- Imperialism can be defined as a system where a powerful nation or state takes control of territories outside its own borders. These territories are claimed and governed as colonies.
- Many European nations had empires in the years leading up to World War I. The British Empire was the largest by far. It spanned approximately one-quarter of the globe at its height.
- This period saw European powers scramble to acquire new colonial territories, most of which were in Africa. The European countries involved in Africa were Britain, France and Germany.
- As a result, the scramble ignited and/or fueled rivalries, which lead to a number of diplomatic incidents.
Imperialism and imperial rivalries are widely considered to be one of the major causes of World War I. Most of the time, the imperial nation was referred to as the ‘motherland’ and control over its colonies was established through coercion through annexation and infiltration, political pressure, war and military conquests. Once they had done this, the territory Was claimed as a colony. These colonies were governed and administered by either the imperial nation, a puppet government or local collaborators. Military presence was often used to enforce this. It helped to maintain order and to suppress any resistance in the form of uprisings. Some of the advantages associated with colonies were mainly military or geopolitical. The colonies’ main purpose was to profit and enrich the motherland. This profit was mainly realised through the supply of precious metals or other valuable resources, such as timber, rubber, rice or other foodstuffs. Cheap labour, agricultural land and trading ports were also invaluable to the colonialists.
Britain was the most dominant imperial power prior to World War I. Britain had colonies in included Canada, India, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Burma, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, several Pacific and Caribbean Islands, South Africa, Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), Egypt and other parts of Africa by the late 1800s. Many of these were acquired with little difficulty. Others, like South Africa, took more time, effort and even bloodshed. This was because the Zulus, the indigenous tribe in parts of South Africa, and the Boers who were white farmers of Dutch origin, offered resistance. The main objective of British imperialism was to maintain and expand trade, import raw materials and to facilitate the sale of manufactured goods. Britain’s navy helped reinforce its imperial power.
France, Britain’s closest neighbour was also a super imperial power. French imperial colonies included Indochina (which included Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), some Pacific Islands and several colonies in west and north-west Africa. Germany, too, was not left out of the fold as it had Shandong (a province of China), New Guinea, Samoa and other Pacific Islands, and several colonies in central and south-west Africa. South America and the Philippines was part of the Spanish Empire. Spain’s power had significantly decreased by the early 20th century. Empires closer to home included Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Finland, Poland and several central Asian regions were ruled by Russia. Russia had attempted to expand its imperial reach further into Korea and northern China but it was a disaster as they got into a war against Japan in 1904-5. The U.S. was also engaged in a form of imperialism by the end of the 1800s. Here is a list of the more significant imperial powers of the early 1900s:
Global Empires by 1914
Here is a further discussion of European countries and their imperialist expansion:
The British Empire
Included South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Hong Kong, and regions in North Africa, islands in the Pacific and Caribbean and parts of China.
Had Finland, Estonia, Poland and Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania, Ukraine and several regions in central Asia like Kazakhstan. Russia also had colonial interests in East Asia.
France had conquered colonies in modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (Indochina), areas of West Africa and India, small concessions in South America, and islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Germans had taken control of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), Namibia, Cameroon and German New Guinea in Africa, some Pacific islands and an important concession in Shandong.
It did not possess any colonies outside Europe but had an empire nonetheless, presiding over several different regions including ethnic groups. Among its regions were Bohemia, Moravia, Transylvania, Silesia, Galicia the Tyrol and Bosnia and Herzegovina after 1908.
The Spanish once possessed a large empire that included the Philippines, Cuba and large areas of South America, but by 1914 the Spanish were left with only tiny colonial territories in the Americas and north-west Africa.
The United States
American colonialists were relative newcomers to imperialism, but by 1914 had gained control of American Samoa, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and several islands in the Pacific. Though, both Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands were later absorbed into the United States, they might be considered colonial acquisitions.
The Ottoman Empire
This empire was at one time considered as largest empire in the world, taking in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and much of northern Africa. It had shrunk significantly by 1914, however, but retained the heart of its old empire: modern-day Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Macedonia.
Portugal was a small imperial power in 1914 and ruled modern-day Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Goa in India, and East Timor in Indonesia.
One of the smaller nations in Europe, it still had colonies in Africa such as Belgian Congo, as well as a small concession in China.
South America, Dutch Guyana in Africa, Batavia, or modern-day Indonesia in Asia, and the Pacific were all part of Dutch colonies.
Italy, by 1914, had annexed modern-day Libya, Somalia and Eritrea in Africa. It also held a small concession in China.
The Scramble for Africa
A desperate push ensued in the second half of the 1800s as European nations rushed to expand their empires. This was fueled by rising nationalism, increasing demand for land and fewer opportunities at home. Germany and Italy were two relative newcomers to empire-building and were recently-unified nations. Otto von Bismarck, the man who helped construct the German state in the 1870s, had shown little to no interest in gathering colonies but this view was not shared by other Germans. This was because organisations like the Colonial League (formed in 1882 in Berlin) had garnered support for German imperial expansion. Imperial designs had been formulated by the Kaiser and his advisors and it focused on Africa. Germany acquired Togoland, Cameroon and South West Africa (now Namibia) in 1884. A colony renamed Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) was under German control six years later. The people of Tanganyika received this colonisation well. It caused unrest between Britain and France, however, as German colonies were an obstacle to the plan that the Brits had of a railway line running the length of Africa.
Diplomatic incidents were sparked by the scramble for empires in Africa. From events in Morocco in north-west Africa, two significant crises happened. Morocco was not a French colony, but its location placed it within France’s sphere of influence. Paris, therefore, wanted to establish a protectorate in Morocco but this was not possible because of the German Kaiser. Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser, travelled to the Moroccan city of Tangier in 1905. On his arrival, he delivered a speech supporting the idea of Moroccan independence. This rubbed the French government up the wrong way and it caused a series of angry diplomatic responses. Another crisis began in 1911 when the French were attempting to suppress a rebellion in Morocco. The Germans, without French permission, landed an armed vessel (the Panther) at the Moroccan port of Agadir. This incident brought France and Germany to the brink of war. Germany did this to drive a wedge between France and Britain. It ended up strengthening the Anglo-French alliance and intensifying criticism of German Weltpolitik in both France and Britain, however.
European tensions were also caused by imperial instabilities. Defining problems in the Ottoman Empire also affected the balance of power in Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire was described as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ as it was in a state of rapid political, military and economic decline by the second half of the 1800s. They had been defeated in several wars including the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856, the First Balkans War between 1912 and 1913, and the Russo-Turkish War between 1877 and 1878.
Rising nationalism and revolutions in Ottoman-controlled regions coupled with these defeats resulted in a gradual decline and significant losses of territory. European imperial powers seized the moment and clamoured to secure territory or influence in the region. Austria-Hungary was looking into expanding into the Balkans, but Russia moved to limit this expansion and in the process secured access to the Black Sea. Germany wanted to complete its Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, Britain and France also had colonial and trade interests in the region. These occurrences drew the Great Powers of Europe into the Balkan sphere, creating opportunities but at the same time fuelling rivalries and increasing tensions.