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Europe 1871-1914

Imperialism in Asia (1830-1900)

Conflict in Africa: the Boer War (1895-1902)

The Balance of Power in Europe (1871-1914)


Europe's scramble for Africa did not leave South and East Asia at peace. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Great Britain formed and maintained an economic relationship with India. By the end of the eighteenth century, British rule of India was firmly planted and London came to view India as the jewel of its empire. This view guided its foreign policy. For decades, Britain used its military victories and naval superiority to ensure uninterrupted routes to India and beyond, hence its island holdings in the Mediterranean, along the west African coast, at the southern tip of Africa, and, most importantly, the Suez Canal. By the end of the eighteenth century, Indo-British economic ties were so entrenched in a neo-mercantile system that India provided a stepping stone for British trade with China. Britain traded English wool and Indian cotton for Chinese tea and textiles; however, as Chinese demand slackened, Britain sought other means of attracting trade with China.

By the 1830s, Britain realized it could make up the trade deficit with China by selling Indian opium into the Chinese market, making opium Britain's most profitable and important crop in world markets. Eventually, opium poured into China faster than tea poured into British hands; soon, Chinese merchants, already addicted themselves and buying for an addicted population, paid British opium traders in pure silver.

Concerned with the sharp rise in opium addiction and the associated social costs and rise in criminal acts, the Chinese government, led by the aging Manchu dynasty, took action against the British. In 1839, the Chinese destroyed British opium in the port city of Canton, sparking the Opium Wars of 1839- 1842. Easily dominating the backward Chinese forces, the British expeditionary force blockaded Chinese ports, occupied Shanghai, and took complete control of Canton. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking granted Britain extensive trading and commercial rights in China, marking the first in a series of unequal treaties between China and European imperial powers. By the end of the century, after five wars between China and various European powers, France, Britain, Germany, Japan, and Russia held territorial and commercial advantages in their respective spheres of influence. These spheres of influence comprised territories, ports, shipping lines, rivers, et cetera in which one nation held exclusive rights to profits and investment. In 1899, the United States, freshly anointed as an inernational force by its crushing victory over Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War, objected to the prevalence of spheres of influence. The US advocated and pushed through a new Open Door Policy, an effectively imperial policy that demanded that all nations be given equal and complete rights to Chinese markets.

In addition, and most irritating to the Chinese, Europeans maintained extraterritoriality inside thousands of Chinese port cities. Extraterritoriality meant that foreigners were exempt from Chinese law enforcement and that, though on Chinese land, they could only be judged and tried by officials of their own nation who generally looked the other way when profit was the goal. The resulting lawlessness on the part of the Europeans, combined with the actuality of European economic, political, and military domination of the Chinese, contributed to a virulent anti-imperial sentiment. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion saw that sentiment explode into mass social unrest and war. With secret encouragement from the Chinese empress, the Boxers, dedicated to ending foreign exploitation in north China, killed scores of European and seized the large foreign legation in Beijing. Reacting immediately, an international expeditionary force of Japanese, Russian, British, American, German, French, Austrian, and Italian troops put down the revolt and sacked Beijing to protect the interests of their respective countries. Afterward, the European powers propped up a weak central government for their own economic benefit.

Beyond China, European imperialism in Asia remained strong. Britain moved into Hong Kong in 1842, into Burma in 1886, and into Kowloon in 1898. France took direct control over the provinces of Indochina--Annam, Tonkin, and Cochinchina (which together make up modern day Vietnam), Laos, and Cambodia.


What were the effects of the European imperial adventure? Some look at the world today through an economic lens and see both great successes and great disasters that emerged from the imperial era: some primitive nations received the necessary infrastructure to develop, as the successful capitalist states in east Asia seem to suggest, while others were destroyed by economic and social exploitation, as the countries of Africa seem to suggest. However, we are looking in the very long run. Let us consider a few contemporaneous consequences of imperialism for European and world society.

An interdependent world economy developed with Europe at its center. Colonies provided necessary raw materials for the advanced industrial production in European factory centers such as London, Manchester, and Berlin. Capital flowed out of the wealthy nations of Western Europe and into colonial areas to support projects that required heavy capital investment and promised strong returns, such as railroad construction, industrial development, et cetera. London became the financial center of the world, serving as a clearing-house for billions of dollars worth of world-wide investment. Capital became fluid throughout the world, loans were extended for the long run, domestic stock markets skyrocketed and, depending upon the extent of empire, remained somewhat insulated from the boom and bust cycles of late nineteenth century capitalism.

Barely a handful of countries, outside of the western hemisphere, remained independent. Ethiopia, Siam, and Liberia were three conspicuously colorless locations on a world map tinted with imperial ink. Europe was at the epicenter of political domination of the world due to its imperial successes. It could leverage trade, strategic bases, and access to necessary waterways in order to achieve diplomatic success.

The dark side of imperialism, the arguments for cultural and racial superiority of the European peoples, were common throughout the imperial world. Rudyard Kipling, writing about the American imperial venture in the Philippines, spoke of a "White Man's burden" to civilize, improve, and educate the native populations that was in large part based on the social Darwinism advanced by Herbert Spencer's Social Statics.

The ecological effects of imperialism were mixed throughout the world. Imperialism led to the dislocation of thousands of small societies--especially in Africa--when the Europeans drew haphazard and illogical lines on the colonial maps. Industrial development disturbed the pristine environment of previously undamaged territories, the traditional societies were replaced by European businessmen and investors. While slavery had gone out of favor some time ago, African and Asian men and women were viewed as cheap labor for European factories; therefore, slavery conditions persisted.

On an intellectual level, the rapid proliferation of empire in the late nineteenth century contributed to a growing critique of capitalism from the Marxist left. In, 1916, Vladimir I. Lenin, the revolutionary communist leader in Russia, argued in his pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism that capitalist states required vast empires to maintain enough markets with whom to trade. This, in turn, contributed to the exploitation of native populations and, as capitalist investors brought industry to the empire, the awakening of the native workers to their destiny under the Marxist scheme of economic development. With workers of the world--from Europe to the farthest reaches of the empire--then united against capitalism, socialism will follow after imperialism.

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