The Imperialist Venture


Cecil Rhodes in South Africa


Cecil Rhodes was the son of a parson in England.  As a young man of 17 in 1870, he left home with an older brother to farm newly claimed land in the Natal colony in Southern Africa.  At that age he soon found himself in charge of a farm with 30 black laborers.  A year later he joined the rush to stake a claim in the newly discovered diamond fields near the town of Kimberley, in the Cape Colony.


Kimberley in 1871 was the wild west of the British Empire.  It was a boom town of 20,000 whose mines produced about $2 million a day worth of diamonds in current dollars.  Whites established claims only a few yards across and hired black laborers--who were locked in segregated compounds-- to dig down hundreds of feet.  Rhodes and his brother earned the equivalent about $5000 a month on their three claims.  Men made money fast and lost it fast gambling, drinking and speculating.  Stories abounded of fortunes gained and lost--of claims being sold as worthless, only to have the new owner dig out huge diamonds a few feet further underground. .


In 1876 the limit on the number of claims one could hold was lifted, and Rhodes was one who bet the Diamonds would not give out.  Rhodes wheeled and deeled with financial backers in London, and claim holders in Kimberley to get a controlling stake in one of the smaller mines, called De Beers.  By 1888, he cut a deal with some of the other major owners to buy them out, and gain sole control of the entire Kimberley diamond field under his company, De Beers Mining Company.  Rhodes had control of most of the world's diamond supply, and he was also one of the richest men in the world. (De Beers still controls the world's diamond supply today).


In 1889, Rhodes used his fabulous wealth and power to found another company, the British South Africa Company, which was to explore and settle in the name of the British Empire unclaimed areas of southern Africa.  He created two new colonies, Upper and Lower Rhodesia (named after himself, of course) which today are the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe.  In From 1890 to 1896, he served as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, the main British colony in southern Africa.


Rhodes's career is a celebrated and illustrative tale of European enthusiasm for imperial expansion in Asia and Africa in the late 19th century.  There was money to made and fabulous opportunities for power for those lucky enough and stout enough to manage it.  There was fame and glory to be one both for individuals and nations that established themselves in the last remaining "uncivilized" portions of the globe.  There were also terrible wars to be fought, as I will mention later.

The New Imperialism


The terms "new imperialism" and "classical imperialism" have been used to describe the period roughly from 1880 to 1914, when European nations scrambled and competed with each other to claim new colonies throughout Africa and Asia.  The scramble began when Britain moved in troops to occupy Egypt in 1882.  In spite of his general opposition to such military expansion, Prime Minister Gladstone felt compelled to occupy Egypt (supposedly temporarily) to prevent the sultan who was pro-British from being overthrown by anti-European factions.  Britain stood to lose a great deal.  The Egyptian government owed a lot of money to British and French investors.  But the greatest fear was that an anti-European government might close down the new, French-built Suez Canal that linked Europe and Asia, and particularly Britain with its prize colony, India.  And so Britain expanded its empire in Egypt to preserve its existing empire in India.  The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867, and then huge gold deposits in the late 1870s suddenly made southern Africa more valuable too, and the British moved to establish their control in the region

The Colony Race


As Britain advanced its hold in Egypt and southern Africa, France moved to establish its control of northern and western Africa, starting with its long-established colony in Algeria, just across the Mediterranean from France.  French advocates of imperialism were motivated in the first place by the humiliation of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.  The establishment of a vast empire in Africa would make France great again, and able to stand up to both the Germans and British.  They rushed to beat the British in staking claims along the West African coast and in central Africa south of Egypt.  To compete with Britain and Holland's vast holdings in Asia, France moved in the 1880s to establish colonies in southeast Asia, colonies that later became Vietnam and Cambodia.


Germany lagged far behind Britain and France in the race for colonies.  Germany was just born as united country, and had very little in the way of a merchant marine or navy.  But by the middle of the 1880s, Bismarck realized that Germany could not afford to be left out entirely, and moved to make strategic claims around Africa to break up the monopoly of Britain or France.  The United States, too, joined the race for colonies.  We provoked and won a war with Spain in Cuba the Philippines, and took those colonies, along with Hawaii and Puerto Rico for ourselves.



Two failures


Russia also attempted to expand its empire in period, southwards into central Asia and eastwards in Siberia.  Unlike France, Germany and Britain, they met with defeat.  The British prevented Russia from expanding into Afghanistan or Balkan Europe.  In 1905, Russia and Japan fought over pacific islands off Siberia, and Russia suffered a humiliating defeat.  Italy attempted to occupy Ethiopia, but also suffered a humiliating defeat.  Both countries carried for many years after a chip on their shoulders for their national failures.

The Growth of the Imperialist Ideals


The expansion of European empires was not merely a geo-strategic concern of national governments, it was also an important cultural development for European nations.  It seemed a perfect confirmation of what we now call Social Darwinism, the idea that some races or nations were more advanced in evolutionary terms, and therefore superior and more fit to rule.  Imperialism was the continuing progress of humanity that Darwin promised in his theory of evolution.


This enthusiasm for evolutionary progress was often fused with a rather romantic sense moral duty in the British mind. John Ruskin, a famous essayist, told an Oxford University audience in 1871 that:


There is a destiny before us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused.  We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of the best northern blood.  We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey.   . . . Make your country . . .for all the world a source of light, centre for peace; a mistress of learning  and the Arts, faithful guardian of time-tried principles. . . this is what England must do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her feet on, and there teaching those of her colonists that their chief virtue is fidelity to their country.


Cecil Rhodes echoed this sentiment a few years later in his diary:


I contend that we are the finest race in the world and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race . . . It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should deep this one idea steadily before our eyes; that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honorable race the world possesses. . .

Another very important source of enthusiasm for empire-building was the missionary movement.  The churches of Britain, Germany and the US--especially the evangelicals--along with the Catholic Church, greatly expanded their efforts to civilize (Westernize) and convert the populations of Africa and Asia.   They were often the first explorers, and commonly established the first trading posts in new territories.  As they established footholds in new communities, they would ask their governments to establish troops and administrators to help "civilize" the native peoples, and also protect them from their rivals, or from predatory traders or other Europeans eager to stake their own claims.


Historians of women at this time have recently paid more attention to the reason why many women, including feminists, supported Imperialism.  Women often had greater opportunities in the empire as doctors, teachers or missionaries or politicians than at home, and came to see empires as an important calling to advance the cause of women as well as Western Civilization around the world.

The Poet of Imperialism


Take the time to read through Rudyard Kipling's poem, the "White Man's Burden" (p. 870)  Kipling was an immensely talented English poet and fiction writer who grew up and lived most of his life in India.  Consider both the tone and message of the poem.  Kipling had a particular view of the moral value of British imperial rule.  What is the moral value?  Why is the empire good?

The Dangers of Imperialism


While imperialism appeared to be very good thing to many Europeans, there was great costs to be paid.  First was that even though European nations avoid outright warfare in Africa or Asia, there was still a great expense of blood and treasure to hold colonies that could not in economic terms pay for themselves.  The mostly costly war occurred in South Africa, when Britain fought Dutch-descended settler for control of the gold fields around Johannesburg. (The Boer War, 1899-1902) Because the Boers were well-armed and tenacious European settlers, the war dragged on for three years, and 10s of thousands were killed, including civilians.  This went far in dampening enthusiasm for empire, and created some anti-imperialist sentiment also.


The idea of European domination through conquest stood in contradiction to the professed European values of democracy and freedom..  This contradiction was increasingly troubling to both native peoples and the Europeans themselves, who had to admit the contradiction, and were forced to admit that eventually Asians and Africans deserved freedom and independence.  Imperialists argued that it would take a long time, however, before that could happen.  The native peoples, naturally, disagreed, and Western-educated natives soon founded independence movements in the early twentieth-century.

The most deadly cost of imperial expansion was the heightened competition and rivalry between European nations.  The search to gain ground in geo-political and economic terms in comparison with European competitors was an increasing concern.  Germany and Russia in particular were profoundly concerned that they were falling behind the race for world power, and must act to reverse it.  German fear of France, Britain and Russia was confirmed when these three nations formed an alliance to contain German influence and expansion.  Russian and German interests were in direct competition in Eastern Europe, and their refusal to compromise diplomatically was a major cause of World War I.  Imperialism and national competition came with a very high price tag indeed.