3.19 Imperialism


“China—the cake of kings and… of emperors” (a French pun on king cake and kings and emperors wishing to “consume” China). French political cartoon from 1898. A pastry represents “Chine” (French for China) and is being divided between caricatures of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, William II of Germany (who is squabbling with Queen Victoria over a borderland piece, whilst thrusting a knife into the pie to signify aggressive German intentions), Nicholas II of Russia, who is eyeing a particular piece, the French Marianne (who is diplomatically shown as not participating in the carving, and is depicted as close to Nicholas II, as a reminder of the Franco-Russian Alliance), and a samurai representing Japan, carefully contemplating which pieces to take. A stereotypical Qing official throws up his hands to try and stop them, but is powerless. It is meant to be a figurative representation of the Imperialist tendencies of these nations towards China during the decade. (Caption from Wikipedia) Meyer, Henri. “En Chine Le gâteau des Rois et … des Empereurs.” January 16, 1898. Library of Congress. Wikimedia. February 7, 2019.

“Imperialism” in the context of modern history refers to global empire-building by modern states – to distinguish it from the earlier expansion of European states during the Age of Exploration. It is sometimes referred to as “neo-imperialism” or New Imperialism. Imperialism, or empire building, had been practiced in some form or another since ancient times, but the 19th century sees the beginning of a “new imperialism” that surpasses anything previously known. New Imperialism is defined as the “acquisition of territories on an intense and unprecedented scale. . . . Above all, what distinguished the new imperialism was the domination by the industrial powers over the nonindustrial world.”7

The aftershocks of this period of imperialism are still felt in the present, with national borders and international conflicts alike tied to patterns put in place by the imperialist powers over a century ago. Modern imperialism was a product of factors that had no direct parallel in earlier centuries. For a brief period, Europe (joined by the United States at the end of the century) enjoyed a monopoly on industrial production and technology. The scientific advances lent themselves directly to European power as well, most obviously in that modern medicine enabled European soldiers and administrators to survive in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa that had been deathtraps for them in the past because of the prevalence of tropical diseases. In addition, ideological developments like the emergence of Social Darwinism and the obsession with race inspired Europeans to consider their conquests as morally justified, even necessary. It was, in short, a “perfect storm” of technology and ideology that enabled and justified Europe’s global feeding frenzy.

While Europeans tended to justify their conquests by citing a “civilizing mission” that would bring the guiding lights of Christianity and Western Civilization to supposedly benighted regions, one other factor was at work that provided a much more tangible excuse for conquest: the rivalry between European states. With the Congress System a dead letter in the aftermath of the Crimean War, and with the wars of the Italian and German unifications demonstrating the stakes of intra-European conflict, all of the major European powers jockeyed for position on the world stage during the second half of the century. Perhaps the most iconic example was the personal obsession of the King of Belgium, Leopold II, with the creation of a Belgian colony in Africa, which he thought would elevate Belgium’s status in Europe (and from which he could derive enormous profits). In the end, his personal fiefdom – the Congo Free State – would become the most horrendous demonstration of the mismatch between the high-minded “civilizing mission” and the reality of carnage and exploitation.


  1. Mark Kishlansky, et. al. Civilization in the West, 7th ed. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2008), 751 image


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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