‘The supposed benefits of imperial expansion for Europe were for the most part, illusory.’ Discuss this with reference to the period c.1880 to 1914.
The period of 1880 to 1914 was known was the ‘new imperialism’. It saw a surge in imperial expansion outside of Europe. European powers extended their empires in the belief that such a larger empire would bring with it several benefits. The most important of these benefits were strategic, political and economic in nature. However, some of these benefits did not actually materialize. Bismarck himself remarked that ‘all the advantages claimed for the mother country are for the most part illusory.’ I agree with his statement to a large extent.
Supposed economic benefits played a large role in sparking off the race for colonies and territories. 19th century industrialization caused increased competition between European powers. It also generated increased levels of interests in the economic potential of the wider world by introducing the need for new markets. ‘Each had a surplus which had to be sold abroad. “Surplus manufactures” called for foreign markets.’ However, with the exception of Great Britain (which practiced a free trade policy), the rest of the European powers practiced protectionism and set up tariff wars to protect their industries from external competition.
The French even set up the French Meline tariff in their colonies which gave French producers an overwhelming advantage. This intense competition meant that European powers had to look out of Europe for markets. ‘There appeared, however, one bright ray of hope, one solution – colonies…whose markets could be monopolized by the mother country’s industries…’ French Prime Minister Jules Ferry also wrote that ‘Europe’s consumption is saturated. It is essential to discover new…consumers in the other parts of the world.’ The belief that the ‘overproduction’ of the Great Depression could be solved by a vast export drive was also widespread.
Besides new markets, industrialization also created the need for more raw materials. Attention must also be paid to the importance of surplus capital in fueling expansion and imperialist policies. Many believed that profits generated in Europe would produce even higher rates of return if they were to be re-invested overseas rather than at home. The powers therefore had to find more outlets for their investments. ‘Aggressive imperialism…is a source of great gain to the investor who cannot find at home the profitable use he seeks for his capital, and insists that his government should help him to profitable and secure investments abroad.’
Therefore, supposed economic benefits of imperial expansion promised much. Whether these supposed benefits actually fulfilled their promises is highly doubtful. In the area of markets, British exports to foreign countries went up from 215 to 291 million pounds in the period of 1883 to 1892. However, her exports to the empire in the same period actually fell from 90 to 81 million pounds, therefore suggesting to us that the British colonies did not actually economically benefit Britain by providing new markets. Anderson questions the necessity of colonial markets because ‘her industry was simply not developed enough to meet all their needs.’ Anderson also says of Britain that ‘…it is clear that none of the enormous territories acquired in Africa and elsewhere during the later 19th century were necessary in any normal sense of that phrase.’ In the case of Germany, her colonies accounted for only a meager 0.5 percent of overseas trade.
In the area of raw materials and tropical products, Britain could and did get these from her new colonies acquired during the ‘new imperialism’. However, none of them, besides the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, could compete with the United States or Britain’s old colonies of settlement as sources of food and raw materials. Such old colonies include Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, whereby the British got their beef and lamb from.
Most of Britain’s overseas economic successes were from the ‘more systematic exploitation of Britain’s already existing possessions or of the country’s special position as the major importer from, and investor in, such areas as South America.’ However, British need for rubber and tin which only non-European sources could supply grew rapidly and was to some extent satisfied with the acquisition of territories in South East Asia. Hence, by and large, colonies acquired in the period of the ‘new imperialism’ did not provide Britain with the large amount of raw materials and tropical products which was believed to have been attainable.
In the area of investment, new colonial acquisitions during the ‘new imperialism’ also did not deliver. Anderson: ‘British investment went overwhelmingly, not to the newly acquired African colonies, or even to the sphere of influence that Britain was acquiring in China, but to the great temperate raw-material and food producing areas of the world.’ These areas which the majority of the investments went to like the USA and Australia were acquired before the ‘new imperialism’. 688 million pounds of British money were invested in the USA, a further 587 million in South America. In comparison, only 29 million was invested in the newly acquired colonies of West Africa. In the case of France, more French investment went to Russia than her newly acquired colonies.
The great hopes of many Frenchmen regarding the economic potential of the high tracts of land claimed in West Africa proved unfounded. Some of the acquisitions made by Britain were also economically worthless. They were more of a drain rather than a benefit to the imperialists’ economies. These colonies offered few future benefits and yielded even fewer immediate ones. Many companies which dealt with these colonies went bankrupt, for example the British East Africa Company in 1895 and the Royal Niger Company in 1899.
None of the newly annexed colonies, apart from South Africa and the windfall generated from her gold supply, could provide important opportunities for profitable investment. In Germany, investors were extremely unwilling to invest in German colonies and some chartered companies such as the new Guinea Company and the German East Africa Company needed government subsidies. 7 or 8 times as much Germany money was pumped into Latin America than her empire. The Economist summed up the almost barren investment situation of the colonies in Africa best in 1890 as ‘a quarrel of tenth-rate magnitude over interests of scarcely any national importance.’
Besides perceived economic benefits from having an empire, European powers also believed that imperial expansion brought with it political benefits. In the area of domestic politics, imperial expansion was believed to be capable of masking internal problems of the imperialists. For example, Italian expansion in Africa was undertaken from 1884 onwards by Depretis and Crispi in an attempt to ‘distract attention from difficulties within Italy and a generally depressing domestic position.’ In Germany, Bismarck used imperialism to rally support for his cause. Colonial claims in Africa and Asia were popular among the electorates.
In the end, Bismarck managed to stave off competition from the Radicals and the Socialists in 1884. Generally, there were the attempts by European rulers ‘to use imperial expansion to diminish domestic discontent by economic improvements or social reform or in other ways’ ever since Cecil Rhodes famously declared in 1895 that empire is ‘a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.’ However, it must also be said that there is no strong evidence to suggest that imperial expansion had much bearing on the employment or real incomes of most workers in the imperialists. Therefore, it is debatable if the supposed ‘masking’ effect of imperial expansion actually holds true.
Imperialism contributed to the nation building processes within European states through the raising of the national consciousness. The glorious victories of expansion in Africa and Asia were well documented and celebrated. Colonial Expositions were held in Paris, Berlin and in London. There was a genuine sense of national pride at the achievements of the European powers and this saw the rise of patriotism and its ‘bastard brother, jingoism.’ People rallied around the flag, rather than around other forms of allegiances such as the different social classes and Marxism. Matthews: ‘Nationalism put a premium on national honour, prestige and glory.’
However, while it is undeniable that imperialism did help raise the national conscious and contributed in the rise of patriotism and national pride in the European powers, it is extremely doubtful that the imperialists set out for expansion with these ambitions in mind. It would be naï¿½ve to think that the imperialists would actually go on such a large scaled expansion during the ‘new imperialism’ simply because they felt that imperial expansion would aid in building national pride and patriotism. This is especially so in the context of larger and more important economic and political motivations, such as the managing of international relations and security.
Imperialists also believed that expansion would bring about strategic benefits. Against the backdrop of volatile international relations in Europe, European politicians believed that imperial expansion outside of Europe would help to achieve peace in Europe. Seaman: ‘It is not surprising therefore that from about 1880 until the end of the century, diplomacy…sought to stimulate the diversion of the aggressive energies of its own age to regions as far from the explosive European scene as possible. In encouraging the French in North Africa, Bismarck showed a profound sense of the urgent need, if peace was to be preserved, of diverting the European mind outwards.’ Imperialism was used and manipulated by Bismarck as an outlet for French anger and aggression (as a result of the loss of Alsace Lorraine to Germany), which may otherwise have led to war in Europe. France was therefore largely allowed to expand her empire in large areas of Africa.
However, such perceived benefits of peace did not actually last for long. If any strategic benefits were to be derived from such imperial expansion, they were simply the postponement of war in Europe until 1914. Tensions caused by the great power rivalry between European powers were only swept under the carpet during the period from 1880 to pre world war 1, they were not eliminated. The unfolding of the processes of the ‘new imperialism’ eventually contributed to the unmanageable rivalry between European powers, which then led to World War 1. The zero sum gain nature of the ‘new imperialism’ is summed up by Baumont: ‘taking what others want because they want it and to prevent them getting it’ and this nature of the ‘new imperialism’ helped shape and sustain the great power rivalry in Europe. It created new and deeper layers of tensions between the powers, eventually culminating in the unmanageable state of rivalries that sparked off World War 1.
‘If you were not such persistent protectionists,’ the British premier told the French ambassador in 1897, ‘you would not find us so keen to annex territories.’ Hence, the ‘new imperialism’ was the ‘natural by-product of an international economy based on the rivalry of several competing industrial economics, intensified by the economic pressures of the 1880s.’ In this argument, politics and economics are inter-linked. Imperialists believed that the acquisition of some colonies may provide suitable bases or jumping-off points for regional business penetration. The economic benefits derived from empires can be seen as the means to achieve a strategic-security end, since a healthy functioning economy is vital to a country’s security. The strategic motive for imperial expansion was evidently strongest in Britain, which acquired lands to safeguard her older colonies as well as vital tracts of lands and seas believed to be vital to her interests.
For example, some historians have put forward the argument that Britain conquered some colonies because they saw strategic benefits that they provided, even if they did not provide much economic benefits. They do this by trying to justify ‘the British expansion in Africa in terms of the need to defend the routes to, and the maritime and terrestrial glacis of, India against potential threats.’ India was the ‘brightest jewel in the imperial crown’ and as such, was naturally a country of great strategic importance. However, such an argument would be underestimating the directly economic incentive to acquire some African territories.
An example that comes to mind immediately is that of South Africa, whereby the British obtained a windfall with the supply of gold. Furthermore, as mentioned above in the essay, many of the colonies which Britain acquired were economically worthless and were indeed more of a drain on her resources. Many companies even collapsed while dealing with these colonies. Surely, the securing of a few viable economic possessions such as India does not compensate for the enormous drain on resources caused by the unnecessary expansion needed to secure those same possessions.
In conclusion, though imperial expansion during the ‘new imperialism’ did bring about a small share of benefits for the imperialists in the area of politics and economics (for example, the obtaining of raw materials n tropical products), most of the time the expected benefits did not materialized. The supposed benefits of imperial expansion for Europe in the period 1880 to 1914 were largely exaggerated, if not totally absent. Hence, I agree with the statement to a large extent.
1. Eric Hobsbawm. The Age of Empire 1875-1914. Vintage Books USA, 1989
2. Anderson, M.S. The Ascendancy of Europe: 1815-1914. Longman, 1999
3. Culpin, Christopher and Henig, Ruth Modern Europe 1870-1945. Longman, 1997