Outline the sources of and responses to imperial expansion around the world from 1860 to 1914.

“Expansion,” in its political sense, means “extension of a state’s territory by encroaching on that of other nations,” according to Oxford Dictionaries Online. (Note 1) By focusing on territory extension, this definition excludes some important processes in 1860-1914, such as the penetration of industrial capitalism to continental interiors and various informal arrangements of economic domination. By deploying the concept of “other nations”, this definition also implicitly excludes both national unification (e.g. Italy) and frontier expansion against ethnic groups without states (e.g. US against native Americans). Despite this admittedly narrow focus, “imperial expansion” in this definition – which will be the focus of this essay – can encompass many acts of colonies acquisition by European empires in Africa and Asia, Japan in East Asia, and the United States in Central America and Asia.


One important source of these imperial expansion is the deepening and propagation of industrialization. This “Second Industrial Revolution” was characterized by A) the extension of industrial production from light industries such as textiles to heavy industries such as steel, coal, petroleum, shipbuilding, machinery; B) mass production in large-scale factories; C) the spread of industrialization from Britain to other countries such as France, Germany, Russia, United States and Japan. (14-1)


These characteristics of the Second Industrial Revolution provided the most advanced industrialized countries with both the capability and motivation for imperial expansion. Development of heavy industries gave immense military power to the imperial states over their opponents. The resulting asymmetry of fire-power was the basis for the relative ease in acquiring new colonies. (14-1) For example, in a battle between British and Sudanese in 1898, British lost 368 men while Sudanese lost some 11,000. (Note 2) In this age, even other empires could be defeated quickly and decisively; examples include US’s defeat of Spain (1894) and Japan’s defeat of China (1894) and Russia (1905).


Growth of mass production required new supplies of agricultural products, raw materials and markets for the industrial outputs – all of which new colonies could provide. As a partial evidence of commercial considerations in imperial expansion, in 1898, the year of Spanish-American War, the United States’ Department of State explained: “… every year we shall be confronted with an increasing surplus of manufactured goods for sale in foreign markets … The enlargement of foreign consumption of the products of our mills and workshops has, therefore, become a serious problem of statesmanship as well as of commerce.” (Note 3)


Spread of industrialization created more potential colonial empires; their mutual competition sped up the process of imperial expansion across the world. (14-2) Intensity of imperial competition was very transparent: in Africa it was a “Scramble”; in Central Asia it was a “Great Game” of competition between Britain and Russia; and colonization of continental Southeast Asia would pitch France against Britain in 1893. (Note 4)


Nationalist ideologies constituted other important sources of imperial expansion. Imperial expansion helped lay claims to national grandeur. (12-3) For example, Germany became an empire as it completed its national unification in in 1870-71. (12-4) It would host the Berlin conference on the partition of Africa in 1884. George Shpinefurth, an advocate for German expansion into Africa, declared “Africa is science’s principal task.” (14-3) Racial languages were extensively deployed to justify imperialism, with Kipling’s poem White Man’s Burden being a well-known example. (14-4)


Nationalist ideologies were not only sources of, but also responses to, imperial expansion. First, colonized peoples, and peoples of weaker states, responded to imperial expansion by deploying nationalism to mobilize resistance against imperial forces. Spanish-American War of 1898 “would yield a spasm of nationalism” in the Philippines, Cuba and Latin America. (14-4) Second, imperial powers, facing strong colonial resistances, increasingly dehumanized colonial peoples. (16-2) This dehumanization could then be used to rationalize and justify genocidal atrocities, such as those committed German General Von Trotha against the Herero people in Namibia. (16-1). Third, some – though not all – people living in imperial states, would be convinced of the necessity to continue imperial expansion. Kipling – a poet, not someone holding a state position – subtitled his above-mentioned poem as “the United States and the Philippine Islands.” (14-4)


All colonial regimes benefited some local constituents – for example Sindh merchants in Central Asia (13-3); this was not new. What was new was the emergence guerilla warfare, where subjugated societies supported soldier-civilians to subvert occupying imperial armies, which were too powerful to be fought against in direct, regular combats. (16-1) Guerillas were able to withstand imperial armies longer. For example, in contrast to Spain’s rapid defeat by the US, the Filipino guerilla “fought so well that it was three years and more before they too were defeated.” This would increase the costs of, and domestic popular opinion against, imperial occupation. “Before long, even Theodore Roosevelt, agreed that the Philippines were an expensive nuisance and their conquest had been a mistake.” (Note 5)


During 1860-1914, responses to imperial expansion did not only include the imperial states, their domestic populations and colonized peoples, because these expansion often involved taking territories away from weaker states. These weaker states undertook reforms in their military, fiscal, education and political systems, (Note 6) while some of their subjects started rebellions and revolutions. To ensure regime survival, these weaker, defeated states often had ambivalent relationships with imperial powers. Qing was a case in point. After losing Taiwan and its tributary Korea to Japan in 1894-95, it undertook the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898. In 1899, it tolerated Boxers’ anti-western attacks across China, leading to joint intervention by eight powers in 1900. The intervention was an invasion; the Boxers were repressed with some Qing troops involved. After the intervention Qing was pressured to compensate the powers for their help in putting down the Boxers. Qing was so weakened that in 1911 it would be toppled by a revolution. (16-3)


In summary, the Second Industrial Revolution gave imperial states the capability and motivation to expand, while nationalist ideologies motivated and justified such undertakings. Among the imperial and colonial peoples nationalism flared up – no matter whether they were supporters or opponents to imperial expansion. Guerilla warfare emerged and spread. Some weaker states maintained ambivalent relations with imperial powers, undertook reforms, and crumbled under popular revolutions before 1914. Such was the state of the world before WWI, when rivalry among imperial powers dragged themselves and their worldwide colonies into a devastating global conflict.


Works cited:

Lectures are quoted in a simplified format: (14-2) means Lecture 14, Segment 2.

Note 1:, retrieved on Dec 6, 2012.

Note 2: p.541, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History, by Jerry H. Bentley et al., 2008, reprinted by Peking University Press authorized by McGraw Hills.

Note 3: p.299-300, A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, 2005, HarperCollins.

Note 4: p.557, The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth Edition, edited by Peter N. Stearns, 2001, Houghton Mifflin.

Note 5: p.441-442, The Penguin History of the USA, New Edition, by Hugh Brogan, 2001, Penguin.

Note 6: See author’s prior assignment


Comments: 2 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    lawpark (Sunday, 13 January 2013 21:32)

    self → Missing pan-ism and other non-nationalistic responses.

  • #2

    lawpark (Wednesday, 13 February 2013 00:21)

    US's defeat of Spain: date should be 1898