Chapter 21   The Imperial World Order, 1757-1914

            On Christmas Eve 1884, King Leopold II of Belgium was entertaining the French Ambassador at dinner. Afterwards, the two men retired to the King’s private study to smoke cigars. As they smoked, they discussed the most pressing issue on their minds. The ambassador made it clear that the French government would not allow Leopold’s claim to the territory north of the Congo River in Central Africa. As the two stood over a large globe of the world, tracing the areas under discussion with their cigar butts, Leopold made an expansive gesture. “If your Government insists on the region north of the river,” he told the Ambassador, “then I will expect compensation . . . here.” And with a small sweep of his little finger to the south, the Belgian king incorporated the province of Katanga into his new Congo Free State. So was the destiny of several million Africans decided in a quarter of an hour’s after-dinner talk in Europe, by men who had little or no knowledge either of their existence or the real nature of the country in which they lived.[1]

Between the mid-1700s and the first decade of the 1900s, empire building reached new heights throughout the world. Asian and African empires emerged under the impact of new technologies and revived religious fervor. Meanwhile, European empires expanded from trade empires into empires of occupation, and newly unified nation-states like Germany and Italy began to stake out their own place in the imperial sun. By 1900 an imperial world order had emerged dominated by the great industrial powers.


1763   Most of India falls under the rule of the British East India Company.

1830   France occupies Algeria.

1837   The Boers begin the Great Trek into the African interior.

1839   Britain launches the Opium War against China.

1853   The American commander Matthew Perry forces Japan to open to negotiations.

1857   Indian sepoys rebel against the British in the Indian Mutiny.

1885   The Berlin Conference sets the ground rules for the partition of Africa and the world.

1905   Japan soundly defeats Russia and becomes acknowledged as a world power.

1911   Western-educated Chinese revolutionaries depose the Qing dynasty, putting an end to imperial rule in China.