Chapter 24 Growth of Colonial Nationalism, 1880-1939

Section 1 The Imperial World Order

At the beginning of the 20th century, European civilization dominated the rest of the globe politically and economically. This global dominance was the culmination of the process of European expansion that had begun in the 1400s. Between 1500 and the mid-1900s Europeans had established overseas colonies of settlement in areas that were suitable or adaptable to their style of farming and ranching - notably in the Americas, the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) and in temperate parts of Africa. During the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans had also come to dominate the rest of the world in so-called dependent colonies, over which European states claimed sovereignty and where European administrators generally ruled over non-European inhabitants, or through the establishment of protectorates and spheres of influence, in which European states used their economic and military power to dominate local societies informally through “special” relationships.

            By 1900, Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany had divided most of Africa into dependent colonies. Britain controlled most of South Asia and outposts even further east as part of her Indian Empire. In Southeast Asia, the Dutch maintained plantation colonies in Indonesia, which produced spices, sugar, coffee, and many other tropical commodities, while the Portuguese held on to some outposts of their old trading empire in places like Goa, on the Indian coast, and Macao on the Chinese coast. France controlled Indochina. Japan and China had also been forced open to European (particularly British) and American trade. China, whose leaders continued to disdain and resist western technology and influence, was soon divided by the major expansionist powers, known as the Great Powers, into spheres of influence and concessions, or areas that were administered by foreign powers even though they were still nominally under Chinese sovereignty. 

            Only in Japan did a different response emerge to the challenge of the West. After being forced open to the rest of the world after centuries of relative isolation, many Japanese leaders concluded that their only hope was not to continue their resistance but instead to learn and adopt the obviously more powerful technology of the West as the best means of maintaining their independence. With the blessings and support of the new young Meiji emperor, they effected a virtual revolution that put an end to the old Tokugawa Shogunate once and for all. Under this Meiji Restoration, as it became known, Japan embraced western science and technology, and implemented economic and political reforms on western models. As a result, the Japanese made a rapid and self-controlled transition to an industrial economy. During the 1890s, this self-transformation allowed Japan to join the “imperial club” as a Great Power in her own right – the only non-Western power to do so. And like the Western industrial powers, the Japanese too staked their claim to colonial territories – in Taiwan, Korea and China, as well as in the Pacific Ocean, where all the Great Powers claimed islands, mostly as coaling stations for their ships.

            Meanwhile, in North America and northern Asia two great land powers had also sprung from Europe to spread across the two continents. While the United States expanded westwards from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast of North America, the Russian empire moved eastward, from its heartland west of the Ural Mountains, to the Pacific coast of Asia. Both countries expanded through wars of conquest and agricultural settlement. With them they carried their own cultural, economic, and political systems. Both united their vast territories with the new industrial technology, great railway and telegraph systems. Both developed a sense of Manifest Destiny, as the Americans put it, to justify their expansion.

The Pax Britannica. Dominating this world order was a single global superpower -- the British Empire. Britain had begun to achieve this status in the 18th century. After years of war with France, British leaders decided the only way to guarantee Britain's independence and security was to become a global power. By the mid-19th century, British power centered on control of the Indian sub-continent, halfway around the world. "As long as we rule India," observed one British imperial statesman, Lord Curzon, "we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straight away to a third-rate power."[1] Holding India required two things. First, the British had to maintain the single largest navy in the world to protect the sea-routes to India. Second, they had to provide secure ports from which the Royal Navy could carry out this mission. Consequently, by 1900 Britain ruled the Malay Peninsula, as well as numerous islands from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. They owned the island of Hong Kong off the coast of southern China. Britain also controlled the strategic routes to India from Gibraltar in the western Mediterranean to Egypt and the Suez Canal in the east, to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. From these bases and many others around the world, the British Royal Navy guaranteed the freedom of the high seas for all nations. During the 19th century, as new communications technology emerged, this vast network was also connected by a series of both land and sea telegraph cables. In effect, by 1900 the Royal Navy and British cable companies between them had established the first secure, truly global system of communications and trade—it became known as the Pax Britannica, the British Peace.

            The defense of India drove Britain's global strategy and shaped the modern scramble for empire. As other industrializing countries sought colonies, Britain could allow none to threaten her access to India. In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal had cut the sailing time to India in half. The British viewed the Suez Canal as Americans would later see the Panama Canal. It was vital to their national interests. It also drove them to further imperial expansion. Between 1869 and 1900, the British had taken control of Cyprus, Egypt, East and Central Africa, and Sudan, all to control and defend access to India through Suez. Meanwhile, the British Government of India extended its own influence north into Central Asia and west into Iran and the Persian Gulf. Its constant aim was to guard India against attack by the Russian Empire, which the British saw as the major threat to their position as a world power. Russian ambitions to expand southwards threatened not only British control of India but also the routes to India through the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. The British policy of containing Russian expansion was called the Great Game.  

Beginnings of British Decline. By 1900, however, Britain's position as a superpower was being challenged. Both Germany and the United States had surpassed Britain as industrial manufacturers. Between 1860 and 1913, Britain's share of world industrial production had dropped from 25% to less than 10%.[2] London remained the heart of the world's financial structure, but New York was fast gaining ground. In the 1890s, Germany also began to build a fleet that could challenge the Royal Navy. Inside the empire, Indian nationalists demanded more participation in their own government. In South Africa, the Boers, descendants of the original Dutch farmers that had settled at the Cape of Good Hope in the early 1600s, challenged British supremacy in the bloody Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902. Even Canada and Australia wanted more autonomy from Britain.

            As the new industrial nations emerged, they challenged the economic world order established by the British. For most of the 19th century, Britain had imposed a policy of Free Trade on as much of the world as they were able. This meant that no country would establish tariffs to restrict other nations' access to materials or markets. As the first and largest of the industrial powers, Britain's need for resources and markets was greater than that of other countries. Free Trade therefore worked to her advantage. To counter this advantage the newly-industrializing nations adopted protectionism. The United States led the way. They had long protected their industries, and in 1875 had raised the import tariff on steel to 40%. In 1890 and again in 1897, they raised tariffs even further. In 1879, Germany too abandoned Free Trade and raised tariffs on both industrial and agricultural imports. France gave in to protectionism in 1892, and the rest of Europe soon followed. By 1900, only Britain and Holland continued to advocate Free Trade.[3]

Colonial Administration

Once they had taken direct control of new territories, the imperialists had to govern them. Before World War I, their aims were fairly simple. Their most important rule was that colonies must be self-supporting. At first, they tried only to establish "law and order," and to collect taxes. Different empires had different ideas about how to do this, especially in Africa. Two main theories emerged: direct rule, in which Europeans established completely new European administration, and indirect rule, in which the Europeans ruled through traditional leaders. Both theories assumed that Europeans knew what was best for the colonial peoples, a policy called paternalism.

            Direct and indirect rule reflected the different objectives of the various imperial powers. France, Belgium, Portugal, and the United States, for example, practiced direct rule as part of their plan to "civilize" their colonial subjects. For the French, Belgians, and Portuguese, this meant primarily cultural assimilation. The United States also promoted the English language in its territories. But its primary interest was in teaching people how to run a constitutional, democratic government system, as well as the benefits of a free market capitalist economic system.

            British policy was more racially and culturally exclusive. Britain had tried both direct and indirect methods of administration, particularly in India. In India they had also initially adopted a kind of assimilation policy through western education. However, the experiment had been judged a disaster in the wake of the great 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. The Indian rebellion fostered an undercurrent of racism in British colonial administration. After 1857, they decided against trying to create "Black Englishmen," as they put it.

            Instead, British colonial administrators argued that their subjects should be allowed to keep most aspects of their own cultures intact. They only stopped those practices that the British themselves considered immoral and degenerative to the human spirit. For example, they had suppressed slavery and human sacrifice in Africa. In India they had stopped ritual murder and sati, or widow-burning. They maintained that colonial peoples should be helped along their own natural "evolutionary" path from "savagery" to "civilization," just as Europeans had traveled it. Despite the appeal of this argument, many Asians and Africans came to resent its paternalistic assumptions of British superiority.

Consequences of World War I. World War I marked a watershed in the imperial world order. In Europe, it shook the confidence of Europeans in their sense of moral superiority, and their conviction that human history was a constant progression upwards towards a better life, both materially and morally. "The storm has died away," observed Paul Valéry, a French intellectual speaking in 1922, "and still we are restless, uneasy, as if the storm is about to break....We hope vaguely, we dread precisely....the charm of life is behind us, abundance is behind us, but doubt and disorder are in us and with us."[4]

            Colonial subjects were also disillusioned. Africans and Asians had not only watched Europeans killing one another but had participated in the process. Thereafter they found it less easy to accept the myth of European "superiority," whether racial or moral. Even European technology seemed only to have raised the capacity for human destructiveness and violence to new heights.

            In practical terms, the war weakened the European powers enormously. At the end of the war, Germany fell into revolution, and seemed on the verge of disintegration. The Austrian Empire did disintegrate, as the forces of nationalism in its eastern European provinces finally dismembered the imperial corpse. In Russia the cost of the war was too much for a people just entering the modern industrial world. The revolutionaries of the new Soviet state condemned imperialism along with capitalism—then created a new empire of Soviet Socialist Republics. Even the main victors, except the United States, were virtually bankrupt. Recovery increased European dependence on the United States for capital, and on the colonies for raw materials.

            As they struggled to restore their own sense of purpose and moral soundness, many people in Europe required a better justification for colonialism. The point was especially important as the victorious powers decided what to do with the colonies of the defeated German and Ottoman empires.  

Trusteeship. Under pressure from Woodrow Wilson and the United States, in 1919 the victorious imperial powers had accepted new goals for colonial rule in the mandate system. Under the mandates, the well-being and development of peoples "not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world," were to "form a sacred trust of civilization."[5] The mandate system allowed the victorious imperial powers to consolidate and expand their territories, but it also required them to develop the colonies and, theoretically, to prepare them for eventual self-government. Under the principal of "trusteeship," colonial governments had to do more than just establish law and order and collect taxes. After World War I, they expanded economic development and began to provide education, medical, agricultural, and other services needed to modernize the new states.

            The trusteeship principle also made it mandatory on the colonialists to bring their subjects into full membership in the world political community, represented by the League of Nations itself, and especially into the world economy. But the League and the world economy were essentially European creations. Participation in both meant following a western model. Justifying such policies, Lord Lugard, the British governor of northern Nigeria who first defined the policy of indirect rule, spoke of the Dual Mandate. He meant that while the colonial powers had an obligation to help their colonial subjects, the colonial peoples also had an obligation to contribute to the larger world by allowing the development of their natural resources.

            The French Colonial Minister, Albert Sarraut, made similar arguments.  

"The old...imperialist being purified, is swelling and soaring into the idea of human solidarity. Colonial France will organise, to her own advantage no doubt, but also for the general advantage of the world, the exploitation of territories and resources which the native races of these backward territories have been unable to develop by themselves, with the result that the profit has been lost, not only to them but to the whole world."[6] 

With European political and economic organization, however, came European cultural values.

Western Education. One of the most important affects of trusteeship appeared in colonial education policies. By World War I most colonial governments had realized that local clerks and technicians were cheaper than Europeans. Education for such helpers, however, had remained elementary, and confined to a few. Under the mandate system, education became a priority, at least in theory, as colonial subjects were trained to run their own states. Still, only a few obtained secondary and higher education. By providing western education even to the few, however, the colonial powers unwittingly were sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

            With western education came the western world view -- a world view that emphasized individual responsibility, achievement, and above all individual liberty. While French colonial subjects read of "our ancestors the Gauls," in their textbooks, they also read about the French Revolution and the ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality. In British schools Asian and African students read about the English Common Law, with its emphasis on individual human rights, and the constitutional struggle for representative parliamentary democracy. In some American missionary schools they even learned about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Colonial peoples soon began to demand their own rights under the same principles.