Why Did European Powers Seek Colonies Overseas?

Last Updated: 02 Apr 2020
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In 1871, a new form of colonisation emerged in Europe and was later differentiated from the Empires of Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries as New Imperialism. Intelligibly, it is also referred to as ‘the Scramble for Africa’, as a result of the swift rate at which nations clamoured to gain control of weaker regions in deviated areas from the 1600’s. There is much speculation surrounding the reasoning of such accelerated expansion, however, there is a clear correlation of events that have been linked to New Imperialism.

I do not attest the popular belief that this colonisation increased tension in Europe and, in this essay, I will endeavour to present a synthesis of this premise. Similar to the explorers of old imperialism, European powers were drawn to Africa for economic benefits. The British economist, J. A Hobson, argued the drive for new colonies was influenced by the desire of capitalists to profit from these regions. The credibility of this assertion is heightened by the knowledge of the ongoing industrialisation of Europe, prompting a demand for larger markets and cheaper raw materials and labour.

It was equally the case of nations, such as Britain, that were at the end of the industrial boom, as they sought new markets for manufactured goods. The abandonment of free trade in Europe in the 1870s signified the introduction of a wave of tariffs on imported goods and resulted in a sweeping effect across Europe to search for alternative markets elsewhere. The validation of this is reflected in the leap of Britain’s overseas investments from 187 million pounds in 1871 to 4,000 million pounds in 1914.

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Economic advantage was certainly a motivating factor, however, some European nations, such as France, underwent little industrial growth and had gained little from colonising. It appears imperialism was a source of national pride and acted as a distraction to unfavourable events at home. This was certainly the case in France, which was still recovering from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and was understandably envious of its European counterparts that were replete with wealth and power.

It is then unsurprising that the French became one of the leading imperialists of the time, with an empire of Indo-China, north and west Africa and over 60 million people by 1914, although their colonies contributed sparsely to the economy. Imperialism was an accepted route to regard, as was expressed by both the French statesman, Leon Gambetta in the remark, “to remain a great nation/you must colonise” and the British writer A. C Benson, in his song, “Land of Hope and Glory” which applauded colonisation.

The most intriguing and often bewildering explanation for imperialism was concerned with philanthropy. Although it seems an unnatural concept in this day and age, 19th century Europeans believed they were a superior race and it was their duty to cultivate European ideas and ways of living in Africa. This perspective was a manipulated adaptation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and was widely regarded, particularly in Britain and Germany, as the truth.

The view of the British writer, Rudyard Kipling, in ‘The White Man’s Burden’ is an appropriate reflection of this and depicts the so-called “burden” upon Europeans to help less fortunate races. Evidently, it was conceited; nevertheless, missionaries such as The White Fathers and Robert Moffat made progress in Africa to soothe troubles and, polemically, converted many from Paganism to Christianity. European Governments often used Darwin’s theory as an excuse to subjugate Africans and, thus, imperialism grew in popularity.

Technological advances like the railway, steamship and telegraph and improved weaponry like the breech-loading rifle, capable of firing several rounds before the need to reload also gave Europeans a distinct advantage over natives and made Africa much more vulnerable to attack. Many saw medical advances, such as, the use of quinine as protection from malaria and advances in transport as an opportunity to explore what was known as the ‘Dark Continent’, as many of the inner regions of Africa remained untouched until this time.

The most famous of which, Dr. David Livingstone, whom travelled from his native Scotland to the vast regions of Central Africa to carry out medical and missionary work, enlightened the imagination of the European public. In 1869, Henry Stanley of the New York Herald sent for Livingstone after a loss of contact for over four years, and eventually succeeded when Livingstone was found at Lake Tanganyika in east Africa, greeting him with the famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume? ”. Following the disclosure of the story, Europeans became increasingly nterested in what Africa had to offer and pressure was put on governments to colonise; in Germany, many lobby groups, such as The German Navy League were created in support of colonisation and achieved their desires when Bismark, apparently “no man for colonies” acquired colonies in the Cameroons, Togal and east Africa, south west Africa and the Pacific Islands, like Marshall Isle. In fact, it was with adept explorers that ‘The Scramble of Africa’ began, when, in 1870, Henry Stanley took his experience from travelling Africa and, under the advice of King Leopold of Belgium, formed the International African Association.

He then reached agreements with tribal leaders in the Congo region, in which they placed themselves and their subjects under the protection of King Leopold. The French followed suit with their explorer, Savorgnan de Brazza, being sent to the north of the River Congo where he reached similar agreements with indigenous tribal chiefs. The Germans joined in with their protectorate over the Cameroons in 1884 and so the scramble commenced. Wilhelm II was in power in Germany from 1890 to 1914, at the height of imperialism. He is largely responsible for the damaged relations in Europe as opposed to colonisation.

Under the management of Bismark, 1871-1890, Europe was reasonably calm and relations remained unchanged, regardless of the imperialism taking place at the time. Bismarck realised the potential tension that could arise as a result of the race for colonies and called The Second Conference of Berlin, 1884-1885, to resolve the issue. It was agreed that the Congo Free State would be controlled by an international organisation and was to operate on a free trade basis, meaning the importation of goods would go without taxation.

Natives were not to be exploited by European powers and the slave trade was to be abolished. Most importantly, Africa was to be divided into spheres of influence, whereby European powers were to be given economic and political rights in particular areas of the continent. This move cleared any uncertainty regarding where one could colonise, with the exception of The Fashoda Crisis, 1898, which actually resulted in improved Anglo-French relations, following a brief clash over interests in a small village on the Nile in southern Sudan.

In 1896, General Kitchener led the British in an attempt to secure Sudan from the north, while French forces, under General Marchand, arrived in Fashoda, 650km from the British-occupied Khartoum, seeking the very same result. Both leaders confronted one another at Fashoda and remained there for six months, until the French Foreign Minister, Theophile Delcasse, stood down, as the French were unprepared for war without their Russian ally and their difficult time after the Dreyfus Affair. The incident ended peacefully. Following the resignation of Bismarck in 1890, European relations were severed and the balance of power shifted uneasily.

However, this was not the result of colonial rivalry; Wilhelm II made numerous mistakes in his administration of German foreign policy to disrupt European relations and cause tension. This began with his poor response to Britain’s humiliating defeat in what is known as, the Jameson Raid. In 1895, the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, along with Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and Dr. Starr Jameson, official to the British South African Company led a badly organised attack on the Boers in the Transvaal area of South Africa. They were easily defeated and Jameson himself was captured.

This incident humiliated the British but did not affect European relations; it was the unnecessary telegram sent by Wilhelm II to Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, congratulating him of his defeat of the British, “without appealing to a friendly power” that caused uproar and hostility throughout Europe. The incident to follow - the First Moroccan Crisis, 1905-1906 - was a means of sabre rattling or troublemaking for Wilhelm II. In 1905, having been suspicious of French intentions, he landed his yacht at Tangiers and announced his support of Moroccan independence to the Sultan and pledged German protection of that independence.

He then demanded a conference to be held in Algeciras to discuss the matter which France reluctantly agreed to. The main intention of Wilhelm II at this point was to test the strength of the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain and he hoped to weaken it through this intervention. However, Germany managed only to get the support of Morocco and Austria-Hungary, while France was supported by Britain, the US, Russia, Spain and even Italy. The crisis strengthened rather than weakened the Entente and was a direct result of the sabre rattling of Wilhelm II, not colonial rivalry.

He interceded once again in the Second Moroccan Crisis, 1911, when he accused France of annexing Morocco. The grounds of his argument, after the occupation of French troops of Morocco when a war had broken out in the capital, Fez and foreigners were in danger, was a supposed breech of the terms agreed in the Algeciras Conference, 1906. Wilhelm II sent a gunboat, the Panther to Agadir, however the British then intervened by commanding his retreat and threatening to send naval forces to stop him. He surrendered and Anglo-French ties were further strengthened.

Wilhelm II was viewed as a warmonger – a seeker of war – and tension within Europe was strong, as a result of his conduct. New Imperialism did not occur as a result of one factor, but of an accumulation of vacillating events, for example, industrialisation that prompted technological advances, which encouraged explorers and eventually a saturation of industry or a failure to industrialise and a need to gain prestige elsewhere – all of which contributed heavily to imperialism. Regardless of the reasoning, by the 19th century, all of Africa with the exception of Abyssinia and Liberia had been conquered by European powers.

However, the important question remains on how colonisation affected European relations; was it truly a contributing factor to World War I or was it indeed a derivative of existing tension at home that was actually accelerated by distrust between nations? Is it possible that imperialism was simply a distraction for Europeans from their quickly diminishing relations and may have delayed the inevitable outburst of war? It remains unanswered but I simply hope I have justified a slightly different interpretation of the affairs outlined above.

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Why Did European Powers Seek Colonies Overseas?. (2017, Feb 12). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/why-did-european-powers-seek-colonies-overseas/

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