The human history counts several great empires that made a considerable contribution to the development of human civilization, including the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Roman Empire, and other great nations. The concept of imperialism has its roots in the ancient times and has been taking many different forms since then. In modern researches, the term imperialism often has a negative meaning as it is associated with racism and colonialism in its aggressive form. As these concepts are tightly interconnected with each other, it is necessary to define them here in correspondence with the principles of complementarity and interaction.
Feuer identifies two types of imperialism – regressive and progressive. Regressive imperialism is characterized by clearly defined exploitation, wars of conquest, pressure on conquered people, and occupation of a conquered territory by the dominant nations of the conqueror. On the other hand, progressive imperialism implies a cosmopolitan view on humanity and encourages the development of civilization in the allegedly lagging nationalities in order to improve living standards and culture in the conquered territories and allow conquered people to assimilate into the imperial society. It may be concluded from this definition that imperialistic societies were aggressive and racist in their nature keeping in mind that empires had a tendency to colonize other nations’ territories and suppress the culture of the conquered people. Relying on this understanding of the concepts of imperialism, racism, and colonialism, the main forces and factors that account for European hegemony over the rest of the world can be identified and discussed.
One of the greatest European countries, the British Empire had five major motives for imperial politics and colonial ideology: technical, economic, political, social, and cultural reasons. Britain had to gain raw materials for industrialization and building of the railway that could be obtained from the untouched and undeveloped lands. The creation of additional markets for manufactured goods was the other major economic reason for colonization. The social situation was quite unstable in Europe. The population boom could not pass without serious social consequences. The growth of urbanization and the gap between the rich and the poor has led to disturbances and riots. Colonization was a great way to distract people from inner problems and give them an opportunity to seek for better options overseas. From the perspective of politics, major European forces, such as Britain, France, and Germany had to secure safe naval and supply stations and other strategic areas for the safety of the nations. Besides, the liberal-democratic ideas began to gain popularity in Europe, which led to rising political awareness of the working class. This fact was a great concern of the ruling top. The cultural reason for imperialism came from the notion that distant lands would benefit from the developed European institutions. There was also a widespread belief coming from the social Darwinism theory that white races are more advanced than others and, thus, have the biological right to dominate over them. It was a good enough justification for European conquest.
In the beginning of the 19th century, Africa was not of much importance to Europe. For instance, in 1815, Britain had only two colonies in Africa: Sierra Leone and Cape Colony. Apart from the colonies, there were trading posts on the Gambia and Gold Coast. In the next 60 years, Britain focused mainly on annexing regions close to the colonies it already possessed. After the Berlin Conference in 1885, the “Scramble for Africa” began as a reaction to the General Act of the Berlin Conference that aimed at limiting expansion and defend claims. European empires entered the race for colonies. As a result, the Great Britain acquired possessions in Africa, as well as in South East Asia in order to secure the resources and markets for its industries and protect strategic interests. It was the climax of colonial expansion in the late 19th century for the European nations.
Views and attitudes towards the imperial politics differed in several aspects. Radicals pointed at the dangers of financial waste due to colonial expansion. Conservatives and unionist supporters claimed attention to the obligation to civilize Africa and fight slavery. The anti-expansionist movement focused on the idea that expansion was unjustified. Christians hesitated to identify themselves with the work of the chartered companies. James Rogers who was the Chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales at that time also supported anti-expansionists, disputing the invasion of Uganda.
On the other hand, Africa raised new enthusiasm in European politics. Captain Lugard, the Champion of British Control in Uganda argued that both the Empire and the Africans would benefit from the colonization of Africa. His main point was that while supplying the Africans, the Empire would have an opportunity to receive in turn the products of their country and the labor force. At the same time, he suggested that Africans would have their use in the educating of the miracles of civilization from British colonizers. The spread of colonial ideology gained a high speed in the 19th century.
The turning point in the colonial expansion was the South African War (1899-1902). It was a war between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. The Great Britain won this war, and the countries went under British control. However, this war was devastating for the Empire in terms of social support and approval. The war was very expensive, and the public opinion turned against it. British citizens lost their faith in the Empire. Despite the fact that the British Empire has reached an enormous growth and became the biggest empire in the world, Britain realized that such a big Empire became a heavy load that was hard to control. This thought emerged further decline and dissolution of the British Empire.
The great technological and military advantage, social and ideological superiority of the European nations played a great part in European colonial politics and dominance over the rest of the world. In the beginning of the 20th century, over eighty four percent of the world’s land area was dominated by European empires. It was not their moral, intellectual, or social superiority that enabled the Western empires to conquer the indigenous people but their warships and cannons. The Western perception of racial difference is informed by the Western empires’ economic motives and reinforced and reproduced by their technological and military hegemony. The emergence of the instrumental reason and the capitalist mode of production urged the Western empires to seek colonies and exploit their natural resources thoroughly and ruthlessly through the various imperialist material practices. The economic and territorial ambitions were articulated in cultural, intellectual, and moral terms as philanthropic desires to “civilize” the savage and introduce him to all the benefits of Western cultures. This was the “high mission” of British Christian missioners. Legacy and extent of the European imperialism of the 19th century mark its difference from the previous imperialistic societies and contribute significantly to the development of human civilization.