From a world history perspective, the most noticeable trend in the history of the late 19th century was the domination of Europeans over NonEuropeans. This domination took many forms ranging from economic penetration to outright annexation. No area of the globe, however remote from Europe, was free of European merchants, adventurers, explorers or western missionaries. Was colonialism good for either the imperialist or the peoples of the globe who found themselves subjects of one empire or another? A few decades ago, the answer would have been a resounding no. Now, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the more or less widespread discrediting of Marxist and
Leninist analysis, and the end of the Cold War, political scientists and historians seem willing to take a more positive look at Nineteenth Century Imperialism.
One noted current historian, Niall Ferguson has argued that the British Empire probably accomplished more positive good for the world than the last generation of historians, poisoned by Marxism, could or would concede. Ferguson has argued that the
British Empire was a “liberal” empire that upheld international law, kept the seas open and free, and ultimately benefited everyone by ensuring the free flow of trade. In other words,
Ferguson would find little reason to contradict the young Winston Churchill’s assertion that the aim of British imperialism was to: give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to place the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain. (Ikenberry, p. 149)
It should come as no surprise that Ferguson regards the United States current position in the world as the natural successor to the British Empire and that the greatest danger the
U.S. represents is that the world will not get enough American Imperialism because U.S. leaders often have short attention spans and tend to pull back troops when intervention becomes unpopular. It will be very interesting to check back into the debate on
Imperialism about ten years from now and see how Niall Ferguson’s point of view has fared! The other great school of thought about Imperialism is, of course, Marxist. For example, Marxist historians like E.J. Hobsbawm argue that if we look at the l9th century as a great competition for the world's wealth and resources, there were clear winners and losers. Among the winners were the British, French, Americans, and Japanese—all successful colonizers. Among the losers were Punjabis, Zulus, Chinese, Egyptians, Crow,
Sioux and hundreds of other NonEuropean tribes and ethnic groups. (Hobsbawm, Age of Empire)
There are a couple of generalizations that need to be said about this process of European expansion: 2
1. Much of it occurs during the last 30 years of the 19th century—it is during the years
1870 to 1900 that much of Africa and Asia falls under the direct control of one European power or another. It should be remembered that the United States, in this context, is clearly an economic and cultural outpost of Europe. Americans are enthusiastic players in the Imperial sweepstakes; for the most part, at the expense of Spain. (Hence the term
2. This whole period of colonialism and empire building is very intense but brief—for example the whole period of acquiring colonies, exploiting colonies, and finally de colonization roughly falls into one human lifetime: Winston Churchill, the noted British
Imperialist I quoted was born in 1870 and died in 1962. He grew to adulthood during the height of the Imperialist craze, fought as a young man in the Sudan and South Africa, and lived to supervise the dismantling of the British Empire.
The Great Debate
Given the later…