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Rise of the New Imperialism

 This article is part of the
New Imperialism series.
 Rise of the New Imperialism
The breakdown of Pax Britannica
  • Great Britain and the New Imperialism
  • France and the New Imperialism
  • New Imperialism and the emerging empires
  • Social implications
  •  Imperialism in Asia 
     Scramble for Africa
     Imperial rivalry
     Theories of New Imperialism
    Accumulation theory
  • World Systems theory
  • The interpretations of recent scholarship
  • Table of contents
    1 Background: Before New Imperialism
    2 The breakdown of Pax Britannica and the rise of New Imperialism
    3 Great Britain and the New Imperialism
    4 France and the New Imperialism
    5 New Imperialism and the emerging empires
    6 Social implications of New Imperialism
    7 External links:

    Background: Before New Imperialism

    For details, see the main articles mercantilism, American Revolution, and Pax Britannica.

    The American Revolution and the collapse of the Spanish empire in the New World following the revolutions in the viceroyalties of New Spain, New Granada, Peru and the Río de la Plata ended the first era of European empire. Especially in Britain, these revolutions helped show the deficiencies of mercantilism, the doctrine of economic competition for finite wealth which had supported earlier imperial expansion.

    This contributed to the appeal of the classical liberalism of Adam Smith. Richard Cobden, and other disciples of Smith contended that the military and bureaucratic costs of occupation often exceeded the financial return to the taxpayer: formal empire afforded no reciprocal economic benefit when trade would continue in its absence, as instanced by Britain's lucrative commerce with the now independent United States. Official acceptance of the new doctrine was marked by Britain's adoption of free trade and the subsequent granting of internal self-government to the white settler populations of the Canadian provinces and the Australasian colonies, and governments even considered the sale of some colonial outposts to lesser powers.

    The defeat of Napoleonic France led to a continental order quite favorable to Britain's interests, known as the Concert of Europe, in which Austria was a barrier to the creation of unified Italian and German nation-states until after the Crimean War. Territorial fragmentation at the heart of Europe kept other potential imperial powers preoccupied with Continental concerns rather than overseas expansion. Britain, an island nation with a long standing tradition of naval and maritime superiority, could afford the luxury of developing commercial ties with overseas markets.

    Between the Congress of Vienna and the Franco-Prussian War, Britain reaped the benefits of being the world's sole modern, industrial power. As the "workshop of the world", Britain could produce goods manufactures so efficiently and cheaply that its goods could usually undersell comparable, locally manufactured goods in other markets. Given stable political conditions, Britain could dominate overseas markets for industrial goods through free trade alone without having to resort to formal rule. Thus, some argue that Britain's push for free trade during the mid-nineteenth century was merely a result of her economic position and was unconnected with any true philosophical commitment.

    Before the era of New Imperialism, Britain was even supplying a large share of the manufactured goods consumed by such nations as Germany, France, Belgium and the United States. The era of Pax Britannica (1815-1871) also saw the enforced opening of key markets to European, particularly British, commerce: Turkey and Egypt in 1838, Persia in 1841, China in 1842 (see First Opium War), and Japan in (1858).

    The breakdown of Pax Britannica and the rise of New Imperialism

    The breakdown of the Concert of Europe

    The decline of Pax Britannica after the Franco-Prussian War was occasioned by changes in the European and world economies and in the Continental balance of power, such as the breakdown of the Concert of Europe. The establishment of nation-states in Germany and Italy resolved two of the great territorial issues which had kept Britain's prospective rivals enmeshed in Continental affairs. These developments stimulated imperial competition, in spite of Britain's long-established naval and maritime superiority.

    Economically, to the commercial competition of old rivals like France was now added that of newly industrialising powers such as Germany and the United States. All sought ways of challenging what they saw as Britain's undue dominance in world markets—the consequence of her early industrialisation and maritime supremacy.

    Loss of British comparative advantage in manufacturing

    As the other powers such as Germany and the United States, began to industrialise, Britain's comparative advantage in trade in finished goods diminished. While it previously had a near monopoly over industrially-produced goods it began to encounter far stiffer competition in overseas markets from the other powers. Britain's share of world trade fell from a quarter in 1880 to a sixth in 1913. Britain was even beginning to lose its unrivalled dominance in markets such as India.

    To make matters worse, British manufactures in the staple industries of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to face real competition abroad. The German textile and metal industries, for example, had by the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War surpassed those of Britain in organisation and technical efficiency and usurped British manufactures in the domestic market. A number of changes had made this possible, such as the development of new techniques to remove phosphorous from the massive iron deposits of Lorraine, which left France and Germany with cheap and plentiful sources of iron. Both Continental powers had also begun large government-supported railway programs, and had passed Britain in total mileage of track by the 1880s.

    The development of steam shipping had also firmly brought the United States and Japan into the European market and greatly lowered transport costs. By the turn of the century, the German metal and engineering industries would be producing heavily for the international market as well. More modern technologies such as electricity were often more advanced and widely used in Germany than in Britain, which possessed older productive plant.

    The Long Depression

    The prolonged period of price deflation and intermittent business crisis between 1873 and 1896 has been described as the Long Depression, and is sometimes considered to be even worse than the Great Depression of 1929-1939. It had a number of causes and was itself an important factor in the shift toward formal colonialism.

    Amalgamation of industry, in the forms of larger corporations and mergers and alliances of separate firms had created inefficiencies and made economies more unstable. Technological advances along with monopolistic mass-production greatly expanded output and lowered production costs. As a result, production often exceeded domestic demand. In agriculture, large-scale imports of cheaper American grain and poor harvests drove down European producer prices and incomes and further constrained overall demand among a population which, outside Great Britain, the Netherlands and parts of Germany, remained predominantly rural. International liquidity was constrained by the widespread adoption of gold-based currency at a time when little new gold was being discovered.

    The long-term effects of the Depression were particularly evident in Britain, the forerunner of Europe's industrial states, Practically every industry suffered after 1873 from lengthy periods of low—and falling—profit rates and price deflation. The crisis brought pressure on governments to support British industry and commerce and to protect the overseas investments interests on which the country had come to rely to offset its long-standing merchandise trade deficit and more recent loss of industrial market share.

    The Depression also struck the powers of Continental Europe, prompting their abandonment of free trade (by Germany in 1879, by France in 1881). As domestic demand and export opportunities thus became further limited, some business and government leaders concluded that sheltered overseas markets would solve the problems of low prices and demand caused by stagnating and increasingly fragmented Continental markets.

    Great Britain and the New Imperialism

    For details, see the main article British Empire.

    Britain in the 1870s remained the world's foremost industrial power, but her share of world manufacturing output was already falling before the impact of international recession. Like the Dutch a century and a half earlier, the British coped with relative commercial and industrial decline in the latter half of the 19th century by becoming the world's preeminent bankers, and invisible exports of financial and shipping services alone kept Britain "out of the red."

    Amalgamation of Industry

    During the period of "cut-throat" competition of the mid-Victorian era, producers became aware of the advantages (in mass production, lobbying power, and efficient union busting) of consolidation not only in the form of larger corporations but also through mergers and alliances of separate firms. To create and operate such industrial cartels required larger sums than the manufacturer could ordinarily provide, resulting, it is argued, in the displacement of industrial capital by finance capital. By the 1870s, London financial houses thus achieved an unprecedented control of industry.

    Close association of industry and banks enabled financiers to exert considerable influence over the British economy and politics. As a more "gentlemanly" pursuit than industry, finance was able to appeal to Britain's aristocracy, and the influence of London's financial interest began rising precipitously in a government bureaucracy still dominated by those with formal titles. Late Victorian political leaders, most of whom were stockholders, "shared a common culture with the financial class," according to contemporary imperial historian Bernard Porter. Thus, pro-imperialists linked to the financial sector in the 1870s would be in a far better position to influence government than industrialists in the 1850s.

    The enhanced power of financiers enabled them to influence policy makers in the direction of government "protection" of overseas investments—particularly those in securities of foreign governments and in foreign-government-backed development activities such as railroads. Although it had been official British policy for years to support such investments, with the large expansion of these investments after about 1860 and with the economic and political instability of many areas of high investment (such as Egypt), calls upon the government for methodical protection became increasingly pronounced.

    This prompted imperial critic J.A. Hobson to conclude that finance was manipulating events to its own profit. For Hobson, Overseas markets, whether in colonial areas or in nominally sovereign, pre-industrial states outside Western Europe, offered a higher return on investments owing to their cheap labor, limited competition, and abundant raw materials. While not downplaying this influence of the City's financial interests, later historians such as Bernard Porter, P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins contest Hobson's conspiratorial overtones and "reductionisms". Nevertheless, these financial interests were often the prime movers in the drive for imperial expansion.

    Britain's increased competition

    For details on the emerging empires of this era, see the later article in this series Imperial rivalry. Also see German Empire, History of the United States (1865-1918), and the Meiji era.

    The new interest of the emergent industrial powers in colonial expansion brought them into direct competition with Britain.

    As Europe descended into an era of aggressive national rivalry between newly industrialising nation-states, many European statesmen and industrialists wanted to accelerate colonial expansion, securing colonies before they strictly needed them. Their reasoning was that markets might soon become glutted, and a nation's economic survival depend on its being able to offload its surplus products elsewhere.

    Britain was no longer the world's sole modern, industrial nation. Pessimists inferred that unless Britain acquired secure colonial markets for its industrial products and secure sources of raw materials, the other industrial states would seize them themselves and would precipitate a more rapid decline of British business, power, and standards of living.

    British imperialists thus concluded that formal imperialism was necessary for Britain because of the relative decline of the British share of the world's export trade and the rise of German, American, and French economic competition and protectionism. Thus it has been argued that formal imperialism for Britain was a symptom and an effect of its relative decline in the world, and not of strength.

    While protectionism spread through the countries of Europe and to the United States, the only power to escape this trend was Britain, whose essential strength lay precisely in its preeminence on a formerly open world market. German, American, and French imperialists, as mentioned, argued that Britain's world position gave her undue advantages on international markets, thus limiting their economic growth.

    Some see the root cause of Britain's adoption of the New Imperialism as primarily strategic or pre-emptive. The failure in the 1900s of Chamberlain's Tariff Reform campaign for Imperial protection illustrates Britain's underlying attachment to free trade despite her loss of international market share. The adoption of the "New imperialism" can thus be seen as motivated primarily by the need to protect existing trade links and to prevent the absorption of overseas markets into the increasingly closed imperial trading blocs of rival powers.

    Russian expansionism

    For details, see the main articles Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Curzon, and British Conservative Party.

    British colonial activity was motivated in part by fear of Russia's centuries-old southward expansion: in 1878 Britain took control of Cyprus as a base for action against a Russian attack on the Ottoman Empire, and invaded Afghanistan to forestall an increase in Russian influence there. British Conservatives in particular feared that Russia would continue to expand southwards into Ottoman Empire territory and acquire a base on the Mediterranean or even Constantinople.

    As British Viceroy in India, Lord Curzon urged a strong hand against the unsubjugated peoples of India's north-west frontier areas to prevent any destabilisation which might weaken India's forward defences against a possible Russian move. The "Great Game" in Asia ended with the furthest projection of Curzon's policy in a bloody and wholly unnecessary British expedition against Tibet in 1903-04.

    British statesmen long feared that Britain's colonies remained vulnerable to a land attack by Russia combined with a naval assault by Russia's ally France, prompting in part Anglo-German consultations (1898 and 1901) and the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, before the Entente Cordiale (1904) resolved Anglo-French animosities, laying the basis for rapprochement with Russia.

    Securing foreign trade

    New Imperialism, economic and strategic in its inception and political in its expression, had a complex relationship with the development of capitalism on a world scale. Foreign trade tripled in volume between 1870 and 1914, although (again) most of the activity occurred among the industrialised countries, or between them and their suppliers of primary goods or their new markets.

    In 1913, only 11 percent of the world's trade took place between primary producers themselves. Britain ranked as the world's largest trading nation in 1860, but by 1913 it had lost ground to both the United States and Germany: British and German exports in that year each totaled $2.3 billion, and those of the United States exceeded $2.4 billion. More significant was the emigration of their goods and capital.

    As foreign trade increased, so in proportion did the amount of it going outside the Continent. In 1840, 7.7 million pounds of her export and 9.2 million pounds of her import trade was done outside Europe; in 1880 the figures were 38.4 million and 73 million. Europe's economic contacts with the wider world were multiplying, much as Britain's had been doing for years.

    In these non-industrial regions (such as the Russian and Ottoman empires), which were the principal sources of surplus French capital, and other overseas territories that lacked both the knowledge and the power to direct the capital flow, served to colonise rather than develop them, destroying native industries and creating dangerous political and economic pressures which would, in time, produce the so-called 'north/south divide'.

    France and the New Imperialism

    For details, see the main articles Second Empire, Third Republic, and History of France.

    The Long Depression hit a France already burdened by substantial reparation payments to the new German Empire following her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The nation was also divided by the civil war between socialists and republicans in 1871. The French government ended free trade and began to pursue colonisation as a way to increase their power, aid their economy and restore national prestige.

    New Imperialism and the emerging empires

    For details, see the main History of the United States (1865-1918), Meiji era, and German Empire articles.

    Those who disagree with the Marxist view that the New imperialism was motivated by the need for more profitable opportunities for surplus capital often contend that capital surplus seems to have little direct connection with colonial acquisition, pointing to the United States as a country where territorial expansion proceeded along with net capital import. The same can be said of Japan, which did not become a net capital exporter until four decades after her first overseas conquests.

    Such critics also point to the expansionism of Francesco Crispi's Italy was in many respects following Britain's lead although its economy had not yet grown dependent on overseas returns from investment. The Italian nationalism of Mazzini and Garibaldi, which conservative modernisers such as Cavour and Crispi sought to co-opt, strongly favored modernisation, which was associated with the British.

    Historians usually agree though that Italian, and to a lesser extent French, imperialist designs were motivated to a great extent by the desire to catch up with Britain economically and culturally.

    Just as the US emerged as a great industrial, military and political power after the Civil War, so would Germany following its own unification in 1871. Both countries undertook ambitious naval expansion in the 1890s. And just as Germany reacted to depression with the adoption of tariff protection in 1879 and colonial expansion in 1884-85, so would the US following the landslide election (1896) of William McKinley, already associated with the high McKinley Tariff of 1890.

    United States expansionism had its roots in domestic concerns and economic conditions, as in other newly industrialising nations where government sought to accelerate internal development. Advocates of empire also drew upon to a tradition of westward expansion over the course of the previous century.

    Economic depression led some US businessmen and politicians from the mid-1880s to come to the same conclusion as their European counterparts—that industry and capital had exceeded the capacity of existing markets and needed new outlets. The "closing of the Frontier" identified by the 1890 Census report and publicised by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 paper The Significance of the Frontier in American History, contributed to fears of constrained natural resource.

    Like the Long Depression in Europe, the main features of the US depression included deflation, rural decline, and unemployment, which aggravated the bitter social protests of the "Gilded Age"—the Populist movement, the free-silver crusade, and violent labour disputes such as the Pullman and Homestead strikes.

    The Panic of 1893 contributed to the growing mood for expansionism. Influential politicians such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt advocated a more aggressive foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression: their agitation was rewarded with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and their country's seizure of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

    Although US capital investments within the Philippines and Puerto Rico were relatively small (figures that would seemingly detract from the broader economic implications on first glance), imperialism for the United States, formalised in 1904 by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine), would also her displacement of Britain as the predominant investor in Latin America—a process largely completed by the end of the Great War.

    Similarly, the post-1873 period in Europe had seen a re-emergence of far more militant working-class organisation and cycles of large strikes. In fact, the rapid turn to imperialism in the late nineteenth century can be correlated with the cyclical economic crises that adversely affected many groups. Like the Long Depression, an era of increasing unemployment and deflated prices, the Panic of 1893 contributed to fierce competition over markets in the growing spheres of influence of the United States.

    While Germany, the United States, Italy, and other more recently industrialised empires were under relatively less pressure to offload surplus capital than Britain, these nations would resort to protectionism and formal empire, once attacked by adherents to laissez-faire, to end Britain's advantage on international markets. Some politicians, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, advocated a more aggressive foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression.

    By World War I, the rise of US imperialism and militarism would, in effect, save the Allies—the older, more established, and more liberal empires—from the emergent threat of the German Empire, albeit at a (literally) huge cost.

    Just as Germany reacted to depression with the adoption of tariff protection in 1879, so would the United States with the landslide election victory of William McKinley, who had risen to national prominence six years earlier with the passage of the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Germany, a leading military power after unification, abandoned free trade and embraced expansionism with its adoption of a tariff in 1879, its acquisition of a colonial empire in 1884-85, and its building of a powerful navy after 1898-1900.

    Although US capital investments within the Philippines and Puerto Rico were relatively small (figures that would seemingly detract from the broader economic implications on first glance), these colonies were strategic outposts for expanding trade with Asia, particularly China and Latin America, enabling the United States to reap the benefit of China's Open Door and "Dollar Diplomacy" in Latin America.

    In Germany, Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck revised his initial dislike of colonies (which he had seen as burdensome and useless) partly under pressure for colonial expansion to match that of the other European states, but also under the mistaken notion that Germany's entry into the colonial scramble could press Britain into conceding broader German strategic ambitions.

    Japan's development after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 followed the Western lead in industrialisation and militarism, enabling her to gain control of Korea in 1894 and a sphere of influence in Manchuria (1905) following her defeat of Russia. Japan was responding in part to the actions of more established powers, and her expansionism drew on the harnessing of traditional values to more modern aspirations for great-power status: not until the 1930s was Japan to become a net exporter of capital.

    Such developments, whether in Germany, Japan or in the United States, thus pushed Britain toward formal imperialism. Imperialism for the United States, however, formalised in 1904 by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, would also herald the supersession by the United States of Britain as the predominant "investor" in Latin America—a process largely completed by the end of the Great War.

    Social implications of New Imperialism

    New social views of colonialism also arose. Rudyard Kipling, for instance, urged the United States to take up the "White Man's Burden" of bringing "civilisation" to the other races of the world, whether they wanted such civilisation or not. Social Darwinism also became current throughout Western Europe and the United States, while the paternalistic French-style "mission of civilisation" (mission civilatrice)) appealed to many on the Continent.

    The notion of rule over tropical lands commanded widespread acceptance among metropolitan populations: even among those who associated imperial colonisation with oppression and exploitation, the 1904 Congress of the Socialist International concluded that the colonial peoples should be taken in hand by future European socialist governments and led by them to eventual independence.

    Observing the rise of trade unionism, socialism, and other protest movements during an era of mass society in both Europe and later North America, elites sought to whip up imperial sentiment to enlist the support of the masses. The new mass media of the United States and Britain promoted jingoism to build their circulation during overseas adventures like the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Boer War of 1899-1902 and the suppression of the Chinese anti-western Boxer Rebellion (1900).

    Many of Europe's major elites also found some advantages in formal, overseas expansion: mammoth monopolies wanted imperial support to secure overseas investments against competition and domestic political tensions abroad; bureaucrats wanted more offices, military officers desired promotion, and the traditional but waning landed gentry wanted formal titles.

    In the colonies themselves, a section of the population came to terms with the new imperial administration and took part in its imposition or maintenance: the imperial rulers everywhere exploited divisions within the territories they sought to rule, enlisting chiefs or communities keen to overturn their pre-colonial status. Both traditional and emerging elites sought a place in the political framework and sent their sons to be educated in metropolitan schools and universities, though many of the professional classes came to resent the limitation of political and government opportunities, contributing to the later growth of modern colonial nationalism.

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