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See also: Empire and Hegemony

Imperialism, as defined by Dictionary of Human Geography , is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." Imperialism, as described by that work is primarily a Western undertaking that employs "expansionist, merchantilist policies".[1]

Cecil Rhodes: Cape-Cairo railway project. Founded the De Beers Mining Company and owned the British South Africa Company, which established Rhodesia for itself. He liked to
Cecil Rhodes: Cape-Cairo railway project. Founded the De Beers Mining Company and owned the British South Africa Company, which established Rhodesia for itself. He liked to "paint the map British red," and declared: "all of these stars ... these vast worlds that remain out of reach. If I could, I would annex other planets."[2]

The term as such primarily has been applied to Western political and economic dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some writers, such as Edward Said, use the term more broadly to describe any system of domination and subordination organized with an imperial center and a dominated periphery.



Imperialism has been found in the histories of Japan, the Assyrian Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Roman Empire, Greece, the Byzantine Empire, the Persian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, ancient Egypt, and India. Imperialism was a basic component to the conquests of Genghis Khan during the Mongol Empire, and other war-lords. Historically recognized Muslim empires number in the dozens. Sub-Saharan Africa has also had dozens of empires that pre-date the European colonial era, for example the Ethiopian Empire, Oyo Empire, Asante Union, Luba Empire, Lunda Empire and Mutapa Empire. The Americas during the pre-Columbian era also had large empires in Mesoamerica, such as the Aztec and the Inca.

The word itself, derived from the Latin verb imperare (to command), the Roman concept of imperium, while the actual term 'Imperialism' was coined in the 16th century,[3] reflecting what are now seen as the imperial policies of Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Imperialism not only describes colonial and territorial policies, but also economic and military dominance and influence.

Although normally used to imply forcible imposition of a more powerful foreign government's control on a weaker country, or over conquered territory that was previously without a unified government, "imperialism" is sometimes also used to describe loose or indirect political or economic influence or control of weak states by more powerful ones.[4] If the dominant country's influence is felt in social and cultural circles, such as "foreign" music being popular with young people, it may be described as cultural imperialism.

"Imperialism has been subject to moral censure by its critics, and thus the term is frequently used in international propaganda as a pejorative for expansionist and aggressive foreign policy."[4]

Colonialism vs imperialism

Territories that were once part of the British Empire The term 'imperialism' should not be confused with colonialism as it often is. Edward Said suggested that imperialism involves the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory . He goes on to say colonialism refers to the implanting of settlements on a distant territory . Robert Young supports this thinking as he puts forward that imperialism operates from the center, it is a state policy, and is developed for ideological as well as financial reasons whereas colonialism is nothing more than development for settlement or commercial intentions.[5]

Age of Imperialism

The Age of Imperialism was a time period beginning around 1870 when modern, relatively developed nations were taking over less developed areas, colonizing them, or influencing them in order to expand their own power. Although imperialist practices have existed for thousands of years, the term "Age of Imperialism" generally refers to the activities of nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States in the early 18th through the middle 20th centuries, e.g., the "The Great Game" in Persian lands, the "Scramble for Africa" and the "Open Door Policy" in China.[6][7]

Scramble for Africa

The ideas of imperialism put forward by historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson during the 19th century. European imperialism were influential,and they rejected the notion that "imperialism" required formal, legal control by one government over another country. "In their view, historians have been mesmerized by formal empire and maps of the world with regions colored red. The bulk of British emigration, trade, and capital went to areas outside the formal British Empire. A key to the thought of Robinson and Gallagher is the idea of empire 'informally if possible and formally if necessary.'"[8]

Europe s expansion into territorial imperialism had much to do with the great economic benefit from collecting resources from colonies, in combination with assuming political control often by military means. Most notably, the British exploited the political weakness of the Mughal state, and, while military activity was important at various times, the economic and administrative incorporation of local elites was also of crucial significance . Although a substantial number of colonies had been designed or subject to provide economic profit (mostly through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), Fieldhouse suggests that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in places such as Africa and Asia, this idea is not necessarily valid[9]:

Modern empires were not artificially constructed economic machines. The second expansion of Europe was a complex historical process in which political, social and emotional forces in Europe and on the periphery were more influential than calculated imperialism. Individual colonies might serve an economic purpose; collectively no empire had any definable function, economic or otherwise. Empires represented only a particular phase in the ever-changing relationship of Europe with the rest of the world: analogies with industrial systems or investment in real estate were simply misleading.[10]

During this time period, European merchants had the ability to roam the high seas and appropriate surpluses from around the world (sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently) and to concentrate them in Europe. [11]

European expansion accelerated greatly in the 19th century. In order to obtain raw materials, Europe began importing them from other countries. Europeans sought raw materials such as dyes, cotton, vegetable oils, and metal ores from overseas. Europe was being transformed into the manufacturing center of the world.[12]

Communication became much more advanced during the European expansion. The invention of railroads and telegraphs made it easier to communicate with other countries. Railroads assisted in transporting goods and in supplying large armies.[12]

Along with advancements in communication, Europe also continued to develop its military technology. European chemists made deadly explosives that could be used in combat, and with the advancement of machinery they were able to create lighter, cheaper guns. The guns were also much faster and more accurate. By the late 19th century (1880s) the machine gun had become an effective battlefield weapon. This technology gave European armies an advantage over their opponents, as armies in less developed countries were still fighting with arrows, swords, and leather shields.[12]


From their original homelands in Scandinavia and far northern Europe Germanic tribes expanded throughout northern and western Europe in the middle period of classical antiquity, and southern Europe in late antiquity, conquering Celtic and other peoples and forming in 800 the Holy Roman Empire, the first German Empire. However unlike China, there was no real systemic continuity from the western Roman Empire to its German successor which famously was "not holy, not Roman, and not an empire"[13], and numerous small states existed in variously autonomous confederation. Although by 1000 Germanic conquest of central, western, and southern Europe west of and including Italy was complete, excluding only Muslim Iberia, there was no process equivalent to Han sinification, and "Germany" remained largely a conceptual term referring to an amorphous area of central Europe.

Not a maritime power, and not a nation-state, as it became one, Germany's participation in Western imperialism was negligible until the late 19th century and the participation of Austria was primarily as a result of Hapsburg control of the First Empire, the Spanish throne, and other royal houses. After the defeat of Napoleon, who caused the dissolution of that first German Empire, Prussia, and the German states continued to stand aloof from imperialism, preferring to manipulate the European system through polices such as those of Metternich. After Prussia unified the other states into the second German Empire, its long-time leader Otto von Bismarck (1862-90) had long opposed colonial acquisitions, arguing that the burden of obtaining, maintaining and defending such possessions would outweigh any potential benefit. He felt that colonies did not pay for themselves, that the German bureaucratic system would not work well in the easy-going tropics, and the diplomatic disputes over colonies would distract Germany from its central interest, Europe itself.[14] However, in 1883-84 he suddenly reversed himself and overnight built a colonial empire in Africa and the South Pacific, and then lost interest in imperialism. Historians have debated exactly why he made this sudden and short-lived move.[15] He was aware that public opinion had started to demand colonies for reasons of German prestige.[16] Bismarck was influenced by Hamburg merchants and traders, his neighbors at Friedrichsruh. The establishment of the German colonial empire proceeded smoothly, starting with German New Guinea in 1884.[17]

After the collapse of the short-lived Third Reich, and the failure of its attempt to create a great land empire in Eurasia, Germany was split between Western and Soviet spheres of influence until Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russian and Communist imperialism

See also: Criticism of communist party rule, Soviet Imperialism, and Soviet Empire

The maximum territorial extent of countries in the world under Soviet influence, after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and before the official Sino-Soviet split of 1961.

As Germanic tribes conquered western Europe, Slavic peoples gradually expanded their control over eastern Europe and northern Eurasia, and in the form of the Romanov Empire extended that control to the Pacific forming a common border with the Qing Empire.

Bolshevik leaders had effectively reestablished a polity with roughly the same jurisdiction as that empire by 1921, but with an internationalist ideology. Beginning in 1923, the policy of "Indigenization" [korenizatsiia] helped native peoples develop their national cultures within a socialist framework. This was never formally revoked. Its cultural and linguistic concessions to non-Russians, however, stopped being implemented and enforced. After World War II, the Soviet Union installed socialist regimes modelled on those it had installed in 1919 20 in the old Tsarist empire in areas its forces occupied in Eastern Europe.[18] The Soviet Union and People's Republic of China supported post World War II anti-colonial national-liberation movements to advance their own interests but were not always successful.[19]

Trotsky, and others believed that the revolution could only succeed in Russia as part of a world revolution, which was in fact shortly after the Russian Revolution spreading in the defeated central powers of Europe. Lenin wrote extensively on the matter and famously declared that Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, which in his time it was. However after his death Joseph Stalin established Socialism in one country for the Soviet Union creating the model for subsequent inward looking Stalinist states, and purging the early Internationalist elements. The internationalist tendencies of the early revolution would be abandoned until they returned in a negative form in the competition with the United States in the Cold War.

"President McKinley fires a cannon into the Imperialist Strawman", cartoon by W.A. Rogers in Harper's Weekly of September 22, 1900
Though the Soviet Union declared itself anti-imperialist, critics argue that it exhibited tendencies common to historic empires. Some scholars hold that the Soviet Union was a hybrid entity containing elements common to both multinational empires and nation states. It has also been argued that the USSR practiced colonialism as did other imperial powers and was carrying on the old Russian tradition of expansion and control.[20]

The United States as "the world's policeman"

The early United States expressed its opposition to Imperialism, at least that distinct from its own Manifest Destiny, in policies such as the Monroe Doctrine. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century however, policies such as Woodrow Wilson's mission to "make the world safe for democracy"[21] were often backed by military force, but more often effected from behind the scenes, consistent with the general notion of hegemony and imperium of historical empires.[22][23]. In 1898 Americans who opposed imperialism created the Anti-Imperialist League to oppose the US annexation of the Philippines. A year later a war erupted in the Philippines causing business, labor and government leaders in the US to condemn America's occupation in the Philippines. They also denounced them for causing the deaths of many Filipinos.[24]

After the second world war the United States became identified with Western interests generally in a global conflict of spheres of influence with the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States did not diminish its global ability to project force, remaining "the sole superpower" and what has been called a "unipolar" situation of domination by it globally came into force.

Since the end of the previous century Battlespace domination has been an open and variously reported policy of the U.S. Department of defense and U.S. Administrations stated and restated in various Quadrennial Reports, force posture statements, etc. in execution of its role as sole remaining superpower[25][26]. The 2010 QDR indicates a change in perspective and it is unclear how the policy of the first decade of the 21st century would be sustained through the anticipated fiscal environment of the second.[27].

In 2005, the United States had 737 military bases in foreign countries, according to official sources.[28] As of 2010 US Military spending is about 43% of the world total.[29]. Only a handful of countries spent a larger portion of GDP on military in 2010 and of these only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates spent more than US$10 billion.


A controversial aspect of imperialism is the imperial power s defense and justification of such actions. Most controversial of all is the justification of imperialism done on rational grounds. J. A. Hobson identifies this justification: It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed, and developed, as far as possible, by the races which can do this work best, i.e. by the races of highest 'social efficiency'. [30] This is clearly the racial argument, which pays heed to other ideas such as the White Man s Burden prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century.

Technological and economic efficiency were often improved in territories subjected to imperialism through the building of roads and introduction of innovations. However, the majority of the rewards of such infrastructure improvements are usually shipped to the imperial state or utilized by the local administration. Similarly, the rapid adoption of the scientific method throughout the world was partly a side effect of the British Empire.[31]

The principles of imperialism are often deeply connected to the policies and practices of British Imperialism "during the last generation, and proceeds rather by diagnosis than by historical description."[32] British Imperialist strategy often but not always used the concept of terra nullius (Latin expression which stems from Roman law meaning empty land ). The country of Australia serves as a case study in relation to British imperialism. British settlement and colonial rule of the island continent of Australia in the eighteenth century was premised on terra nullius, for its settlers considered it unused by its sparse inhabitants.

This form of imperialism can also be seen in British Columbia, Canada. In the 1840s, the territory of British Columbia was divided into two regions, one space for the native population, and the other for non-natives. The indigenous peoples were often forcibly removed from their homes onto reserves. These actions were justified by a dominant belief among British colonial officials that land occupied by Native people was not being used efficiently and productively. [5]

See also


Further reading

External links

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