Industrialization And Western Global Hegemony
Industrial Rivalries And The Partition Of The World,
Author: Schwartz, Stuart B.
Date: 2004

Industrial Rivalries And The Partition Of The World, c. 1870-1914

The spread of the Industrial Revolution from the British Isles to
Continental Europe and North America greatly increased the already
considerable advantages the Western powers possessed in manufacturing capacity
and the ability to wage war relative to all other peoples and civilizations.
These advantages resulted in ever higher levels of European - and American -
involvement in the outside world and culminated in the virtually unchallenged
domination of the globe by the Western powers by the last decades of the 19th
century. Beginning in the 1870s, the Europeans indulged in an orgy of overseas
conquests that reduced most of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean region to
colonial possessions by the time of the outbreak of the First World War in
1914. During each year of that time period, an area larger than France was
added to the empires of the different Western powers. By 1914 Europe and its
colonial possessions occupied over 80 percent of the inhabitable lands of the
earth. Areas not annexed directly, such as China and Persia, were forcibly
"opened" to European trade and investment, and divided into informal "spheres
of influence" of the various Western nations. The remaking of the world
economic order to industrial Europe's specifications was completed. According
to the new global division of labor, Europe and increasingly North America
provided finance and machine capital, entrepreneurial and managerial talent,
and manufactured goods. The rest of the world provided raw materials for
Europe's factories, cheap labor, and abundant, if not always fertile, land.
Thus, it was not without reason that the Europeans ultimately came to regard
themselves as the "lords of humankind."

Though science and industry gave the Europeans the capacity to run
roughshod over the rest of the world, they also heightened economic
competition and political rivalries between the European powers. In the first
half of the 19th century industrial Britain, with its seemingly insurmountable
naval superiority, was left alone to dominate overseas trade and empire
building. By the last decades of the century, Belgium, France, and especially
Germany and the United States were challenging Britain's industrial supremacy
and actively building (or in the case of France, adding to) colonial empires
of their own. Many of the political leaders of these expansive nations viewed
the possession of colonies as an essential attribute of states that aspired to
great-power status. Colonies were also seen as insurance against raw material
shortages and the loss of overseas market outlets to European or North
American rivals.

Quarrels over the division of the colonial spoils were cited by those who
sought to justify the arms buildup and general militarism of the age. Colonial
rivalries greatly intensified the growing tension and paranoia that dominated
great power interaction in the decades before World War I. As Europe divided
into armed camps, successive crises over control of the Sudan, Morocco, and
the Balkans (which the great powers treated very much like colonies) had much
to do with the alliances that formed and the crisis mentality that contributed
so much to the outbreak of the conflict in August, 1914.

Motives Behind The Global Scramble For Colonies

Through much of the 20th century, historians have argued about the
reasons for the unprecedented drive for colonial expansion that seized Europe
and, to a lesser extent, the United States in the last decades of the 19th
century. The majority of those engaged in this often heated debate have tended
to join one of two camps: those who favor a political explanation for the
outburst of territorial aggrandizement, and those who argue that it was
fundamentally economic in origin. The truth may well be found by combining the
two views - by recognizing that political leaders, not just businessmen, had
to take into account economic concerns when deciding to intervene in disputes
or to annex territories in Africa, Asia, or the South Pacific. The British
obsession with protecting strategic overseas naval stations, such as those in
Malaya and in South Africa, for example, was linked to an underlying
perception of growing threats to their Indian Empire. That empire was in turn
more than just their "garrison in the east" and largest colonial possession.
It was a major source of raw materials for British industries and a key outlet
for both British manufactured goods and British overseas investment. Thus,
political and economic motives were often impossible to separate; doing so
unnecessarily oversimplifies and distorts our understanding of the forces
behind the scramble for empire in the late 19th century.

It would also be a mistake to see a complete break between the pattern of
European colonial expansion before and after 1870. Though a good deal more
territory was annexed per year after that date, there were numerous colonial
wars and additions to both the British and French empires all through the
middle decades of the 19th century. One of the key differences between the two
periods was that before 1870, Britain had only a weak France with which to
compete in the outside world. This meant that the British were less likely
than at the end of the century to be pushed into full-scale invasions and
annexations because they feared that another European power was about to seize
potentially valuable colonies. It also allowed the British to rely heavily on
threats and gunboat raids rather than outright conquest to bring African kings
or Asian emperors into line. With its "white" settler colonies (Canada,
Australia, and New Zealand) and India, plus enclaves in Africa and Southeast
Asia, the British already had all the empire they could handle. Most British
politicians were cautious about or firmly opposed to adding more colonies. The
British were wary of French advances in various parts of the globe, which were
usually made to restore France's great-power standing following setbacks in
Europe. But the French were far too weak economically and too politically
divided to contest Britain's naval mastery or its standing as the greatest
colonial power.

Once Germany was united in 1871, and the German Empire and the United
States began to pass Britain as industrial powers, the situation was
significantly altered. India and the rest of the empire were now seen as
essential to Britain's maintenance of its great-power standing. British
politicians worried that if Britain stood still while the rest of the powers
built up overseas empires, it would soon be supplanted as the number one naval
and colonial power. The concern here was economic as well as strategic. The
last decades of the 19th century were a period of recurring economic
depressions in Europe and the United States. The leaders of the newly
industrialized nations had little experience in handling the overproduction
and unemployment that came with each of these economic crises. They were
understandably deeply concerned about the social unrest and in some cases what
appeared to them to be stirrings of revolution, that each phase of depression
engendered. Some political theorists argued that as destinations to which
unemployed workers might migrate and as potential markets for surplus goods,
colonial possessions could serve as safety values to release the pressure
built up in times of industrial slumps.

Thus, although a colony seemed to be of little economic value when it was
annexed, it could prove a valuable asset later on. Industrial Europe's growing
need for raw materials gave added credence to this line of reasoning. Each
power felt compelled to conquer and annex vast territories - which often
consisted of scantily populated, arid lands - because it feared that otherwise
a rival would take them. In letting a competitor grab what might prove to be a
mineral-rich colony, Britain or Germany might be foreclosing on its future
chances to remain a global power.

Competition among the great powers had much to do with another major
cause of the late 19th-century scramble for colonial possessions. Britain's
successful application of gunboat diplomacy and indirect control over African
and Asian kingdoms in the early 19th century depended heavily on the existence
of reasonably strong African and Asian leaders who could enforce the demands
made by the Europeans. With the intensification of European rivalries in the
late 19th century, these leaders attempted to play the powers off each other.
This reduced the value of their cooperation and often prompted one of the
powers to invade their lands, remove them from power, and find less
troublesome collaborators. In addition, in many areas, but particularly in
Africa, decades and even centuries of European economic penetration and
political interference resulted in the disintegration of indigenous
governments and societies as a whole. Lack of a local center of power through
which to exert their control as well as threats by growing social dislocations
in areas where one or more of the powers had a strong strategic or economic
stake caused European policymakers to conclude that military intervention and
formal annexation were their only option.

As these motives suggest, in the era of the scramble for colonial
possessions, political leaders in Europe played a much more prominent role in
decisions to annex overseas territories than they had earlier, even in the
first half of the 19th century. In part, this was due to improved
communications. Telegraphs and railways not only made it possible to transmit
orders from the capitals of Europe to men-on-the-spot in the tropics much more
rapidly, they allowed ministers in Europe to play a much more active role in
the ongoing governance of the colonies. More than politicians were involved in
late 19th-century decisions to add to the colonial empires. The jingoistic
"penny" press and the extension of the vote to the lower middle and working
classes through much of industrial Europe and in the United States made public
opinion a major factor in foreign policy. Though stalwart explorers might on
their own initiative make treaties with local African or Asian potentates who
assigned their lands to France or Germany, these annexations had to be
ratified by the home government. In most cases, ratification meant fierce
parliamentary debates that often spilled over into press wars and popular
demonstrations. Empires were no longer the personal projects of private
trading concerns and ambitious individuals; they were the property and pride
of the nations of Europe and North America.

Unequal Combat: Colonial Wars And The Apex Of Imperialism

Industrial change not only justified the Europeans' grab for colonial
possessions, it made them much easier to acquire. By the last decades of the
19th century, scientific discoveries and technological innovations had
catapulted the Europeans far ahead of all other peoples in the capacity to
wage war. The Europeans could tap mineral resources that most peoples did not
even know existed, and European chemists mixed ever more deadly explosives.
Advances in metallurgy made possible the mass production of light and mobile
artillery pieces that rendered suicidal the massed cavalry or infantry charges
that were the mainstay of Asian and African armies. Advances in artillery were
matched by great improvements in hand arms. Much more accurate and faster
firing, breech-loading rifles replaced the clumsy muzzle-loading muskets of
the first phase of empire building. By the 1880s, after decades of
experimentation, the machine gun had become an effective battlefield weapon.
Railroads gave the Europeans the mobility of the swiftest African or Asian
horsemen as well as the ability to supply large armies in the field for
extended periods of time. On the sea, Europe's already formidable advantages
were awesomely increased by industrial transformations. After the opening of
the Suez canal in 1869, steam power supplanted the sail, iron hulls replaced
wood, and massive guns, capable of hitting enemy vessels miles away, were
introduced into the fleets of the great powers.

The dazzling array of new weaponry with which the Europeans set out on
their expeditions to the Indian frontiers or the African "bush" made the wars
of colonial conquest very lopsided affairs. This was particularly true when
the Europeans encountered resistance from peoples, such as those in the
interior of Africa or the Pacific islands, who had been cut off from most
preindustrial advances in technology and thus fought the European machine guns
with spears, arrows, and leather shields. One African leader, whose people
struggled with little hope to halt the German advance into East Africa,
resorted to natural imagery to account for the power of the invaders' weapons:

On Monday we heard a shuddering like Leviathan, the voice of many cannon;
we heard the roar like waves of the rocks and rumble like thunder in the
rains. We heard a crashing like elephants or monsters and our hearts
melted at the number of shells. We knew that we were hearing the battle
of Pangani; the guns were like a hurricane in our ears.

Not even peoples with advanced preindustrial technology and sophisticated
military organization, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese, could stand
against, or really comprehend, the fearful killing devices of the Europeans.
In advising the Vietnamese emperor to give in to European demands, one of his
officials, who had led the fight against the French invaders, warned:

Nobody can resist them. They go where they choose. . . . Under heaven,
everything is feasible to them, save only the matter of life and death.

Despite the odds against them, African and Asian peoples often fiercely
resisted the imposition of colonial rule. West African leaders, such as Samory
and Ahmadou Sekou, held back the European advance for decades, and when
rulers, such as the Vietnamese emperors, refused to fight, local officials
organized guerrilla resistance in defense of the traditional regime. Martial
peoples, such as the Zulus in South Africa, had the courage and discipline to
face and defeat sizeable British forces in set piece (or conventional and
critical) battles, such as that at Isandhlwana in 1879. But conventional
resistance eventually ended in defeat: The guerrilla bands in Vietnam were
eventually run to the ground; even at Isandhlwana, 3000 Zulus lost their lives
in the massacre of 800 British and 500 African troops. In addition, within
days of the Zulu victory, a tiny force of 120 British troops held off an army
of three or four thousand Zulus. Given the European advantages in conventional
battles, guerrilla resistance, sabotage, and, in some cases, banditry proved
the most effective means of fighting the Europeans' attempts to assert
political control. Religious leaders were often in the forefront of these
struggles. The magic potions and divine assistance they offered for the
protection of their followers seemed to be the only way to offset the
demoralizing killing power of the Europeans' weapons.

However admirable the courage of those who resisted the European advance
and despite temporary setbacks, by the eve of World War I in 1914 there was
very little of the earth left for the Europeans to conquer. Excepting
Ethiopia, all of Africa had been divided between the European powers. Maps of
the continent became a patchwork of colors - red for Great Britain, green for
France, blue for Germany, and so on. In Southeast Asia, only Siam remained
independent, in part because Britain and France could not decide which of them
should have it. The Americans had replaced the Spanish as the colonial
overlords of the Philippines, and the Dutch were completing the conquest of
the "outer islands" of the Indonesian archipelago. Even the island clusters of
the Pacific had been divided among the hungry industrial powers. China,
Persia, and the Middle East had not yet been occupied, but many believed that
the "informal" political and economic influences the European powers exerted
in these areas were the prelude to formal annexation.

What was perhaps most striking was how easy this division of the world
had been. There had been prolonged resistance in desolate places, such as the
Sudan and the rain forests of Vietnam, but overall the Europeans had conquered
most of the earth in a matter of decades with a remarkably low level of
expense and loss of European lives. They had divided the world with little
thought for the reactions of the peoples who came under their rule. European
leaders quarreled and bargained at green, felt-topped tables in Paris or
Berlin over lands they scarcely knew anything about. It was like a colossal
game of Diplomacy or Risk, with armies and fleets moved, and colonies won,
lost, and traded at the gaming tables of the European diplomats. To expand on
an image offered by the arch-imperialist King Leopold of the Belgians,
industrial technology had turned the world into a giant gateau, or cake, to be
sliced up and divided between the European powers.


 

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