Traditions and Encounters, AP Edition (Bentley), 5th Edition

Chapter 32: The Building of Global Empires


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the industrial powers of western Europe swiftly extended their control over vast areas of Africa and Asia. This new imperialism was rationalized by theories of racial and cultural superiority; it was made possible by new technologies of warfare. The United States and Japan, and to a lesser extent Russia, were late arrivals on the imperial stage but soon established themselves as well. Modern imperialism is characterized by the following:

  • Mixed motives. Imperial powers claimed economic necessity, strategic imperatives, and a high-minded "civilizing mission." Frequently motives were confused, so it became "the white man's burden" to convert Africans to Christianity while at the same time enslaving them.
  • Competition between imperial powers. The scramble for Africa and later for the Pacific islands illustrates the intense competition among imperial nations. The United States took over the Philippines in order to be on an equal footing with other powers already in China. Japan seized Korea and Taiwan for the same reason.
  • Different models of colonial rule. In practice, the new imperialism varied considerably, including settler colonies such as Australia, indirect rule as in British Africa, direct rule as in French Indochina, and even the private fiefdom of Leopold II in the Belgian Congo. In all cases, ultimate authority rested with the imperial state, and local rulers had little real power.
  • Economic colonialism. The purpose of the colony was to supply cheap raw commodities to the imperialist state and to be a market for manufactured goods. All resources, natural and human, were directed to this effort. Forests were transformed into plantations, and workers impressed into service. There was no effort to develop a colonial industry that might compete with the imperial state.
  • Contempt for local cultures. With few exceptions, the imperial powers regarded colonial people as their inferiors and treated them as such. The French made an effort to convert and educate colonial peoples. The British also employed colonials as soldiers and minor civil servants, but made little provision for education. This disrespect contributed to a growing nationalism in India.
Traditions & Encounters, 5e
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