Industrial Imperialism, the “New” Imperialism

The Enlightenment idea of sovereignty gave rise to nationalism and the desire to establish nation-states. With the rise of industrialism, empires were once again colonizing large regions of the world. The rapid expansion of colonization around 1880 is often called “New Imperialism.”

Was the “new imperialism” actually new?

The empires of the "New Imperialism" were partly modeled on earlier empires. For example, the British model of “indirect rule” in their new African colonies— paying local allies to do most of the governing—was based on practices they had learned from the Mughals in South Asia. Many factors led to this nineteenth-century version of empire expansion.

Why did the new imperialism happen?

Technology: Before the late nineteenth century, European states (and Japan) couldn't conquer much of the tropical world due to disease and large, organized societies that were armed with low-tech, but effective weapons. Ruling them would have been difficult due to slow communications systems. Then new medicines made it possible for conquerors to survive tropical diseases. The machine gun and other new weapons gave them a big military advantage. Telegraphs, trains, and steamships improved communications and travel, making it much easier to rule bigger empires.

Industrialization and capitalism: Industrialized nations had advantages, but they also faced new problems. The growth of factories led to an increasing demand for raw materials. Korea, the African continent, and Southeast Asia had almost no factories, but plenty of raw materials. Imperialists conquered territories that could provide the raw materials they needed, and that also had a population who would then buy the finished products.

Racism: There were many widespread misconceptions about race. People within these big imperial powers believed it was their right to rule over people they considered inferior. Some even justified their invasions as missions to civilize the “inferior” people they conquered. Within the industrialized societies themselves, there was already some level of racial segregation.

Nationalism: Nationalism began with the idea that all people should have the right to rule themselves through their own government. Taken to an extreme, nationalism could raise the idea that one’s own nation was superior to other nations and had a right to rule over them. In the late nineteenth century, nationalism pushed many European governments to compete, motivating them to capture new colonies before their competitors could.

“Men-on-the-spot”: Sometimes, power shifted because of a single person. For example, a general or a businessman who had employees with guns went out and grabbed new territory, out of greed or the desire for glory. There was often no one there to stop them.

Each of these factors played a role in the New Imperialism. The global trend that pushed industrial powers to claim new colonies depended on the interaction of these factors each time a new colony was created.

Source: Industrial Imperialism, the “New” Imperialism
© 2022 Khan Academy

Back to top