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Often described as the high renaissance of Western imperialism, the nineteenth century was characterized by European conquest and colonial rule. Although imperialist power was on the rise, Douglas Porch refutes the notion that indigenous militias were easily overtaken by their European conquerors. Porch explores the rise of imperial power, and the reasons for the temporary supremacy of some of the empire builders, but he also examines why such far-flung empires ultimately proved...
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Often described as the high renaissance of Western imperialism, the nineteenth century was characterized by European conquest and colonial rule. Although imperialist power was on the rise, Douglas Porch refutes the notion that indigenous militias were easily overtaken by their European conquerors. Porch explores the rise of imperial power, and the reasons for the temporary supremacy of some of the empire builders, but he also examines why such far-flung empires ultimately proved to be unsustainable.
Imperialism has long proved a subject of significant historical controversy. That the origins of the historical debate have their roots in the very wars engendered by European expansion is hardly surprising when one realizes that from the beginning, expansion met at best indifference, at worst hostility, in the populations of imperial nations. That hostility acquired an economic rationale when J. A. Hobson, a Liberal MP and economist, denounced the Second South African War of 1899-1902 as a scam perpetrated on the British people by a clutch of patriotic parasites led by Cecil Rhodes. The military resources of England had been mobilized for the personal gain of a few capitalists eager to seize the gold and diamonds of South Africa. Why? Because, according to Hobson, home markets were saturated, and capitalists required new territories in which to invest excess capital safely and profitably. It fell to Lenin, however, to lift the specific circumstance of the Boer War into the realm of dogma. While Hobson viewed imperialism as an unproductive economic activity for nations, a movement concocted by conspiratorial confederacies of capitalists to divert vast sums into their own pockets, Lenininsisted in 1916 that imperialism was a logical evolution of capitalism, its 'highest stage'. Capitalists, whose Malthusian policies invariably drove their societies toward social and financial catastrophe, sought to delay the inevitable reckoning through conquests of cheap and reliable sources of raw materials, as well as markets for the products of European industries.
The economic dynamism of imperialism was far more evident during the early empires. It was a period when slave labour produced 'groceries' and Amerindians collected furs, and was not an era of wage labour upon which industrial capitalism was based. And even these old empires were largely barren of profit for the nations, even for the merchant companies, which conquered and maintained them. As the British historian of empires, D. K. Fieldhouse, has argued, the mercantilist theory which underpinned the economies of empire was simply old European protectionism extended abroad. Nor, in fact, did mercantilism succeed either as a theory of economic organization or of political control. 'American empires rested on a nice and quite accidental balance between imperial restrictions and the capacity of the colonists to evade them,' he wrote. The result was a financial and administrative burden which allowed Adam Smith to write in 1776 that 'Britain derives nothing but loss from the dominion which she assumes over her colonies'. When Britain attempted to tighten trade restrictions so that she could recoup some of the enormous costs required to administer and defend her North American colonies, she succeeded only in provoking rebellion.
By the nineteenth century, imperialists, at least in Britain, were moving away from mercantilism and toward a system of free trade. The outriders of British expansion to the coasts of China in the mid nineteenth century were businessmen. By demanding open markets free of government regulation or monopolistic restriction, traders like Jardine, Mattheson and Dent helped to transform the emerging imperial consciousness into an ideology that equated free trade with the spread of Western civilization and the rule of law. In this way, imperialism was a revival of the Roman concept of dominion as a moral and military ascendancy over inferior peoples. Merchants were simply to be the initial beneficiaries. But few businessmen saw great profit in the colonies. Capital flowed from Britain and Europe, not to the colonies but to North and South America, the white dominions of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and to develop the gold and diamond mines of the Boer republics. Britain's greatest push to acquire colonies came at the very moment when its economic position had begun to decline. And while some individuals profited from colonial expansion, nations seldom did. In the last years of the nineteenth century the British Empire was a revenue drain. The French paid huge subsidies to garrison and develop their unproductive colonies which accounted for less than 10 per cent of French overseas trade by 1900. The future Marshal of France, Hubert Lyautey, lamented in the 1890s that French Indo-China, practically barren of businessmen, was rich in bureaucrats and soldiers. The only German colony which claimed an export worth entering on a balance sheet was Togo, and its palm oil was exploited by British, not German, merchants. The merchant companies which Bismarck hoped in 1884 would manage the German colonies on the model of Britain's East India Company required only one short decade to collapse. By 1914, the German colonial empire cost the German government £50 million in direct subsidies, and probably double that if indirect subsidies and low-interest loans are factored in, against a trade volume of £14 million; it accounted for only 0.5 per cent of Germany's external trade. Indeed, German Social Democrats were fond of pointing out that Germany's trade with Norway was more significant than that with her colonies. While there was a shiver of commercial interest in the British colonies, it weighed lightly in Britain's external trade: a mere 1.2 per cent with her tropical colonies at the turn of the century.
Nor does the economic explanation for imperial expansion apply to two other imperial powers: Russia and the United States. The Russian and, until 1898, American empires were continental ones with moving frontiers, and therefore were more obviously military constructions. In each case, settlers and traders had flowed into sparsely populated lands. The state had merely followed. However, by the end of the century, the rationale for each was becoming more obviously economic, similar to arguments made in Britain about the requirement for empire to protect the British worker against foreign competition. In part, the economic arguments began because each country was reacting to events in China. Sergei Witte, finance minister under Tsar Alexander III, sometimes called the 'Cecil Rhodes of Russia', believed at the turn of the century that Manchuria, Korea and Siberia could be squeezed for capital to transform Russia into a first-class industrial power. . . .
Excerpted from The Wars of Empire (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Douglas Porch Copyright ©2006 by Douglas Porch. Excerpted by permission.
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