Imperialism: Causes, Factors, Characteristics

This is an illustrative painting depicting a large hall filled with statesmen and military officials from various nations, gathered around a large table displaying a map. The map appears to be the central point of discussions or negotiations about territorial claims. The room is adorned with flags from different countries, and the atmosphere is solemn and serious, suggesting the gravity of the decisions being made. Sunlight enters through tall windows, casting dramatic light on the participants and the opulent setting.
A conference of European statesmen, who share the world’s territories among their countries. During the Imperialism era, such meetings did not usually take place, being just a myth of modern days. © CS Media.

Imperialism was the process of European territorial expansion throughout the world, especially in Africa and Asia. It mainly occurred in the 19th century, when numerous European powers turned overseas. They sought raw materials, consumer markets, sources of national prestige, and regions for surplus populations. In some cases, subjugated elites chose to ally with Europeans as a way to maintain their privileges. However, among the general peripheral population, various reactions against foreign domination emerged, leading to national liberation movements in the 20th century. To understand Imperialism, it is crucial to address its causes, the ideologies underpinning it, and the interests of each of the European powers. Additionally, it’s important to discuss the role of the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) and specific cases of Imperialism in Africa and Asia.

Causes of Imperialism

According to historian John MacKenzie, Imperialism can be explained in various ways, but an adequate explanation must articulate multiple factors: European and peripheral factors, economic and non-economic factors. In MacKenzie’s words, imperialism stemmed from a combination of “exaggerated hope and overheated anxiety” — that is, it began to be seen as a miraculous solution for all the problems Europe was experiencing.

In turn, historian James Joll considers the primary cause of Imperialism to have an economic nature. The economic interpretation of this process was developed, for the first time, by the Englishman John Atkinson Hobson and by German socialists. However, its most famous version emerged in the political pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, published by Lenin in 1916. According to Lenin, Europe in the second half of the 19th century was experiencing a process of union between banking and industrial capital, forming financial capital. This concentration of capital had saturated the European market to such an extent that investments on the continent no longer brought good profits. Given this, Lenin argued that there was a search for new investment opportunities, followed by territorial annexations to protect the capital invested in them. Ultimately, for Lenin, imperialism would originate from capitalism and would lead to war.

Another cause of Imperialism had a political nature and was articulated by Dutch historian Henk Wesseling. In his opinion, Imperialism would stem from exalted nationalisms and rivalries between European countries. This occurred because, while countries like France and Great Britain sought possessions overseas as a way to restore national pride, newly created countries like Germany and Italy envied the colonies of others and wanted more territories. The populations of these states often supported imperialist ventures because they sympathized with their xenophobic content and were favorable to the supposed “evangelization” of non-Western peoples. Moreover, the governments themselves supported the external activities of private companies because they served broader strategic interests. For example, Bernhard Dernburg, Joseph Chamberlain, and Charles Jonnart were politicians and businessmen at the same time — which demonstrates the close relationship between politics and the private sector.

A third cause for Imperialism was explained by Cecil Rhodes, a British colonizer who operated in the region of present-day South Africa. For him, although Imperialism had multiple motivations, the main one would be of a social nature: to serve as an outlet for surplus populations. At that time, advancements in technology and medicine allowed for an expansion of the European population, yet many people did not feel adequately integrated into the continent’s economy. This led to the rise of contesting movements, such as Marxism. Thus, various governments began to advocate for sending some citizens abroad, in order to undermine these movements and ensure social stability.

Black and white image of a middle-aged Caucasian man with a mustache, looking directly at the camera. He has short, dark hair, slightly graying at the temples, and is wearing a suit with a vest underneath. The image has an old aspect, indicative of being taken in the late 19th or early 20th century. The man has a serious and dignified expression, wearing a formal tie and a shirt with a starched collar. The photograph is a classic portrait, possibly of an important individual from that era.
Cecil Rhodes, a British colonizer who operated in the region of present-day South Africa. Public domain image.

Other causes for Imperialism, which are less highlighted in historiography, were the following:

  • Europeans needed raw materials from the rest of the world (but they always obtained them, even before Imperialism).
  • European statesmen wanted to use overseas territories as bargaining chips in political negotiations (but this does not explain all instances of imperialism).
  • Imperialism arose due to distinctly African issues: Africans’ indebtedness to Europe, the fall in commodity prices, and the collaboration of African elites with the colonizers (but this does not explain the prevalence of Imperialism in other regions).

It is worth noting that Imperialism was only possible thanks to a series of factors that made the occupation of other continents viable:

  • Technological advancements: Due to the Industrial Revolution, the popularization of railways, steamships, and telegraphs allowed for the formation of regular transport and communication lines between countries.
  • Medical advancements: With the discovery of penicillin, an antibiotic, and quinine, a medication against malaria, Europeans became less vulnerable to diseases from tropical countries. This facilitated long-term occupation of those areas.
  • Military advancements: Europeans developed increasingly sophisticated weapons, such as machine guns. These weapons caused an imbalance of forces between Europeans and the rest of the world’s peoples, facilitating territorial conquest wars.

Ideological Bases of Imperialism

Imperialism was supported by two related ideologies:

  • Social Darwinism: The idea that states were in a constant struggle for survival and that some races were superior to others — in particular, the white race was superior to the black and yellow races. As a consequence, the races considered superior should express that superiority by subjugating the inferior ones. Years later, this idea would inspire antisemitism and the notion of racial purity of the Aryan peoples, defended by the Nazis.
  • The White Man’s Burden: This is a phrase coined in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, one of the most enthusiastic British proponents of Imperialism. This expression came to mean that the white man had the mission to bring Western civilization and the Christian religion to the entire world. An example of this thought can be seen in the children’s story Tarzan, which tells the story of a white man who becomes the king of the jungle.

The Interests of Imperialist Powers

In the second half of the 19th century, each of the European powers had a distinct interest and, therefore, engaged in Imperialism differently.

The United Kingdom adopted different policies for each territory it possessed. As a general rule, areas with a predominance of European settlers gained the right to self-governance — as seen in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In India, where the population was varied and distinct from the European one, the British exerted greater control. Finally, in Africa and Asia, the subjugation of populations was much greater, and Britain sought to conquer more and more territories, because it wanted to counter the expansion of the United States and Germany, and wanted access to cheap products (amid a scenario of protectionism by France and Russia).

Portugal no longer had the glory of its Age of Discovery days but was able to exploit the forts it had built on the African coast since the 15th century. The great interest of the Portuguese was to claim what they considered their “historical right’: to unite Angola to Mozambique into a large territory. This idea was symbolized by the so-called “Pink Map,” which illustrated the joining of the two main Portuguese possessions in Africa. However, this project interfered with Britain’s ambitions, which wanted to build the Cape to Cairo Railway, to connect the African continent from North to South, from Cape Town (in South Africa) to Cairo (in Egypt). The British issued an ultimatum against the Portuguese, making them abandon their “historical right.”

An old map titled "MAPPA (ESBOÇO) TERRITORIO PORTUGUEZ EM AFRICA", which translates as "Map (Draft) Portuguese Territory in Africa", dated at the bottom as April 20, 1898. The map is colored in shades of pink and beige, indicating Portuguese territories in Africa at that period. Notable geographic features include the outline of the continent, with well-defined coastlines, and important rivers like the Zambeze and the Limpopo. There is a legend and a seal at the bottom, indicating it is an official document, possibly used during the colonial period for administrative purposes.
A version of the Pink Map, used by Portugal to illustrate its desire to control the area between Angola and Mozambique. Public domain image.

France had an ambiguous stance towards Imperialism. Initially, French society was not so enthusiastic about it — not even for its commercial aspects. However, there were factors that encouraged French expansion: Napoleon III’s imperial ambitions, the desire for revenge against Germany after the defeat of Paris in the German unification wars, and the wish to spread French culture worldwide. With the encouragement provided by these factors, France embarked on imperialist ventures. Later, French commercial sectors, linked to the ports of Bordeaux and Marseille, would come to defend the country’s participation in these ventures.

Italy and Germany were newly formed countries, which saw the acquisition of overseas possessions as a way to gain prestige. Italy was heavily populated and wanted to colonize North Africa to accommodate its people (instead of migrating to America) and recreate a kind of “Roman Empire.” In Germany, initially, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was against imperialism. However, he was forced to change his mind after encouraging the growth of groups favorable to expansionism for electoral reasons, and ended up being pressured by such entities. From 1890, without Bismarck but with Emperor Wilhelm II in power, Germany would fully enter the imperialist race through the so-called Weltpolitik (world policy).

Though a traditional Eurasian power, Russia had no great aspirations outside its neighborhood. In fact, it intended to expand at the expense of the countries around it, making their peoples adopt Russian culture. This was evident in the relations between the Russians and Eastern Europe, Siberia, and Manchuria. For example, due to a dispute over control of Manchuria and Korea, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) ensued — a conflict that was won by the Japanese. Following the Russian defeat, Britain realigned itself in terms of foreign policy, reinforcing its alliance with Japan while resolving various disputes with Russia in Central Asia, with the Anglo-Russian Convention (1907).

Among the most important European powers, the one that did not engage in Imperialism was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a dual monarchy, composed of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, sharing power. These states had little interest in overseas adventures, focusing instead on their geographical surroundings: the Balkans, a region that was politically volatile. Moreover, Austria-Hungary had limited access to the open sea, only through the Adriatic Sea, which hampered any efforts to conquer territories on other continents.

Imperialism in Africa and the Berlin Conference

Although European missionaries, traders, and explorers had been present in Africa before 1880, until that time, there was no interest in politically controlling the continent. Since the aim was merely to ensure the flow of trade, permanent occupation was considered costly and unnecessary. However, from the 1880s onwards, Europeans began to desire greater control over Africa, which stimulated the continent’s colonization.

These were some of the highlights of Imperialism in Africa:

  • Egypt: France and Great Britain forced the country to give up autonomous development, indebting it at increasingly unsustainable levels. For some experts, the partition of Africa began in 1869 with the inauguration of the Suez Canal — built by France and later managed by Great Britain. These countries disputed control over Egypt and Sudan to the south.
  • Morocco: This region was disputed by Germany, Spain, and France. German covetousness over it led to two Moroccan crises: the Tangier Crisis (1905) and the Agadir Crisis (1911). Eventually, Morocco was divided between the Spanish and the French, with Britain’s consent.
  • Malta and Cyprus: Both were occupied by the British.
  • Algeria and Tunisia: Both were occupied by the French.
  • Libya: It was invaded and occupied by the Italians.
  • Nigeria: Became a British colony, despite objections from a House of Commons Committee that was against Imperialism.
  • Zanzibar: This region was an important trading post, controlled by Muslim peoples. Britain and Germany disputed it and decided to share it through the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty (1890). This agreement provided that Zanzibar and some other nearby regions would be British, but they would renounce control over parts of Namibia and the island of Heligoland. This island is located in Northern Europe, and its position was strategic because it was close to German naval bases.
  • Ethiopia: The Italians attempted to invade this region but failed. The Ethiopians were an exception on their continent, as they were one of the few peoples not colonized.
  • South Africa: This region had first been dominated by the Dutch, but, at the Congress of Vienna, control over it had been awarded to Great Britain. When the British discovered minerals there, they sought to consolidate possession over the territory. However, the Boer peoples, descendants of the Dutch, opposed this and fought two Boer Wars. At the end of these conflicts, Britain emerged victorious and created the South African Union, a Dominion of the Crown with relative political autonomy.

The Congo region was particularly coveted by European powers, as it had abundant natural resource reserves and its location was favorable for distributing products throughout the African continent. Especially, Portugal, France, England, and Belgium were interested in the region. King Leopold II of Belgium was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of Congo’s occupation and, to achieve this, allied himself with explorer Henry Stanley. At the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), European countries decided that Leopold II could take possession of the region, because he promised to ensure free trade there and to defend the interests of the Congolese. However, the newly created Congo Free State was a resounding failure: the local population suffered numerous human rights abuses perpetrated by the Belgians, and Leopold was forced to cede control of his African possessions to the Belgian Parliament.

Black and white image showing a montage of photographs of various African children and adults. The eight individual images are presented on a page with ornate borders, each depicting a different person. Some of these people are shirtless, while others wear white pieces of clothing. All the individuals are posing with what appear to be amputated limbs, displaying absences of hands and/or arms. The photograph looks to be from a historical period, likely the late 19th or early 20th century, during the colonial era. The facial expressions range from neutral to serious, and each person is positioned facing or in profile to the camera. The image is a graphic and disturbing record of abuses committed during the era of colonialism.
Children who suffered mutilations during the Belgian colonization of the Congo. Public domain image.

A common misconception about the Berlin Conference is considering it as a meeting of Europe’s major statesmen to carry out the “Scramble for Africa”. In fact, this meeting was attended by second and third-tier representatives of European diplomacy, and its main purpose was only to resolve the controversy regarding the possession of the Congo. Moreover, in the discussions held in Berlin, the countries agreed on some principles that should guide Imperialism on the African continent:

  • Effective occupation of the territory: Imperialist countries were to notify each other when occupying a territory. The aim of this measure was to prevent disputes in anticipation, over regions that had not yet been occupied.
  • Prohibition of slavery: Contrary to what happened in the era of the Great Navigations, Europeans considered slavery as an immoral practice. For this reason, it would be prohibited.
  • Limitation on the sale of alcoholic beverages to Africans: This practice was also considered immoral.
  • Free movement of Catholic religious missions: Catholics and Protestants would have freedom to operate in any territories, regardless of the religion of their rulers.

Imperialism in Asia

In Asia, the main regions where Imperialism occurred were Indochina, India, and China:

  • Indochina: is the mainland part of Southeast Asia, where countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are located today. Indochina was occupied by France under Emperor Napoleon III in the second half of the 19th century. Since then, the French not only economically exploited the region but also contributed to developing local health and education systems. However, colonization also left deleterious marks on the subjugated population, which would lead to the formation of national liberation movements in the 20th century.
  • India: Although the French attempted to occupy it, Britain maintained control over the Indians since the beginning of European colonizations around the world. Colonial administration was managed by the East India Company, which prevented the formation of Indian manufactures, levied taxes, and repressed workers. Over time, movements contesting English dominance emerged, such as the Sepoy Mutiny (1857). India would only become an independent country in the 20th century, under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi.
  • China: China had a millennia-old tradition but was closed to trade with the rest of the world. In the mid-19th century, foreign powers began to show interest in forcing China to open up to trade. In this context, two Opium Wars were fought, in which Britain and France defeated the Chinese and forced them to cede territories, grant privileges to foreigners, and allow the sale of opium in the region. Additionally, to prevent Europeans from dominating China, the United States implemented the Open Door Policy (1889), according to which all powers should have access to China on equal terms.

A peculiar case of Imperialism in Asia was that of Japan, as the country did not suffer from foreign domination. Similar to China, Japan was also closed to foreign trade. In 1853, Commodore Perry, an American naval officer, attempted to force Japan to open up to the world. Japanese society quickly divided between those who defended the opening and those who wanted to maintain the status quo. This led to a civil war, which brought to power a modernizing group, led by Emperor Meiji, also known as Mutsuhito. He carried out reforms that transformed the country into an imperialist power, competing alongside Europeans and the United States for control of China and its surroundings.

Another peculiar case was that of Afghanistan and Thailand. Both of these countries remained relatively independent during the era of Imperialism. Afghanistan served as a buffer zone between Russia and British possessions in the Indian subcontinent. Thailand, then known as the Kingdom of Siam, acted as a buffer zone between British India and French Indochina. The Siamese attempted to mount a reaction against Imperialism but ended up being forced to accept the signing of unequal treaties with the Europeans.


Imperialism was not a continuation of the colonization process carried out by Europeans since the 15th century. In fact, it is a more recent phenomenon, initiated in the second half of the 19th century. Currently, it is considered that there were many factors driving European powers to conquer overseas territories: the search for new investments, the interest in stimulating nationalism, and the desire to undermine contestatory movements within Europe, for example. Each power had its own national interest to defend, and it served as a basis for territorial expansion around the globe. The main areas of Imperialism’s activity were Africa and Asia, but the effects of this phenomenon were felt worldwide. For some authors, for instance, the imperialist disputes were one of the main long-term causes of the outbreak of World War I.




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