European expansion

The apotheosis of colonialism

As a result of the industrial revolution, and the relentless pace of economic development it unleashed, the Europeans gained a new sense of self-confidence. This radically changed their view of the rest of the world, and of Asia in particular. From the first faltering contacts in the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century, the Europeans had admired and looked up to Asia. However, in the first part of the nineteenth century, next to overnight, Asia became an object of scorn. The problem, more than anything, was that Asia had failed to develop in the European fashion. Asia had missed out on the industrial revolution. A country like China, the Europeans now decided, was “stagnant” and “stuck in the past”; it made no progress and could as a result not be said to have a proper history. In order to give the semblance of scientific validity to such claims, many Europeans made references to biology. Misreading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, 1859, they decided that the different “races” of the world were locked in an inescapable struggle. The Europeans had proven themselves superior and thus deserved to rule over all others. The “inferior races” were to be their servants, and the least developed people of all would come to be destroyed. Such was the logic of human history. To help history along, the Europeans carried out genocides against the people of Tasmania, Tierra del Fuego, the Herero people of Namibia, and many others.

The nineteenth century had, as far as European history goes, been quite peaceful. There were some wars to be sure, but nothing like the wholesale destruction that was to take place in the twentieth century. In the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century, however, the mood began to change. A more aggressive form of nationalism emerged, and one country after another began looking for ways to assert themselves. Italy was united in 1861 and Germany in 1871. Both countries — Germany in particular — were on the rise, and they wanted a bigger role, and a bigger say, in world affairs. One way for a country to assert itself was to acquire colonies. Colonial possessions became a symbol of great-power status, and the new European nation-states often proved themselves to be very aggressive colonizers.

It was now that Africa for the first time came into focus as a continent to explore and exploit. The Europeans had been trading with Africa since the fifteenth century, but, much as in Asia, their presence had been limited to small trading ports along the coast. The only exception was the southernmost part of the continent where Dutch farmers had settled. Meanwhile, the Europeans knew nothing whatsoever about the inner parts of the continent. This gradually changed in the course of the nineteenth century as European adventurers and missionaries went on voyages through the jungles, often supported by “national geographical societies” in their respective home countries. In their footsteps came agents of large trading companies, European soldiers, settlers and colonizers. The Europeans found gold and ivory, but also diamonds and copper, palm oil, cocoa, bananas, and other colonial produce. There was plenty of money to be made in getting these products back to markets in Europe. As a result, Africa came, little by little, to be divided up. Although the African kingdoms often defended themselves successfully, the Europeans always returned with larger and more powerful armies. It was in order to regulate this “scramble for Africa” that all countries with colonial aspirations met at a conference in Berlin in 1884. The meeting, by all accounts, was a very civilized affair. The participants gathered around a large map of Africa and divided the various territories between themselves. Elsewhere in the world, the French added Indochina to its growing empire, and Britain occupied Burma and Malaya. Meanwhile, the Russians moved 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 under European control or control by European settler societies. There were some scattered exceptions to this rule, but in these ostensibly independent countries too the Europeans had a strong presence.

When we today think of the colonial era, it is generally this second burst of colonial expansion that we have in mind. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Europeans really did come to rule next to all of the rest of the world. Their methods were often ruthless and exploitative. There were many wars and the occasional genocide. The atrocities were backed up by ideas of European superiority based in the alleged science of race biology. At the same time, we should remember that the apogee of colonialism only lasted for about fifty years. In terms of world history, this is nothing but a short parenthesis. Already in 1914, by the time of the First World War, the Europeans found themselves busy with other matters, and in 1945, by the end of the Second World War, colonial empires were an anachronism. Europe was devastated by the two world wars and colonies had become an expensive luxury. Things were once again about to change.

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