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European imperialism Essay

Mortimer Chambers et al define imperialism as a European state’s intervention in and continuing domination over a non-European territory. During the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late nineteenth century, the most powerful European nations desired to conquer, dominate and exploit African colonies with the hope of building an empire. According to Derrick Murphy, in 1875 only ten percent of Africa was occupied by European states. Twenty years later only ten percent remained unoccupied. There were several factors which attracted European imperialists to Africa. There were opportunities for profitable investment and trade. Raw materials, which Africa possessed in abundance, were also desired. A cheap source of labour was required as it would result in higher profits. In addition, there was international rivalry among European nations. Domestic political interests and social Darwinism may also be blamed for attracting European imperialism to Africa.

European imperialists were lured to Africa by the potential economic benefits she possessed. Industrialization caused a mass productivity and there became an artificial need for foreign markets to invest in. According to Brian Levack et al, with the onset of economic decline in 1873 industrialists were faced with a declining demand for their products in Europe. Imperial expansion, it was thought, would provide a solution with annexed territories seen as captive markets. It was believed that the unfavorable balance of trade that Britain and other industrial countries were experiencing could be counterbalanced by the income from overseas investments.

Also, surplus capital could be profitably invested in Africa where cheap labour and limited competition would result in higher profits. Prominent European imperialists decided to use the public resources of their country to find lucrative means of using their capital. The English radical economist J.A. Hobson, argues that the intention was to level out inequalities of wealth to increase domestic consumption. Local merchants, traders and bankers were optimistic towards the idea of imperial expansion and capital investments outside of Europe became an increasingly vital sector of its economy.

There was an increasing demand for raw materials in Europe in the late nineteenth century. According to Brian Levack, the new technologies characteristic of the industrial revolution meant that industrial Europe became increasingly dependent on raw materials. European nations felt the urge to control lands that possessed great quantities of raw materials. Africa was rich with raw materials as well as many treasure reserves. As a result, many major industrial companies attempted to gain a monopoly of raw materials in Africa. Stuart Miller believes that specific trade links were important to particular industries.

Some raw materials in Africa were of great importance; the vegetable oil of the Niger was vital for lubricating industrial machinery and the rubber of the Congo was not only essential for the tires on the new automobiles but also for insulating the electrical and telegraph wires now encircling the globe. The plentiful elephant herds could be slaughtered to provide the ivory for many of the new consumer goods such as piano keys, billiard balls and knife handles. In Togoland, Germans were able to cultivate plantations where they grew cocoa and rubber. Other raw materials included peanuts, cotton and tea. There were also many important minerals and South Africa possessed gold and diamonds.

International rivalry among European nations contributed greatly to imperialist ventures in Africa. Britain’s rivalry with France and Germany accounted for a large part of the colonization. The British government wished to maintain its dominance in the colonial regions. Other European powers desired to expand their colonial spheres as well and Britain responded by seizing colonies. Certain territories were important for their location. The Suez Canal was key waterway between East and West Africa. The immense interior between the gold and diamond rich Southern Africa and Egypt had a strategic value as domination of this region was important to secure the flow of overseas trade. The British wanted to link their possessions in Southern Africa with their territories in East Africa, and these two areas with the Nile basin. Obtaining the Sudan was vital to the fulfillment of these ambitions especially since Egypt was already under British control.

This ‘red-line’ through Africa was made famous by Cecil Rhodes and Lord Milner who advocated for a ‘Cape to Cairo’ empire linking by rail the Suez Canal to the Southern part which possessed many minerals. According to Brian Levack, there was also a certain level of nationalist competition. The unification of Germany upset the balance of power in Europe. In this climate of tension, governments looked towards enforcing national strength. The newly formed nations of Italy and Germany now sought empires outside Europe as a means of gaining power and prestige within Europe. In the nineteenth century, a German historian Henrich con Treitschke stated “All great nations in the fullness of their strength have desired to set their mark on barbarian lands and those who fail to participate in this great rivalry will pay a pitiable role in time to come.”

Under the leadership of Bismarck, Germany soon embarked on a quest of expansionism. Bismarck’s distrust of England under Gladstone was one of the reasons he decided to do this. Germany became engaged in an arms race with Great Britain and it desired as many military and naval bases as it could obtain. France needed to restore its damaged national pride after its defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war and therefore embarked upon expansionism. Their aim was to have an uninterrupted link between the Niger River and the Nile, thus controlling all trade to and from the Sahel region, by virtue of their existing control over the Caravan routes through the Sahara.

Domestic political interests also contributed to European Imperialism in Africa. As stated by Brain Levack, in the age of mass politics, political leaders needed to find issues that would both appeal to new voters and strengthen the status quo. Imperialism led the ordinary European people to believe that they were part of a superior, conquering people. Bismarck used imperial issues to help him find political allies in Germany and once remarked “all this colonial business is a sham but we need it for the elections.” According to Lawrence James, in the 1890s witnessed a rapid expansion of newspaper readership with the appearance of a new type of daily designed to attract the working and lower middle class.

Social Darwinism and missionary intentions are two excuses that are used to justify European imperialism in Africa. Rudyard Kipling characterized the Africans as “sullen, new caught peoples, half devil and half child.” The Europeans believed it to be their duty to civilize the wild savage Africans. Liberalism, which may be defined as a dedication to self-improvement and the belief that there were discoverable rules of general conduct that everyone could follow, contributed to the paternal manner in which Europe acted and arguments of racial and cultural superiority that pushed Europeans into Africa to ‘civilize’ the local populations. Lawrence James states that nations who had now reached the highest stage of civilization were taking control over those which had lagged behind, or races, like the Asante, who were not seen as fit to control their own affairs. In an issue of the Dublin Review in the late nineteenth century it was stated that “The future of Africa under any form of European tutelage must be better than the dark and evil nightmare of the past”.

These Social Darwinists were able to persuade the natives that what was being done was to their ultimate benefit. According to Derrick Murphy et al, there existed the idea that imperialism was a moral duty as a means of spreading Western civilization and Christian values. Many Europeans bought this excuse while others did not. Africans were forced to adopt the Christian religion. In some cases they were killed for continuing to practice their own faiths. Some historians believe that the whole motive for Christian evangelism in Africa was simply to disrupt and destroy and that it was always politically motivated. First, missionaries were brought to the continent. Secondly, after some natives were converted and there was a considerable amount of confusion among them, the troops were sent to exploit them.

Their main intention was to divide to control. According to an African chieftain “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”Various factors attracted European imperialism to Africa in the later nineteenth century. Europe was changing and their colonial empires were associated with the ideas of national greatness and the survival of the fittest. This caused a massive drive for empires. There was a yearning for raw materials, national power and prestige. Each nation which possessed a colonial territory also possessed a sense of superiority.


1.) Chambers Mortimer, Hanawalt Barbara, Rabb Theodore, Woloch Isser, Grew Raymond, The Western Experience, 1999, The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., United States of America2.) James Lawrence, ‘The White Man’s Burden’? Imperial Wars in the 1890s’ Spielvogel Jackson, Western Civilization, Mc Graw Hill, Connecticut, 1999(pgs 100-105)3.) Levack Brian, Muir Edward, Maas
Michael, Veldman Meredith, The West, Encounters and Transformations, 2004, Pearson Education Inc., United States of America4.) Miller Stuart, Mastering Modern European History, 1997, Palgrave, United Kingdom, Hampshire5.) Murphy Derrick, Morris Terry, Europe 1870-1991, 2000, Harper Collins Publishers LTD, United Kingdom, England6.) ‘The Church as a Tool of Imperialism’

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