is distinguished by an unprecedented pursuit of overseas territorial acquisitions. Countries focused on building their empire with new technological advances and developments, making their country bigger through conquest, and exploiting their resources.

Causes of the New Imperialism

  • Entry of Germany and Italy and rising competition:
    • Between the 1815 Congress of Vienna and the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Britain reaped the benefits of being the world’s sole modern, industrial power.
    • The erosion of British hegemony after the Franco-Prussian War, was occasioned by changes in the European and world economies and in the continental balance of power following the breakdown of the Concert of Europe, established by the Congress of Vienna.
    • The establishment of nation-states in Germany and Italy resolved territorial issues that had kept potential rivals embroiled in internal affairs at the heart of Europe, to Britain’s advantage.
    • The years from 1871 to 1914 would be marked by an extremely unstable peace and fierce competition for colonies among European powers including new united nations like Italy and Germany. Particularly Germany was too eager for colonies (which was considered a source of pride apart from economic and political need) as she was powerful after unification but without colonies unlike Britain and France.
  • Economic motives of New Imperialism:
    • The growing of European industry, the increase in production capacity, and the surplus of capital created the necessity of finding new markets, new sources of raw materials, and new areas for capital investment in the big countries.
    • There was a great demand for natural resources and products not found in Western countries, such as rubber, oil, and tin. Instead of trading for these products with these countries, they choose the direct control over the areas that raw materials were found.
    • Furthermore, economic expansion demanded cheap labor, access to or control of markets to sell or buy product. Thus, people who lived in European countries started to support colonial policies. In doing so, the capitalism was growing hand in hand with imperialism.
    • The existence of competition between new nation states was the major determinant in the growth of “new imperialism”.
      • This competition was sharpened by the Long Depression of 1873–1896, which put pressure on governments to promote home industry, leading to the widespread abandonment of free trade among Europe’s powers (in Germany from 1879 and in France from 1881). Though the British remained more or less free-trade throughout the era of the New Imperialism.
      • Policy of protection led to a demand of colonies:
        • The idea of the protectionist creed is national self-sufficiency. But this was impossible for industrialised Europe without controlling those underdeveloped tropical regions which produced some of the indispensable raw materials.
        • Hence the economic policy of protection gave a stimulus to imperialism.
  • Nationalistic factors of New Imperialism
    • The spirit of national pride and hunger for prestige supplied a very strong incentive to colonial expansion. This spirit was especially strong in the two new states of Italy and Germany. Carlton J. Hayes in his book “From Nationalism to Imperialism” said that the new imperialism was a nationalistic phenomenon.
    • New Imperialism followed hard upon the national wars which created an all powerful united Germany and a united Italy, which carried Russia within sight of Constantinople, and which left England fearful and France eclipsed. It expressed a resulting psychological reaction, an ardent desire to maintain or recover national prestige.
      • France sought compensation for European loss in oversea gain.
      • England would offset her European isolation by enlarging and glorifying the British Empire.
      • Russia, halted in the Balkans, would turn anew to Asia.
    • In the exuberance of patriotic pride which followed the achievement of their national unity, Germany and Italy wanted to establish their status as world-power.
      • The huge colonial empire of Britain had set a standard and the idea was growing that the possessions of colonies was part of the proper equipment of a great power.
      • With the entry of these two states the competition for overseas possessions became keener.
      • Everywhere nationalism became aggressive and patriotism “developed from love of country into love of more country.”
    • The lesser powers, with no great prestige at stake, managed to get on without any new imperialism, though Portugal and Holland displayed a revived pride in the empires they already possessed and the latter’s was administered with renewed vigor.
    • Public agitation for extending overseas the political dominion of European national states certainly began with patriotic intellectuals.
      • For example, as early as in 1868, Otto Kersten, traveler and explorer, founded at Berlin a “Central Society for Commercial Geography and German Interests Abroad”.
      • Simultaneously the “Royal Colonial Institute” was founded at London; and a brilliant young English gentleman, Sir Charles Dilke, returning from a trip around the world, published his patriotic and immensely popular Greater Britain.
      • Writers and speakers in England, France and Germany opened institutions to promote the idea of imperialism and took great pride in calling their territories empires.
  • Political motives of New Imperialism:
    • Military and strategic value of colonies:
      • As the European competition of the economic interests grew, European states tried to find new market and colonies abroad that provided ports, naval bases and coaling stations for their navies.
      • Strategic locations from military point of view were colonised
    • Pressure of population on European countries (so needed colonies to migrate) also led to the colonisation.
  • Colonies were source of pride:
    • For European states establishment, colonies abroad was a source of international prestige which fueled the New Imperialism.
  • Role of Social Darwinism and Racism:
    • Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, and within a decade popularizers had misapplied his theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest to contemporary sociology, politics and economics and called Social Darwinism. This pseudoscientific social Darwinism appealed to educated Europeans.
    • Social Darwinists generally argue that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease. Social Darwinist theories were used to justify European imperialism and colonialism.
    • Imperialism was also tied to racism.
      • Superior races must dominate the inferior races by military force to show how strong and competent they are.
      • European countries were willing to use this theory because it fits their interest all around the world. They believed they are the strongest race and would bring the civilization to the unenlightened. For example, Anglo-Saxons were believed superior because they enjoyed political, economic, and cultural hegemony over non-Anglo-Saxon people.
  • Religious and Cultural motives
    • Europeans believed that they have moral responsibilities for non-European peoples. According to Europeans, they would bring civilization to the noncivilize ‘’ignorant’’ countries. They thought that humanitarian and humanism should be brought to the unenlightened countries.
    • The poem ‘’The White Man’s Burden’’ of Rudyard Kipling became the symbol of Eurocentric racism. As per this poem, white people have an obligation to rule all the ‘’ignorant’’ noncivilize people all over the world and encourage to cultural development of other people who came from a different background until they reach the stage of the European countries economically, and socially. This was used as justification of imperialism.
    • Though the Catholic missionaries spread in the 16th century all over the Europe, in the 19th century, Protestant took over to share duty of converting Asian and African people to Christianity with Catholics.
      • Many missionaries engaged in medical work and education, setting up hospitals, schools in colonies.
      • Thousands of Catholic and Protestant missionaries went abroad to seek converts to their faith with the belief that the superiority of their civilization obligated them to impose modern industries and cultures over the primitive “nonwhite” men.
  • Technological Advances
    • One other necessary condition for the New Imperialism was technological.
    • Prior to the 1870s Europeans could overawe native peoples along the coasts of Africa and Asia but lacked the firepower, mobility, and communications that would have been needed to pacify the interior. (India was the exception, where the British East India Company exploited an anarchic situation and allied itself with selected native rulers against others.).
    • The tsetse fly and the Anophelesmosquito—bearers of sleeping sickness and malaria—were the ultimate defenders of African and Asian jungles.
    • The correlation of forces between Europe and the colonizable world shifted, however, with the invention of shallow-draft riverboats, the steamship and telegraph, the repeater rifle and Maxim gun, and the discovery of quinine as an effective prophylactic against malaria.
    • By 1880 small groups of European regulars, armed with modern weapons and exercising fire discipline, could overwhelm many times their number of native troops.

Q. “New imperialism had nationalistic motives more than economic motives.” Justify this statement.


  • The sequence of imperialism after 1870 appears to have been,
    • first, pleas for colonies on the ground of national prestige;
    • second, getting them;
    • third, disarming critics by economic argument; and
    • fourth, carrying this into effect and relating the results to the neo-mercantilism of tariff protection and social legislation at home.
  • Theories postulating Europe’s need to export surplus capital (so need to find new colonies) do not fit the facts.
    • Only Britain and France were capital-exporting countries in 1880, and in years to come their investors preferred to export capital to other European countries (especially Russia) or the Western Hemisphere rather than to their own colonies.)
  • New Imperialism did not affect the “capitalist class” as a whole:
    • Only particular business interests were affected by New Imperialism: exporters and manufacturers of certain commodities such as calico and cheap alcoholic beverages; importers of rubber, raw cotton, coffee, copra, etc.; shipping magnates; some bankers, though a very small percentage of all; and the makers of arms and uniforms, the producers of telegraph and railway material, etc.
    • But these hardly caused imperialism as they merely throve on it.
  • Some capitalists undoubtedly promoted imperialism, and more profited by it. But it was the nationalistic masses who made it possible and who most vociferously applauded and most constantly backed it.
    • Disraeli and Joseph Chamberlain were good politicians as well as patriots, and they perceived that in a country where the masses were patriotic, a political party which frankly espoused imperialism would have magnetic attraction for them. So it proved an unwonted popularity which attended the Conservative parties of Britain and Germany during the 1880’s and 1890’s.
    • The masses, of course, had no immediate economic interest in the matter, and it would have required an extraordinary act of faith on their part to believe the predictions of imperialistic intellectuals that somehow, sometime, everybody would be enriched from the colonies of the Congo or the Niger or Tahiti. Rather, the masses were thrilled and stirred by front-page news in the popular press of far-off things and battles still to come.
  • Of the explorers, the majority had military training.
    • Louis Faidherbe, a former governor of Senegal, was a French general. De Brazza (who opened up for France entry along the right bank of Congo that eventually led to French colonies in Central Africa) was a naval officer.
    • They were intensely patriotic, and they had a zeal to serve the political, economic, and military interests of their respective nations. They were prime promoters of imperialism.
  • Sheer love of adventure was a potent lure to imperialism.
    • For example: Stanley was patently an adventurer. He had no surplus goods to sell, no surplus capital to invest.
  • Explorers and adventurers gave rise to a peculiar species of organizer and administrator, despotic and ruthless and most devotedly imperialistic and patriotic.
    • For example, German adventurer Carl Peters and British adventurer-imperialist Rhodes. For the glory of themselves and their countries, such local potentates carried on without too much regard for merely economic considerations of their distant home governments.
  • In many instances European flags were hoisted as a sport – a competitive sport – with about the same indifference to economic motives as characterized the later planting of American and other flags on cakes of ice around the North or South Pole. It had certainly nationalistic elements more than economic motive.

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