Meaning, Factors responsible


  • The term imperialism means the practice of extending the power, control or rule by a country over the political and economic life of the areas outside its own borders.
  • Imperialism refers to the process of capitalist development, which leads the capitalist countries to conquer and dominate precapitalist countries of the world.
  • The imperialist country or Metropolis (literal meaning mother country), subordinates another country/ colony for its own economic and political interests.
  • This may be done through military or other means and particularly through colonialism.



  • Colonialism means the practice of acquiring colonies by conquest (or other means) and making them dependent.
  • The country which is subjugated by a metropolitan capitalist country is described as a colony, and what happens in a colony is colonialism.
  • In other words, Colonialism =the total system of imperialist domination of a pre-capitalist country.
  • Occupation / direct rule over a country by another country=not always an essential feature of imperialism
  • The essential feature= exploitation, with or without direct political control.
  • Until recent years, most countries of Asia Africa and other parts of the world, where under the control of one or another imperialist country.


Imperialism Colonialism
Imperialism refers, more broadly, to control or influence that is exercised either formally or informally, directly or indirectly, politically or economically. Colonialism usually implies formal political control, involving territorial annexation and loss of sovereignty.


Imperialism is a specifically European phenomenon. Colonialism is the system prevalent in the colonies.
When we study imperialism we examine the impact of empire on the metropolis (home country) Here we study impact of empire on the colony.



  • In the present day world, almost all countries are politically independent, however the imperialist control has not come to an end.
  • Neocolonialism is the practice of (mainly economic) exploitation and domination of independent but economically backward countries, by the powerful countries.

New Imperialism

During the initial period of Industrial Revolution, the pursuit of colonies had slowed down. Why?

  • because Between 1775 and 1875, Europeans lost more territory than they acquired in North America and Latin America, because of successful revolution.
  • Spanish colonial rule from Mexico to Argentina was overturned.
  • There was a widespread feeling in Europe that colonies were more trouble than they were worth and the sooner or later colonies would revolt and fight for independence.
  • Benjamin Disraeli said “These wretched colonies will all be independent in a few years and are millstones around our necks.”


However, the pursuits and rivalries re-emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century.

  • This new face of imperialism (1875-1914) is often described as the new imperialism.
  • New imperialism resulted because of the economic system that had developed as a result of Industrial Revolution.
  • During this phase a few industrialized capitalist countries established their Political and economic control and domination over the rest of the world.
  • The form of domination and control included direct colonial rule, sphere of influence and various types of commercial and economic agreements.


Players in New Imperialism:

  • New imperialist countries emerged viz. Germany, Italy, Belgium, USA and Japan. While,
  • Britain and France continued to be powerful and expand.
  • Power of Spain and Portugal declined.


Conditions/factors that helped the rise of Imperialism

Industrial Revolution and Capitalism

  • Industrial Revolution created the capitalist system of production. The capitalist entrepreneurs used two ways to make big profits:
Method to increase profit? => Consequences?
minimum wages to workers low wages = low purchasing power of the majority of the domestic population= low demand of products in home country.
More and more production the production of goods was far in excess of the demand at home.


  • Result?=> Because of the “underconsumption” in domestic market, the capitalist nations had to find new markets and buyers to sell their products.


Marxists: Capitalism = Imperialism

  • Lenin argued that Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and it’d lead to the demise of Capitalism.
  • In Capitalist system, wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the possibility for investment at home is exhausted, and capitalists have no choice but to invest abroad, establish colonies, and exploit small, weak nations.



  • England was the first country where industries developed, therefore she gained almost complete control over the world markets.
  • Even when other European countries began to use machines, they could not compete with England’s low prices.
  • So, they tried to protect and stimulate its domestic industries by imposing heavy tariffs on imported items.
  • Result? = European powers could not sell their products to each other. They had to find totally new markets and customers in Asia, Africa and the two Americas.



  • It was the economic policy prevailing in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. This policy assumed following:
  • Volume of world wealth and trade was relatively static, so one country’s gain required another country/colony’s loss.
  • Wealth of a nation depended primarily on the possession of gold and silver.
  • A colonial possession should provide wealth to the country that controlled it.
  • Exports to foreign countries is preferable to imports or domestic trade, because exports brought more money into the country.
  • Governmental interference in the national economy is justified if it helps achieving the of above objectives.
  • So nations acted accordingly. They setup “trading posts” which would later become “forts”, arm twisted local rulers to gain exclusive market for their products and so on. All this was done and justified as the objectives of mercantilism were fulfilled.


Supply of raw material

  • As the industries grew in Europe, they needed more and more raw material. For example,
  • Cotton= India and Egypt
  • rubber= Congo and East Indies
  • They also needed food grains, tea, coffee, Indigo, tobacco, sugar, coal, iron, tin, gold, copper and later oil.



  • Imperialists forced the colonies to cultivate only one or two crops which were needed as raw material for their own industries (e.g. indigo in India, Sugar in Cuba.)
  • Smuggling: sometimes, goods produced in one country were sold to another country to pay for the goods from that country. e.g. The English promoted cultivation of opium in India, then smuggled into China to pay for the goods they had bought from China.



  • Towards the end of 19th century, Western countries began to look upon Asia and Africa is good places to invest their capital. But Why?
  • Both Asia and Africa had abundant supply of raw material and cheap labour= good profit.
  • As we saw under “Demand” topic, low wages + excessive production= underconsumption. Therefore, if capital was invested in
  • Europe, it would only fetch 3 to 4% profit, because of little purchasing power of local people.
  • But if the same amount was invested in Asia or Africa, you could earn as high as 20% profit.
  • Besides, towards the end of 19th century, financial institutions such as banks expanded their influence and power, thus making FDI easier than earlier.


Infrastructure investment

  • The Western powers invested in their colonies to promote industries that could produce goods for export e.g. mining and plantation.
  • They also invested to strengthen control over colony’s economy e.g. Railways, postal network.


Why Political domination necessary?

  • As the foreign powers invested more and more money in business and infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Americas, their risk increased:
  • What if the weak local prince, Nawab or tribes chief could not contain an uprising or rebellion?
  • What if there was a change in the government?
  • Such things could lead to reduction in profit or even loss of whole investment.
  • For the same reasons, French investors in Morocco (N.Africa), appealed to their home government in France, to annex it. Thus Morocco became “French Morocco”.


Slave trade

  • The Spanish rule in Americas had resulted large-scale extermination of original inhabitants/Native-Americans. Because they were forced to work in gold/silver mines and were massacred, if resisted.
  • Foreigners brought new diseases, and Native Americans had no immunity against them.
  • Later, the Europeans introduced plantation system in North America, West Indies and Brazil for the cultivation of sugarcane, cotton and tobacco (to supply as raw material to home industries).
  • These plantations needed lot of laborers.
  • Hence it became necessary to establish trading posts in the coastal areas of Africa to keep steady supply of African slaves.
  • Later, Britain and other powers used “abolition of slavery” as an excuse to wage war against African chiefs and kings, but their hidden aim was to expand territorial possession. (For timber, ivory, minerals and oil).


Transport and communication

  • The Industrial Revolution brought drastic changes in transport and communication.
  • Steamship could carry goods much faster than the old sailing vessels.
  • The imperialist countries built railroads and inland waterways in the conquered areas, with the help of cheap local labor.
  • Thus could get raw material out of the interiors and send their manufactured products, faster than ever before.
  • Thus every area of the world was brought within easy reach of the industrialized countries.


Rise of extreme nationalism

  • The later part of 19th century was a period of intense nationalism
  • Germany and Italy had just succeeded in becoming unified nations.
  • Nationalism in the late 19th century came to be associated with chauvinism.
  • Nationalist intellectuals in all European powers argued that national greatness meant seizing colonial territory.
  • Once the scramble for colonies began, failure to enter the race was perceived as a sign of weakness, totally unacceptable to an aspiring great power.
  • Many nations developed myth of their superiority over other people
  • Each country felt that she too must have colonies to increase her own prestige and power imperialism became the fashion of the age.
  • Writers and speakers in England, France and Germany promoted the idea of imperialism and took great pride in calling their territories as “empires”
  • Germany’s expansion under Hitler was also based on the belief that German national culture was inherently superior to others.
  • By the end of the 19th century colonialism like nationalism developed into a mass cult.
  • Colonies were symbols of national greatness and nationalists of every economic class were proud of them.
  • Soviet Union’s policy to ‘liberate’ the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Third World, and USA’s “protecting Freedom” are also examples of imperialism driven by moral and ideological concern.



Fear and security

  • Initially, colonies were acquired to get cheap raw material and market to sell finished products.
  • Then Imperialist countries started acquiring places for their military or strategic importance also.
  • For example, England established naval bases and coaling stations at Port Said, Aden, Hong Kong, Singapore and Cyprus – not to protect England but to protect its conquered lands and trade routes to India from her rival nations.
  • The rival nations installed similar bases elsewhere to protect their colonies and trade routes from England.
  • Thus, if you acquired one colony, you had to acquire other colonies to protect the first colony => leading to a chain reaction and race for grabbing more and more colonies. (And ultimately first World war).


Civilizing mission

  • Many European writers and thinkers used to blatantly support and justify imperialism and colonization.


England Wrote a poem titled “White man’s burden”. It gives a rhetorical command to white men to colonize and rule people of other nations.


Jules Ferry France Superior races have the duty of civilizing the inferior races.
  • To many Europeans and Americans, the prospect of saving souls seemed as important as the prospect of expanding prestige and profit.
  • They considered it was their Christian and moral responsibility to educated ignorant peoples into higher culture and convert them to Christianity.
  • Hence for them, imperialism is a noble task, a way of bringing civilization to do backward people of the world.


Christian Missionaries

  • Usually they went alone into an unknown areas in a spirit of duty and religion.
  • But often they were followed by profiteering traders and soldiers.
  • Then wars took place to protect the missionaries.
  • All these seemed quite natural to most Western people, because they considered it their nation’s destiny to civilize and Christianize the people of Asia and Africa
  • US President McKinley himself justified the annexation of Philippines in following words:
  • “ We must help our little brown brothers….there was nothing left to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize them as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”


Adventurers and explorers

  • They had prominent role in Europe’s taking over of Africa.
  • They first went into unknown or little-known territories and brought back the reports that often indicated opportunities for trade and development.
  • On the basis of such reports, a trading post would be first setup.
  • Gradually, the explorer’s home government would take over the protection of the entire area around the trading Post.
  • Then this imperial home government would proceed to claim the entire territory as her own colony.


Favorable conditions in Asia and Africa

Biggest factor was lack of industrialization.


Military strength Asian and African state did not have the economic might of imperialist powers- to fight a long war.

They fought with axes, bows and outdated firearms (if any), while Europeans had new rifles and a “maximgun” (a fast firing machine gun) + the naval artillery to pound the coastal cities of their enemies. while Indian and Arab ships didn’t have guns.

The only exceptions, where Europeans could not succeed in war = Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Internal rivalries


Politically, Asian and African states were not united.

There were Conflicts between states and within states, the ruler vs. chiefs, warlords, merchants etc.

Hence they often sought the support of Europeans against their rivals.

No Empires In the ancient and mediaeval times, powerful empires had existed in Asia and Africa.

But during 19th century their governments became very weak. They still followed the old ways of governing, even though they had outlived their usefulness.

The loyalty of people still rested in local princes or tribal chieftains. They didn’t have the strong feelings for

“nation-state”, like the Europeans.

No Machines  The Westerners admired and desired the fine quality goods made by Asian and African craftsmen.

But these craftsmen relied entirely on handmade tools= small scale production, could not compete with

factory made products.



  • By 1914, almost all parts of the non-industrialized world had come under or indirect control of a few industrialized countries. Most countries of Africa had Lost their political freedom and were ruled by one or other country. The economies of all countries as well as of those which were politically independent were control imperialist countries to serve rests.
  • All parts of the world were brought together under a world economic control which was based on the exploit colonies. Since 1946, most Asia can colonies have become free and independent. You will read about it later. But the effects of imperialism in the life of the people in these country are still evident.


Economic Backwardness

  • The most important and lasting consequence of imperialism and colonization was the economic backwardness of the colonies as well as of those countries indirectly controlled by the countries Imperialism led to destruction of local industries. For example, India for centuries an exporter of textiles. During imperialist rule, India’s indigenous textile industry was destroyed and she became an importer of British cloth.
  • The natural resources of the colonies came under the control of the imperialist countries and were exploited for their own benefit. The industrialization of these countries was prevented. Where industries were started, these were subordinated to the interests of the industries of the imperialist countries or for making profits for the companies of the imperialist countries. The modern industries in the colonies had little impact on the life of the people there.
  • The patterns of agriculture in the colonies were also changed to meet the requirements of the industries of the imperialist countries. In some countries, the entire agriculture was reduced to the growing of one or two crops For example, Cuba was reduced to the position of a sugar producing country and little else. There was also naked plunder of natural resources, and exploitation through high demands of revenues and taxes. Some of the best lands in the colonies were taken over by the European planters Imperialism further aggravated the economic backwardness of the non-industrialized countries of the world.
  • The subordination of the economics of these areas to those of the imperialist countries was so complete that even after political independence, most of these countries found it difficult to develop their economics to suit their own interests. The impoverishment of the people of the colonies and of other non-industrialized countries is a continuing consequence of imperialism.



  • Imperialism also bred racial arrogance and discrimination. The idea of the superiority of the white race whom God had created to govern the world, was popularized in the imperialist countries. In their colonies, the white rulers and settlers discriminated against the local inhabitants who were considered inferior to them. In most European colonies, there was no intermixing with the local population and the Europeans lived in areas exclusively reserved for them.
  • The worst example of racism was South Africa where intermixing of whites and blacks was made a criminal offence. It is interesting to know that when Japan emerged as an imperialist power, the Japanese were excluded from being branded as belonging to an inferior race. In fact, South Africa gave the Japanese the status of what they called ‘honorary whites’


Struggle Against Imperialism

  • At every step, the imperialist powers met with the resistance of peoples they were trying to enslave. Even when the conquest by arms was decisive, foreign rule that ensued was never peaceful for the rulers. The conquered peoples organized movements not merely to overthrow foreign rule but also to develop their countries into modern nations. In a sense, these movements against imperialism were international in character People striving for freedom in one country supported the cause of peoples in other countries.
  • Generally speaking, the imperialist countries retained their colonial possessions up to the Second World War But within two decades after the end of the War, most of the countries succeeded in regaining their independence.
  • Most of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century were the years in which the nations of the western world held Asia and Africa as their colonial possessions. In the later years of this period of imperialism, about two thirds of the world’s population was living under the rule of one foreign government or the other. The empires acquired by the European nations were the largest in world history.
  • Imperialism is a story of deception, brutality, and armed might. The imperialist powers, however, Justified their enslavement of other nations and peoples in the name of ‘ spreading civilization’.
  • Getting possession of new markets and raw materials and establishing industries to be worked by cheap labour created many ‘small’ wars and two world conflicts. Despite the ‘gentlemen’s agreements’, there was a continuous effort among the western powers to redivide the world as between themselves but never with any consideration for the welfare of the people to whom the territory really belonged.