This section is a draft.
The Seven Years War between France and Great Britain as the first world war. That is, the first world-wide confrontation between these two European powers. They were fighting in Europe itself but also in North America and in India.
Relations between the European governments and the settlers were not always the best. South America as a case in point. Spain tried to keep some order in the empire, and avoid the most obvious excesses, but the conquistadors were often scornful of these policies. They had established themselves on top of the hierarchical social pyramid as a new ruling class. They had no particular interest in the introduction of new technologies, or new industry, the economy was working well for them. They did, however, resent what they regarded as meddling from Spain. They gradually developed more of a sense of separateness and community. When Spain was occupied by Napoleon, they saw an opportunity to assert themselves. How the colonies in Latin America became independent in the 1820s.
Something similar happened in North America. In the American south the Europeans had established themselves as the rulers of an enslaved working class. They sold cotton to a world market and had little interest in economic change. What they did want, however, was the right to govern their own affairs. The settlers in New England and the planters in Virginia and the Carolinas thought much the same. They declared independence from Great Britain in 1776.
As a result, at the end of the eighteenth-century there was not all that much left of European colonies overseas. There were trading posts above all, such as in Canada with the lucrative fur trade, and Europeans were trading with Africa for gold and palm oil and, until 1806, slaves. The English East India Company was also making rapid advances in India. The Spaniards were still in the Philippines and the Dutch were in Indonesia, but the economic role of these possessions had declined precipitously. Australia was still known as “New Holland.”
By the early nineteenth-century European imperialism largely seemed a thing of the past. People in Britain would look back wistfully on the days when they had had an empire. And yet, one hundred years later, at the time of the First World War, next to all of the world came to be in European hands.[Read more: The countries that never were colonized] In order to understand this rather surprising development, we must understand the changes that were taking place in Europe itself.
At the end of the eighteenth-century, new ways of manufacturing goods were invented which made use of machines powered by steam, and later by electricity, and which relied on large-scale production in factories. As a result of this so called “industrial revolution,” it was suddenly possible for the Europeans to produce many more goods and to do it far more efficiently. Before long cheap, mass-produced, goods were flooding Europe and the Europeans began to look for new markets overseas. They also needed raw material for their factories — raw material which in many cases only could be found outside of Europe. These economic imperatives meant that the Europeans took a renewed interest in the world, and this time it was the British who took the lead. It was in Britain that the industrial revolution had started and the British also had a navy which was second to none. The British soon established commercial outposts from Canada to South Africa and Australia, but it was India that became its most important colony. The commercial outposts and colonial settlements soon grew in size as the British sought to protect their investments by means of military intervention. This is how Britain, step by step, came to acquire a world-wide empire. A British historian once claimed that the British had acquired their empire “in a fit of absent-mindedness.” This is an exaggeration, but it points to the fact that there was no grand master plan to take over the rest of the world. Rather, one step let to another, and they were all guided by what was regarded as economic imperatives.
How the Europeans changed their view of Europe, almost over night. People in Asia were now found to be “stagnant” or as “having no history.” By contrast, the Europeans were progressing fast. European societies developed and changed quickly. Much of this change was due to manufacturing and trade, to the Industrial Revolution.
Europeans saw themselves as different and special and separate. They were all part of this momentous change, partners in progress. Everyone else was excluded. It was the fact that others were excluded which made their community possible. It is just like the logic of a membership club.
The quest for markets. Free trade liberalism. Radical expansion of communications networks. International trade. Overproduction in Europe. They needed someone to sell to — 350 million people in China. The free trade doctrine would back it all up.
As a result of the industrial revolution, and all the new technical inventions, the Europeans also had an entirely different way of imposing their will. The industrial machinery had a secondary use in warfare.
The Opium Wars. Imperialism in China. The end of the Chinese internaitonal system.
During the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century there was a new form of competition between European powers. Germany and Italy are unified. There was a war between France and Germany in 1870-71, which the Germans won, and after that Germany seemed to be on the rise. They are expanding economically. Berlin is the new capital. The Germans and Italians are trying to catch up with the other European powers when it comes to competition in the colonies. To be a major player in international politics you have to have colonies. There was a “scramble for Africa.” The Berlin Conference of 1885. This was actually a very civilized way of dividing the continent, making sure that no unseemly mess ensued. The Europeans were very proud of themselves.[Read more: The Berlin Conference]
Towards the end of the end of the nineteenth-century, other European countries joined in this scramble for colonies, not least in Africa. Colonial possessions became a symbol of great-power status, and the new European nation-states often proved themselves to be very aggressive colonizers. France added West Africa and Indochina to its growing empire, and Germans and Italians too joined the race once their respective countries were unified. Meanwhile the Russians pushed into Central Asia and the United States pushed westward across the great North American plains towards the Pacific Ocean. This is how it happened that, by the time of the First World War, most parts of the world were in European hands. There were some scattered exceptions to this rule — China, Japan, Siam, Persia, but also Ethiopia and Nepal — but in these ostensibly independent countries too the Europeans had a very strong presence.
But continued weakness well into the nineteenth century. How the British empire was like an oak tree planted in a pot. The branches were simply to big for the root system. The British had overextended themselves. The locals were able to capture them. There were actually a number of defeats. The Europeans were not necessarily militarily superior prior to the 1850s. There were endless wars in Afghanistan, the Asante wars, wars in Burma. The most spectacular defeat may indeed have been the one in Kabul in 1848.
The new form of racism. The end of Enlightenment ideas. “Scientific” racism backed up by a perverted form of Darwinism. The wholesale destruction of non-European communities — Tasmanians, Tierra del Fuego, genocide on the Herero. [Read more: The Herero genocide]
The apogee of imperialism in the two decades before the First World War. It is worth remembering how short the period of full-fledged imperialism actually was. How shallow the penetration of non-European societies actually was.