The word imperialism is now so loosely used that it has almost lost real meaning. It may be useful to offer a definition that might be widely accepted: “the policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.” That definition seems to apply equally well to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to the European performance in the late nineteenth century. But there were new elements in the latter case. Previous imperialisms had taken the form either of seizing land and setting it with the conqueror’s people or of establishing trading centers to exploit the resources of the dominated area. The New Imperialism did not completely abandon these devices, but it also introduced new ones.
The usual pattern of the New Imperialism was for a European nation to invest capital in a “backward” country, to develop its mines and agriculture, to build railroads, bridges, harbors, and telegraph systems, and to employ great numbers of natives in the process. They thereby transformed the local economy and culture. To safeguard its investments, the dominant European State would make favorable arrangements with the local government either by loaning the rulers money or intimidating them.
If these arrangements proved inadequate, the dominant power would establish more direct political control. Sometimes this meant full annexation and direct rule as a colony, or it could be a protectorate status, whereby the local ruler became a figurehead controlled by the dominant European State and maintained by its military power. In other instances, the European state established “spheres of influence” in which it received special commercial and legal privileges without direct political involvement.
The predominant interpretation of the motives for the New Imperialism has been economic, in the form given by the English radical economist J.A. Hobson (1858-1928) and later adapted by Lenin. As Lenin put it, “Imperialism is the monopoly state of capitalism,” the last stage of the dying system. Competition inevitably eliminates inefficient capitalists and, therefor, leads to monopoly. Powerful industrial and financial capitalists soon run out of profitable areas of investment in their own countries and persuade their governments to gain colonies in “backward” countries. Here they can find higher profits from their investments, new markets for their products, and safe sources of raw materials.
Facts do not support this viewpoint, however. The European powers did investment considerable capital abroad, but not in a way that fit the model of Hobson and Lenin. Britain, for example, made heavier investments abroad before 1875 than during the next two decades. Only a small percentage of British and European investments overseas, moreover, went to their new colonies. Most capital went into other European countries or to older, well-established areas like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Even when investments were made in new areas, they were not necessarily put into colonies held by the investing country.
The facts are equally discouraging for those who emphasize the need for markets and raw materials. Colonies were not usually important markets for the great imperial nations, and all these states were forced to rely on areas that they did not control as sources of vital raw materials. It is not even clear that control of the new colonies was particularly profitable, though Britain, to be sure, benefited greatly from its rule of India. It is also true that some European businessmen and politicians hoped that colonial expansion would sure the great depression of 1873-1896.
Nevertheless, as one of the leading students of the subjects has said, “No one can determine whether the accounts of empire ultimately closed with a favorable cash balance.” That is true of the European imperial nations collectively, but it is certain that for some of them, like Italy and Germany, empire was losing propositions. Some individuals and companies, of course, made great profits from particular colonial ventures, but such people were able to influence national policy only occasionally. Economic motives certainly played a part, but a fully understanding of the New Imperialism requires a search for other motives.
Advocates of imperialism gave various justifications for it. Some argued that the advanced European nations had a duty to bring the benefits of their higher culture and superior civilization to more “backward” peoples. Religious groups demanded western governments furnish political and even military support for Christian missionaries. Some politicians and diplomats supported imperialism as a tool of social policy. In Germany, for instance, some people suggested that imperial expansion would deflect public interest away from domestic politics and social reform. Yet Germany acquired few colonies, and such considerations played little if any role in its colonial policy.
In Britain, Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), the colonial secretary from 1895 to 1903, argued for the empire as a source of profit and economic security that would finance a great program of domestic reform and welfare. These arguments were not important as motives for British imperial expansion because they were made well after Britain had acquired most of its empire. Another common and apparently plausible justification for imperialism was the colonies would attract a European country’s surplus population. In fact, most European emigrants went to areas not controlled by their countries, chiefly to North and South America and Australia.