Features of Imperialism | Causes and Consequences

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European Imperialism

Imperialism – Process that took place between 1875 and 1914 and was characterized by the great development of industrial capitalism and the colonial expansion of the great powers of Europe over Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands.

What was European Imperialism?

European imperialism was a process characterized by the great development of industrial capitalism and the colonial expansion of the great powers over Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands.

It took place between 1875 and 1914 and was led by the most industrialized states of the European continent (Great Britain, Germany and France); and also by countries in the process of industrialization (Belgium, Italy and the Russian Empire).

These powers competed with each other to appropriate territories that would serve as sources of raw materials for their factories and food for their population. They also looked for new markets to sell their industrialized products.

The creation of colonial empires was justified by racist ideas that affirmed the superiority of European civilization over the rest of the world.

Features of Imperialism

Among the main characteristics of imperialism, the following stand out:

  • Distribution of almost all of Africa, the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia among the industrial powers of Europe. This resulted in the formation of great colonial empires.
  • Establishment of four types of administration within these empires:
    • The colonies, subject to the political and economic authority of their metropolises.
    • The protectorates, occupied states that maintained a certain autonomy. This was the case of Egypt, which was a British protectorate since 1914.
    • Concessions, coastal business establishments, such as Hong Kong, in China.
    • The joint states, which were associated with their colonizing country. This is the case of Australia, Canada and South Africa, with respect to Great Britain.
  • Establishment of an international division of labor between industrialized countries, on the one hand, and colonies and developing countries, on the other. The great powers exported industrialized products, capital and labor and imported agricultural-livestock raw materials and minerals. Colonies and developing countries imported industrialized products, capital, and labor, and exported primary goods.
  • Transoceanic migration with the aim of transferring labor expelled from rural areas of industrialized countries to rural and urban areas of colonies and developing countries.
  • Merger of European industrial and financial capital due to the association of companies with banks.
  • Generation of a new type of work organization that guaranteed greater productivity. This new organization was based on the use of assembly lines and the assignment of a single task to each operator.
  • Development of trusts and cartels. The former were business associations to dominate world markets. The cartels were agreements of companies of the same category to avoid the decrease in prices.

Imperialism - Painting depicting a battle during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

The Defense of Rorke’s Drift, a painting by Alphonse de Neuville depicting a battle during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

Causes and Consequences of European Imperialism

Causes of Imperialism

The main causes of European imperialism were the following:

  • Economic: after the crisis of 1873, the great powers needed to get sources of raw materials for their industries and markets not regulated by protectionist measures where they could sell their products. It also sought to invest surplus capital to obtain large profits.
  • Political: the leaders of the time had the belief that colonial expansion would strengthen the primacy of their nations over others, because the possession of colonies was a symbol of power and prestige. It also sought to decompress internal political tensions.
  • Demographic: due to the rapid growth of the European population, in some countries natural resources began to become scarce, for which the industrial powers sought to expand their territories to obtain food and establish the surplus population.
  • Ideological: based on the theory of evolution exposed by Charles Darwin towards the middle of the 19th century, social Darwinism developed, according to which Europeans were the superior race and had the right to dominate the nations considered inferior. According to this theory, the European powers had the mission of bringing civilization to those peoples who considered themselves “savage,” “barbarian,” or “backward.”

Consequences of Imperialism

Some of the main consequences of European imperialism were the following:

  • Policies: the colonized territories experienced a degree of dependence on the metropolis, which was related to the type of administrative scheme that was imposed on them. This dependence generated conflicts, which aroused an anti-imperialist attitude raised by the westernized local sectors. After the end of the Second World War, this anti-imperialist sentiment was the germ of the emancipatory movements that led to the decolonization of Asia and Africa.
  • Economic: the need to economically exploit the colonial territories made it necessary to build an infrastructure (roads, ports, railway networks) destined to supply the products required by the industrialized powers. At the same time, monoculture export economies were established, which marginalized crops destined for the domestic market from the commercial circuits.
  • Demographic: in general, the local population decreased due to the conquest wars, the introduction of diseases brought by the colonizers and the harsh conditions of labor exploitation. Where the local population declined drastically it was replaced by foreign settlers.
  • Cultural: a strong acculturation took place as a result of the implantation of the languages, customs and behavior patterns of the colonizing peoples. The imposition of Catholic, Anglican or Protestant Christianity displaced or merged with pre-existing religious beliefs, giving rise to expressions of religious syncretism.
  • Ecological: the introduction of new farming techniques and foreign plant and animal species modified or destroyed pre-existing natural ecosystems. Thus, for example, the great tropical forests were indiscriminately cut down to obtain wood, rubber and gain land for agriculture.

French illustration from 1898

French illustration from 1898 that caricatures the imperialist ambitions of the great powers, which sought to divide up the Chinese territory. The cartoon depicts Britain’s Queen Victoria, the German Emperor Wilhelm II, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and a Japanese samurai. Marianne, who symbolizes the French Republic, watches without participating in the cast, while a Mandarin Chinese tries to stop the dispossession.

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