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European Imperialism: Characteristics, Motives & Effects

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  • 0:04 New Imperialism
  • 1:06 Economic Growth
  • 2:49 Moral Superiority
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In doing this it will define New Imperialism and explain how economic growth, national rivalries, and moral superiority motivated it.

New Imperialism

With the wealth of the Industrial Revolution burning in their pockets, the powerful nations of Europe were ready to formally expand their empires into Asia and Africa. Known as New Imperialism, this desire for expansion was motivated by many things, not the least of which were the promise of economic growth, the sting of national rivalries, and a sense of moral superiority.

Prior to the 19th century, Europe's interactions with Asia and Africa had mostly been limited to holding trading posts on the continent. Content to make money from these commercial outlets, Europe usually didn't impose direct rule onto these areas. However, as the 19th century progressed, a shift occurred. In this period of New Imperialism, Europeans began to seek formal political control over foreign and overseas areas. Now that we have the definition down, let's take a look at the reasons for this change. First, we'll hit the desire for economic growth.

Economic Growth

With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Europe was looking to bolster their trade markets abroad. Thinking of it this way: in order to sell more goods, you need more places to sell them. So, with this thinking in mind, the Europeans said to themselves, 'What better place than Africa and Asia?' Along the same lines, colonies on these continents were seen as great places to get cheap, raw materials for Europe's factories. Add to this that Europe needed a place to house and employ their surplus population, and you can see why New Imperialism held the promise of economic growth. In fact, an excellent example of this were the Dutch, who sent almost a million people into Indonesia to work. Although many of these Europeans they sent either succumbed to disease or fled back to Europe, the Dutch influence can still be seen in Indonesia.

National Rivalry

Along with economic growth, Europeans were spurred on by national rivalry. Since land equaled power, the more land a country could acquire, the more prestige and power they could wield across the globe. Adding to this, no country wanted to see an empire they didn't trust gaining ground. A great example of this were the British and Russian relations of the time. Known as the Great Game, Russia and Britain became embroiled in a bloody battle for Central and South Asia. Wanting to keep Russians from gaining power, Britain fought aggressively to keep them out of areas like Afghanistan, Iran, and especially India. This was also seen in the Treaty of Berlin in which several European nations kept Russia from gaining ground in Turkey.

Moral Superiority

This leads us to the motivation of moral superiority. Not surprisingly, some proponents of New Imperialism felt they had the moral right, if not responsibility, to rule over the 'heathen, uncivilized' areas of Asia, and especially Africa. This is plainly seen in the famous late 19th century poem 'The White Man's Burden' in which its author Rudyard Kipling calls the uncivilized, colonized people 'half-devil and half-child.' To those with this mindset, imperialism was seen as a way to enlighten and save the poor heathens from themselves. With this attitude, it's easier to understand how the European powers felt little to no compunction when dividing up Africa as seen in the Berlin Conference.

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