New Imperialism

In historical contexts, New Imperialism characterizes a period of colonial expansion by European powers, the United States, and Japan during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[1]The period featured an unprecedented pursuit of overseas territorial acquisitions. At the time, states focused on building their empires with new technological advances and developments, expanding their territory through conquest, and exploiting the resources of the subjugated countries.During the era of New Imperialism, the Western powers (and Japan) individually conquered almost all of Africa and parts of Asia. The new wave of imperialism reflected ongoing rivalries among the great powers, the economic desire for new resources and markets, and a "civilizing mission" ethos. Many of the colonies established during this era gained independence during the era of decolonization that followed World War II.

The qualifier "new" is used to differentiate modern imperialism from earlier imperial activity, such as the so-called first wave of European colonization between 1402 and 1815.[1][2]In the First wave of colonization, European powers conquered and colonized the Americas and Siberia; they then later established more outposts in Africa and Asia.


The American Revolution (1775–83) and the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America around 1820 ended the first era of European imperialism. Especially in Great Britain these revolutions helped show the deficiencies of mercantilism, the doctrine of economic competition for finite wealth which had supported earlier imperial expansion. In 1846, the Corn Laws were repealed and manufacturers gained, as the regulations enforced by the Corn Laws had slowed their businesses. With the repeal in place, the manufacturers were then able to trade more freely. Thus, Britain began to adopt the concept of free trade.[3]

An oil painting of the delegates to the Congress of Vienna.
The Congress of Vienna by Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1819). The congress was actually a series of face-to-face meetings between colonial powers. It served to divide and reappropriate imperial holdings.

During this period, between the 1815 Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoleonic France and the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Britain reaped the benefits of being the world's sole modern, industrial power. As the "workshop of the world", Britain could produce finished goods so efficiently that they could usually undersell comparable, locally manufactured goods in foreign markets, even supplying a large share of the manufactured goods consumed by such nations as the German states, France, Belgium, and the United States.[4]

The erosion of British hegemony after the Franco-Prussian War, in which a coalition of German states led by Prussia defeated France, was occasioned by changes in the European and world economies and in the continental balance of power following the breakdown of the Concert of Europe, established by the Congress of Vienna. The establishment of nation-states in Germany and Italy resolved territorial issues that had kept potential rivals embroiled in internal affairs at the heart of Europe, to Britain's advantage. The years from 1871 to 1914 would be marked by an extremely unstable peace. France’s determination to recover Alsace-Lorraine, annexed by Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, and Germany’s mounting imperialist ambitions would keep the two nations constantly poised for conflict.[5]

This competition was sharpened by the Long Depression of 1873–1896, a prolonged period of price deflation punctuated by severe business downturns, which put pressure on governments to promote home industry, leading to the widespread abandonment of free trade among Europe's powers (in Germany from 1879 and in France from 1881).[6][7]

Berlin Conference

Comparison of Africa in the years 1880 and 1913

The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 sought to destroy the competition between the powers by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of a territory claim, specifically in Africa. The imposition of direct rule in terms of "effective occupation" necessitated routine recourse to armed force against indigenous states and peoples. Uprisings against imperial rule were put down ruthlessly, most spectacularly in the Herero Wars in German South-West Africa from 1904 to 1907 and the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa from 1905 to 1907. One of the goals of the conference was to reach agreements over trade, navigation, and boundaries of Central Africa. However, of all of the 15 nations in attendance of the Berlin Conference, none of the countries represented were African.

The main dominating powers of the conference were France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal. They remapped Africa without considering the cultural and linguistic borders that were already established. At the end of the conference, Africa was divided into 50 different colonies. The attendants established who was in control of each of these newly divided colonies. They also planned, noncommittally, to end the slave trade in Africa.

Britain during the era

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria

In Britain, the age of new imperialism marked a time for significant economic changes.[8] Because the country was the first to industrialize, Britain was technologically ahead of many other countries throughout the majority of the nineteenth century.[9] By the end of the nineteenth century, however, other countries, chiefly Germany and the United States, began to challenge Britain's technological and economic power.[9] After several decades of monopoly, the country was battling to maintain a dominant economic position while other powers became more involved in international markets. In 1870, Britain contained 31.8% of the world's manufacturing capacity while the United States contained 23.3% and Germany contained 13.2%.[10] By 1910, Britain's manufacturing capacity had dropped to 14.7%, while that of the United States had risen to 35.3% and that of Germany to 15.9%.[10] As countries like Germany and America became more economically successful, they began to become more involved with imperialism, resulting in the British struggling to maintain the volume of British trade and investment overseas.[10]

Britain further faced strained international relations with three expansionist powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy) during the early twentieth century. Before 1939, these three powers never directly threatened Britain itself, but the indirect dangers to the Empire were clear.[11] By the 1930s, Britain worried that Japan would threaten its holdings in the Far East as well as territories in India, Australia and New Zealand.[11] Italy held an interest in North Africa, which threatened British Egypt, and German dominance of the European continent held some danger for Britain's security.[11] Britain worried that the expansionist powers would cause the breakdown of international stability; as such, British foreign policy attempted to protect the stability in a rapidly changing world.[11] With its stability and holdings threatened, Britain decided to adopt a policy of concession rather than resistance, a policy that became known as appeasement.[11]

In Britain, the era of new imperialism affected public attitudes toward the idea of imperialism itself. Most of the public believed that if imperialism was going to exist, it was best if Britain was the driving force behind it.[12] The same people further thought that British imperialism was a force for good in the world.[12] In 1940, the Fabian Colonial Research Bureau argued that Africa could be developed both economically and socially, but until this development could happen, Africa was best off remaining with the British Empire. Rudyard Kipling's 1891 poem, "The English Flag," contains the stanza:

     Winds of the World, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro--
        And what should they know of England who only England know?--
     The poor little street-bred people that vapour and fume and brag,
        They are lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English Flag![13]

These lines show Kipling's belief that the British who actively took part in imperialism knew more about British national identity than the ones whose entire lives were spent solely in the imperial metropolis.[12] While there were pockets of anti-imperialist opposition in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, resistance to imperialism was nearly nonexistent in the country as a whole.[12] In many ways, this new form of imperialism formed a part of the British identity until the end of the era of new imperialism around the Second World War.[12]