Unit 15 Key Concepts

  • Imperialism

    Imperialism occurs when a strong nation takes over a weaker nation or region and dominates its economic, political, or cultural life.

    This type of foreign policy was practiced by European nations and Japan throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. In every case, a nation would experience industrialization prior to practicing imperialism on a foreign nation or region. This was due to the nearly insatiable demand for cheap raw materials and the need for markets to buy manufactured goods.

    Industrial Roots

    Abundant raw materials and vast markets are needed in order to maintain an industrialized economy. Raw materials such as iron and cotton can be turned into products such as steel and textiles. Finally, these products need to be sold to a market in order to realize a profit.

    The forces of industrialization caused nations to begin looking outside of their borders for cheaper and more abundant raw materials. Foreign populations were also viewed as vast markets where goods produced in domestic factories could be sold.

    Other Causes

    Nationalism, or pride in one’s country, also contributed to the growth of imperialism. Citizens were proud of their country’s accomplishments, which sometimes included taking over foreign areas. As European nations became competitive with one another, there was an increased pressure to practice imperialism in order to maintain a balance of power in Europe.

    As Europeans took over foreign lands, they viewed the culture of the native population to be inferior to their own. This concept became know as “The White Man’s Burden” after a popular poem by the same name was published by Rudyard Kipling in 1899. Some interpreted this poem to mean that it was the duty of imperializing nations to bring western culture and sensibility to the savage native populations that were encountered in far off lands. This is sometimes referred to as Social Darwinism, or the belief that all human groups compete for survival, and that the stronger groups will replace the weaker groups. Others saw it as a warning to western nations to stop the harmful practice of imperialism.

    Causes of Imperialism

    Economic Motives The Industrial Revolution created an insatiable demand for raw materials and new markets.
    Nationalism European nations wanted to demonstrate their power and prestige to the world.
    Balance of Power European nations were forced to acquire new colonies to achieve a balance with their neighbors and competitors.
    White Man's Burden The Europeans’ sense of superiority made them feel obligated to “civilize the heathen savages” they encountered.


    In the short-term, imperialism was a very profitable foreign policy which came at the expense of the foreign regions where it was being practiced. Cultural diffusion also occurred, leading to an exchange of ideas between the West and the East. For example, European methods of education were adopted, leading foreigners to study ideas of liberty and democracy embraced during the Enlightenment and various political revolutions. This exchange eventually led to the demise of imperialism and colonialism throughout the world after World War Two.

    Scramble for Africa

    Anti-Slave Trade Legislation

    In the 1400s, the Portuguese established a number of trading outposts along the coastline of Africa. Later in the 1600s, the Dutch established the Cape Town settlement on the southwestern tip of Africa. Many of these early settlements were the starting point of the African Slave Trade that enslaved and forcibly sent many Africans overseas.By the 1800s, many European nations had passed laws banning the slave trade.

    However, the illegal slave trade continued well throughout the 1800s.

    Scramble For Africa

    In the 1870s, the Belgian King Leopold sent emissaries to establish trade with native Africans in the Congo. This single act began a flurry of imperialistic activity as the other nations of Europe, including: France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. 

    Berlin Conference

    To avoid conflict with one another in Africa, European leaders met in Berlin, Germany. With little regard or representation for native Africans, the European powers set about carving up Africa according to the following guidelines:

    Any sovereign power which wanted to claim any territory should inform the other powers “in order to ... make good any claim of their own.”
    Any such annexation should be validated by effective occupation.
    Treaties with African rulers were to be considered a valid title to sovereignty.
    By 1900, the only areas of Africa remaining independent were Liberia and Ethiopia.

    Zulu Resistance

    In the 1830s descendents of the original Dutch settlers, now called Boers, migrated into the interior of South Africa and began to engage in conflicts with the Zulu. These battles with the Boer settlers continued well into the late 1800s, but never truly threatened Zulu sovereignty.

    The Zulu were a south African tribe that placed an emphasis on military organization and skill, as established by their  legendary leader Shaka Zulu. Under Shaka’s rule, the Zulu broadened their land claims throughout southern Africa.

    Eventually, the Zulu came into the conflict with the British army as they expanded their control over southern Africa and invaded the homeland of the Zulu.

    Despite early victories, the Zulu were eventually defeated by the technology and vast resources at the command of the British troops. Soon, all of southern Africa would come under British control.

    Cecil Rhodes and the Boer War

    Cecil Rhodes was instrumental in assuring British dominance of southern Africa. He founded the De Beers Mining Company, eventually controlling 90% of the world’s diamond production. After becoming prime minister of the Cape Colony (now South Africa) in 1890, he used his influence to strengthen British control over the region.

    His master plan was to establish a Cape to Cairo railroad line that would link British colonial interests in Africa between Egypt and the Cape Colony in southern Africa. The Boers, however, provided heavy and eventually armed resistance to this proposal. After authorizing an aggressive invasion of the Boer Republic of Transvaal which ended poorly, Rhodes was removed from office. However, the seeds of the Boer War had been sown.

    Great Britain decided to annex the Boer republics, and with Boer resistance came the Boer War (1899-1902). By all accounts the fighting was vicious, with the Boers employing guerilla tactics and the British eventually using 450,000 troops to achieve victory.

    In 1910, the various British colonies in southern Africa were united as the Union of South Africa, eventually becoming the nation of South Africa after WWII.


    Because European nation carved Africa up with no regard for traditional tribal boundaries, Africa still suffers from tribalism. Modern African nations often contain several different tribes that harbor ill feelings towards one another. Therefore, inter-tribal conflict is a common in Africa often leading to civil wars and power struggles within national governments.


    British East India Company

    During the 1700s, a joint-stock company called the British East India Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I of England. The company’s main objective was to make a profit for shareholders by exploiting the abundant natural resources and gaining access to the markets in India. To do this, the British East India Company successfully used “divide and conquer” tactics to increase their control over entire regions of the Indian subcontinent. This strategy entailed fanning the flames of religious division between native Muslim and Hindu groups, and taking advantage of the political rivalries that existed between local native rulers.

    By the 1830s, the British government had taken over control of the East India Company. Under British rule, native customs such as sati, the ritual suicide of a wife after her husband’s death, were banned. The British built schools and railroads, and missionaries spread Christianity.

    Sepoy Mutiny

    By 1857 the British army in India included a large number of Indian soldiers, or Sepoys. The rifle cartridges that were distributed to the Sepoys had to be bitten to remove a cover before being inserted into a gun. Rumors circulated among the Sepoys that this cover had been greased with beef and pork fat. This angered Muslim Sepoys who were not supposed to consume pork, and the Hindu Sepoys who were not supposed to eat beef. Thus, the Sepoys revolted against the British army, which eventually ended the conflict through use of force. This resulted in the British government officially taking control of India, making it a colony.

    Some view this as the first act of Indian independence, which would not be achieved until after WWII with the formation of the countries of India and Pakistan.


    Opium Wars

    In the early 1800s,  the British treasury was being depleted due to its dependence upon imported tea from China. The Chinese still considered their nation to be the Middle Kingdom, and therefore viewed the goods the Europeans brought to trade with as nearly worthless trinkets. To solve this trade imbalance Britain imported opium, processed from poppy plants grown in the Crown Colony of India, into China. Chinese officials attempted to ban the importation of the highly addictive opium, but ultimately failed. The British declared war on China in a series of conflicts called the Opium Wars. Superior British military technology allowed them to claim victory and subject the Chinese to a series of unequal treaties.

    Unequal Treaties

    According to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, the Chinese were to:

    1. Reimburse Britain for costs incurred fighting the Chinese
    2. Open several ports to British trade
    3. Provide Britain with complete control of Hong Kong
    4. Grant extraterritoriality to British citizens living in China

    Spheres of Influence

    Eventually several European nations followed suit, forcing China to sign a series of unequal treaties. Extraterritoriality guaranteed that European citizens in China were only subject to the laws of their own nation and could only be tried by their own courts. Eventually western nations weary of governing foreign lands, established spheres of influence within China which guaranteed specific trading privileges to each nation within its respective sphere.

    Eventually the United States demanded equal trading status within China, and rather than carve out its own sphere of influence, simply announced the Open Door Policy in 1899. This stated that all nations should have equal trading rights regardless of spheres of influence. While this may have prevented the further expansion of spheres of influences, it did little to restore Chinese sovereignty.

    Chinese Reaction

    Disgusted with the failed efforts of the Manchu Dynasty in ridding China of opium or foreign influence after the Opium Wars, Chinese citizens staged the Taiping Rebellion between 1850-1864. Already weakened, the Chinese officials turned to foreigners for help in putting down the rebellion, killing millions of Chinese in the process.

    After the further insult of the Open Door Policy, Chinese nationalist staged the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Viewed as a threat to the profits they enjoyed in their imperialist spheres of influence, foreign nations formed an international coalition that ended the uprising. With this victory, additional concessions were granted to foreign nations within China.

    Finally, 5,000 years of dynastic rule in China came to an end in 1911. China tumbled into civil war as local warlords sought to control their locals, while nationalist leaders such as Sun Yixian sought to unify China. Civil war took hold of China after Sun’s death as Mao Zedong and his communist forces battled Sun's successor Jiang Jieshi for control of the country. In 1949, Mao established a communist government in mainland China while Jiang Jieshi fled to Taiwan and established a democratic government there.


    Meiji Restoration

    In 1853, the U.S. sent a fleet of ships under the command of Commodore Mathew Perry to Japan in order to end the nation’s self-imposed isolation and open it to trade. Soon, the Britain, Russia, and Holland negotiated similar treaties.The intrusion of the West would become a turning point for feudal Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate was criticized and ultimately overthrown for allowing western nations into Japan. In 1868, Emperor Mutsushito was restored to the throne. He decided that in order to withstand the imperialistic might of the West, Japan would need to adopt western ways. This movement would be known as the Meiji Restoration.

    Japanese scholars were sent abroad to learn as much as possible about the West. Feudalism was abandoned in Japan in favor of a written constitution and the establishment of modern mechanized armed forces. Western technology was adopted which allowed the Japanese to fully industrialize in less than 50 years. By the end of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese no longer feared that they would be imperialized. Rather, they set out to practice imperialism themselves.

    Japan's Empire

    In 1894-95 the Japanese engaged the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War as they sought natural resources and trading rights on mainland Asia. These motives also brought them into conflict with Russia in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Japan achieved victory in both conflicts, and surprised the world in doing so. The destruction of the Russian Navy by the Japanese marked the first time an Asian nation had defeated one from Europe.

    With the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan earned the following:

    1. Chinese port city trading rights;
    2. Control of Manchuria in China;
    3. Korea became its protectorate;
    4. Annexation of the island of Sakhalin

    Japan was quickly emerging as a world-class power using western technology and methods while still maintaining its traditional cultural values.

    Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

    During the early 1900s, Japan practiced imperialism throughout Asia. A campaign to rid Asia of European imperialism was waged in which Japan occupied nations once held by the French, British, and the Dutch. Native leaders were installed as part of puppet governments that were manipulated by the Japanese.

    By 1940, Japan announced that it would form a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere which encouraged Asian nations to resist western imperialists in order to contribute to the industrial needs of the Japanese war machine. In fact, Japan was practicing its own form of imperialism by dominating its Asian neighbors.

    Post-War Success

    Japan's imperialistic ambitions soon brought the nation into conflict with the United States in WWII. After losing WWII, Japan was occupied by the United States during which time democratic reforms were instituted. The emperor was forced to renounce his divinity and the Japanese armed forces were disbanded. A parliamentary democracy was established and the United States provided economic aid to rebuild infrastructure.

    Soon, Japan demonstrated its economic prowess without taking advantage of its Asian neighbors through imperialism. By the 1980s Japan was being compared to the United States and West Germany as one of the great economic powers of the world.