Elliot Fernandez

Imperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th century

Imperialism was a mainly European phenomenon led by Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Italy, but the United States of America and Japan also played a prominent role.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-06-19 | Updated on 2022-09-14

Imperialism was an historical phenomenon that occurred between the 19th and 20th centuries (1870-1914) that had as main protagonists European countries, from major to minor importance: Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Imperialist politics focused on the conquest and domination of large territories, especially in Africa, Asia and Oceania. There were also imperialist powers outside the European continent, such as the United States of America and Japan.

Imperialism and colonialism: continuity or change?

Late modern imperialism was an historical process that originated in the 1870s, when many of the European countries in addition to the United States and Japan began a career of conquest and control of large territories, as a result of the economic recession of that moment, and under the pretext of extending the white man culture across the planet (racism).

World imperialism in 1898.
Imperial powers in 1898. Source: Wikipedia.org

Historiography debates around colonialism in the nineteenth century raised this phenomenon in two very different ways: as a continuity of the previous phase of conquest (the American colonies of Spain, Portugal, England and France), and as a totally new phenomenon.

The causes of imperialism

To find the origin of imperialism, we must distinguish between its causes, characteristics, instruments, and the overall economic situation.

Economic, political and cultural causes

Among the economic causes of imperialism, we must highlight the interest of the then capitalists to invest capital abroad.

Another necessary economic reason for understanding this process was the need to appropriate natural resources outside Europe by exploiting the workforce involved (slavery was often used).

And finally, the establishment of colonies favoured the commercial exchanges of the metropolis with the occupied colonial territories (they were forced to buy the products of the metropolis at a time when protectionist markets predominated).

The interpretation of imperialism is usually of an economic nature. English economist John A. Hobson published in 1902 the work  “Study of imperialism”, where he stated that the cause of imperialism was the idle surplus of capital. He defended the theory of the sub-consumption of Great Britain, and therefore the search for new territories to increase the consumption of its products.

Imperialism had a clear economic cause. With Hobson, the Marxist theory of imperialism started. Representatives of this current were: Otto BauerRudolf HilferdingRosa LuxemburgKarl KautskyNikolai Bukharin and Lenin.

In 1917 Lenin's work  “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” appeared, in which he affirmed that imperialism and colonialism were logical manifestations of a new phase of capitalism, that is, of monopoly and financial capitalism. For Lenin, monopoly financial capitalism led to imperialism, and that was what led to the First World War. Therefore, according to Lenin, capitalism was the cause of the First World War.

There are two types of political causes of imperialism: external and internal. Externally, it is worth highlighting the search for militarily strategic areas and the possession of areas of political influence. For internal political reasons, there are reasons of national prestige and internal cohesion.

There are also ideological and cultural causes. Conservative and deeply racist patriotism formed the mental and ideological framework of imperialism. In this sense, extreme importance must be attached to the discoverers, to geographical societies... In the background was the belief in the superiority of the white man and his culture over the others. All this was argued in a supposedly scientific way. The French diplomat Joseph Arthur de Gobineau wrote in 1853-1856  “An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races.”

Other factors of imperialism

Among the other factors that explain the rise of imperialism is the European population growth of the 19th century. Part of the surplus population was forced to emigrate. It was a stimulating factor of imperialism.

Technological advances

Technology enabled new explorations and occupations of territory in remote parts of the planet.

Economic Situation

Economic depression, protectionism and the protection of wealth reserves drove imperialism.

The colonial expansion in Africa

Africa before imperialism

At the beginning of the 19th century, Africa was still a continent almost unknown to Europeans. Since the 15th century there have been some incursions into Africa, especially by the Portuguese, but always in the coastal areas. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Dutch and French began to go to the coast of Africa to exploit its resources: gold, ivory, minerals and slaves. But so far they never went inland.

Africa before the massive European colonization

The first European enclaves were in the Gold Coast (today Ghana), Senegal and Ivory Coast. In the 18th century, slavery was the main activity of Europeans. The slave trade is the most important economic element in Africa. This "trade" was promoted by English and Dutch. Catalans also participated.

British triangular trade scheme
Triangular slave trade scheme or Transatlantic slave trade

Without the transatlantic slave trade, no mass of capital would have been made available for industrialization. On the other hand, the slave trade absolutely marked the history of the African continent:

Theoretically, the slave trade disappeared with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Great Britain banned the slave trade to its Empire in 1807.

It was from the second half of the nineteenth century when explorations began in the inland of Africa. The colonization of Africa was preceded by all the voyages of exploration of the geographical societies. Africa caused great admiration among European explorers.

European colonial expansion and action in Africa meant the export of European economic and political structures, as well as the elimination of local social structures, resulting in their practical disappearance. The indigenous was always considered as a kind of child that had to be humanized. Europeans saw themselves as superior beings.

The partition of Africa

The African continent was chopped and distributed among European countries
The African continent was chopped up and divided among Europeans during the second half of the 19th century.

Rivalries between Europeans and Africans made the rapid occupation of the continent possible. It was done in stages:

First stage of colonization of Africa

Second stage: Inland Africa

From there it entered inland Africa through the rivers, basically four: Nile, Niger, Congo and Zambezi. By navigating the rivers upwards, the whole interior of Africa was discovered.

The main discoverers of the time were the English David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.

The colonization of Africa meant a race of quarrels between European states, which was resolved through diplomatic channels. The big question was how to divide the African continent. This was resolved at the Congress of Berlin between 1884 and 1885. The criteria for the allocation of the territory had to be established.

At the Berlin Congress it was established that the African territories would be the property of those who actually occupied them, which was the thesis defended by the most powerful countries. Historical rights do not count.

The great powers were France, Great Britain and the king of Belgium. Portugal was a minor power. Liberia and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) were sidelined from the territorial distribution of Africa and were allowed to maintain a certain degree of independence.

The great concern of the occupying powers was the quest for communication axes between north and south and between east and west, which would allow the creation of strategic routes. For this reason, the French east-west corridor, the English north-south corridor and the Portuguese corridor were created on paper. Of the three, the only corridor that was realized was the English one.

The construction of these corridors provoked rivalries and confrontations between the European powers. The most important conflict was between England and France, when the French railway axis crossed with the English railway axis in Sudan. The English fought against the natives and the French against the English, in the so-called Fashoda Incident (1898-1899). France will withdraw from Sudan and this territory will pass to English domination.

Buffalo hunting in Central Africa
Buffalo hunting in Central Africa

In South Africa, an old colonizer, the Afrikaners (Dutch Boers), was already established. These were pushed inland by the British. The English discovered very important mineral resources there. The Boer Wars took place between 1899 and 1920. This war ended up shaping the South African Union.

Asia between imperialism and modernization

The Indian subcontinent

India was the “Crown jewel” of the British Empire. British domination marked the history of the subcontinent. India was very important to the English because it allowed them to establish a bridge of communication with Asia. It was a strategic axis for centuries. In the 18th century, the British East India Company controlled almost the entire Indian territory. And in the 19th century the whole territory was already under English domination. India was a country with very complex power structures in the 19th century.

Map of India under British rule (British Raj), between 1858 and 1947.

Between 1857 and 1858, the Sepoy rebelled against British domination. Sepoy were the indigenous soldiers who were enlisted in the British army. From this moment, the same British government came to control India administratively. A very accelerated process began to turn India into the myth of British colonialism.

In 1877 Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India.

The British administration changed India:

Towards the end of the 19th century, some Indian nationalist groups emerged and began to demand independence. The most important was the Indian National Congress, which brought together the entire Indian nationalist movement, which would later be divided between Hindus in the Indian National Congress and Muslims in the Muslim League (1906). Fifty years later, India and Pakistan split. Much of the twentieth-century conflicts between Indians and Pakistanis originated in the era of British rule.

The last Viceroy of British India was Lord Mountbatten.

The Indochina Peninsula and the French presence in Southeast Asia

This was a territory of French domination. From 1858-1860 France owned Cochinchina, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (all around the Mekong River). British occupied Burma and then Malaysia and Singapore.

Map of European colonization in Southeast Asia in the 19th century.

In the middle was the Kingdom of Siam (today Thailand) which became a neutral zone between 1895 and 1896. And in Indonesia, the many islands that make up the country were controlled by the Netherlands.


China was a millenary Empire, immense, with a certain diversification but with a cultural identity. Since 1644 it was ruled by a Manchu dynasty, the Qing, with a history of great vitality.

Terribly traditional structures

China in the 19th century gives some clue as to what the later history would be like. It was full of internal contradictions. China moved between political and economic reality, but with very traditional structures on both a local and imperial scale. English, French and Russians moved through China as early as the 19th century. China was not an economically backward country.

The property structure was feudal. It was devoted to agriculture and cotton cultivation. It was a country with a strong commercial and artisan tradition and an extensive manufacturing tradition. The port of Shanghai had more exchanges than that of London.

Foreign colonial powers in China during the 19th century
Foreign colonial possessions in China during the 19th century.

Why did China, despite its intense economic activity, not develop its economy? Why did it not end up like Japan? The typical argument of revolutionaries explains that China's growth was not possible because of European imperialism.

But the reality is that in China there has always been a certain disproportion between population growth and agricultural growth. Overproduction of labour led to technological recession. The capital that was generated was very often subtracted by the Empire, or destined to issues related to luxury, not very productive. Chinese Empire was based on a large, luxurious administration. The imperial regime was fixed, immobile and very traditional.

Internal contradictions marked China's history. Conflicts between peasant society and affluent society were constant.

Chinese revolutions and wars

Taiping Movement (1851 – 1864)

The Taiping rebellion was made up of peasants, carrying a mystical and collectivist message. The Manchu imperial army put an end to the revolt. It is normal that it was in China that the first peasant revolution took place.

Opium Wars: 1839-1842 and 1856-1860

War between China and England. Opium was a traditional oriental drug. England traded it in China, until one day the emperor banned the trade, as all the population went on drugs. There were times when the administration was absolutely paralysed. England took it as a Chinese aggression.

The result of these wars was the signing of the Treaties of Nanking and Tientsin, by which England gained sovereignty over part of the present-day territory of Hong Kong, as well as commercial and navigation rights for the Western powers.

In the Second Opium War, England and France became allies. Beijing was occupied, and Chinese mines were controlled.

1911 revolution

On October 10, 1911 the Wuchang Uprising takes place, a rebellion against the Qing dynasty in the current city of Wuhan, which provoked the Xinhai Revolution, which ended with the definitive overthrow of the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Puyi in 1912 (Puyi was still a child).

The revolutionary leader was Sun Yat-sen. The revolution spread throughout the country. The reasons for the revolt were:

The Republic of China (1912-1949) was proclaimed when in February 1912 the last emperor, Puyi, abdicated. This revolution ended up making something change so that everything remained the same. Between 1916 and 1919 there was the Civil War in China. Beijing as the capital, and the south as the other side. The political structures had changed, but not the social structures. Mao Zedong's collectivist message, decades later, was an attraction for the population.


Why did Japan become a power in the 20th century? Let's review the highlights of Japan's history in recent centuries.

Tokugawa shogunate (1600 – 1868)

The Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Edo shogunate, was the third and last shogunate to hold power throughout Japan; the two previous shogunates were the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) and the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573). During the shogunate period, there was a kind of military dictatorship that specifically subjugated the Emperor of Japan.

The shōgun, became the general of the armed forces in Japan, and had the military and political power of the country; while the Emperor was assigned spiritual and religious power, he served as a link between the people and the gods, and held nominal power to the Imperial Court of Kyoto.

Therefore, the emperor did not rule: all the power was absorbed by the Tokugawa family clan. During this period, Japan was a feudal and agricultural society. They lived in absolute isolation from the world.

In 1853, the first attempt by the United States of America to enter Japan took place. The island was a key piece to allow trade and ship anchorage. Finally, American ships could to call at some Japanese ports. This fact, unusual in the history of Japan, opened a period of great political instability, which lasted until 1868.

Meiji Revolution (1868 – 1912)

The Meiji era is the name used in Japan for the 45-year interval of the government of Emperor Meiji, from October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912. The era began with the removal of the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and the enthronement of the emperor, the first emperor with political power after several centuries of shogunate.

Emperor Meiji moving from Kyoto to Tokyo
Emperor Meiji moving from Kyoto to Tokyo

The Meiji Restoration is the emperor's recovery of imperial power. It must be understood as the restoration of the emperor's royal power. It invalidates the ancient clan that was in power, the Tokugawa. The revolution also marked the beginning of Japan's modernization, Westernization, economic growth, industrialization, and expansionism.

Two stages of the Meiji period.

First stage: 1868 – 1881

Major policy reforms are under way. The first is the re-establishment of the emperor's imperial power. Divinization of imperial power that will last until defeat in World War II. Little by little, nation-state processes like those experienced in Western Europe will be introduced. It was an increasingly centralized and bureaucratized state.

The imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, and the army was reformed to modernize it. The world of samurai comes to an end. Economic reforms leading Japan towards capitalism are initiated. Heavy industry and improved communications and transportation are encouraged. Just the same, mining and consumption incentives for the textile industry were promoted.

Tokyo Stock Exchange is founded. The yen is introduced as the new currency that shapes the nation-state. Japan creates a strong military industry. It was the monarchy itself that channelled funds into these sectors.

A modern legal system of French liberal inspiration (civil code, penal code) was introduced. Society tended towards legal equality before codification. Japan opened up to the outside world and took its best picture of the different Western countries. It changed the calendar to Gregorian. They also changed the European-inspired education system. A European-style press is also introduced.

All these reforms were carried out seeking a deep symbiosis with Japanese roots to create a Japanese model of modernization and industrialization.

Historian Michio Morishima wonders why Japan triumphed. Morishima argues that Japan's triumph was possible because it took the Western model and transmitted it to Japanese culture through Shintoism (Japanese religion), whose main characteristics are fidelity, obedience and the collective sense of the individual. This fact was key to the Japanese growth model.

Second stage: 1881 – 1912

This period saw the consolidation of the reform system. At that time, Japan was already a great regional power.

Political aspects:

A constitutional monarchy was established through the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution, the basic law of the Empire of Japan, which applied from November 29, 1890 until May 2, 1947. Feudal privileges were abolished and separation of powers was introduced.

The new Constitution was inspired by Prussia. The Prussian federal constitution had one characteristic: the legislative chambers were subordinate to a strong executive. In Japan, the emperor and the government had power over the legislature: in short, it was a very authoritarian constitution. The emperor dominated both chambers, where political parties and feudal oligarchies were represented. Traditional oligarchic power lost feudal rights to economic rights, the root of power in a contemporary society. Little by little, it tended to create large capitalist companies that exercised power.

Economic growth:

Japan's Foreign Expansion

Once industrialization was complete, Japanese expansionism began. Japan assumed imperialist aspirations, identical to those of the peoples of Western Europe.

Reasons: It actually had a powerful army and good relations with Great Britain, which supported its intervention.

This war was of great importance to Russia. It lost it, and in 1905 the December Revolution broke out, which ended badly, and yet it will be the first phase of the Bolshevik Revolution. All the power of the Tsar began to be openly questioned. Great consequences for Russia.

In 1905 Japan was aware that it was already a great power. Fascism was on the rise in Japan.

In 1912 Emperor Meiji died.