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The Race for Empire 1870-1914

While the peoples of the West were concerned with the problems that grew out of industrialization, their governments were taking part in one of the greatest land grabs in history. By the end of the nineteenth century they had brought within their grasp most of the earth’s land surface and half its inhabitants. This development created new empires and enlarged old ones, it was called imperialism.

Imperialism came about in many ways, from armed invasions to polite talks that led native rulers to place their countries under the protection of an imperialist power. It took many forms, from colonies which one power ruled outright, to “spheres of influence,” in which one power enjoyed rights, particularly trading rights, denied to other powers. So, it arose from many causes — economic, political and cultural.

Empire-building was not new; it was as old as civilization. In ancient times, the Romans had built a vast empire that ruled peoples in Europe, Asia and Africa. In the fifteenth century, European nations had colonized the Americas and conquered the Indians. Elsewhere they had not challenged native rulers, being content to set up trading posts, where they bought native wares for resale at home.

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, most of British North America became independent, as did the United States. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, almost all of Latin America won its freedom from Spain and Portugal. During the next half-century, while industry went through its first slow stage of growth, goods circulated freely throughout the world and governments cared little about building up their empires. The French, to be sure, occupied Algeria, the British strengthened their hold on India, the Dutch developed the East Indies and the western powers, including the United States, opened Japan to trade and started to penetrate China. The powers made no great effort to enlarge their overseas domains.

About 1870, a change set in. Industrialists demanded that their governments protect them with tariffs. Soon, of all the powers of first rank, only Great Britain remained true to free trade and the doctrine that goods should be allowed to cross frontiers without being taxed. In the other industrial countries, tariffs encouraged industry to grow, but at the same time made it harder for manufacturers in any one country to sell their products in the others. Even though the demand for goods in each country kept growing along with its population and wealth, businessmen still had more goods to sell than their countrymen could buy. They began to look to lands outside Europe for customers.

Furthermore, manufacturers everywhere wanted to be sure of getting raw materials when they needed them and in large enough quantities. They and the other businessmen who had grown rich from industry were also eager for opportunities to invest their spare cash in ventures which would bring them bigger profits than their investments at home, at the lowest possible risk. So governments were under pressure to take over undeveloped lands and safeguard them with soldiers. Before long, a race for empire was under way among the great powers.


In this race, the leaders were the foremost industrial powers — Great Britain, France and Germany. The first two, already possessing empires, had a head start on the third. Behind the leaders came three old colonial powers, Spain, Portugal, Holland and a small new industrial power, Belgium. Last to enter the race were two newly industrialized countries, Italy, Japan and the United States.

The imperialist race began as a contest for a greater share of the world market. Quite soon, however, economic rivalry got mixed up with political rivalry. It came to be a matter of prestige, involving the pride of its citizens, for a power to possess land overseas, even if that land was nothing but barren mountains or desert. Many empires, in fact, cost far more to maintain than they yielded in profits.

Taking over land meant taking over the people who lived there and this disturbed some Europeans. Was it right, they asked, to conquer natives, armed only with spears and blowguns, then force them to clear and till plantations, build railways and dig mines — all for the enrichment of investors? To this question, imperialists had a ready answer: imperialism, they said, brought the benefits of civilization to backward peoples. This argument found favour not only with the rich, who stood to profit by imperialism, but among Europeans of all classes. Leading churchmen, teachers and writers championed the civilizing mission of imperialism as a duty which Christians should gladly undertake and millions of ordinary people agreed. To them, imperialism was a kind of crusade in the name of Christianity, civilization and country. This view came to be summed up in the phrase “the White Man’s burden,” from a famous poem by the ardently imperialistic English writer Rudyard Kipling:

Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your son to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild –

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.


Among the imperialist powers, Great Britain came out the biggest winner when the First World War brought the international race for empires to a stop. By 1914, world maps showed a full quarter of the earth’s land surface in red, meaning that it was British. Twenty billion dollars of British money, a quarter of the nation’s wealth, was invested overseas.

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