Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 19 The Scramble and Motivations

European Motivations in the Scramble

- the readings in Historical Problems of Imperial Africa Problem I, pp. 7-56 illustrate some of the interpretations discussed in this lecture.

- while this is a Euro-centric approach, I think it is necessary and the correct approach. [It is a bit like spousal abuse or date rape; I don’t think the real issue is what the victim did or didn’t do which ‘provoked’ the perpetrator.]

- in the scramble and partition of Africa, European governments and societies were very much the aggressors, and therefore, understanding why means focusing on their motives. [This is not to argue that there is no value in examining the specifics of individual cases or that one should or can ignore Africans and their responses.]

The “New Imperialism”

- several questions are involved and we can approach it much like a detective story or Clue:

Who did it?

- we know which nations were involved: they held conferences, published maps, proclaimed empires and in general bragged outrageously about their exploits.

- however, there are still questions about what groups or individuals were largely responsible: was it politicians, capitalists, soldiers, missionaries, nationalists, the masses?

Some of the above?
All of the above?

- also who started it? Leopold, Britain, France, Germany? This is important because of the argument that once 1 gov’t started, the others felt that they couldn’t afford to be left behind. We shall not deal with this issue, but different historians have argued for each of these.


- medical and technological advances (especially military technology) provided opportunity which had previously been denied; also, the advances made the cost very low, not only in wealth but also in lives.

[Two examples illustrate these aspects well:

In 1846, the British organised an expedition up the Niger River. Although some medical authorities had noted that quinine had prophylactic properties against malaria, quinine was not taken along. The expedition was a disaster with only a few survivors straggling back to the coast. However, after 1850 and using quinine, the Niger was quickly opened to trade and penetration.

In 1898, the British sent an expedition up the Nile into the Sudan. In the Battle of Omdurman against the Mahdist forces, the Anglo-Egyptian forces forces suffered fewer than 100 killed; the Mahdists lost over 8,000 killed. Machine guns and light artillery massacred the lightly armed Mahdists on horseback.]

Motives. Why?

- this is the big question which becomes more puzzling as we get farther from the events themselves; explanations continue to multiply and get more complex.

- many scholars and studies focus on the specific and these have their place:

- e.g., a missionary or trader is killed and a European government gets involved; a local government defaults on loans (e.g., Egypt) and European governments intervene.

- others, however, argue that ‘imperialism’ was a widespread and general phenomenon and explanations should begin with the general; such explanations must focus on the imperial nations in Europe (the U.S. also became involved in acquiring colonies but not in Africa).

- what forces in European societies impelled them to annex and to conquer?

- were the forces economic, political, diplomatic, nationalist, or mass psychological in nature?

Economic Explanations

- these are the most popular and in many cases most persistent. They are important as well because many of the same arguments are still used to explain underdevelopment in 3rd world countries (i.e., neocolonialism and neo-imperialism).

- certainly, proponents of imperialism frequently used economic arguments to urge policies of imperial expansion and empire-building. Leopold, King of the Belgians, had argued that colonies were the prime source of Britain’s wealth and power. Most protagonists made such arguments about why colonies were needed:

Capitalist imperialism

- the burst of enthusiasm for empire (the ‘new imperialism’) of the late 19th C was a surprise and was not anticipated. Thus, followers of Marx’s theories were trying to provide a theory to explain why this was happening. However, the main core of what became the theory of capitalist imperialism was provided by a non-Marxist, J. A. Hobson, a journalist and reform liberal.

- Hobson put forth his theory in Imperialism: A Study (1902). This book has been one of the most influential books in the 20th C; it has been reprinted many times (it is still in print). The main argument was adapted by Lenin in Imperialism the Last Stage of Capitalism and this became the main Marxist interpretation of imperialism.

Hobson’s theory

- Hobson levelled a devastating attack on the economic arguments put forward by protagonists of imperialism; Hobson himself was opposed to imperialism.

- he analysed British trade statistics geographically. Only a small proportion of British trade was with Africa and other areas seized in late 19th century; also, trade with these areas was not only least but also poorest and most uncertain. Therefore, imperialism did not make economic sense from a trade point of view.

- the same result was achieved when emigration was analysed regarding outlets for surplus population; most emigration was going to the U.S.A., the ‘white’ dominions and Argentina. Africa was especially hot, uncomfortable and unhealthy for Europeans and unlikely (outside of South Africa) to attract many emigrants.

- Hobson discredited other arguments (missions and Christianity; civilising mission, etc.) and then went on to provide what he regarded as the real explanation—

Capitalist Imperialism

- the real motive for imperialism, according to Hobson, was the need for profitable investment opportunities for surplus capital. Opportunities were not adequate at home.

- he provided two tables: one table showed a tremendous growth in the value of British overseas investments after 1870 (he gave no geographical breakdowns however); the second showed the additions in the area and population of the British Empire in the same period. His explicit thesis was that the additions to the empire were caused by the growth in overseas investments. As is well known, this is a commonly made fallacy in logic and reasoning; just because two events take place simultaneously does not mean that one caused the other or that the two are necessarily related in any way.

- however, he argued that the surplus savings and the need for investment opportunities were a result of a disequilibrium in the home economy.


- the underlying cause of everything he diagnosed as maldistribution of income—some people got too much income and others too little; this led to underconsumption and apparent overproduction.

- some people had large incomes but could only consume so much; a person can eat only so much beef steak or wear so many shoes. After satisfying their wants and needs, they saved the remainder of their income; this savings they wished to invest profitably.

- other people had small or no income and as a result were unable to buy very much even though they have a great many unmet needs.

- because of this separation of the ability to buy and unsatisfied needs, many products remain unsold (underconsumption and an ‘apparent’—though misleading—overproduction; it is not true overproduction in the sense that there was more than was needed).

- this creates a vicious circle: because of the seeming overproduction, companies are forced to lay off workers which further reduces consumption; moreover, because of unsold goods and price-cutting, companies are not profitable and are not expanding so savers lack profitable opportunities for investing their savings at home. As a result, investors increasingly looked abroad for profitable investment opportunities.

- this led to imperialism:

  1. if they invested in foreign areas and their investments became endangered by instability or bankruptcy, investors usually demanded that the government step in to save their investments (e.g., Egypt). This is the ‘Cat’s Paw’ argument. Financiers and capitalists were using gov’ts to pull their investment chestnuts out of the fire.
  2. many areas did not provide many profitable opportunities for investments unless annexed as colonies; then, after annexation, the new colonies required railways, ports, etc. (Hobson pointed out that railway investments in India were guaranteed 5% interest by the Indian and British gov’ts while investments and British government bonds at home paid 2-2 l/2 %).


- Hobson was a reform liberal and he felt that all this was curable and remediable; imperialism is both unnecessary and undesirable.

- redistribution of income was the cure and would break the vicious circle:

  1. raise wages of workers; this would increase consumption (because workers had lots of needs and would spend the extra wages) and reduce overproduction. This might also reduce the incomes of the rich somewhat and relieve the pressure of excess savings.
  2. raise taxes; this would again reduce excess savings and would allow increased services and social reform (education, etc.) which would provide employment and increased consumption.
  3. as consumption rises, overproduction would disappear, more workers would be hired, etc.; companies would become profitable again and as they needed to expand, profitable investment opportunities would again arise at home. A ‘virtuous’ circle would be created. Imperialism would no longer be necessary.

Imperialism is both undesirable and depraved

- Hobson gave a number of reasons, the most important of which were:

  1. almost all foreign investment was controlled by a very small number of financiers and capitalists; Hobson argued that almost every area of life and of the nation was being manipulated by this group for its own benefit.
  2. the financiers (the engineers on the imperialist train) were assisted (aided and abetted) by a number of ‘harpies’ (arms manufacturers, the military, aristocratic families who provided governors and colonial officials) who also benefited and had careers from imperialism.
  3. many groups and institutions were bought and corrupted by the above groups into supporting imperialism—the press, the schools, the churches, the gullible missionaries, professors, politicians.
  4. Hobson even argued that imperialism tended to revive deep-seated and primitive urges (“blood-lust”) which centuries of civilisation had been reducing. He compared imperialism to the Roman circuses. The newspapers wallowed in colonial wars and imperial ventures.
    - imperialism encouraged ‘jingoistic’ nationalism which provoked wars (Hobson was bitterly opposed to the South African War).
  5. all the nation was required to pay the very heavy costs of imperialism (wasted resources, higher taxes, lower standards of living, wars and lost lives) while only a few reaped the profits or the benefits.

2 Major Critical Flaws in Hobson’s argument

  1. Hobson made the same blunder that he accused others of making; he failed to break down the investment statistics geographically. When that is done, results are similar to trade statistics; i.e., most foreign investments were made in other European countries, in the U.S.A. and in the ‘white’ dominions; very little investment was being made in Africa and the other newly acquired colonies of the ‘new imperialism’.
  2. a relatively recent study of British overseas investments in the 1870-1914 period has contradicted Hobson’s assertions. This study claims that there were not huge amounts of savings being sent abroad. A substantial pool of overseas investment had built up by 1870; most of the increase in the value of overseas investments in the next 40 years or so was simply the effects of compounding, reinvestment of profits and increase in the value of assets held—not new savings.

- thus, it does not seem that the need for investment opportunities can be the ‘taproot’, the driving force of imperialism. However, Hobson’s interpretation included much more than just the economic factors—patriotism (nationalism) and ‘blood lust’. He argued that these were blind and inchoate until they were marshalled and directed towards specific objectives. That is what capitalists and their ‘harpy’ allies had done in imperialism. Thus, Hobson did not try to attribute everything to economic factors.

- the Marxist theories borrowed only part of Hobson’s argument and put forward a more simplistic and cruder argument.

Marxist Explanations

- these are important not just because of the interpretations of late 19th C imperialism but also because the arguments were used to explain why former colonial areas, especially in Africa, remained underdeveloped after independence—neo-colonialism and neo-imperiaisml arguments. Thus, they had a new lease on life after 1960.

- Lenin was not the first although Marx himself had little to say except that colonies could temporarily arrest the decline of profits and the collapse of capitalism; the ‘new imperialism’ was not anticipated by Marx.

- Marx argued that capitalism was like a junkie; it was hooked on profits and always needed more. The more it got the more it needed—an addiction. Profits from colonies provided a short term ‘fix’.

Rosa Luxembourg

- she tried to use the suggestion from Marx. Colonies represented a pre-capitalist economy; the biggest profits were made during the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist economies and the greater scope for exploiting labour in the earlier phase.

- thus, colonies in non-industrialized areas of the world represented a short-term palliative (a ‘fix’) for advanced capitalist European economies which were teetering on the brink of collapse.

- she emphasised trade as well as repatriated profits from colonies.

R. Hilferding and N. Bukharin

- Hilferding was an Austrian socialist who had developed the idea of finance capitalism with its monopolies, cartels, tariffs, etc.

- competition was very fierce in Europe; colonial annexations were a way of enlarging the protected markets, areas of cartels, monopolies, etc. Again, the emphasis was upon trade.

- in these explanations too, imperialism was only a temporary relief because once the entire world was divided up, capitalism would have to face the music and the inevitable collapse.

- Bukharin went on to argue that once all areas had been expropriated by some capitalist country, the capitalist countries would then try to redivide the world; once all territories were claimed, a country could only get more by taking colonies away form another country. This would lead to war and the Revolution.

V.I. Lenin

- Lenin brought these Marxist ideas together with Hobson’s analysis to produce his theory.

- he argued that imperialism was the final, monopoly stage of capitalism. Capitalism became capitalist imperialism only when it began to be transformed into its opposites; i.e., competition was being replaced by monopoly, cartels, etc.

- there were 5 essential features:

  1. Concentration of production and of capital developed to such a high stage that it created monopolies which became decisive in economic life.
  2. The merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation, on the basis of this ‘finance capital’, of a ‘financial oligarchy’.
  3. The export of capital as the most characteristic feature as distinguished from export of commodities.
  4. The formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves.
  5. The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers is completed.

Later Marxists and socialists (Leonard Woolf and others)

- they were concerned about continuing colonialism. Colonial powers in the post-1918 period were adopting policies of enhancing economic activity—‘la mise en valeur’ and the ‘Dual Mandate’ (we shall be discussing these in Hist. 317).

- this could easily lead to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (because something existed afterwards, it must have been a cause). The colonial powers were trying to develop the economic potential of the colonies; therefore, that is why annexed them in the first place. This was not necessarily so; colonies were expensive and the imperial governments may just have been trying to get revenue to pay the expenses, especially because all European governments were heavily indebted after World War 1.

- since 1945 and decolonisation, many Marxists have tried to keep the argument going by talking about neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism.

Problems with Economic Explanations

A. Capitalist Imperialism

  1. Investment capital did not in fact go in large quantities to colonies annexed in the ‘new imperialism’.

  2. ‘Cat’s paw’ Argument (i.e., that capitalist investors used governments to salvage endangered investments; thus governments were the servants of the capitalist imperialists). There are cases where this argument is plausible (Egypt is the best example). However, there are other examples where the opposite is true; governments sometimes encouraged (almost coerced) bankers and capitalists to make investments in order to give the government an excuse and justification for intervention (both France and Germany were doing this in Morocco during the period of the two Moroccan crises in the 1st decade of the 20th C).

  3. ‘Monopoly Stage’—many Marxist arguments emphasise the development of monopolies, cartels, trusts, and tariffs. These developments arose primarily in Germany and the U.S.A.; they were not a prominent feature in France and were almost totally absent from Britain, the two most vigorous imperialist powers in the period! In fact, the amount of colonies acquired is almost opposite to the degree of these ‘monopoly’ elements.

  4. Lenin and later Marxists redefined ‘imperialism’ to make it a further and unique stage of capitalism. This carries the assertion that the late 19th century empire expansionism was entirely different from any previous forms of expansionism (there had never been imperialism before); i.e., late 19th century expansionism had nothing in common with earlier empires or empire building. But, is the ‘new imperialism’ really so totally new and different from all other empires and expansionism?

  5. Relative interest rates—Hobson argued that higher foreign investment returns were a proof of the push of capitalist investors for profitable investment returns. This argument can be turned around; the higher rates represent the need for incentives to persuade investors to send their money abroad. Thus, rather than investors pushing for overseas investments, they in fact have to be cajoled and bribed into making such investments.

  6. Theoretical overkill—Marxist determinism insists that everything must be explained by economic factors; usually they start with the explanation (‘hypothesis’) and their ‘studies’ are not genuine attempts to test the hypothesis against the facts but merely to find the facts which fit their hypothesis (contrary facts frequently are ignored or dismissed as ‘illusory’). This is like Cinderella’s stepsisters who cut their feet to fit the shoe! Even when they do have valid evidence, they frequently tend to demand too much; thus, the economic element cannot be a factor, it must be the factor. While investments may have been a factor in some instances, it does not seem, in most cases, to be the only factor or even the most important factor.

  7. Link between imperialism and World War I—Lenin especially argued that the war was a direct and logical outcome of imperialism. As we noted, Bukharin and others had argued that the war would come as a result of attempts to ‘repartition’ the world. Most non-Marxist historians reject this connection and argue that imperialism was always a peripheral matter; although passions sometimes ran very high, in the final analysis, Europeans had not been willing to go to war with each other over colonies. Also, the two nations which had shown the most hostility to one another in the imperialist scramble and which had come closest to war (the Fashoda incident in 1898), were Britain and France; yet by 1903, these two had begun to compose their differences and when war came, they fought as allies. The colonies were not a significant issue in the outbreak of war in 1914 and the validity of the theory of capitalist imperialism is severely undermined.

B. Hobson and the South African War

- for Hobson, the South African War was a prime example of the baneful effects of imperialism; he felt that Britain had been manipulated by Rhodes and other capitalists into fighting a costly, unjust war in order to increase the profits of the capitalists.

- the war is often depicted as a simple grab for the gold of the South African Republic; it is depicted as a greedy John Bull who ignored the area until the discovery of gold and then deliberately provoked a war with the poor, helpless Boers. It was equated to Cortes, Pizarro and Spanish conquistadors.

- especially we want to look at Cecil Rhodes; he was a quintessential capitalist and the outstanding imperialist of his day.

Key Question:

Were Rhodes’ imperialist activities merely a smoke screen behind which he was carrying out his ‘real’ activities—making money?


Was money-making primarily a means he used in order to pursue his imperialist activities?

Which was end and which was means?

- put another way: What were Rhodes’ primary motives—money making or empire building? Hobson, Lenin, et. al. are quite certain that his imperialist activities were primarily a smokescreen for his money-making, capitalist priorities.

- in fact the opposite seems to be true. Rhodes was first and foremost an imperialist and Anglo-Saxon racist; he wanted to see Anglo-Saxon world hegemony. See Rhodes’ “Confession of Faith”.

- his capitalist ventures were a means to pursue these aims (wealth gave power; his companies could sometimes be used to carry out expansion when the British government refused to do anything).

  1. Rhodes was not interested in money for itself (he lived simply; he frequently had to borrow cash); he was not interested in a financial economic empire (he left financial aspects and running of his companies to other people). He was very late in getting into gold mining; in fact, he had only a relatively modest role in gold-mining in Transvaal.

  2. See this statement of Rhodes’ motives in 1877 (John Flint, Cecil Rhodes:, pp. 32-3)

    “At the ripe age of twenty-four Rhodes drafted his first will on September 19, 1877, bequeathing his then nonexistent fortune, according to the first clause

    To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holly Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.”

Alfred Milner

- this was the man who really stage managed the South African War in 1899. He had been appointed governor-general in the Cape Colony after the Jameson Raid; he was not a capitalist nor a tool of the capitalists.

- in fact, he was very distrustful of the capitalists; all they were interested in was making money and he believed that they were quite prepared to sell out the flag and the empire and to accept a United States of South Africa outside the British Empire if they were allowed to increase their profits. While Milner included the complaints of the capitalists among the ‘uitlander’ grievances, those grievances were not why he provoked the war with the South African Republic.

- Milner believed that the Empire was threatened with disintegration if the dominions continued to evolve towards independence. In South Africa, imperialism (British nationalism) and Boer (Afrikaner) nationalism were struggling for domination; if Boer nationalism won, not only would South Africa be wrested from the British Empire but also people in Canada and the other dominions would be convinced that British citizenship and being part of the Empire was not worthwhile and was being lost in any case. Thus, the imperial federation movement and cause, of which he was a fervent supporter and of which he subsequently became the leader (The Round Table association), would lose. Thus, Milner’s motivation was to defeat Boer nationalism in order to keep South Africa in the Empire and thus to halt and even reverse the disintegration of the Empire.

Other Explanations

A Informal Empire vs Formal Empire

- this is really an economic argument that was put forward in 1953 by R. Robinson and J. Gallagher in “The Imperialism of Free Trade.”

- historians before then had emphasised that the 1st half or so of the 19th C had been the ‘Little England Era’ in which most British politicians were pessimistic and negative about colonies. There had been the experience of the American colonies breaking away; then the rebellions in the Canadas in 1837 plus the demands for responsible government led many to the conclusion that like fruit, colonies matured and dropped off the imperial tree. Benjamin Disraeli declared in 1852 that “these wretched colonies will all be independent in a few years, and are a millstone round our neck.”

- Adam Smith had declared that colonies were a very bad idea and all colonies should be gotten rid of as soon as possible; many proponents of laisser-faire had continued to voice similar views. As a result, it was considered that free trade was anti-imperialist.

- however, G. and R. pointed out that not one colony had been disannexed during the so-called Little England era (i. e., from about 1820-1860s; enthusiasm for empire had begun to revive some time after 1850—different historians gave slightly different dates) while there were some additions to the empire (New Zealand, additional territories in India and South Africa). Nevertheless, when compared to the vast new accessions to the empire after 1870, there had not been a great deal of additions to the empire.

- G. and R. argued that this was too narrow a way of looking at empire—i.e., the formal empire. They argued that historians should look at the informal empire as well. Because of the industrial revolution, Britain had gained an enormous advantage in producing manufactured goods for trade; as a result, it came to dominate trade. Even rivals such as the Portuguese tended to use British goods. This was particularly true in Africa. This dependence on British trade goods created an informal empire of trade. If the British were getting most of the benefits of dominant trade in the informal empire, why bother with all the headaches and expense of annexing these areas into the formal empire of colonies. Let local rulers or others, such as the Portuguese, have all the trouble of governing. The British during this period did force a number of areas to open themselves to trade (Siam, China, etc.) and thus, they continued to expand the informal empire; they did not even demand exclusive access because they knew that under free trade, Britain got most of the trade. Moreover, the British did tend to support what were virtual clients—the Portuguese and the Omani Arabs in Zanzibar.

- they went on to argue that by the late 19th C, informal empire was no longer working. Industrial rivals, in the US and Germany especially, were beginning to catch up so the cost advantages were disappearing. Also, as other countries began to claim territories in Africa, British trade began to be shut out. At first, they tried to ensure that free trade remained in effect. Leopold had promised this when his claims in the Congo were recognised; however, this promise was not kept and the biggest losers, because they had had a high proportion of the trade of the Congo River basin, were the British. Similarly, France abandoned free trade in 1879 and began to erect tariff and trade barriers which again affected the British more than anyone else. Reluctantly, the British were compelled to begin annexing territories into the formal empire in order to preserve their trade; in fact, they were careful to preserve the best areas in Nigeria and the Gold Coast.

- thus, G. and R. argued that there was much more continuity in British policies than had been recognised by earlier historians. The Little England era had not really been a period of anti-imperialism; instead, because of circumstances, formal empire had been unnecessary and the British had been able to pursue their expansionism in an informal manner and thus could enjoy the economic benefits of empire while avoiding the trouble and expense of formal empire. As circumstances changed in the fourth quarter of the century, it again became necessary to return to formal empire approaches. In fact, for Britain, the burst of acquisitions at the end of the 19th C was just a process of converting parts of the informal empire into formal empire.


- this argument seems to work best with West Africa in Nigeria and the Gold Coast. It might work a bit in East Africa where British interests (British trading firms and Indian financial families) dominated in Zanzibar and with the Swahili traders. While the Germans took Tanganyika, the British did eventually declare a protectorate over Zanzibar. However, it does not seem to fit elsewhere in Africa.

- the argument was very influential for a long time. However, it too depends upon trade as the great motivation, and as Hobson pointed out, the quantity and quality of trade in Africa makes that seem rather dubious.

B The Man on the Spot

- this is a category of explanation which looks at the periphery for an explanation rather than to the metropole in Europe.

- J. S. Galbraith put forward a version of this in Reluctant Empire. He argued that an unstable and ‘turbulent’ frontier caused local officials in frustration to try to ‘solve’ the problem by annexing the area, even when they were under orders not to do that. He used this idea to explain how Britain, in spite of great reluctance in the British gov’t, kept adding to its possessions in South Africa in the 19th C. [He also used this theory to explain how the British East India Company and later the British government came to control the Indian sub-continent over the 18th and 19th Cs.]

- however, in the 1860s and after, enthusiasts for expansion of empire began to appear in increasing numbers in Africa. These imperialist were devoting their lives to this purpose and were often prepared to do everything they could to force the hands of their governments in annexing territories for colonies.

- ‘Chinese’ Gordon in Sudan is a good example. His motive seems to have been to force the British gov’t to assume responsibility for the Sudan in order to suppress the slave trade which had flared up there. He had been ordered to withdraw the Egyptian forces from the Sudan in the face of the rebellion and jihad led by the Mahdi. Gordon refused, believing (correctly) that his popularity was so great that Gladstone’s gov’t would be forced by public opinion to send forces into the Sudan to rescue him. Gordon was killed shortly before the rescue mission could reach him and the British withdrew from the Sudan anyway until 1898.

- there was a large crop of these men:

- there were similar enthusiasts for imperial expansion from other countries also. Karl Peters, a German, kept turning up at various points in Africa, often ostensibly to start trading activities, but also attempting to further German colonial expansion. The French explorer, de Brazza, acquainted some French officials of what Leopold was up to; he in turn went on a tour north of the Congo River collecting treaties of friendship from chiefs in the area. These treaties were used to rouse public interest and to force the French government to annex these areas.

- moreover, military officers were looking for ways to get promotions during a prolonged period of peace; little colonial wars were seen as ideal. If one got noticed and mentioned in military or press dispatches, then that officer had a big advantage over others who did not. It has been argued that military officers at times seized on minor border incidents, etc. to help start little wars. This is especially true of the French in West Africa, some of it beginning in Senegal in the 1860’s, even before the scramble.

C Militarism

- it has been argued that militarism was sometimes a factor. Colonies were a justification for larger military establishments and budgets; this has been put forward especially as one explanation for Bismarck’s sudden change of policy regarding colonies for Germany in 1884.

D Strategic Military Concerns

- Gallagher and Robinson (with Alice Denny) in their Africa and the Victorians (1961) argued that it was strategic concerns that explain most of Britain’s colonial acquisitions in Africa during the scramble. This book was based mostly upon documents in the Colonial and Foreign Offices in London. On this evidence, they argue that British governments were not interested in Africa for itself; the real fixation was on India and British interests in the East. Africa gained importance primarily because of the need to protect the sea routes to East; these concerns focused on the Suez Canal and the naval station just outside Cape Town in South Africa.

- it was to protect these 2 strategic interests that Britain annexed adjacent areas in north eastern and east Africa and in southern Africa. The threat to the Suez Canal caused the British to intervene in Egypt to suppress the revolt of the Egyptian army officers in 1882. Normally, it was the appearance of a European rival that brought a British response. For example, the British did not regard the Mahdi and his forces in the Sudan as a significant threat to their position in Egypt. However, in 1898 when the French sent a very small force across to Fashoda on the upper Nile, the British immediately sent a large Anglo-Egyptian expedition up the Nile to conquer the Sudan.

- because the Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt, G. and R. argue that the British were concerned to ensure that no European rival controlled the upper Nile. However, the Nile has its source in Lake Victoria. For this reason, the British felt the need to control Uganda. However, practically, the only way to get to Uganda was from the coast of east Africa—Kenya. Thus, all these acquisitions arose from the preoccupation with controlling the Suez Canal.

- in spite of the Suez Canal, the older route around the Cape of Good Hope was still regarded as a vital interest and the naval station at Simonstown was also essential. In spite of the great reluctance of British gov’ts in the earlier 19th C to acquire more territory, any threat brought a swift response. When the Voortrekkers going into Natal appeared to be attempting to open contacts with the Netherlands, the British quickly intervened and annexed Natal. In the 1880s, both missionaries and imperialists such as Rhodes (for different reasons) were attempting to get Britain to annex Bechuanaland where Boers were moving in. Britain was refusing, until Germany claimed South West Africa in 1884. Very quickly after this profound shock, Britain did annex Bechuanaland, although it subsequently turned the southern portion over to the Cape Colony.

- Gallagher and Robinson go on to argue that the granting of the royal charter to Rhodes’ BSA Company and allowing the company to acquire vast territories in central Africa was primarily to forestall further German expansion in the hinterland.

- it can be further argued that this was a major factor in pushing for war with the South African Republic. The SAR was growing rapidly in wealth and population; not only was the SAR developing much closer ties with Germany, but Afrikaner nationalism was threatening to undermine the British position by creating a United States of South Africa. Britain might lose its naval station at Simonstown.

- Gallagher and Robinson also tried to apply their strategic argument to west Africa by arguing that the sea lanes also passed along the coast. However, this part of the argument is completely unconvincing. [As noted above, the ‘informal empire’ argument appears more plausible than this strategic argument for west African acquisitions.]

E World Power Status

- this explanation for imperialism, in my view, explains more of the ‘new imperialism’ than the economic factors.

- before the end of the 19th C, there was a growing concern in a number of European countries, a concern that there was an entirely larger scale of national-state about to emerge.

- in the 19th C, there was the concept of ‘great powers’; these powers made the important decisions and smaller, ‘second rate’ powers were expected and compelled to accept those decisions. By the end of the century, the unifications of Germany and Italy had created a club of 6 ‘great powers’ in Europe (Britain, Germany France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy—Italy was admitted more as a courtesy than as a reality); the U.S. clearly belonged but it remained mostly aloof and isolationist from Europe.

- however, a whole new scale of national state was clearly on the horizon for the 20th C—Russia and the U.S. These had larger populations (over 100 million each—Britain a little over 40 million, France about 60 million, Germany over 60 million) and enormous resources; they were in fact continental powers. Russia had always been larger than other European states, but the size had been offset by the fact that Russia was also very backward in industrial terms and thus in military terms also. However, by the 1890s, although still behind other parts of northern Europe, Russia was beginning to industrialise. As it caught up industrially, Russia’s size would begin to have its impact in terms of power. The label for these new, larger entities was ‘world powers’.

- the problem nagging people in Germany, Britain and France was how would they get the additional resources—i.e., like poker chips—to remain in the game. They were threatened with being reduced to ‘second class or second rate’ status. If you want to understand the frenzy for acquiring empire in the late 19th C, these concerns were probably more important than anything else; colonies were believed to provide extra resources, human and material, to keep European great powers in the game of world powers.

- recall that social darwinism was becoming dominant as a theory and was applied to international relationships; that is, nations and races were in perpetual struggle and nations either grew and expanded or they contracted and perhaps disappeared as they were gobbled up.

- the problem was this: How could the other ‘great powers’ (excluding Russia) remain in the game when the game moved to this next higher level of ‘world power’?

- in Britain, these questions led directly to imperialism. It was noted that Britain was small and had always been small. Its success and stature had been, it was argued, a result of its success in creating an empire. [Whether or not this is true is questionable and a subject of a good deal of debate, but it was declared to be true by John Seeley in his book, The Expansion of England, and widely accepted.]

- it was argued that empire was the only way Britain could avoid declining into second rate status in the future. As a result, the imperialist movement set out to do 2 things:

  1. Halt the gradual disintegration of the Empire. The imperial federation movement set out to reverse the slide towards independence in the Dominions—Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (the colonies of settlement had large numbers of emigrants from Britain and their descendants). If these dominions could be tied closely in a federation, their human and material resources would add to national power.

  2. Acquire more colonies. These would help to provide ‘chips’ to enable Britain to remain an equal member and become a ‘world power’ too.

- France had a similar concern. France had long been (except for Russia) the largest power in Europe until the creation of Germany. Not only was the German population larger, but because of faster population growth, it was pulling ahead continually. As a result, empire was seen as the means of catching up and keeping up with Germany.

- Germany was concerned because Russia was its neighbour to the east and it was necessary to keep up. It was in the 1890s that German social darwinist and political geographer coined the term ‘lebensraum’— living space; i.e., this was the land that was necessary for the ‘German nation’ to continue to grow and expand.

Where was this ‘living space’ to be found? Two schools emerged in Germany.

  1. Colonies—this school of thinking was equivalent to the British and French drive for colonies. Nationalists also saw a colonial empire as necessary to enable Germany to ‘keep up with the Jones’ as a great power. Germany deserved a ‘place in the sun’ alongside of the other colonial powers.

    - some of these proponents had grandiose ideas that rivalled the megalomania of Rhodes. There was a proposal to create a vast MittelAfrika by acquiring all the territory to join up the 3 main German colonies in Africa—Kamerum, East Africa and South West Africa. It was part of this scheme which brought the German foreign minister, Caprivi, to negotiate the strip of land projecting east from the north-eastern corner of South West Africa—the Caprivi Strip.

  2. Expansion in Europe. This school looked especially to eastern Europe as a place to find agricultural land; this would allow expansion of German farmers who were seen as the backbone of the German ‘race’.

    - this school of thought recognised that seizing land in Europe could only be achieved as a result of successful war and some, the Pan-German League in particular, began to advocate taking advantage of any favourable opportunity to launch a war in order to acquire ‘lebensraum’.

    - this school also advocated the creation of MittelEuropa. According to this idea, Germany would make itself the dominant power in the middle of Europe with other states being absorbed or becoming subordinate economically. Areas where there were substantial numbers of people of Germanic background (the Netherlands, Flemish Belgium, Austria, etc.) would become part of the German Empire. Other areas would become economic satellites. France would have to be reduced (perhaps take advantage of any war to annex the industrial north-eastern corner) to the point where it would become an economic satellite and a shadow of its former power and standing.This, plus the ‘lebensraum’ to be seized in the east, would give Germany the scale to join the ranks of world powers.

    - we are not too concerned here with this aspect, although it can be argued that preoccupation with pursuing this 2nd aspect was a major factor in the two world wars.

- for Italy, the concern was to reinforce its claim to be a ‘great power’, something which many politicians and leaders in Europe were still inclined to question. Thus, Italy’s efforts to acquire colonies were an attempt to demonstrate that it did indeed belong to the club of ‘great powers’.

- Belgium, however, does not fit into this explanation. There is no evidence that Belgium had any pretensions to ‘great power’ status let alone ‘world power’. In fact, there was no real desire to be involved in colonial activities by the Belgian government or people at all. Leopold had acquired the Congo on his own; the Belgian government took over the Congo only as a result of international pressure because of the horrendous atrocities that had been occurring in the Congo Free State. In effect, the international community declared, “He’s your king so you have to take responsibility.” The government bought out Leopold and took control of the Congo.

- there are other explanations and theories, but these are the main ones. The phenomena that we group under the heading of ‘imperialism’ are complex; it does not seem likely that any one theory can embrace and explain all aspects. Thus, we probably need to make use of a number of theories.

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