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19th Century Imperialism: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

By the end of the 19th century, European nations ruled over huge empires from very far away, giving them control over millions of people. Learn about the spread of imperialism in the 19th century and its consequences for the world today in this lesson.

What's Yours Is Mine

What would you do if you got an extra room in your home all to yourself? You could put a lot of stuff there if it was all yours. But what if one of your siblings had to live there even though it's officially yours? Would you be nice and let them use your things, or would you take advantage and make them do things for you? It sounds silly, but throughout history, powerful nations have conquered their neighbors: sometimes they're nice, sometimes they take advantage of the place. This is known as imperialism, the extension of power to a new area, and it happened during the 19th century until almost all the world was claimed by one power or another.

The spread of empires over the world
Growth of imperialism

Starting Off

Imperialism didn't start off in the 19th century—remember all the history lessons about how the 13 Colonies rebelled against the British king? By 1800, however, Europe had much more advanced technology than the rest of the world. What's more, their economies had become very large and very complicated, making it necessary to get new resources from new places. Finally, Europeans thought that they had a duty to bring their culture to 'uncivilized' places.

Famous cartoon showing white Europeans carrying other people to civilization
White mans burden cartoon

Some of the first and most important imperialism took place in India. By the early 1800s, the British East India Company had control of much of India, and by 1842 the entire area had passed to control of the British royals. India was considered 'the jewel in the crown' because there were so many people and so many riches like tea, spices, and cotton.

Imperialism in China

Europeans wanted a lot of goods from China, including silk, porcelain, and tea. China, however, really didn't want much of anything to do with the rest of the world and kept all outsiders away. Europeans came up with a solution: sell the Chinese opium, a drug, so that they would become addicted and want more. This led to the Opium Wars between China and European powers, who forced China to stay open and keep trading.

Cartoon of Europeans dividing up China
Europeans taking over China

Europeans signed treaties with China to keep their trade open and take over certain parts of the country, like the port city of Hong Kong. These are considered 'Unequal Treaties' by the Chinese since they were agreed to by force instead of freely.

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