The Age of Imperialism

The Age of Imperialism did not really get underway until the 1870s. European countries became less eager to look at expansion on the continent because the balance of power system had made aggrandizement an expensive proposition. Thus, powers began to look overseas. Even so, most earlier expansionist efforts had petered out. The Spanish had lost their colonies in South and Central America. Britain's colonies, though still substantial, were spinning off to become dominions of the commonwealth. Portugal had relinquished Brazil. Most of Eastern Europe had never become involved in overseas activities. Other than the British only the Dutch had a substantial overseas empire, in the form of considerable spice island possessions in the Indian Ocean. On land, only Russia had continued expanding through Siberia, reaching as far as Alaska in the east. She had also continued efforts to gain ground at the expense of the Ottoman Empire in the south.

The conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war saw the unification of Germany as well as that of Italy. These powers, too, wished to flex their military muscle. Several additional factors came together to make colonial expansion seem desirable at this time:

  • The Industrial Revolution was creating a need for raw materials and excess goods for available markets. Colonies could provide cheap raw materials, as well as markets.
  • Religious missionaries wished to bring the message of their beliefs to foreign lands. This could be done more efficiently in areas made stable by colonial rule.
  • In the same vein, many humanitarian individuals felt they could bring a better lifestyle to the peoples of the world.
  • Social Darwinism led many Europeans to believe that they were superior to indigenous populations and destined to rule over them.
  • Political theorists believed that a nation that did not expand its borders was moribund and would soon be tossed on the ash heap of history. Thus colonial expansion was a palpable demonstration of national vitality.
  • Colonies could produce a military advantage in wars with rival imperial powers.
  • Colonies provided an outlet for population growth.
  • Colonies provided a field of action for ambitious young people, as well as failed businessmen or even criminals who wanted a second chance.

The British Empire

It was a common saying that "The sun never sets on the British Empire". This had a dual meaning. Literally, the British Empire spanned the globe. At any time of day or night, the sun was shining on some piece of ground controlled by Britain. Her colonies even before the great age of imperialist expansion were numerous and included India, Canada, and Australia.

Map of Africa in the Age of Imperialism

In the late 1800s Britain saw other powers expanding their colonies. Britain's colonial possessions had always been a deep source of strength allowing the tiny nation to oppose the massive power of the French throughout the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Many felt that in order to maintain her prominent position in European and world affairs Britain must also stay ahead in the new race for colonies.

To this end, men like Cecil Rhodes were given free rein, especially in Africa, to enhance Britain's domains, which would come to include South Africa, Rhodesia, Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and Zanzibar (plus a few others). In Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore were added to the British crown. The effect was the greatest empire in land-mass and power that the world had ever known. London became the greatest city in world. Britania no longer ruled only the waves, but much of the shores upon which they pounded.

The Dutch Empire

Modern European History Book Cover
The InDepthInfo History of Modern Europe was designed as a homeschool history textbook. It covers an exciting time in modern Europe between the Renaissance and the End of World War I. It has report suggestions, chapter quizzes, and a final examination. Perfect for high school level study.

For a time the Dutch possessed one of the greatest navies in the world. Dutch power rested on Spice Island colonies in the East Indies that she had taken from the Portuguese, with near monopolies on such spices as cloves and cinnamon, the Dutch could demand and get high prices for these precious commodities. The Dutch maintained their monopolies by closely guarding their plantations and not allowing live plants to leave the islands.

French Imperialism

With the fall of Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan, France entered a phase known as the Third Republic. This government was relatively stable and allowed France to embark on its own expansion. The French moved into North Africa, taking over large swaths of territory, the most prominent of which was Algeria. France would add Tunisia, Morocco, and Tahiti. In Asia, they moved into Indo-China (the area now known as Viet Nam). French efforts there would have serious consequences as late as the 1950s when they lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu against indigenous forces, after which, the United States entered the struggle.

Other Imperialists

Sketch of Leopold II of Belgium

Germany also expanded into Africa, colonizing Togoland, the Cameroons, and part of East Africa. Italy colonized Eritrea, but met with a reverse at the Battle of Adowa. Their reputation suffered much because they were the only European power to be repulsed by native peoples. Leopold II of Belgium stands out in his private conquest of the Congo. His personal representative Henry Morton Stanley secured the huge territory for the king. The native population was brutally forced to labor, mining diamonds, rubber, and ivory. The Congo was even the source for the famed Belgian chocolate that became popular at the time.

Imperial Japan

The age of Imperialism saw the opening of Japan. Commodore Perry of the United States in 1854 forced Japan to trade with the U.S. The Japanese powers perceptively saw that their lack of technology put them at a grave disadvantage to the European powers. Japan quickly modernized its government, economy, and especially its military. The Japanese soon joined in the imperial game taking Korea and parts of Manchuria and dealing a tremendous blow to the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). It was an amazing feat, moving from a medieval society to a world power in the span of about 50 years.


Imperialism, from the perspective of modern progressivism has been denigrated as inhumane, cruel, and self-aggrandizing. Indeed, it often was all of those things, especially in Africa. But viewed objectively, it may have been a good thing for the development of the world. As well as the cruelty and greed that drove some colonial powers, much good was done by the improvement in the economies and technologies of many pre-industrial societies. Missionaries and entrepreneurs not only brought religion and factories, but clean water, education, and new food crops to support burgeoning populations. What had been a disparate world became more united. Many Europeans of this period worked very hard to make the world a better place. History shows that at least some of their efforts succeeded.

Take a quiz on this article on Imperialism!


The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

LinkToThisPage Button

In-Depth Information

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

InDepthInfo - In-depth Information You Want to Know


Visit a random article: The War with Tripoli

Contact Us | Privacy Statement