Why Did European Powers Seek Colonies Overseas Between 1871 and 1914, and How Did This Affect Relations Between Them?

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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.

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...
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