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History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

European Imperialism

A New Kind of Imperialism


Imperialism wasn't invented by Europeans, Europe as we know it didn't even exist when imperialism first began. Imperialism basically is defined as one country trying to take over the land, culture, and government of another country. Looking back at history we can see this pattern happening in ancient Egypt, the Qin Empire in China, the Romans, the Mayans, we can keep going…but we won’t. What made European imperialism special was how thoroughly it was carried out.

Beginning in the early 19th century Europeans began to follow the British in transforming their societies from agricultural into industrial ones where machines began to replace humans as the main source of labor. The bright side of all this industrializing was that machines could work faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than humans and you didn’t have to stop for a lunch break. 

All of this faster production meant that lots and lots of cheap goods could be churned out of factories to be sold to consumers. The first consumer goods to be mass produced were textiles like socks, and tablecloths, and ugly sweaters that grandmothers still love to give as Christmas gifts.  Before long other Europeans like the Netherlands (Dutch), France, and the United States (the colonies formerly known as thirteen) are all copying the British model.

By the mid-1800s it’s not just textiles, but shoes, guns, farm equipment, tools, cereal, and pretty much everything else is being mass produced using factory labor. This increase in consumer goods means in a need for- you guessed it- more raw materials.  Now Europe has a lot going for it, like excellent farmland for growing wine grapes and wheat and plenty of coal but it sure can’t grow rubber, rice, or cotton to save its life.  The lifeblood of industrialization was in having a steady supply of natural resources. The country or countries who controlled that supply would very powerful indeed.

Europeans saw another benefit to imperialism- a captive audience. Europeans looked on their colonies not just as a dirt cheap source of natural resources but also as a market to sell their manufactured goods. Britain for example made it illegal for its colonies to produce their own goods or buy goods from any source other than British merchants. That way all of the profits and taxes went right back into making Britain even more wealthy and powerful!

In the 1870's the race to acquire colonies overseas was underway (again). This new age of  imperialism wasn’t just about taking over land to plunder natural resources but Europeans began to see themselves on a mission to save the natives everywhere who lived horribly backward lives…meaning that didn’t live like Europeans.

This is the age of a new kind of Imperialism and by the time it is over in the the world map would be redrawn and the ways of life for millions of people across the planet would be forever changed.

Scramble for Africa

In the 19th century, European nations began to compete for control of Africa’s resources. Each wanted the biggest and riches colonies and control of the profitable trade. Like in the America’s Europeans sent raw materials back to European factories to be made into finished goods. These finished goods would then be resold to the colonies. African’s fiercely resisted Europe’s attempts to conquer their lands. However, despite bigger numbers their weapons proved no match for Europe’s guns. Europeans carried the Maxim Gun, an early form of machine gun which gave them an advantage over African warriors who often fought with spears or old European guns that were slow.  

The Berlin Conference
By the late 1800s Europeans were conquering Africa tribe by tribe. Europeans competed with each other to gain new land and resources but they did not want to go to war with each other over it.  This race for colonies became known as the Scramble for Africa. In 1884, leaders of Europe’s main colonial powers, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, sat down at a meeting in Berlin, Germany to discuss how to divide up Africa. You may be shocked to hear this, but no African’s were invited to this meeting. At the Berlin Conference, as this meeting was known Europeans set the boundaries for their new colonies that gave no thought about the Africans or their needs.

The White Man's Burden


Around the 1870s, Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution had pretty much become an accepted fact in the scientific community of Europe and America. This theory stated that certain species were able to thrive while others failed because of adaptations that made them more suitable to their changing environment.

The phrase "survival of the fittest" came to be used to describe plants and animals that were better suited than others.

Around this time the fields of psychology and sociology were born and set off to explain why people behaved in certain ways. It didn't long before some people blended the two theories and came up with a little something called social Darwinism.

 In a nutshell, social Darwinism was a way to explain why the world worked in the way it did. Why were some people living in modern cities and others in grass huts. Why were some rich and others poor? Social Darwinists believed the answer could be found in evolution. That white Europeans were superior to non-Europeans and thus were smarter and better able to adapt to changing conditions. How else, these people argued, could you explain why some nations ruled others?

Of course, we call these ideas by a different name today-racism. Back then, it wasn't seen as racist, it was seen as the natural order of things. Of course, not every one- including whites- bought into such ideas. However, enough people did that it caught on and spread. It came to justify why Europeans were using military force to murder and exploit people in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Social Darwinists called imperialism "The White Man's Burden". In fact people wrote poems and songs about it.

The white man's burden boiled down to the belief that Western culture was superior to other cultures. As Europeans came to conquer distant lands across the globe they came to group people according to their view of the natural order. Whites and European culture was at the top because they were the wealthiest and most technologically advanced. Next came East Asians, then Indians (from India) last were the tribal peoples who faced the biggest challenge to keeping their culture alive.

Christian missionaries soon followed the explorers and scientists. Missionaries wanted to convert Africans to Christianity and bring education and health care to the people. Most went to Africa wanting to help the Africans. Most were guided by a belief called ethnocentrism, which means they saw their culture as superior to the Africans. Many Europeans felt that the Africans were poor, ignorant, savages who needed Europeans to teach them proper ways of behaving. Missionaries set up schools they taught Africans valuable skills such as literacy and farming but they also encouraged Africans to give up parts of their culture that they saw as uncivilized, such as their clothing, language, and belief in magic and nature spirits.


Many whites saw it as their duty to civilize the places they conquered. In tribal regions of Africa and the Pacific islands many people still walked around naked, ate with their hands, didn't have a written language, and didn't even bother to wear shoes. To top it off they worshiped silly gods and performed ridiculous looking dances and rituals. Many Europeans assumed all tribal people were cannibals.

To save them from their horrible culture Europeans sent in missionaries to teach them about Christianity, eating utensils, hospitals, schools, and new farming methods. The Europeans thought they were doing a good thing and in some cases they were- who can argue that saving lives is a bad thing. But these Europeans with their notions of racial superiority didn't bother to consider what the people wanted when they came in. They also didn't consider the fact that it was them who looked silly wearing heavy clothing and tight shoes in the hot tropical climate.

The cartoon above shows a Chinese man getting an unwanted haircut to conform to European standards of culture. 


The Cartoon below shows Great Britain and the United States forcibly carrying a basket of "savages" uphill to civilization ​​​​​

Using a pseudo science called Eugenics, social Darwinists conducted all kinds of strange tests like measure the distance of someones forehead to try to prove that Europeans were superior to other races. 

Life Under Colonial Rule


When Europeans carved up Africa they mainly cared about obtaining gold, diamonds, copper, ivory, rubber, and other resources. The Europeans cared little about Africa's governments or tribal traditions. In fact, they often looked down on these traditions as being savage and primitive. European missionaries worked to change their culture so that Africans looked and behaved more like Europeans. In all cases, Europeans lived privileged lives in segregated communities where the natives were not allowed to go (unless they were the servants).

The Downisde Side of Colonial Rule

Europeans also brought new conflicts among the different ethnic groups within a colony. An ethnic group is a group of people who share certain characteristics such as language, religion, or a shared ancestry.  When the Europeans carved up Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884, they did not consider the people who lived there. Take a look at any map of Africa or Asia, those lines that you see do not reflect natural borders but were drawn by Europeans who didn't give much thought to all of those different ethnic groups who were now lumped together. These ethnic groups often competed with one another for land and resources. Europeans made this even worse when they gave one ethnic group power over their neighbors, which caused anger and jealousy.

Take for example Belgian controlled Rwanda who forced the Africans to carry identity cards, which told which ethnic group a person belonged to. The two main groups in Rwanda and Burundi were the Tutsi and Hutu. Because these two groups had so commonly mixed over the years many people were unsure of which group they belonged to. The Belgians decided to divide the groups up based on how many cows a person owned. Anyone who owned more than 10 cows was a Tutsi. The Belgians put the Tutsi in charge of many government offices and gave them more land, power and the best education. The Hutu resented this favoritism and when Rwanda and Burundi gained their independence from Belgium in 1960 violent conflict broke out between the two groups.

But on the Bright Side...

Europeans did make positive changes to Africa's economy. First, new methods of transportation were introduced. To help connect their natural resources with their trading ports along the coasts Europeans introduced modern means of transportation. Steamboats made it possible to travel long distances rather quickly along Africa's main rivers. However, most African rivers are marked with cataracts, which are large rapids, and waterfalls. This made traveling the entire length of Africa's rivers impossible. Therefore, Europeans built hundreds of miles of railroad tracks through dense rain forests  savannas, and deserts to link their colonies together. 

Second, European missionaries built schools which taught Africans how to read and write. Many African societies were based on oral traditions and had no written language. Missionary schools taught mathematics, which helped prepare African children for jobs that required higher skills. Even the introduction of European languages such as English or French helped to bring the many African tribes together. Each tribe spoke a dialect, or a regional variation of a language, and most African groups could speak the dialect of their region. The use of English and French helped the hundreds of different ethnic groups communicate with one another.

Third, European missionaries often built clinics and hospitals that introduced Africa to modern methods of medicine. Doctors worked to fight diseases such as malaria, cholera, Malaria, the continents biggest health problem, caused by the spread of mosquitoes.

In the end, The Scramble for Africa caused lasting harm to Africa. In the end Europeans gained power because they encouraged African groups to fight one another. Europeans took the best lands to farm and gave them to white European settlers who set up plantations on which the Africans labored. Europeans drew new boundaries that divided some ethnic groups and lumped competing ethnic groups together.

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