Chapter 21   The Imperial World Order, 1757-1914

Section 1 Motives of Modern Imperialism

While many peoples practiced imperialism, by the 1800s the industrial powers of the Western world had a decided technological advantage. In addition, the rise of nationalism and the spread of the industrial revolution caused many European nations to become ardent advocates of imperial expansion. Soon, Europeans had spread their empires over the entire globe.


The “New” Imperialism

Between 1870 and 1914, many of the industrialized nations of the world engaged in a frenzy of formal empire-building. Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States laid formal claims to large areas of the world beyond their own borders. By 1914 these colonial empires directly controlled almost the entire world. They dominated most of the rest through spheres of influence, or territories in which the interests of a single nation predominated.[2] Many historians call this remarkable extension of power the new imperialism.

            In fact, the new imperialism was little different from the old imperialism that Europeans had been practicing since the late 1400s. Certainly, many of the motives remained the same: economic, political, strategic,[3] religious and humanitarian. At the same time, the rise of nationalism and the spread of the industrial revolution came together in the 1800s to intensify imperial expansion.

            In 1883, Jules Ferry, the architect of France’s new empire, gave perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of the new movement toward empire-building: 

“The policy of colonial expansion is a political and economic system . . . one can relate this system to three orders of ideas: economic ideas, ideas of civilization in its highest sense, and ideas of politics and patriotism.”[4] 

At the root of all these reasons lay the fundamental concerns of governments for their security and their sense of national identity and national pride. “France cannot be merely a free country,” Ferry insisted, “she ought to propagate [her] influence throughout the world and carry everywhere that she can her language, her customs, her flag, her arms, and her genius.”[5] 

National competition and imperialism. To a considerable degree, the new imperialism sprang from the wave of nationalism that swept over Europe in the 1800s. The emergence of new nations like Germany and Italy forced a realignment of the balance of power in Europe. Growing tensions among the nation-states could easily spill over into the rest of the world.

            After winning the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, for example, the new German Empire annexed two French provinces, Alsace and Lorraine.[6] Afterwards, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck encouraged the French to seek compensation for this loss through imperial expansion in Africa. Thus Bismarck hoped to divert France from seeking revenge for its defeat in Europe.

            The Germans’ rapid victory in the Franco-Prussian War also demonstrated to the world that modern industrial warfare depended not only on manpower and heroism but on repeating rifles, improved field artillery, and railways. This modern technology was expensive and could be sustained only through industrialization. In order to ensure their nations’ security, therefore, political leaders had to guarantee both a healthy national economy and industrial capacity. Both goals depended on access to raw materials and markets in which to sell industrial products. Consequently, after 1870 European competition for raw materials and markets around the world intensified.

            The spread of the industrial revolution beyond Britain and Belgium after 1850 had already created a new demand for raw materials.[7] The second phase of the industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity, and steel, accelerated and changed the demand. European and American businessmen began to seek new commodities like copper, manganese, and rubber. In South America, some countries fought for control of sources of guano—bird and bat droppings used to make fertilizer and from which nitrate for modern explosives could be extracted. Many of these new commodities could only be found in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Having found the resources, however, industrial nations also had to guarantee that they would have access to them. 

Free trade and empire. Since the 1840s, the most powerful industrial nation, Great Britain, had pursued a policy of free trade,[8] meaning that no country would establish tariffs to restrict other nations’ access to raw materials or markets.[9] Since Britain had been the first to industrialize, however, free trade worked to its advantage in economic competition with other countries.[10]

            By the 1880s, the situation changed.[11] The newly industrializing nations realized the advantages Britain had gained through free trade and had begun to close off their own markets and sources of supply in order to protect their own fledgling industries, a practice called protectionism.[12] The rise of protectionism and the new imperialism that followed it seemed to represent a return to the old mercantilist principles of the earlier European overseas empires. As countries began to take colonies to increase their resources, others had to keep up by claiming their own new territories.

Technology and Empire

Modern technology made the new European imperialism possible. The early 20th century writer, Hilaire Belloc, once explained the European ability to dominate other peoples in a famous couplet: “The difference is that we have got/The Maxim gun, and they have not.”[13]

            New advances in transportation, especially in shipbuilding, allowed Europeans to go anywhere in the world safely. At the same time, advances in tropical medicine allowed Europeans to move into regions previously unhealthy for them. For example, they discovered that quinine, made from the South American cinchona root, controlled malaria.[14] After about 1850 Europeans had a better chance of surviving in the tropics.

            The nature of the new technology also seemed to encourage imperial expansion. Naval power became especially important as new industrial nations adopted more nationalistic trade policies. By the 1880s, steam-powered ships had replaced sailing ships as the primary means of transportation on many of the world’s oceans. In 1888 a steam-driven warship carried only 14 days worth of coal. Without coal, the ship was helpless. Consequently, to keep a fleet at sea, a country had to have coaling stations and ports for defense and resupply. The only way to ensure the security and availability of such stations was by annexing the territories as colonies.

Humanitarian and Cultural Imperialism

While security considerations drove the imperial policies of governments, and the lure of profits enticed merchants and entrepreneurs to support, even demand imperial expansion, less material motives inspired some Westerners to spread their civilization to the world. The word civilization itself had an almost magical appeal to these idealists. They associated it with the upward progress of the human race. Most had little doubt that their own civilization, a product of Judeo-Christian religious values and Enlightenment rationalism, represented the pinnacle of human achievement. Anxious to share these achievements with “less fortunate” peoples, Christian missionaries carried their faith, modern medicine, and western education to Asia and Africa. Dr. David Livingstone, perhaps the most famous missionary and explorer of the 1800s, described their purpose: 

“We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break . . . . [O]ur duty is onward, onward, proclaiming God’s word whether men will hear or whether they will forbear.”[15] 

            As they established their empires, Europeans also became concerned about the moral implications of imperialism. By the end of the 1800s, most Western nations had some form of constitutional government. Yet liberal democracy, with its emphasis on individual human rights and liberty, seemed at odds with imperialism.

            Many imperialists adopted the moral tone of the missionaries. The French and the British spoke of their “civilizing mission,” while the Germans proclaimed their unique mission to spread culture. The most famous British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, used plainer language: 

“We happen to be the best people in the world, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.”[16] 



IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

spheres of influence

new imperialism


coaling stations 

1.      Main Idea  Why did western nations become interested in imperial expansion after 1870?

2.      Main Idea  How did modern industrial technology contribute to imperialism?

3.      Cross-Cultural Interaction  How did western attitudes about their civilization affect their interest in imperialism?

4.      Writing to Persuade  Imagine that you are a young British imperialist. Write a short speech explaining why expanding the British Empire would benefit not only Great Britain, but also the non-western world.

5.      Hypothesizing  Why do you think that Europeans were so convinced that their civilization was superior to every other civilization?