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The Problem of Imperialism

The British Empire, was so vast it was dubbed the empire on which ‘the sun never sets’. The grim truth is that it became so at the expense of thousands upon thousands of destroyed natives’ lives and subjugating whole cultures. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines imperialism as ‘the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas’, with its older and narrower meaning simply being ‘imperial government, authority, or system’.

The need of materials and cheap labor, developed in the wake of industrialization, made the most advanced European countries to turn to their old trade partners in Asia and Africa, but this time as conquerors, while claiming to be researchers and educators. The effects of imperialism on the world are horrific and lasting; its consequences are visible and controversial even today. While undoubtedly harming to the natives, as it claims them to be sub-humans to be educated and taught–which is used as an excuse for brutal subjugation, it also harmed the empire itself, as the system demands from its participants savagery and cruelty running counter to ‘civilized’ behavior they claim to bring.

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This cycle of alienating the natives and forcing them to comply is the most horrendous effect of imperialism.

Rudyard Kipling, who has a reputation as one of the staunchest advocates and poets of imperialism, in his 1890 short story The Mark Of The Beast shows another side to it: one that strips humans of their humanity.

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The story tells about an English landowner who carelessly desecrates an Indian temple, and is cursed by a leper living by the temple. He then proceeds to turn into a beast, and his friends catch the leper and torture him into reversing the spell. They bitterly understand that they cannot call themselves ‘civilized Englishmen’ after this affair, and they cannot tell anyone, as ‘it is well known to every right-minded man that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned’ (Kipling). The story upon closer examination is a warning of how the ignorance of the natives’ culture and customs may bring harm to both the sides of the issue, forcing them to perpetrate deeds unworthy of civilized humanity. Even the people interested in natives’ customs are motivated by a wish to get the better of natives, to show English superiority in all matters, even in their own culture: ‘Strickland hates being mystified by natives, because his business in life is to overmatch them with their own weapons’ (Kipling).

George Orwell, famous for his anti-imperialist views, in his semi-autobiographical 1936 essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’ narrates his experience as a police officer in Burma. He, even though he did not view the Empire he served in any positive light, was nonetheless distrusted and mocked by the natives, and had to assert his authority by complying to their will and putting on a show of cruelty. He is caught between hating the perpetrator of the misery, the Empire, and the frustration by the natives, who act in disruptive and ungovernable ways, yet lack power to outright rebel, which he claims are ‘the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty’ (Orwell). He is only worthy of interest and fear if he kills the elephant, even if it is both unnecessary and against his better judgment. This is the most significant adverse effect imperialism has on people, both the conquered and the conquerors ‘it dictates models of behavior contrary to the nature of a person, forcing them to behave in expected ways, thus losing any freedom’. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it (Orwell).

As both the stories imply, imperialism has a lasting destroying effect on human soul. It denigrates and reduces to the savage levels every man involved in its system both the oppressed and the oppressor. It strips him of free will, imposes necessity instead of thought and choice, and dictates certain roles of behavior. “I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind”, as Orwell puts it. Instead of elevating the natives they are degrading themselves, falling victims to the expected models of behavior. In Kipling’s story, an Englishman is brought to such degradation by so foul a creature, placing a native on the same beastly level as a cursed landowner. Even the Englishmen were sensible and sympathetic towards the natives are not exception to this. Under imperialism people have no free will, only fear and survival instinct, which make them behave in ways not worthy of civilized men. And the next generation, growing up with this system, did not see anything wrong with an elephants’ life costing more than a Burman’s, as it produces more.

One of the most common justifications of imperialism is the assumption that it brings civilization to the savages, educating them, and helping them to develop and prosper, the widely-known ‘white man’s burden’ coined by Kipling. Another side claims it is right for more advanced nation to control the less developed ones, as it will help them to reach the culture level of the world. While it is destroying the existing culture of the native people, dismissing it as wild people’s uncivilized ways, and propagating the European ways of life, and the claims of being civilized while participating in atrocities and subjugations do not match. It is impossible to behave humanely in the constraints imperialism dictates, and thus the resulting violence is presupposed in the system.

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The Problem of Imperialism. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved from

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