The New Imperialism (c. 1870 - 1914)

The 1870s and 1880s witnessed a retreat from the free market and a return to state intervention in economic affairs. The foreign counterpart to this phenomenon was the New Imperialism. The Great Powers of Europe suddenly shook off almost a century of apathy toward overseas colonies and, in the space of 20 years, partitioned almost the entire uncolonized portion of the globe. Theories postulating Europe's need to export surplus capital do not fit the facts. Only Britain and France were capital-exporting countries in 1880, and in years to come their investors preferred to export capital to other European countries (especially Russia) or the Western Hemisphere rather than to their own colonies. The British remained free-trade throughout the era of the New Imperialism, a booming home economy absorbed most German capital, and Italy and Russia were large net importers of capital. Once the scramble for colonies was complete, pressure groups did form in the various countries to argue the economic promise of imperialism, but just as often governments had to foster colonial development. In most cases, trade did not lead but followed the flag.

Why, then, was the flag planted in the first place? Sometimes it was to protect economic interests, as when the British occupied Egypt in 1882, but more often it was for strategic reasons or in pursuit of national prestige. One necessary condition for the New Imperialism, often overlooked, is technological. Prior to the 1870s Europeans could overawe native peoples along the coasts of Africa and Asia but lacked the firepower, mobility, and communications that would have been needed to pacify the interior. (India was the exception, where the British East India Company exploited an anarchic situation and allied itself with selected native rulers against others.) The tsetse fly and the Anopheles mosquito—bearers of sleeping sickness and malaria—were the ultimate defenders of African and Asian jungles. The correlation of forces between Europe and the colonizable world shifted, however, with the invention of shallow-draft riverboats, the steamship and telegraph, the repeater rifle and Maxim gun, and the discovery (in India) that quinine is an effective prophylactic against malaria. By 1880 small groups of European regulars, armed with modern weapons and exercising fire discipline, could overwhelm many times their number of native troops.

The scramble for Africa should be dated, not from 1882, when the British occupied Egypt, but from the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The strategic importance of that waterway cannot be overstated. It was the gateway to India and East Asia and hence a vital interest nonpareil for the British Empire. When the Khedive of Egypt defaulted on loans owed to France and Britain, and a nationalist uprising ensued—the first such Arab rebellion against the Western presence—the French backed away from military occupation, although with Bismarck's encouragement and moral support they occupied Tunis in 1881, expanding their North African presence from Algeria. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, otherwise an adamant anticolonialist, then established a British protectorate in Egypt. When the French reacted bitterly, Bismarck further encouraged French colonial expansion in hopes of distracting them from Europe, and he then took his own country into the fray by claiming four large segments of Africa for Germany in 1884. In that year the King of the Belgians cast his eye on the entire Congo Basin. The Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85 was called to settle a variety of disputes involved in European colonial occupation, and over the next 10 years all the Great Powers of Europe save Austria and Russia staked out colonies and protectorates on the African continent. But whatever the ambitions and rivalries of military adventurers, explorers, and private empire-builders on the scene, the cabinets of Europe came to agreements on colonial boundaries with surprising neighbourliness. Colonial wars did ensue after 1894, but never between two European colonial powers.

It has been suggested that imperial rivalries were a long-range cause of World War I. It has also been said that they were a safety valve, drawing off European energies that might otherwise have erupted in war much sooner. But the links between imperialism and the war are more subtle. The heyday of the New Imperialism, especially after 1894, created a tacit understanding in the European elites and the broad literate classes that the days of the old European balance of power were over, that a new world order was dawning, and that any nation left behind in the pursuit of world power would sink into obscurity. This intuition must surely have fed a growing sense of desperation among Germans, and one of paranoia among Britons, about trends in global politics. A second point, subtler still, is that the New Imperialism, while it did not directly provoke World War I, did occasion a transformation of alliances that proved dangerous beyond reckoning once the Great Powers turned their attention back to Europe.

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, and within a decade popularizers had applied—or misapplied—his theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest to contemporary politics and economics. This pseudoscientific social Darwinism appealed to educated Europeans already demoralized by a century of higher criticism of religious scripture and conscious of the competitiveness of their own daily lives in that age of freewheeling industrial capitalism. By the 1870s books appeared explaining the outcome of the Franco-German War, for instance, with reference to the "vitality" of the Germanic peoples by comparison to the "exhausted" Latins. Pan-Slavic literature extolled the youthful vigour of that race, of whom Russia was seen as the natural leader. A belief in the natural affinity and superiority of Nordic peoples sustained Joseph Chamberlain's conviction that an Anglo-American-German alliance should govern the world in the 20th century. Vulgar anthropology explained the relative merits of human races on the basis of physiognomy and brain size, a "scientific" approach to world politics occasioned by the increasing contact of Europeans with Asians and Africans. Racialist rhetoric became common currency, as when the Kaiser referred to Asia's growing population as "the yellow peril" and spoke of the next war as a "death struggle between the Teutons and Slavs." Poets and philosophers idealized combat as the process by which nature weeds out the weak and improves the human race.

By 1914, therefore, the political and moral restraints on war that had arisen after 1789-1815 were significantly weakened. The old conservative notion that established governments had a heavy stake in peace lest revolution engulf them, and the old liberal notion that national unity, democracy, and free trade would spread harmony, were all but dead. The historian cannot judge how much social Darwinism influenced specific policy decisions, but a mood of fatalism and bellicosity surely eroded the collective will to peace. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Article)