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Cecil Rhodes and the Cape-Cairo railway project. Rhodes founded the De Beers Mining Company, owned the British South Africa Company and had his name given to what became the state of Rhodesia. He liked to "paint the map British red" and declared: "all of these stars ... these vast worlds that remain out of reach. If I could, I would annex other planets".[1]

Imperialism is an action that involves a country (usually an empire or a kingdom) extending its power by the acquisition of territories. It may also include the exploitation of these territories, an action that is linked to colonialism. Colonialism is generally regarded as an expression of imperialism.

It is different from New Imperialism, as the term imperialism is usually applied to the colonization of the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries, as opposed to the expansion of Western Powers (and Japan) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, both are examples of imperialism.

Etymology and usage

The word imperialism originated from the Latin word imperium,[2] which means supreme power. It first became common in Great Britain, during the 1870s and was used with a negative connotation.[3] The term was and is mainly applied to Western (and Japanese) political and economic dominance, especially in Asia and Africa, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its precise meaning continues to be debated by scholars. Some writers, such as Edward Said, use the term more broadly to describe any system of domination and subordination organised with an imperial center and a periphery.[4] This definition encompasses both nominal empires and neocolonialism.

Colonialism vs. imperialism

"The word 'empire' comes from the Latin word imperium; for which the closest modern English equivalent would perhaps be 'sovereignty', or simply 'rule'".[5] The greatest distinction of an empire is through the amount of land that a nation has conquered and expanded. Political power grows from conquering land, however cultural and economic aspects flourish through sea and trade routes. A distinction about empires is "that although political empires were built mostly by expansion overland, economic and cultural influences spread at least as much by sea".[6] Some of the main aspects of trade that went overseas consisted of animals and plant products. European empires in Asia and Africa "have come to be seen as the classic forms of imperialism: and indeed most books on the subject confine themselves to the European seaborne empires".[7] European expansion caused the world to be divided by how developed and developing nation are portrayed through the world systems theory. The two main regions are the core and the periphery. The core consists of high areas of income and profit; the periphery is on the opposing side of the spectrum consisting of areas of low income and profit. These critical theories of Geo-politics have led to increased discussion of the meaning and impact of imperialism on the modern post-colonial world. The Russian leader Lenin suggested that "imperialism was the highest form of capitalism, claiming that imperialism developed after colonialism, and was distinguished from colonialism by monopoly capitalism".[8] This idea from Lenin stresses how important new political world order has become in our modern era. Geopolitics now focuses on states becoming major economic players in the market; some states today are viewed as empires due to their political and economic authority over other nations.

Entrance of the Russian troops in Tiflis, 26 November 1799, by Franz Roubaud, 1886

The term "imperialism" is often conflated with "colonialism", however many scholars have argued that each have their own distinct definition. Imperialism and colonialism have been used in order to describe one's superiority, domination and influence upon a person or group of people. Robert Young writes that while imperialism operates from the center, is a state policy and is developed for ideological as well as financial reasons, colonialism is simply the development for settlement or commercial intentions. However, colonialism still includes invasion.[9] Colonialism in modern usage also tends to imply a degree of geographic separation between the colony and the imperial power. Particularly, Edward Said distinguishes the difference between imperialism and colonialism by stating; "imperialism involved 'the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory', while colonialism refers to the 'implanting of settlements on a distant territory.'[10] Contiguous land empires such as the Russian or Ottoman have traditionally been excluded from discussions of colonialism, though this is beginning to change, since it is accepted that they also sent populations into the territories they ruled.[11]:116 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.[further explanation needed]

Imperialism and colonialism both dictate the political and economic advantage over a land and the indigenous populations they control, yet scholars sometimes find it difficult to illustrate the difference between the two.[12]:107 Although imperialism and colonialism focus on the suppression of an other, if colonialism refers to the process of a country taking physical control of another, imperialism refers to the political and monetary dominance, either formally or informally. Colonialism is seen to be the architect deciding how to start dominating areas and then imperialism can be seen as creating the idea behind conquest cooperating with colonialism. Colonialism is when the imperial nation begins a conquest over an area and then eventually is able to rule over the areas the previous nation had controlled. Colonialism's core meaning is the exploitation of the valuable assets and supplies of the nation that was conquered and the conquering nation then gaining the benefits from the spoils of the war.[12]:170–75 The meaning of imperialism is to create an empire, by conquering the other state's lands and therefore increasing its own dominance. Colonialism is the builder and preserver of the colonial possessions in an area by a population coming from a foreign region.[12]:173–76 Colonialism can completely change the existing social structure, physical structure and economics of an area; it is not unusual that the characteristics of the conquering peoples are inherited by the conquered indigenous populations.[12]:41


Stephen Howe, while generally hostile to empires, has summarized the beneficial effects of the main empires:

At least some of the great modern empires – the British, French, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and even the Ottoman – have virtues that have been too readily forgotten. They provided stability, security, and legal order for their subjects. They constrained, and at their best, tried to transcend, the potentially savage ethnic or religious antagonisms among the peoples. And the aristocracies which ruled most of them were often far more liberal, humane, and cosmopolitan than their supposedly ever more democratic successors.[13][14]

A controversial aspect of imperialism is the defense and justification of empire-building based on seemingly rational grounds. In ancient China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land was directly apportioned to the Imperial court, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Imperial court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common citizens, tributary states, and finally ending with the fringe "barbarians". Tianxia's idea of hierarchy gave Chinese a privileged position and was justified through the promise of order and peace. J. A. Hobson identifies this justification on general grounds as: "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'".[15] Many others argued that imperialism is justified for several different reasons. Friedrich Ratzel believed that in order for a state to survive, imperialism was needed. Halford Mackinder felt that Great Britain needed to be one of the greatest imperialists and therefore justified imperialism.[16] The purportedly scientific nature of "Social Darwinism" and a theory of races formed a supposedly rational justification for imperialism. The rhetoric of colonizers being racially superior appears to have achieved its purpose, for example throughout Latin America "whiteness" is still prized today and various forms of blanqueamiento (whitening) are common.

The Royal Geographical Society of London and other geographical societies in Europe had great influence and were able to fund travelers who would come back with tales of their discoveries.[17] These societies also served as a space for travellers to share these stories.[17] Political geographers such as Friedrich Ratzel of Germany and Halford Mackinder of Britain also supported imperialism.[18] Ratzel believed expansion was necessary for a state's survival while Mackinder supported Britain's imperial expansion; these two arguments dominated the discipline for decades.[19]

Geographical theories such as environmental determinism also suggested that tropical environments created uncivilized people in need of European guidance.[17] For instance, American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple argued that even though human beings originated in the tropics they were only able to become fully human in the temperate zone.[20] Tropicality can be paralleled with Edward Said's Orientalism as the west's construction of the east as the "other".[21] According to Said, orientalism allowed Europe to establish itself as the superior and the norm, which justified its dominance over the essentialized Orient.[22]

Technology and economic efficiency were often improved in territories subjected to imperialism through the building of roads, other infrastructure and introduction of new technologies.

The principles of imperialism are often generalizable to the policies and practices of the British Empire "during the last generation, and proceeds rather by diagnosis than by historical description".[23] British imperialism often used the concept of Terra nullius (Latin expression which stems from Roman law meaning 'empty land'). The country of Australia serves as a case study in relation to British settlement and colonial rule of the continent in the eighteenth century, as it was premised on terra nullius, and its settlers considered it unused by its original inhabitants.

Orientalism and imaginative geography

Imperial control, territorial and cultural, is justified through discourses about the imperialists' understanding of different spaces.[24] Conceptually, imagined geographies explain the limitations of the imperialist understanding of the societies (human reality) of the different spaces inhabited by the non–European Other.[24]

In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said said that the West developed the concept of The Orient—an imagined geography of the Eastern world—which functions as an essentializing discourse that represents neither the ethnic diversity nor the social reality of the Eastern world.[25] That by reducing the East into cultural essences, the imperial discourse uses place-based identities to create cultural difference and psychologic distance between "We, the West" and "They, the East" and between "Here, in the West" and "There, in the East".[26]

That cultural differentiation was especially noticeable in the books and paintings of early Oriental studies, the European examinations of the Orient, which misrepresented the East as irrational and backward, the opposite of the rational and progressive West.[24][27] Defining the East as a negative vision of the Western world, as its inferior, not only increased the sense-of-self of the West, but also was a way of ordering the East, and making it known to the West, so that it could be dominated and controlled.[28][29] Therefore, Orientalism was the ideological justification of early Western imperialism—a body of knowledge and ideas that rationalized social, cultural, political, and economic control of other, non-white peoples.[26][30]


One of the main tools used by imperialists was cartography. Cartography is "the art, science and technology of making maps"[31] but this definition is problematic. It implies that maps are objective representations of the world when in reality they serve very political means.[31] For Harley, maps serve as an example of Foucault's power and knowledge concept.

To better illustrate this idea, Bassett focuses his analysis of the role of nineteenth-century maps during the "scramble for Africa".[32] He states that maps "contributed to empire by promoting, assisting, and legitimizing the extension of French and British power into West Africa".[32] During his analysis of nineteenth-century cartographic techniques, he highlights the use of blank space to denote unknown or unexplored territory.[32] This provided incentives for imperial and colonial powers to obtain "information to fill in blank spaces on contemporary maps".[32]

Although cartographic processes advanced through imperialism, further analysis of their progress reveals many biases linked to eurocentrism. According to Bassett, "[n]ineteenth-century explorers commonly requested Africans to sketch maps of unknown areas on the ground. Many of those maps were highly regarded for their accuracy"[32] but were not printed in Europe unless Europeans verified them.


Imperialism has played an important role in the histories of Japan, Korea, India, China, Assyria, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and many other empires. Imperialism was a basic component to the conquests of Genghis Khan during the Mongol Empire, and of other war-lords. Historically recognized Muslim empires number in the dozens. Sub-Saharan Africa has also featured dozens of empires that predate the European colonial era, for example the Ethiopian Empire, Oyo Empire, Asante Union, Luba Empire, Lunda Empire, and Mutapa Empire. The Americas during the pre-Columbian era also had large empires such as the Aztec Empire and the Incan Empire.

Although normally used to imply forcible imposition of a foreign government's control over another country or over conquered territory that was previously without a unified government, "imperialism" is sometimes used[by whom?] to describe loose or indirect political or economic influence on weak states by more powerful ones.[33]

Cultural imperialism is an extremely fuzzy concept, pointing to the supposed influence of one dominant culture over others, i.e. a form of soft power, which changes the moral, cultural, and societal worldview of the subordinate country. In some ways, this is such an expansion of the concept of imperialism as to be meaningless. This is more than just "foreign" music, television or film becoming popular with young people, but that popular culture changing their own expectations of life and their desire for their own country to become more like the foreign country depicted. For example, depictions of opulent American lifestyles in the soap opera Dallas during the Cold War changed the expectations of Romanians; a more recent example is the influence of smuggled South Korean drama series in North Korea. The importance of soft power is not lost on authoritarian regimes, fighting such influence with bans on foreign popular culture, control of the internet and unauthorised satellite dishes etc. Nor is such a usage of culture recent, as part of Roman imperialism local elites would be exposed to the benefits and luxuries of Roman culture and lifestyle, with the aim that they would then become willing participants.

Imperialism has been subject to moral or immoral censure by its critics[which?], and thus the term is frequently used in international propaganda as a pejorative for expansionist and aggressive foreign policy.[33]

Age of Imperialism

The Age of Imperialism, a time period beginning around 1760, saw (generally European) industrializing nations, engaging in the process of colonizing, influencing, and annexing other parts of the world in order to gain political power.[citation needed] Although imperialist practices have existed for thousands of years, the term "Age of Imperialism" generally refers to the activities of European powers from the early 18th century through to the middle of the 20th century, for example, "The Great Game" in Central Asia, the "Scramble for Africa" and the "Open Door Policy" in China.[34]

Africa, divided into colonies under multiple empires, circa 1913

In the 1970s British historians John Gallagher (1919–1980) and Ronald Robinson (1920–1999) argued that European leaders rejected the notion that "imperialism" required formal, legal control by one government over a colonial region. Much more important was informal control of independent areas.[35] According to Wm. Roger Louis, "In their view, historians have been mesmerized by formal empire and maps of the world with regions colored red. The bulk of British emigration, trade, and capital went to areas outside the formal British Empire. Key to their thinking is the idea of empire 'informally if possible and formally if necessary.'"[36] Oron Hale says that Gallagher and Robinson looked at the British involvement in Africa where they "found few capitalists, less capital, and not much pressure from the alleged traditional promoters of colonial expansion. Cabinet decisions to annex or not to annex were made, usually on the basis of political or geopolitical considerations."[37]:6

Looking at the main empires from 1875-1914, historians estimate a mixed record in terms of profitability. At first planners expected that colonies would provide an excellent captive market for manufactured items. Apart from India, this was seldom true. By the 1890s, imperialists saw the economic benefit primarily in the production of inexpensive raw materials to feed the domestic manufacturing sector. Overall, Great Britain did very well in terms of profits from India, but not from most of the rest of its empire. The Netherlands did very well in the East Indies. Germany and Italy got very little trade or raw materials from their empires. France did slightly better. The Belgian Congo was notoriously profitable when it was a capitalistic rubber plantation owned and operated by King Leopold II as a private enterprise. However, scandal after scandal regarding very badly mistreated labour led the international community to force the government of Belgium to take it over in 1908, and it became much less profitable. The Philippines cost the United States much more than expected because of military action against rebels.[37]:7–10

Because of the resources made available by imperialism, the world's economy grew significantly and became much more interconnected in the decades before World War I, making the many imperial powers rich and prosperous.[38]

Europe's expansion into territorial imperialism was largely focused on economic growth by collecting resources from colonies, in combination with assuming political control by military and political means. The colonization of India in the mid-18th century offers an example of this focus: there, the "British exploited the political weakness of the Mughal state, and, while military activity was important at various times, the economic and administrative incorporation of local elites was also of crucial significance" for the establishment of control over the subcontinent's resources, markets, and manpower.[39] Although a substantial number of colonies had been designed to provide economic profit and to ship resources to home ports in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Fieldhouse suggests that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in places such as Africa and Asia, this idea is not necessarily valid:[12]:183–84

Modern empires were not artificially constructed economic machines. The second expansion of Europe was a complex historical process in which political, social and emotional forces in Europe and on the periphery were more influential than calculated imperialism. Individual colonies might serve an economic purpose; collectively no empire had any definable function, economic or otherwise. Empires represented only a particular phase in the ever-changing relationship of Europe with the rest of the world: analogies with industrial systems or investment in real estate were simply misleading.[12]:184

During this time, European merchants had the ability to "roam the high seas and appropriate surpluses from around the world (sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently) and to concentrate them in Europe".[40]

British assault on Canton during the First Opium War, May 1841

European expansion greatly accelerated in the 19th century. To obtain raw materials, Europe expanded imports from other countries and from the colonies. European industrialists sought raw materials such as dyes, cotton, vegetable oils, and metal ores from overseas. Concurrently, industrialization was quickly making Europe the center of manufacturing and economic growth, driving resource needs.[41]

Communication became much more advanced during European expansion. With the invention of railroads and telegraphs, it became easier to communicate with other countries and to extend the administrative control of a home nation over its colonies. Steam railroads and steam-driven ocean shipping made possible the fast, cheap transport of massive amounts of goods to and from colonies.[41]

Along with advancements in communication, Europe also continued to advance in military technology. European chemists made new explosives that made artillery much more deadly. By the 1880s, the machine gun had become a reliable battlefield weapon. This technology gave European armies an advantage over their opponents, as armies in less-developed countries were still fighting with arrows, swords, and leather shields (e.g. the Zulus in Southern Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879).[41]

Theories of imperialism

Anglophone academic studies often base their theories regarding imperialism on the British experience of Empire. The term imperialism was originally introduced into English in its present sense in the late 1870s by opponents of the allegedly aggressive and ostentatious imperial policies of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Supporters of "imperialism" such as Joseph Chamberlain quickly appropriated the concept. For some,[who?] imperialism designated a policy of idealism and philanthropy; others alleged that it was characterized by political self-interest, and a growing number associated it with capitalist greed.

John A. Hobson, A leading English Liberal, developed highly influential interpretation of Imperialism: A Study (1902) that expanded on his belief that free enterprise capitalism had a negative impact on the majority of the population. In Imperialism he argued that the financing of overseas empires drained money that was needed at home. It was invested abroad because lower wages paid the workers overseas made for higher profits and higher rates of return, compared to domestic wages. So although domestic wages remained higher, they did not grow nearly as fast as they might have otherwise. Exporting capital, he concluded, put a lid on the growth of domestic wages in the domestic standard of living. . By the 1970s, historians such as David K. Fieldhouse[42] and Oron Hale could argue that "the Hobsonian foundation has been almost completely demolished."[37]:5–6 The British experience failed to support it. However, European Socialists picked up Hobson's ideas and made it into their own theory of imperialism, most notably in Lenin's Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Lenin portrayed Imperialism as the closure of the world market and the end of capitalist free-competition that arose from the need for capitalist economies to constantly expand investment, material resources and manpower in such a way that necessitated colonial expansion. Later Marxist theoreticians echo this conception of imperialism as a structural feature of capitalism. which explained the World War as the battle between imperialists for control of external markets. Lenin's treatise became a standard textbook that flourished until the Collapse of communism in 1989-91.[43]

Some theoreticians on the non-Communist left have emphasized the structural or systemic character of "imperialism". Such writers have expanded the period associated with the term so that it now designates neither a policy, nor a short space of decades in the late 19th century, but a world system extending over a period of centuries, often going back to Christopher Columbus and, in some accounts, to the Crusades. As the application of the term has expanded, its meaning has shifted along five distinct but often parallel axes: the moral, the economic, the systemic, the cultural, and the temporal. Those changes reflect—among other shifts in sensibility—a growing unease, even great distaste, with the pervasiveness of such power, specifically, Western power.[44][45]

Historians and political theorists have long debated the correlation between capitalism, class and imperialism. Much of the debate was pioneered by such theorists as J. A. Hobson (1858–1940), Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950), Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), and Norman Angell (1872–1967). While these non-Marxist writers were at their most prolific before World War I, they remained active in the interwar years. Their combined work informed the study of imperialism and its impact on Europe, as well as contributing to reflections on the rise of the military-political complex in the United States from the 1950s. Hobson argued that domestic social reforms could cure the international disease of imperialism by removing its economic foundation. Hobson theorized that state intervention through taxation could boost broader consumption, create wealth, and encourage a peaceful, tolerant, multipolar world order.[46][47]

Environmental determinism

The concept environmental determinism served as a moral justification for domination of certain territories and peoples. It was believed that a certain person's behaviours were determined by the environment in which they lived and thus validated their domination. For example, people living in tropical environments were seen as "less civilized" therefore justifying colonial control as a civilizing mission. Across the three waves of European colonialism (first in the Americas, second in Asia and lastly in Africa), environmental determinism was used to categorically place indigenous people in a racial hierarchy. This takes two forms, orientalism and tropicality.

According to geographic scholars under colonizing empires, the world could be split into climatic zones. These scholars believed that Northern Europe and the Mid-Atlantic temperate climate produced a hard-working, moral, and upstanding human being. Alternatively, tropical climates yielded lazy attitudes, sexual promiscuity, exotic culture, and moral degeneracy. The people of these climates were believed to be in need of guidance and intervention from the European empire to aid in the governing of a more evolved social structure; they were seen as incapable of such a feat. Similarly, orientalism is a view of a people based on their geographical location.[48]

Imperialism by country


The end result of the Boer Wars was the annexation of the Boer Republics to the British Empire in 1902

Britain's imperialist ambitions can be seen as early as the sixteenth century. In 1599 the British East India Company was established and was chartered by Queen Elizabeth in the following year.[12]:174 With the establishment of trading posts in India, the British were able to maintain strength relative to others empires such as the Portuguese who already had set up trading posts in India.[12]:174 In 1767 political activity caused exploitation of the East India Company causing the plundering of the local economy, almost bringing the company into bankruptcy.[49] By the year 1670 Britain's imperialist ambitions were well off as she had colonies in Virginia, Massachusetts, Bermuda, Honduras, Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica and Nova Scotia.[49]

Due to the vast imperialist ambitions of European countries, Britain had several clashes with France. This competition was evident in the colonization of what is now known as Canada. John Cabot claimed Newfoundland for the British while the French established colonies along the St. Lawrence River and claiming it as "New France".[50] Britain continued to expand by colonizing countries such as New Zealand and Australia, both of which were not empty land as they had their own locals and cultures.[12]:175 Britain's nationalistic movements were evident with the creation of the common wealth countries where there was a shared nature of national identity.[12]:147

The "First" British Empire was based on mercantilism, and involved colonies and holdings primarily in North America, the Caribbean, and India. Its growth was reversed by the loss of the American colonies in 1776. Britain made compensating gains in India, Australia, and in constructing an informal economic empire through control of trade and finance in Latin America after the independence of Spanish and Portuguese colonies in about 1820.[51] By the 1840s, Britain had adopted a highly successful policy of free trade that gave it dominance in the trade of much of the world.[52] After losing its first Empire to the Americans, Britain then turned its attention towards Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Following the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain enjoyed a century of almost unchallenged dominance and expanded its imperial holdings around the globe. Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace in Europe and the world (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman.[53][54][55][56]

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Egypt, 5 November 1956

In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Britain; by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 the country was described as the "workshop of the world".[57] The British Empire expanded to include India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. Alongside the formal control it exerted over its own colonies, British dominance of much of world trade meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions, such as Asia and Latin America.[58][59] Domestically, political attitudes favoured free trade and laissez-faire policies and a gradual widening of the voting franchise. During this century, the population increased at a dramatic rate, accompanied by rapid urbanisation, causing significant social and economic stresses.[60] To seek new markets and sources of raw materials, the Conservative Party under Disraeli launched a period of imperialist expansion in Egypt, South Africa, and elsewhere. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand became self-governing dominions.[61][62]

A resurgence came in the late 19th century with the Scramble for Africa and major additions in Asia and the Middle East. The British spirit of imperialism was expressed by Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Rosebury, and implemented in Africa by Cecil Rhodes. The pseudo-sciences of Social Darwinism and theories of race formed an ideological underpinning during this time. Other influential spokesmen included Lord Cromer, Lord Curzon, General Kitchner, Lord Milner, and the writer Rudyard Kipling.[63] The British Empire was the largest Empire that the world has ever seen both in terms of landmass and population. Its power, both military and economic, remained unmatched. After the First Boer War, the South African Republic and Orange Free State were recognized by Britain but eventually re-annexed after the Second Boer War.

World War II had weakened Britain's position in the world, especially financially. Decolonization movements proliferated throughout the Cold War, resulting in Indian independence and the establishment of independent states throughout Africa. British imperialism continued for a few years, notably with its involvement in the Iranian coup d'état of 1953 and in Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956. However, with the United States and Soviet Union emerging from World War II as the sole superpowers, Britain's role as a worldwide power declined significantly.[64]


French poster about the "Madagascar War"

The "First colonial empire", that existed until 1814, by which time most of it had been lost, and the "Second colonial empire", which began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830 and came for the most part to an end with the granting of independence to Algeria in 1962.[65] The French history was marked by numerous wars, large and small, and also by significant help to France itself from the colonials in the world wars.[66]

During the 16th century, the French colonization of the Americas began with the creation of New France. It was followed by the establishment of trading posts in Asia and Africa in the 17th century.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the second-largest colonial empire in the world behind the British Empire, extending over 12,347,000 km2 (4,767,000 sq. miles) at its height in the 1920s and 1930s. France controlled nearly 1/10th of the Earth's land area, with a population of 110 million people on the eve of World War II (5% of the world's population at the time).[67]

France took control of Algeria in 1830 but began in earnest to rebuild its worldwide empire after 1850, concentrating chiefly in North and West Africa, as well as South-East Asia, with other conquests in Central and East Africa, as well as the South Pacific. Republicans, at first hostile to empire, only became supportive when Germany started to build her own colonial empire. As it developed, the new empire took on roles of trade with France, supplying raw materials and purchasing manufactured items, as well as lending prestige to the motherland and spreading French civilization and language as well as Catholicism. It also provided crucial manpower in both World Wars.[68]

It became a moral justification to lift the world up to French standards by bringing Christianity and French culture. In 1884 the leading exponent of colonialism, Jules Ferry declared France had a civilising mission: "The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior".[69] Full citizenship rights – assimilation – were offered, although in reality assimilation was always on the distant horizon.[70] Contrasting from Britain, France sent small numbers of settlers to its colonies, with the only notable exception of Algeria, where French settlers nevertheless always remained a small minority.

In World War II, Charles de Gaulle and the Free French used the overseas colonies as bases from which they fought to liberate France. However, after 1945 anti-colonial movements began to challenge the Empire. France fought and lost a bitter war in Vietnam in the 1950s. Whereas they won the war in Algeria, the French leader at the time, Charles de Gaulle, decided to grant Algeria independence anyway in 1962. Its settlers and many local supporters relocated to France. Nearly all of France's colonies gained independence by 1960, but France retained great financial and diplomatic influence. It has repeatedly sent troops to assist its former colonies in Africa in suppressing insurrections and coups d'état.[71]


German colonial empire.

Not a maritime power, and not a nation-state, as it would eventually become, Germany's participation in Western imperialism was negligible until the late 19th century. Prussia unified the other states into the second German Empire in 1871. Its Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1862–90), long opposed colonial acquisitions, arguing that the burden of obtaining, maintaining, and defending such possessions would outweigh any potential benefits. He felt that colonies did not pay for themselves, that the German bureaucratic system would not work well in the tropics and the diplomatic disputes over colonies would distract Germany from its central interest, Europe itself.[72]

However, public opinion and elite opinion in Germany demanded colonies for reasons of international prestige, so Bismarck was forced to oblige. In 1883–84 Germany began to build a colonial empire in Africa and the South Pacific.[73] [74] The establishment of the German colonial empire started with German New Guinea in 1884.[75]


The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1942.

The spoils for winning the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 included Taiwan. As a result of winning the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan took part of Sakhalin Island from Russia. Korea was annexed in 1910. During World War I, Japan took German-leased territories in China's Shandong Province, as well as the Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall Islands, and kept the islands as League of nations mandates. American pressure forced it to return the Shandong area. In 1931 Japan took Manchuria from China. During the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Japan's military invaded central China and by the end of the Pacific War, Japan had conquered much of the Far East, including Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, part of New Guinea and some islands of the Pacific Ocean. The goal was to create an anti-European "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." It lost all its colonies in 1945 [76][77][78]

Ottoman Empire

Ottoman troops marching in Aleppo.

The Ottoman Empire was an imperial state that lasted from 1299 to 1922. In 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror besieged the capital of the Byzantine Empire, resulting in the Fall of Constantinople after 1,500 years of Roman rule. Thereafter, making it the capital of the Empire. During the 16th and 17th centuries, in particular at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was a powerful multinational, multilingual empire, which invaded and colonized much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Its repeated invasions, and brutal treatment of Slavs led to the great migration of the Serbs to escape prosecution. At the beginning of the 17th century the empire contained 32 provinces and numerous vassal states. Some of these were later absorbed into the empire, while others were granted various types of autonomy during the course of centuries.

With Constantinople as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. Following a long period of military setbacks against European powers, the Ottoman Empire gradually declined into the late nineteenth century. The empire allied with Germany in the early 20th century, with the imperial ambition of recovering its lost territories, but it dissolved in the aftermath of World War I, leading to the emergence of the new state of Turkey in the Ottoman Anatolian heartland, as well as the creation of modern Balkan and Middle Eastern states, thus ending Turkish colonial ambitions.

Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union

The maximum territorial extent of countries in the world under Soviet influence, after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and before the official Sino-Soviet split of 1961.

By the 18th century, the Russian Empire extended its control to the Pacific, forming a common border with the Qing Empire. This took place in a large number of military invasions of the lands east, west, and south of it. The Polish–Russian War of 1792 took place after Polish nobility from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth wrote the Constitution of May 3, 1791. The war resulted in Poland being absorbed by Imperial Russia as a colony until 1918. The southern campaigns involved a series of Russo-Persian Wars, which began with the Persian Expedition of 1796, resulting in the acquisition of Georgia (country) as a protectorate. Between 1800 and 1864, Imperial armies invaded south in the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, the Murid War, and the Russo-Circassian War. This last conflict led to the ethnic cleansing of Circassians from their lands. The Russian conquest of Siberia over the Khanate of Sibir took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, and resulted in the slaughter of various indigenous tribes by Russians, including the Daur, the Koryaks, the Itelmens, Mansi people and the Chukchi. The Russian colonization of Siberia and treatment of the resident indigenous peoples has been compared to European colonization of the Americas, with similar negative impacts on the indigenous Siberians as upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The extermination of indigenous Siberian tribes was so complete that a relatively small population of only 180,000 [72] are said to exist today. The Russian Empire exploited and suppressed Cossacks hosts during this period, before turning them into a special military estate Sosloviye in the late 18th century. Cossacks were then used in Imperial Russian campaigns against other tribes.

Bolshevik leaders had effectively reestablished a polity with roughly the same extent as that empire by 1921, however with an internationalist ideology: Lenin in particular asserted the right to limited self-determination for national minorities within the new territory.[79] Beginning in 1923, the policy of "Indigenization" [korenizatsiia] was intended to support non-Russians develop their national cultures within a socialist framework. Never formally revoked, it stopped being implemented after 1932. After World War II, the Soviet Union installed socialist regimes modeled on those it had installed in 1919–20 in the old Tsarist Empire in areas its forces occupied in Eastern Europe.[80] The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China supported post–World War II communist movements in foreign nations and colonies to advance their own interests, but were not always successful.[81]

Trotsky, and others, believed that the revolution could only succeed in Russia as part of a world revolution. Lenin wrote extensively on the matter and famously declared that Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. However, after Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin established 'socialism in one country' for the Soviet Union, creating the model for subsequent inward looking Stalinist states and purging the early Internationalist elements. The internationalist tendencies of the early revolution would be abandoned until they returned in the framework of a client state in competition with the Americans during the Cold War. With the beginning of the new era, the after Stalin period called the "thaw", in the late 1950s, the new political leader Nikita Khrushchev put even more pressure on the Soviet-American relations starting a new wave of anti-imperialist propaganda. In his speech on the UN conference in 1960, he announced the continuation of the war on imperialism, stating that soon the people of different countries will come together and overthrow their imperialist leaders. Although the Soviet Union declared itself anti-imperialist, critics argue that it exhibited traits common to historic empires.[82][83] Some scholars hold that the Soviet Union was a hybrid entity containing elements common to both multinational empires and nation states. It has also been argued that the USSR practiced colonialism as did other imperial powers and was carrying on the old Russian tradition of expansion and control.[84] Mao Zedong once argued that the Soviet Union had itself become an imperialist power while maintaining a socialist façade. Moreover, the ideas of imperialism were widely spread in action on the higher levels of government. Non-Russian Marxists within the Russian Federation and later the USSR, like Sultan Galiev and Vasyl Shakhrai, considered the Soviet Regime a renewed version of the Russian imperialism and colonialism.

United States

Ceremonies during the annexation of the Republic of Hawaii, 1898

A former colony itself, the early United States expressed its opposition to Imperialism, at least in a form distinct from its own Manifest Destiny, through policies such as the Monroe Doctrine. However, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, policies such as Theodore Roosevelt’s interventionism in Central America and Woodrow Wilson’s mission to "make the world safe for democracy"[85] changed all this. They were often backed by military force, but were more often effected from behind the scenes. This is consistent with the general notion of hegemony and imperium of historical empires.[86][87] In 1898, Americans who opposed imperialism created the Anti-Imperialist League to oppose the US annexation of the Philippines and Cuba. One year later, a war erupted in the Philippines causing business, labor and government leaders in the US to condemn America's occupation in the Philippines as they also denounced them for causing the deaths of many Filipinos.[88] American foreign policy was denounced as a "racket" by Smedley Butler, a former American general who had become a paid spokesman for the far left.[89]

Geographer Isiah Bowman was the director of the American Geographical Society who in 1917 was appointed to President Woodrow Wilson's Inquiry to examine the world situation.[90] Bowman was called Wilson's geographer; he later became Franklin Roosevelt's geographer. At the start of World War Two President Roosevelt was opposed to allowing European colonialism to be maintained, but he pulled back when Britain's Winston Churchill demanded that victory in the war be the first priority. Roosevelt expected that the United Nations would take up the problem of decolonization.[91]

One of the New York Journal's most infamous cartoons, depicting Philippine–American War General Jacob H. Smith's order "Kill Everyone over Ten," from the front page on May 5, 1902.

Some have described the internal strife between various people groups as a form of imperialism or colonialism. This internal form is distinct from informal U.S. imperialism in the form of political and financial hegemony.[92] This internal form of imperialism is also distinct from the United States' formation of "colonies" abroad.[92] Through the treatment of its indigenous peoples during westward expansion, the United States took on the form of an imperial power prior to any attempts at external imperialism. This internal form of empire has been referred to as "internal colonialism".[93] Participation in the African slave trade and the subsequent treatment of its 12 to 15 million Africans is viewed by some to be a more modern extension of America's "internal colonialism".[94] However, this internal colonialism faced resistance, as external colonialism did, but the anti-colonial presence was far less prominent due to the nearly complete dominance that the United States was able to assert over both indigenous peoples and African-Americans.[95] In his lecture on April 16, 2003, Edward Said made a bold statement on modern imperialism in the United States, whom he described as using aggressive means of attack towards the contemporary Orient, "due to their backward living, lack of democracy and the violation of women’s rights. The western world forgets during this process of converting the other that enlightenment and democracy are concepts that not all will agree upon".[96]

In 2015, the United States reportedly had nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries around the world.[97]

See also


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Further reading

922pp survey online
  • Winslow, E.M. "Marxian, Liberal, and Sociological Theories of Imperialism," Journal of Political Economy, vol. 39, no. 6 (Dec. 1931), pp. 713–58. In JSTOR
  • Xypolia, Ilia, "Divide et Impera: Vertical and Horizontal Dimensions of British Imperialism," Critique: journal of socialist theory, vol. 44, no. 3 (Aug. 2016), pp. 221–31. [1]

Primary sources

External links