History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1981: Q.5 (a)

Q.5 (a) Write a critical note on:

                     “Theory of ‘The New imperialism’ after 1870.”


The New Imperialism was a period of colonial expansion—and its accompanying ideologies— mainly by the European powers 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.

The 1870’s and 1880’s 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. 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. At the time, countries focused on building their empire with new technological advances and developments, making their country bigger through conquest, and exploiting their resources.

It gave rise to Social Darwinism, a modern name given to various theories of society that emerged in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Western Europe in the 1870s, and which sought to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics. Social Darwinists generally argue that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease

Reasons and theories of the New Imperialism

Entry of Germany and Italy and rising competition

During this period, 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.

Economic motives of New Imperialism

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. 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.
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 getting grow 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 free-trade throughout the era of the New Imperialism.

[Note: 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.]

Political motives of New Imperialism

Military value of colonies: As the European competition of the economic interests grew, European states tried to 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 flueled the New Imperialism.

The 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 politics and economics. 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

Imperialism was tied to social Darwinism and racism. Social Darwinist theories were used to justify European imperialism and colonialism. Superior races must dominate the infeiror races by military force to show how strong and competent they are. European countries was 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. Moreover, they are more humanitarian and humanism should be brought to the unenlightened countries. In the poem ‘’The White Man’s Burden’’ of Rudyard Kipling, we can see that imperialists countries try to justify their action with this manner. This peom became the symbol of Eurocentric racism. In 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.

Though the Catholic missiniories 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 enagaged 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 (in India) that quinine is 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.


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