The Age Of Western Imperialism

In the 19th century, Western countries dominated and colonized the world. Read about his progression into the technological world, here!

Cultural exchange has always been a fact of history. Long ago, Marco Polo traveled from Italy to China and traded his European goods for Chinese tea and silk. He also brought the stories and culture of China back to Europe. But, throughout world history, the flow has always been slow and the exchanges very limited. Today, culture and goods flow into and out of every nation on earth. One hundred years ago, all manufactured goods came from either the United States or Europe.

The age of Western Imperialism really started to end with World War I. Two world wars and a severe depression coupled with the rise of powers outside of Europe to knock her out of her once predominant position on the globe. Although her economic and military power has slid, her civilization has conquered the world. Western technology and institutions have sunk deep roots everywhere.

During the 19th century, the technology and science of Europe fueled the Age of Imperialism. Explorations, which started in the 15th Century, spread Western culture to the Americas, Asia and Africa. Europe had global supremacy and the whole world was under her influence. In Europe and America, prosperity brought advances in democracy, the arts, and human health and longevity. Competition between colonizers and the resentment of the colonized would be a combination that would end Imperialist domination in catastrophe and bloodshed.

In 1882, Egypt was part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Egypt was "westernizing" and had borrowed heavily from France and England in order to finance projects such as the Suez Canal and railroads. The crushing debt led to a rise in Egyptian nationalism and an insurrection that toppled their government. In response to this "revolution" the British sent a naval fleet which bombarded Alexandria and set up a provisional government. This temporary setup lasted until after WWII.

In the spirit of the rising competition for dominance among European countries, the French moved to strengthen their control over Algeria and moved into Tunisia and Morocco. Italy conquered and held Libya as the result of a war with Turkey. The bitter rivalry for control of the last holdings of the Ottoman Empire was one of the early contributors to the causes of World War I.

Western expansion affected most of the world in one way or another. Colonialism had a dramatic influence on black Africa, south of the Sahara. Europeans began trading on the coasts of Africa in the 15th Century. Rum, produced in the Caribbean, and guns from Europe were traded to African chiefs for gold, ivory, spices and that other important export: slaves. Few Westerners had ever been inland but that changed with the gradual abolition of slavery. Explorers, scientists, missionaries and adventurers descended on Africa with the intent of Christianizing and civilizing the natives.

As nationals from various states set up their mines and trading posts, they also laid claim to vast areas of land for their home countries. The rush for territories was enough of a threat to peace that Count Otto Von Bismarck of Germany called a conference in Berlin in 1885. The ground rules for occupation of Africa were agreed upon by all of the nations laying claim to a part of the continent. The terms of the agreement stated that any country with a coastal settlement also had a claim to areas inland from that point.

In the few years after 1885, almost the entire continent of Africa was partitioned between the British, French, Belgians, Portuguese and Germans. The only independent countries remaining by 1914 were Ethiopia and Liberia. Ethiopia had been able to resist conquest and Liberia was a new state established by freed American slaves.

The boundaries established by the Europeans paid no heed to existing tribal or linguistic realities. In an effort to make their explorations pay, countries that had emancipated slaves at home had no qualms about using forced labor in Africa. Large populations were relocated, families split up and grazing land was turned into plantations of cocoa and rubber. The entire fabric of traditional tribal life was torn out from under the natives.

In Asia, "civilized" countries with a strong social fabric and literate populations were also squeezed into the Western mould by superior technology and military power. China was the main victim of Western Imperialism. The Chinese wanted nothing to do with Europeans, whom they considered barbarian. However, the traded for the opium which the British produced in India. When the Chinese tried to clean up the mess that the drug was causing to their country, the British retaliated by bombing Chinese cities. These skirmishes became known as The Opium Wars.

Later, the British and the French invaded China and burned down the Emperor's Summer Palace. It took two days for two armies to cart off all of the gold, silver, and jade and pearl that was there. The English, French, Germans and Russians forced China to trade with them and put themselves in charge of all import-export and customs duties. The proud Chinese were humiliated. They had previously exacted tribute from Manchuria, Korea, Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The British took over Burma, The French took control of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and Russia moved east across northern China to establish Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

Japan too, had a sophisticated culture but was not industrialized. It was isolated and preferred to remain that way. In the 17th Century they had outlawed Christianity, brought in by Portuguese missionaries. They were afraid that it would lead to Western domination. In 1853, four U.S. Navy warships sailed to Japan and demanded that they open up for trade. As with China, the western powers insisted on taking full control of Japan's trade and tariff policies. When a Japanese lord attacked a foreign fleet consisting of British, French, Dutch and American ships, a heavy indemnity was exacted from Japan.

In order to get on an equal footing with Europe and America, Japan undertook a massive program of Westernization. They built factories, laid railroad track, and started mail and telegraph services. Their army was modeled after Prussia's and their navy after England's. Although the population was very literate they instituted compulsory education and opened a military academy, colleges and universities. By the year 1883 men were conscripted to serve 12-year terms in the military.

Japan went to war with China in 1894 and won handily. Western powers were shocked that the strength shown by the Japanese. Russia, France and Germany united to force Japan to make land concessions to China. In 1904 Russia and Japan would face off in a war which Japan won. For the first time, a non-Western country had defeated a European power. The repercussions were felt worldwide as colonies saw that with Western technology, the weapons of the West could be used against the colonizers.

World War I was partly the result of competition between European countries for dominance on the world scene. The Age of Imperialism would come to a close as European nations practically destroyed each other in that war. Nationalism would become a powerful force in places like Egypt, Sudan, India and the Pacific Rim. One by one, Europe would lose her colonial empires to quickly modernizing national movements.

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