3.25 The Counter-Examples – Ethiopia and Japan


Even the European and American monopoly on advanced technology did not always translate into successful conquest, as demonstrated in the cases of both Ethiopia and Japan. As the Scramble for Africa began in earnest in the 1870s, the recently-united nation of Italy sought to shore up its status as a European power by establishing its own colonies. Italian politicians targeted East Africa, specifically Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1889, the Italians signed a treaty with the Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II, but the treaty contained different wording in Italian and Amharic (the major language of Ethiopia): the Italian version stipulated that Ethiopia would become an Italian colony, while the Amharic version simply opened diplomatic ties with Europe through Italy. Once he learned of the deception, Menelik II repudiated the treaty, simultaneously directing the resources of his government to the acquisition of modern weapons and European mercenary captains willing to train his army.

Open war broke out in the early 1890s between Italy and Ethiopia, culminating in a battle at Adwa in 1896. There, the well-trained and well-equipped Ethiopians decisively defeated the Italian army. The Italians were forced to formally recognize Ethiopian independence, and soon other European powers followed suit. Thus, a non-European power could and did defeat European invaders thanks to Menelik II’s quick thinking. Nowhere else in Africa did a local ruler so successfully organize to repulse the invaders, but if circumstances had been different, they certainly could have done so.

In Asia, something comparable occurred, but at an even larger scale. In 1853, in the quintessential example of “gunboat diplomacy,” an American naval admiral, Matthew Perry, forced Japan to sign a treaty opening it to contact with the west through very thinly-veiled threats. As western powers opened diplomacy and then trade with the Japanese shogunate, a period of chaos gripped Japan as the centuries-old political order fell apart. In 1868, a new government, called the Meiji Restoration by historians, embarked on a course of rapid westernization after dismantling the old feudal privileges of the samurai class. Japanese officials and merchants were sent abroad to learn about foreign technology and practices, and European and American advisers were brought in to guide the construction of factories and train a new, modernized army and navy. The Japanese state was organized along highly authoritarian lines, with the symbolic importance of the emperor maintained, but practical power held by the cabinet and the heads of the military.

Westernization in this case not only meant economic, industrial, and military modernization, it also meant reaping the rewards of that modernization, one of which was empire. Just as European states had industrialized and then turned to foreign conquest, the new leadership of Japan looked to the weaker states of their region as “natural” territories to be incorporated. The Japanese thus undertook a series of invasions, most importantly in Korea and the northern Chinese territory of Manchuria, and began the process of building an empire on par with that of the European great powers.

Japanese expansion, however, threatened Russian interests, ultimately leading to war in 1904. To the shock and horror of the much of the Western World, Japan handily defeated Russia by 1905, forcing Russia to recognize Japanese control of Manchuria, along with various disputed islands in the Pacific. Whereas Ethiopia had defended its own territory and sovereignty, Japan was now playing by the same rules and besting European powers at their own game: seizing foreign territory through force of arms.

It is easy to focus on the technologies behind New Imperialism, to marvel at its speed, and to consider the vast breadth of European empires while overlooking what lay behind it all: violence. The cases of the Congo and the genocide of the Herero and Nama are rightly remembered, and studied by historians, as iconic expressions of imperialistic violence, but they were only two of the more extreme and shocking examples of the ubiquitous violence that established and maintained all of the imperial conquests of the time. The scale of that violence on a global scale vastly exceeded any of the relatively petty squabbles that had constituted European warfare itself up to that point – the only European war that approaches the level of bloodshed caused by imperialism was probably the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century, but imperialism’s death toll was still far higher. Until 1914, Europeans exported that violence hundreds or thousands of miles away as they occupied whole continents. In 1914, however, it came home to roost in the First World War.


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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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