The Fruits of Civilization (26-1) Imperialism


Take up the white man’s burden… ~ English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling

As Japan exemplified, countries in the vast continents of Asia and Africa had minimal participation in the economic expansion of the 19th century until forced by aggression from Western powers.

Britain pried open China to trade at the end of the 18th century. Perry’s black ships sailing into Japan’s Yokosuka harbor a half century later was an imitation by America.

By the dawn of the 19th century, China and southeast Asia were cut-up colonies of various Western powers. Japan got into the act in snatching Taiwan and the Korean peninsula from the dying Qing (Manchu) dynasty. Africa was similarly carved up by European powers from 1880.

Prior to industrialization, only South Africa had previously been of interest to foreign powers; first by the Dutch, beginning in the mid-17th century, as a way station between the homeland and Indonesia. The British captured South Africa during the Napoleonic Wars.

Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1834 angered the resident Boer slavers, who were the descendants of Dutch colonists. Whence issued Vryheidsoorloë: the “freedom wars.” The 2 Boer Wars (1880–1881 & 1899–1902), with their scorched-earth policies and death camps, were an exuberant exercise in savagery, and a foreshadowing of the World Wars ahead.

There have been numerous explanations as to economic incentives for imperialism, but all of them bleed out in light of the facts. Imperialism was a political dynamic, not an economic one: a product of aggressive nationalism, which was highly contagious.

From a historical perspective, post-industrial imperialism was simply a repetition of the empire-building upon which civilization itself was founded. A notable difference was the inherent racism in Western powers pillaging nonwhite lands.

The Western intellectual climate in the late 19th century was strongly colored by Social Darwinism. Kipling’s “the lesser breeds without the law” expressed the sense of superiority that stirred the spirits of well-heeled men in the parlors and political circles of Europe and America. To general approval, US President Theodore Roosevelt grandly bandied “manifest destiny” for his foreign forays.