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S6 History - 4hr

Optional Theme - 6.4C European colonialism.

An introduction to the historiography of imperialism.

Read the following two accounts carefully and then answer the questions which follow.

The urge to Imperialism David Thomson

From Europe Since Napoleon 1957 pp. 489-523

A famous British economist, J. A. Hobson - and following him, Lenin - attributed the colonial
expansions of these years to special new economic forces at work in the most industrialized nations of
western and central Europe. This economic explanation of the urge to imperialism is usually taken to
mean that the basic motives were also the basest motives and that, whatever political, religious, or
more idealistic excuses might be made, the real impulse was always one of capitalistic greed for cheap
raw materials, advantageous markets, good investments, and fresh fields of exploitation. The argument
has commonly been used, therefore, to denounce the events, and to attack the men, parties, and nations
that took part in them In the backward colonial peoples, argued Lenin, capitalism had found a new
proletariat to exploit; and from the enhanced profits of such imperialism it was able to bribe at least
the 'aristocracy of labour' at home into renouncing its revolutionary fervour and collaborating with the
bourgeoisie. This argument ignored the awkward facts that much of the foreign investment of the
European powers was not in colonial territories at all but in countries such as South America and
Russia, and that the standard of living of the working classes was high in countries like Denmark and
Sweden which had no colonies, but low in France and Belgium which had large colonial territories.
Nor, of course, could it be a general explanation of imperialism, which had existed centuries before
there was a 'glut of capital' and before finance capital was as plentiful or as well organized as it was in
the later nineteenth century. But it was a convenient and persuasive enough case, at the time, for
explaining the First. World War in exclusively economic terms, and for presenting it as the result of
capitalist activities and the maldistribution of wealth.

It is improbable that this explanation [of imperialism] can be entirely, or even 'basically', economic.
However important the economic forces were, they cannot explain why France, one of the least fully
industrialized of the north-western European nations, was the one which had already set the pace of
expansion by more than doubling her colonial possessions between 1815 and 1870, when she gained
firm footholds in Algeria, Senegal, and Indochina; nor why after 1870 it was the political republican
leaders, Jules Ferry and Leon Gambetta, who took the initiative in further colonial expansion in
Tunisia and Tonkin, despite the great unpopularity of such expansion with public opinion in France. It
is not a mere thirst for exporting surplus capital which can explain the new shape given to the British
Empire by the invention of 'dominion status and the readiness with which complete political
independence was granted first to Canada, and later to Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of
South Africa. British commercial and capitalist interests knew that trade with the United States had
increased after it won political independence; that migration to the independent United States had been
greater than to any of the territories which had remained under British control; and that Argentine
railways had offered opportunities to British investors no less attractive than had Indian railways.
German economic penetration of eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire was
remarkably effective without any of these territories becoming German colonies. What was most
strikingly novel about the new imperialism was its intense concentration upon two continents - Africa
and eastern Asia. These were the only two important areas of the globe still not brought under
European influence before 1870. The decades between 1870 and 1914 speedily completed the
expansion of European influence and civilization over the whole of the earth, and it was accomplished
in an era when the realism, ruthlessness, and rivalries of European national governments were
exceptionally.great. It therefore had a temper uniquely-masterful and remorseless, brooking no
obstacles and pushfully self-assertive. This quality came as much from the nature of European politics
as from the urges of European economic development. There was no international organization fitted
to exercise any kind of control or regulation over the scramble for territories in which the great powers
now indulged. The naked power politics of the new colonialism were the projection, on to an overseas
screen, of the inter-state frictions and rivalries of Europe. It was this combination of novel economic
conditions with anarchic political relations which explained the nature of the new imperialism.

Among the economic forces behind it, the urge to find new outlets for the 'glut of capital' and fresh
markets for industrial output were in general more important than either the quest for raw materials or
the factor of overpopulation. The special attractions of Africa and Asia were, indeed, that they offered
many of the raw materials needed by the multiplying factories of Europe: including cotton, silk,
rubber, vegetable oils, and the rarer minerals. The products of the tropics were especially welcome to
Europe. But many of these raw materials could be, and were, got by trading without political control
The quest for markets in which to sell manufactured goods was more important. But here, again, the
political factor was no less important than the purely economic. ..With increasing saturation of
European markets, all tended to look for more open markets overseas, and in the competitive,
protectionist mood of European politics they found governments responsive enough to national needs
to undertake the political conquest of undeveloped territories. For this purpose, Africa and Asia served
admirably The vast undeveloped areas of Africa and Asia offered the most inviting opportunities,
provided that they could be made safe enough for investment, and there seemed no better guarantee of
security than the appropriation of these lands. Again governments were responsive, for reasons that
where not exclusively economic. The ports of Africa and the Far East were valuable as naval bases
and ports of call, no less than as in-roads for trade and investment. Given the tangle of international
fears and distrusts in Europe during these years, and the ever-present menace of war, no possible
strategic or prestige-giving advantage could be forfeited. Once the scramble for partitioning Africa had
begun, the powers were confronted with the choice of grabbing such advantages for themselves or
seeing them snatched by potential enemies- The 'international anarchy' contributed an impetus of its
own to the general race for colonies. To say, as it was often said after 1918, that imperialism had led to
war, was only half the story; it was also true that the menace of war had led to imperialism.

It was normally the coexistence of economic interests with political aims which made a country
imperialistic; and in some, such as Italy or Russia, political considerations predominated. With nations
as with men, it is what they aspire to become and to have, not only what they already are or have, that
governs their behaviour. There was no irresistible compulsion or determinism, and no country
acquired colonies unless at least a very active and influential group of its political leaders wanted to
acquire them. Britain had long had all the economic urges of surplus population, exports, and capital,
but they did not drive her to scramble for colonies during the 1860s as much as during the 1870s and
after. Neither Italy nor Russia had a surplus of manufactures or capital to export, yet both joined the
scramble; Norway, although she had a large merchant fleet which was second only to that of Britain
and Germany, did not. Germany, whose industrial development greatly outpaced that of France, was
very much slower.than France to embark on colonialism. The Dutch were active in colonialism long
before the more industrialized Belgians. What determined whether or not a country became
imperialistic was more the activity of small groups of people, often intellectuals, economists, or
patriotic publicists and politicians anxious to ensure national security and self-sufficiency, than the
economic conditions of the country itself. And, as the examples of the British, French, Dutch, and
Portuguese show, nations that had traditions of colonialism were more prompt to seek colonies than
were nations, such as Germany and Italy, that had no such traditions.

Explanation of Imperialism Eric Hobsbawm

From The Age of Empire (1987) pp. 60-73

The arguments which surround this touchy subject are so impassioned, dense and confused that the
first task of the historian is to disentangle them so that the actual phenomenon can be seen for itself.
For most of the arguments have not been about what happened in the world of 1875-1914 but about
Marxism, a subject which is apt to raise strong feelings; for, as it happens, the (highly critical) analysis
of imperialism in Lenin's version was to become central to the revolutionary Marxism of the
communist movements after 1917 and to the revolutionary movements of the 'third world'. What has
given the debate a special edge is that one side in it appears to have had a slight built-in advantage, for
those supporters and opponents of imperialism have been at each other's throats since the 1890s, the
word itself has gradually acquired, and is now unlikely to lose, a pejorative colouring. Unlike
'democracy', which even its enemies like to claim because of its favourable connotations, 'imperialism'
is commonly something to be disapproved of, and therefore done by others. In 1914 plenty of
politicians were proud to call themselves imperialists, but in the course of our century they have
virtually disappeared from sight.

The crux of the Leninist analysis was that the new imperialism had economic roots in a specific new
phase of capitalism, which, among other things, led to 'the territorial division of the world among the
great capitalist powers' into a set of formal and informal colonies and spheres of influence. The
rivalries between the capitalist powers which led to this division also engendered the First World
War. The point to note is simply that non-Marxist analysts of imperialism have tended to argue the
opposite of what the Marxists said, and in doing so have obscured the subject. They tended to deny
any specific connection between the imperialism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries with
capitalism in general, or with the particular phase of it which, as we have seen, appeared to emerge in
the late nineteenth century. They denied that imperialism had any important economic roots, that it
benefited the imperial countries economically, let alone that the exploitation of backward zones was in
any sense essential to capitalism, and that it had negative effects on colonial economies. They argued
that imperialism did not lead to unmanageable rivalries between the imperial powers, and had no
serious bearings on the origin of the First World War. Rejecting economic explanations, they
concentrated on psychological, ideological, cultural and political explanations,...But the disadvantage
of the anti-anti-imperialist literature is that it does not actually explain that conjunction of economic
and political, national and international, developments, which contemporaries around 1900 found so
striking that they sought a comprehensive explanation for them. It does not explain why
contemporaries felt that 'imperialism' at the time was both a novel and historically central
development. In short, much of this literature amounts to denying facts which were obvious enough at
the time and still are.

Leaving Leninism and anti-Leninism aside, the first thing for the historian to re-establish is the
obvious fact, which nobody in the 1890s would have denied, that the division of the globe had an
economic dimension. To demonstrate this is not to explain everything about the imperialism of the
period. Economic development is not a sort of ventriloquist with the rest of history as its dummy. For
that matter, even the most single-minded businessman pursuing profit into, say, the South African
gold- and diamond-mines, can never be treated exclusively as a money-making machine. He was not
immune to the political, emotional, ideological, patriotic or even racial appeals which were so patently
associated with imperial expansion. Nevertheless, if an economic connection can be established
between the tendencies of economic development in the capitalist core of the globe at this time and its
expansion into the periphery, it becomes much less plausible to put the full weight of explanation on
motives for imperialism which have no intrinsic connection with the penetration and conquest of the
non-western world. And even those which appear to have, such as the strategic calculations of rival
powers, must be analysed while bearing the economic dimension in mind. Even today politics in the
Middle East, which are far from explicable on simple economic grounds, cannot be realistically
discussed without considering oil.

Now the major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy,
progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of
economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the
developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. Without this there was no
particular reason why European states should have taken more than the most fleeting interest in the
affairs of, say, the Congo basin or engaged in diplomatic disputes about some Pacific atoll. This
globalization of the economy was not new, though it had accelerated considerably in the middle
decades of the centuryThis tightening web of transport drew even the backward and previously
marginal into the world economy, and created a new interest among the old centres of wealth and
development in these remote areas. Indeed, now that they were accessible many of these regions
seemed at first sight to be simply potential extensions of the developed world,

A more convincing general motive for colonial expansion was the search for markets. The fact that
this was often disappointed is irrelevant. The belief that the 'overproduction' of the Great Depression
could be solved by a vast export drive was widespread. Businessmen, always inclined to fill the blank
spaces on the map of world trade with vast numbers of potential customers, would naturally look for
such unexploited areas: China was one which haunted the imagination of salesmen - what if every one
of those 300 millions bought only one box of tin-tacks? - and Africa, the unknown continent, was
another. The Chambers of Commerce of British cities in the depressed early 1880s were outraged by
the thought that diplomatic negotiations might exclude their traders from access to the Congo basin,
which was believed to offer untold sales prospects, all the more so as it was being developed as a
paying proposition by that crowned businessman, King Leopold II of the Belgians. (As it happened,
his favourite method of exploitation by forced labour was not designed to encourage high per capita
purchases, even when it did not actually diminish the number of customers by torture and massacre.)
But the crux of the global economic situation was that a number of developed economies
simultaneously felt the same need for new markets. If they were sufficiently strong their ideal was 'the
open door' on the markets of the underdeveloped world; but if not strong enough, they hoped to carve
out for themselves territories which, by virtue of ownership, would give national business a monopoly
position or at least a substantial advantage. Partition of the unoccupied parts of the Third World was
the logical consequenceTo this extent the 'new imperialism' was the natural by-product of an
international economy based on the rivalry of several competing industrial economies, intensified by
the economic pressures of the 1880s. At this point the economic motive for acquiring some colonial
territory becomes difficult to disentangle from the political action required for the purposeOnce
rival powers began to carve up the map of Africa or Oceania, each naturally tried to safeguard against
an excessive portion (or a particularly attractive morsel) going to the others.

The imperialism of the late nineteenth century was undoubtedly 'new'. It was the child of an era of
competition between rival industrial-capitalist national economies which was new and which was
intensified by the pressure to secure and safeguard markets in a period of business uncertainty It
was part of a process of turning away from a capitalism of the private and public policies of laissez-
faire, which was also new, and implied the rise of large corporations and oligopolies as well as the
increased intervention of the state in economic affairs. It belonged to a period when the peripheral part
of the global economy became increasingly significant. It was a phenomenon that seemed as 'natural'
in 1900 as it would have appeared implausible in 1860 All attempts to divorce the explanation of
imperialism from the specific developments of capitalism in the late nineteenth century must be
regarded as ideological exercises, though often learned and sometimes acute.


1. Explain briefly what you understand by the term historiography.

2. Summarise briefly what is meant by economic explanations of imperialism.
3. How does Thomson attack economic explanations of imperialism? Provide examples to
illustrate your answer.
4. How does Hobsbawm defend economic explanations of imperialism? Again provide examples
from the text to illustrate your answer.
5. Finally, to what extent do Hobsbawm and Thomson disagree with each other? Explain and
illustrate your answer carefully.

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