Empire building is an old theme in world history. Societies have sought to dominate weaker neighbors as long ago as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, all the way through to the present. Motivations have been similar - to obtain natural resources, to subdue enemies, to accrue wealth, to win power and glory - but until the rise of the west, most empires have expanded to territories next to their borders. With the combination of sea power, centralized governments, and industrialized economies, European nations set out to build empires all over the world, like none that had been seen before. They were driven by the need to provide raw materials for their industrial capacity, and the types of goods exchanged were determined by that need.


Europeans began building their empires in the western hemisphere in the early 1500s, but by the 1800s, Spain and Portugal were no longer powerful countries, and the largest British colony had become the United States. Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands continued to colonize during this era, but they also devised other ways to spread their empires. In the late 19th century Japan and the United States joined the European nations as an imperialist power.

Types of imperialism in the 1800s included:

  • Colonial imperialism - This form of imperialism is virtual complete takeover of an area, with domination in all areas: economic, political, and socio-cultural. The subjugated area existed to benefit the imperialist power, and had almost no independence of action. In this era, almost all of Africa and southern and southeast Asia were colonized.
  • Economic imperialism - This form of imperialism allowed the area to operate as its own nation, but the imperialist nation almost completely controlled its trade and other business. For example, it may impose regulations that forbid trade with other nations, or imperialist companies may own or have exclusive rights to its natural resources. During this era, China and most of Latin America were subjected to economic imperialism.
  • Political imperialism - Although a country may have had its own government with natives in top political positions, it operated as the imperialist country told it to. The government was sometimes a relatively permanent "puppet government," as happened in late Qing China, and other times the control was temporary, as occurred in the Dominican Republic when the United States ran its government until it got out of debt.
  • Socio-cultural imperialism - The dominating country deliberately tried to change customs, religions and languages in some of the countries. A good example was British India, where English was taught in schools, Indian soldiers dressed British-style, and western trading rules were set up. Generally, the imperialist countries assumed their cultures to be superior, and often times they saw themselves as bringing about improvements in the society.


Between 1450 and 1750 Europeans traded with Africa, but they set up very few colonies. By 1850, only a few colonies existed along African coastlines, such as Algeria (French), the Cape Colony (Great Britain,) and Angola (Portugal). Instead, free African states continued, and after the end of the slave trade in the early 1800s, a lively exchange took place between Europeans and African states, such as the Sokoto Caliphate in western Africa and Egypt and Ethiopia in northeast Africa. They traded manufactured goods for gold, ivory, palm oil (a substance used in soap, candles, and lubricants). Under the leadership of Muhammad Aliž and his grandson Ismailž Egypt grew to be the strongest Muslim state of the 19th century, producing cotton for export and employing western technology and business methods. They benefited from the American Civil War, when cotton shipments from the southern U.S. were cut off, but the Egyptian cotton market collapsed after American shipments resumed after the Civil War was over.

In the latter half of the 19th century, dramatic changes occurred, as Europeans began to explore Africa's interior, and by 1914, virtually the entire continent was colonized by one or the other of the competing European countries. European imperialists built on the information provided by adventurers and missionaries, especially the famous Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Stanley. Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, went to Africa in the 1840s and spent three decades exploring the interior of Africa and setting up missionary outposts all the way from central Africa to the Cape Colony on the southern tip. When people in Britain lost contact with Livingstone, journalist Henry Stanley became a news sensation when he traveled to Africa and found Livingstone. The two sparked interest in Africa and others followed, including the imperialists.

Belgium was one of the first countries to sponsor expeditions to develop commercial activities, first establishing the Congo Free State under the direction of Belgium's King Leopold II, and eventually seizing it as the Belgian Congo. This event set off the Scramble for Africa, in which Britain, France, Germany, and Italy competed with Belgium for land in Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884-5, in an effort to avoid war, allowed European diplomats to draw lines on maps and carve Africa into colonies. The result was a transformation of political and economic Africa, with virtually all parts of the continent colonized by 1900.


With the Mughal Empire significantly weakened, the French established trading cities along the Indian coast during the 18th century, but the British East India Company had pushed them out by the early 1800s. The British were still following the model of government support for private companies that they had used in colonizing North America during the 19th century. The company forced the Mughals to recognize company rule first over Bengal, and when the old Mughal Empire was defeated in the 18th century by Iranian armies, the British pushed for economic control over more and more areas. Again India fell into the familiar pattern of decentralized independent states ruled by nawabs, native princes who had nominally supported the Mughal emperor, and the company made agreements with them that were economically advantageous to the British.

The British "Raj" - 1818-1857

India was under "company" rule for almost forty years, but they were not actually a British colony during that time because the British East India Company was still private, even though the British government supported it. However, the company administered governmental affairs and initiated social reform that reflected British values. At the same time, they depended on the nawabs to support them, and so they also had to abide by Indian customs and rules as well. The contradictory roles they played eventually erupted in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. The Sepoys were Indian Muslims and Hindus who served the British as soldiers in the army that defended the subcontinent. The rebellion took the British by surprise, but they found out that the Indian fury could be traced to a new training technique that the soldiers refused to follow. It required them to put a bullet shell in their mouths that had been greased in either pork or beef fat, with the pork fat being highly offensive to the Muslims and the beef to the Hindu. The British changed the practice, but it was too late because nationalism had reached India, too, and a movement for a country based on Indian identity was beginning. The leaders of the movement would have to wait about 90 years, though, to fulfill their dreams.

British Rule - 1857-1947

The Sepoy Rebellion showed the British government how serious the problems in India were, and they reacted by removing the British East India Company from control and declaring India a British colony. British officials poured into India to keep control of its valuable raw materials for industry and trade, particularly cotton and poppies for opium. They expanded production, built factories in India, and constructed huge railroad and irrigation, and telegraph systems.

Rising Indian Nationalism

With growing industrialization and British controlled trade, a middle class of Indian officials and managers began to rise during the late 1800s. By and large, the British did not allow Indians to own companies or to hold top government positions, but they did provide education for people to fill middle level and professional jobs. Some Indians went to England for higher education, where they absorbed western political values of liberty, equality, and justice, and they began to apply those values to their own situations. For example, the Brahmo Samaj movement, led by Rammouhan Roy, advocated unity for Indians by combining traditional and modern ways. The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885, with the goals of promoting political unity and appointing more Indians into higher positions in the British Civil Service. The Congress was controlled by Hindus, and in 1906 another nationalist group was established for Muslims called the All-India Muslim League. Despite tensions between them, by 1914 both groups were demanding Indian independence from the British.

Were the British merely exploiting Indians for profit, or were they trying to "do the right thing" for India? Certainly the profit motive was strong, especially apparent in the takeover in the early years by the British East India Company, a profit-driven company. However, many British people of the time insisted that a major goals for the government was to improve Indian lives through modernization of their country. Perhaps the most famous defense for British motives was The White Man's Burden, a poem by Rudyard Kipling that promotes the vision of a British world leadership idealistically improving the lives of people in the areas they dominated. Of course, the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League did not agree.


After the long and prosperous rules of Kangxi and Qianlong in the 17th and 18th centuries, problems of the Qing Dynasty began to mount during the early 19th century. It suffered from many old land-based ailments, such as long borders to defend and the challenge of keeping transportation and communication routes operating, but they also faced other serious issues. The Manchu, rulers of the Qing dynasty, were originally a northern group that conquered the Han Chinese under Ming rule. Han Chinese, as they did under Mongol rule, pushed for restoration of rule to the natives. The dynasty also began to experience significant revolts from minorities, and the government, under an increasingly corrupt line of rulers, was not able to deal with them properly. As the Chinese dynastic cycle was clearly going into decline, Europeans sensed the problems, and began to push for trading rights that China had been reluctant to grant in earlier times.

The Opium Wars (1839-1842)

In 1759 Emperor Qianlong had restricted European commercial presence to Guangzhou, a port in the southeastern part of China. There the trade was very much supervised by Chinese under the cohong system, with specially licensed Chinese firms operating under government set prices. Trade with Europeans was also restricted by the fact that Europeans had very little that the Chinese wanted to buy, even though the reverse was far from true. So the British East India Company, using Turkish and Persian expertise) grew opium in India and shipped it to China. As a result, trade boomed, especially once the Chinese developed addictions to the drug. The weak Qing government failed to act, even after some Chinese officials began to support the trade by accepting bribes. In 1838, with about 40,000 chests of opium coming into Guangzhou that year, the government finally tried to stop it.

The Opium Wars began after the Qing refused to listen to British protests of the trade ban. The British sent well-armed infantry and gunboats to attack first Chinese coastal villages, and eventually towns along the Grant Canal. The British used the Canal to reach inland areas, fought the ill-equipped villagers all the way to the Yellow River, when the Qing surrendered. Although the British did not take over the government, they forced the Qing to sign a treaty allowing the trade.

The Unequal Treaties

The Treaty of Nanjing, signed by the Chinese after the Opium Wars, was oriented toward trade. The Chinese agreed to allow the trade of opium and open other ports to exclusive trade with Britain. Beyond that, it gave the British control of Hong Kong (near Guangzhou), and it released Korea, Vietnam, and Burma from Chinese control. This was the first of many unequal treaties signed by Asians with European nations, and they eventually led to "spheres of influence." China was divided up into trading spheres, giving each competing European nation exclusive trading rights in a particular areas. By the early 20th century, virtually all of China was split into these areas, and the Qing government was virtually powerless.

The Taiping Rebellion - 1850-1864

The Qing Dynasty was significantly weakened by the Taiping Rebellion, a revolt led by Hong Xiuquan, a village schoolteacher who hated the Manchus as foreigners. He gathered support among poor and unhappy farmers, and under his charismatic leadership, his armies captured the city of Nanjing as their capital, and came very close to toppling the government in Beijing. Hong was an unusual leader, believing that he was the younger brother of Jesus, and advocating abolition of private property and equality for women. The Chinese government finally ended the civil war, with a great deal of help from the Europeans, but the cost to the country was about 20-30 million killed in this 14-year struggle.

Although it is difficult to see the Taiping Rebellion as nationalism, its leader's ideas were similar in many ways to the radical political movements in the west. Chinese nationalism was more apparent in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, in which a group called the Boxers led an army against the Qing with the express purpose of recovering "China for the Chinese." The group fed on their efforts to rid the country of European interests, and even though the rebellion was unsuccessful, the Boxers laid the foundations for the 1911 Chinese Revolution that finally ended the Qing Dynasty.


By the late 1800s, two non-European nations- the United States and Japan; were rising to power through industrialization and imperialism. Both were destined to become important world powers in the 20th century.

The United States

As industrialization enriched and empowered the United States in the late 19th century, the country also began to experiment with imperialism. It began with the purchase of Alaska from Russia, and followed with a coup of the native government in Hawaii, a plot sponsored by American planters and growers in the Hawaiian Islands. Both Alaska and Hawaii became territories, and although many questioned the wisdom of the Alaska purchase, the Hawaii takeover clearly had an economic motive.

After a quarrel over Cuban independence, the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898, a fairly easy task since Spain was long past the peak of her colonial power. The peace treaty gave the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific island of Guan to the United States as protectorates, as well as considerable economic control of Cuba. To keep their new empire intact, President Theodore Roosevelt advocated the building of a powerful American navy, and the United States sponsored the building of the Panama Canal to allow the new Great White Fleet access to both east and west coasts of the country.


United States sea captain Matthew Perry may take some credit for the destruction of the Tokugawa Shogunate. By the mid 19th century the Japanese were most concerned about European incursions in China, and so they kept up their guard against Europeans trying to invade their islands from the south. They were most surprised when Perry arrived from the east with his demands for opening of Japan to trade with the United States through an "unequal treaty." That was all the daimyos needed to joint together in an insurrection against the Tokugawa, who indeed signed such a treaty. To legitimize their cause, the daimyos fought in the name of the emperor, and when they won, they declared that the legitimate government had been "restored." The Meiji Restoration took advantage of the fact that their geography made them less strategically important than the Chinese, so that the Europeans and Americans tended to leave them alone. They were left to their own devices - to create a remarkable state that built the foundations for Japan as a world power.

The Meiji (meaning "enlightened rule") claimed to have ended centuries of shogun-dominated governments that made the emperor totally powerless. They mystified and revered the position of the emperor, who became a very important symbol for Japanese unity. However, the new state did not give the emperor any real power, either. Japanese nationalism was built on the mysticism of the emperor, anxiety over the foreign threat, and an amazing transformation of Japan's military, economy, and government. The country was ruled by oligarchs, a small group of leaders who together directed the state. They borrowed heavily from the west to industrialize their country and to build a centralized, strong military. They gradually but systematically dissolved the daimyo and samurai classes, and they placed a great deal of emphasis on building a strong education system.

The era from 1750-1914 was clearly one of growing European power and domination of the globe. Industrialization created unprecedented wealth, and new western political ideas spawned strong, centralized states that directed empires around the world. However, the new political ideas encouraged nationalism, which on the one hand strengthened the industrialized countries, but on the other hand caused the people that they dominated to resent their control. The potential for worldwide power and riches also intensified the conflict and competition that had long existed among European states. In 1914 these conflicts came to the surface and erupted into a Great War that ushered in the new, very different era of the 20th century.