University of Been The Age of Empire 1875-1914 Article Discussion

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required annotation is as follows: 1. Seven annotation that is spread out throughout the article.2. The annotation can be either a question, comment, ideas, or suggestion2. Each annotation is 2-3 sentence longLook for themes such as Capitalism, Social class, Power, Fossil fuels, Globalization, Industrial revolutions, energy and agriculture.

The Age of Empire
1875-1914
E.J. HOBSBAWM
VINTAGE BOOKS
A DIVISION OF RANDOM
NEW YORK
HOUSE, INC.
To the students ofBirk beck College
First Vintage Books Edition, April 1989
Copyright© 1987 by E.J. Hobsbawm
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York. Originally
published, in Great Britain, by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd., London, and
in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New
York, in 1987.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hobsbawm, E.J. (Eric].), 1917The age of empire, 1875-1914 / E.J. Hobsbawm.-1st Vintage Books ed.
p. cm.
Bibliography: p.
Includes index.
ISBN 0-679-72 I 75-4 (pbk.)
1. History, Modern-19th century. I. Title.
035 9 · 7.H63 I 989
909.81 -dc19
Manufactured in the United States of America
C 30
CHAPTER3
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
Only complete political confusion and naive optimism can prevent the recognition
that the unavoidable efforts at trade expansion by all civilized bourgeois-controlled
nations, after a transitional period
seemingly peaceful competition, are clearly
approaching the point where power alone will decide each nation’s share in the
economic control of the earth, and hence its people’s sphere activity, and especially
its workers’ earning potential.
of
of
Max Weber, 1894 1
of
( Whin ye get among th’Chinei . . . says [ the Emperor
Germany}, ( raymimber
that ye ar-re the van guard iv Christyanity’ he says, ( an’ stick ye’er baynet through
ivry hated infidel you see’ he says. ( Lave him understand what our westhern
civilisation means.. . . An’ if be chance ye shud pick up a little land be th’ way,
don’t lave e’er a Frinchman or Roosshan take it from ye.’
Mr Dooley’s Philosophy, 19002
I
A world economy whose pace was set by its developed or developing
capitalist core was extremely likely to turn into a world in which the
‘advanced’ dominated the ‘backward’; in short into a world of empire.
But, paradoxically, the era from 1875 to 1914 may be called the Age
of Empire not only because it developed a new kind of imperialism,
but also for a much more old-fashioned reason. It was probably the
period of modern world history in which the number of rulers officially
calling themselves, or regarded by western diplomats as deserving the
title of, ’emperors’ was at its maximum.
In Europe the rulers of Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey and (in
their capacity as lords of India) Britain claimed this title. Two of these
(Germany and Britain/India) were innovations of the 1870s. They
more than offset the disappearance of the ‘Second Empire’ ofNapoleon
III in France. Outside Europe, the rulers of China, Japan, Persia and 56
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
perhaps with a larger element of international diplomatic courtesy Ethiopia and Morocco were habitually allowed this title, while until
I 889 an American emperor survived in Brazil. One or two even more
shadowy ’emperors’ might be added to the list. In 1918 five of these
had disappeared. Today (1987) the only titular survivor of this select
company of super-monarchs is the ruler of]apan, whose political profile
is low and whose political i_nfluence is negligible.*
In a less trivial sense, our period is obviously the era of a new type
of empire, the colonial. The economic and military supremacy of the
capitalist countries had long been beyond serious challenge, but no
systematic attempt to translate it into formal conquest,·annexation and
administration had been made between the end of the eighteenth and
the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Between 1880 and 1914 it
was made, and most of the world outsid� Europe and the Americas was
formally partitioned into territories under the formal rule or informal
political domination of one or other of a handful of states: mainly Great
Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, the USA
and Japan. The victims of this process were to some extent the ancient
surviving pre-industrial European empires of Spain and Portugal, the
former – in spite of attempts to extend the territory under its control
in North-west Africa – more than the latter. However, the survival of
the major Portuguese territories in Africa (Angola and Mozambique),
which were to outlast other imperialist colonies, was due primarily to
the inability of their modern rivals to agree on the exact manner of
dividing them among themselves. No similar rivalries saved the relics
of the Spanish Empire in the Americas (Cuba, Puerto Rico) and in the
Pacific (the Philippines) from the USA in 1898. Nominally most of the
great traditional empires of Asia remained independent, though the
western powers carved out ‘zones of influence’ or even direct admin­
istration in them which could (as in the Anglo-Russian agreement over
Persia in 1907) cover their entire territory. In fact, their military and
political helplessness was taken for granted. Their independence rested
either on their convenience as buffer-states (as in Siam – now Thailand which divided the British and French zones in South-east Asia, or
Afghanistan, which separated Britain and Russia), on the inability of
rival imperial powers to agree on a formula for division, or on their
sheer size. The only non-European state which successfully resisted
formal colonial conquest when this was attempted was Ethiopia, which
held Italy at bay, the weakest of the imperial states.
Two major regions of the world were, for practical purposes, entirely
* The Sultan of Morocco prefers the title of ‘king’. None of the other surviving mini-sultans in
the Islamic world would or could be regarded as ‘kings of kings’.
57
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
divided up: Africa and the Pacific. No independent states were left at
all in the Pacific, now totally distributed among the British, French,
Germans, Dutch, USA and – still on a modest scale – Japan. By 1914,
except for Ethiopia, the insignificant West African republic of Liberia
and that part of Morocco which still resisted complete conquest, Africa
belonged entirely to the British, French, German, Belgian, Portuguese
and, marginally, Spanish empires. Asia, as we have seen, retained a
large and nominally independent area, though the older European
empires extended and rounded off their large holdings – Britain by
annexing Burma to its Indian empire and establishing or strengthening
the zone of influence in Tibet, Persia and the Persian Gulf area, Russia
by moving further into Central Asia and (less successfully) Pacific
Siberia and Manchuria, the Dutch by establishing firmer control in
outlying regions of Indonesia. Two virtually new empires were estab­
lished by the French conquest of Indochina, initiated in the period of
Napoleon III, and by the Japanese at China’s expense in Korea and
Taiwan (1895) and later more modestly at Russia’s expense (1905).
Only one major region of the globe remained substantially unaffected
by this process of partition. The Americas in 1914 were what they had
been in 1875, or for that matter in the 1820s, a unique collection of
sovereign republics, with the exception of Canada, the Caribbean
islands and parts of the Caribbean littoral. Except for the USA, their
political status rarely impressed anyone but their neighbours. It was
perfectly understood that economically they were dependencies of the
developed world. Yet even the USA, which increasingly asserted its
political and military hegemony in this vast area, did not seriously try
to conquer and administer it. Its only direct annexations were limited
to Puerto Rico (Cuba was allowed an admittedly nominal inde-,
pendence) and a narrow strip along the new Panama Canal, which
formed part of another small and nominally independent republic
detached from the rather larger Colombia for this purpose by a con­
venient local revolution. In Latin America economic domination and
such political arm-twisting as was necessary was conducted without
formal conquest. The Americas, of course, were the only major region
of the globe in which there was no serious rivalry between great powers.
Except for the British, no European state possessed more than the
scattered relics of (mainly Caribbean) eighteenth-century colonial
empire, which were of no great economic or other significance. Neither
the British nor anyone else saw a good reason for antagonizing the
USA by challenging the Monroe Doctrine.*
* This doctrine, first stated in 1823 and subsequently repeated and elaborated by US govern­
ments, expressed hostility to any further colonization or political intervention by European powers
in the western hemisphere. This was later taken to mean that the USA was the only power with
58
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
This partition of the world among a handful of states, which gives
the present volume its title, was the most spectacular expression of
that growing division of the globe into the strong and the weak, the
‘advanced’ and the ‘backward’, which we have already noted. It was
also strikingly new. Between 1876 and 1915 about one-quarter of the
globe’s land surface was distributed or redistributed as colonies among
a half-dozen states. Britain increased its territories by some 4 million
square miles, France by some 3.5 millions, Germany acquired more
than I million, Belgium and Italy just under I million each. The USA
acquired some I 00,000, mainly from Spain, Japan something like the
same amount from China, Russia and Korea. Portugal’s ancient
African colonies expanded by about 300,000 square miles; Spain, while
a net loser (to the USA), still managed to pick up some stony territory
in Morocco and the Western Sahara. Russian imperial growth is more
difficult to measure, since all of it was into adjoining territories and
continued some centuries of secular territorial expansion of the tsarist
state; moreover, as we shall see, Russia lost some territory to Japan. Of
the major colonial empires only the Dutch failed, or refused, to acquire
new territory, except by extending their actual control over Indonesian
islands which they had long formally ‘owned’. Of the minor ones,
Sweden liquidated its only remaining colony, a West Indian island, by
selling it to France, and Denmark was about to do the same – retaining
only Iceland and Greenland as dependencies.
What is most spectacular is not necessarily most important. When
observers of the world scene in the later I 890s began to analyse what
obviously seemed a new phase in the general pattern of national and
international development, notably different from the free-trading and
freely competing liberal world of the mid-century, they saw the creation
of colonial empires merely as one of its aspects. Orthodox observers
thought they discerned, in general terms, a new era of national expan­
sion in which (as we have suggested) political and economic elements
were no longer clearly separable and the state played an increasingly
active and crucial role both at home and abroad. Heterodox observers
analysed it more specifically as a new phase of capitalist development,
arising out of various tendencies which they discerned in this develop­
ment. The most influential among these analyses ofwhat was soon called
‘imperialism’, Lenin’s little book of 1916, actually did not consider ‘the
division of the world among the great powers’ until the sixth of his ten
chapters. 3
Nevertheless, if colonialism was merely one aspect of a more general
change in world affairs, it was plainly the most immediately striking.
a right to interfere anywhere in that hemisphere. As the USA grew more powerful, the Monroe
Doctrine was taken more seriously by European states.
59
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
It formed the point of departure for wider analyses, for there is no
doubt that the word ‘imperialism’ first became part of the political and
journalistic vocabulary during the 1890s in the course of the arguments
about colonial conquest. Moreover that is when it acquired the econ­
omic dimension which, as a concept, it has never since lost. That is why
references to the ancient forms of political and military aggrandizement
on which the term is based are pointless. Emperors and empires were
old, but imperialism was quite new. The word (which does not occur
in the writings of Karl Marx, who died in I 883) first entered politics
in Britain in the I 870s, and was still regarded as a neologism at the end
of that decade. It exploded into general use in the 1890s. By 1900, when
the intellectuals began to write books about it, it was, to quote one of
the first of them, the British Liberal J. A. Hobson, ‘on everybody’s lips
… and used to denote the most powerful movement in the current
politics of the western world’ . 4 In short, it was a novel term devised to
describe a novel phenomenon. This evident fact is enough to dismiss
one of the many schools in the tense and highly charged ideological
debate about ‘imperialism’, namely the one which argues that it was
nothing new, perhaps indeed that it was a mere pre-capitalist survival.
It was, at any rate, felt to be new and was discussed as a novelty.
The arguments which surround this touchy subject are so
impassioned, dense and confused that the first task of the historian is
to disentangle them so that the actual phenomenon can be seen for
itself. For most of the arguments have not been about what happened
in the world of 1875-1914 but about Marxism, a subject which is apt
to raise strong feelings; for, as it happens, the (highly critical) analysis
of imperialism in Lenin’s version was to become central to the rev­
olutionary Marxism of the communist movements after 1917 and to
the revolutionary movements of the ‘third world’. What has given the
debate a special edge is that one side in it appears to have had a slight
built-in advantage, for those supporters and opponents of imperialism
have been at each other’s throats since the 1890s, the word itself has
gradually acquired, and is now unlikely to lose, a pejorative colouring.
Unlike ‘democracy’, which even its enemies like to claim because of its
favourable connotations, ‘imperialism’ is commonly something to be
disapproved of, and therefore done by others. In 1914 plenty of poli­
ticians were proud to call themselves imperialists, but in the course of
our century they have virtually disappeared from sight.
The crux of the Leninist analysis (which frankly based itself on a
variety of contemporary writers, both Marxian and non-Marxian) was
that the new imperialism had economic roots in a specific new phase
of capitalism, which, among other things, led to ‘the territorial division
of the world among the great capitalist powers’ into a set of formal and
60
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
would have denied, that the division of the globe had an economic
dimension. To demonstrate this is not to explain everything about the
imperialism of the period. Economic development is not a sort of
ventriloquist with the rest of history as its dummy. For that matter,
even the most single-minded businessman pursuing profit into, say,
the South African gold- and diamond-mines, can never be treated
exclusively as a money-making machine. He was not immune to the
political, emotional, ideological, patriotic or even racial appeals which
were so patently associated with imperial expansion. Nevertheless, if
an economic connection can be established between the tendencies of
economic development in the capitalist core of the globe at this time
and its expansion into the periphery, it becomes much less plausible to
put the full weight of explanation on motives for imperialism which
have no intrinsic connection with the penetration and conquest of the
non-western world. And even those which appear to have, such as the
strategic calculations of rival powers, must be analysed while bearing
the economic dimension in mind. Even today politics in the Middle
East, which are far from explicable on simple economic grounds, cannot
be realistically discussed without considering oil.
Now the major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of
a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote
corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic trans­
actions, communications and movements of goods, money and people
linking the developed countries with each other and with the un­
developed world (see The Age of Capital, chapter 3). Without this there
was no particular reason why European states should have taken more
than the most fleeting interest in the affairs of, say, the Congo basin or
engaged in diplomatic disputes about some Pacific atoll. This glo­
balization of the economy was not new, though it had accelerated
considerably in the middle decades of the century. It continued to
grow – less strikingly in relative terms, but more massively in terms of
volume and numbers – between 1875 and 1914. European exports had
indeed grown more than fourfold between 1848 and 1875, while they
only doubled from then until 1915. But the world’s merchant shipping
had only risen, between 1840 and 1870, from IO to 16 million tons,
whereas it doubled in the next forty years, as the world’s railway
network expanded from a little over 200,000 kilometres (1870) to over
1 million kilometres just before the First World War.
This tightening web of transport drew even the backward and pre­
viously marginal into the world economy, and created a new interest
among the old centres of wealth and development in these remote areas.
Indeed, now that they were accessible many of these regions seemed at
first sight to be simply potential extensions of the developed world,
62
-THE AGE OF EMPIRE
which were already being settled and developed by men and women
of European stock, extirpating or pushing back the native inhabitants,
generating cities and doubtless, in due course, industrial civilization:
the USA west of the Mississippi, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
South Africa, Algeria, the southern cone of South America. The pre­
diction, as we shall see, was off the mark. Nevertheless, though often
remote, such areas were in contemporary minds distinct from those
other regions where, for climatic reasons, white settlement was unat­
tractive, but where – to quote a leading imperial administrator of the
time – ‘the European may come, in small numbers, with his capital,
his energy and his knowledge to develop a most lucrative commerce,
and obtain products necessary to the use of his advanced civilisation’ . 5
For that civilization now had need of the exotic. Technological
development now relied on raw materials which, for reasons of climate
or the hazards of geology, were to be found exclusively or profusely in
remote places. The internal-combustion engine, that typical child of
our period, relied on oil and rubber. Oil still came overwhelmingly
from the USA and Europe (Russia and, a long way behind, Rumania)
but already the oilfields of the Middle East were the subject of intensive
diplomatic confrontation and horse-trading. Rubber was exclusively a
tropical product, extracted by the atrocious exploitation of natives in
the rainforests of the Congo and the Amazon, the target of early
and justified anti-imperialist protest. In due course it was extensively
cultivated in Malaya. Tin came from Asia and South America. Non­
ferrous metals of previously negligible importance became essential for
the steel alloys required by high-speed technology. Some of these were
freely available in the developed world, notably the USA, but others
were not. The new electrical and motor industries hungered for one of
the most ancient metals, copper. Its major reserves, and eventually
producers, were in what the late twentieth century called the Third
World: Chile, Peru, Zaire, Zambia. And, of course, there was the
constant and never satisfied demand for the precious metals which, in
this period, turned South Africa into by far the greatest gold-producer
in the world, not to mention its wealth of diamonds. Mines were the
major pioneers in opening up the world to imperialism, and all the
more effective because their profits were sensational enough to justify
also the construction of feeder-railways.
Quite apart from the demands of a new technology, the growth of
mass consumption in the metropolitan countries produced a rapidly
expanding market for foodstuffs. In sheer volume this was dominated
by the basic foodstuffs of the temperate zone, grain and meat, now
produced cheaply and in vast quantities in several zones of European
settlement-in North and South America, Russia and Australasia. But it
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
also transformed the market for the products long and characteristically
known (at least in German) as ‘colonial goods’ and sold by the grocers
of the developed worlds: sugar, tea, coffee, cocoa and its derivatives.
With rapid transport and conservation, tropical and sub-tropical fruits
became available: they made possible the ‘banana republic’.
Britons, who had consumed 1.5 lb of tea per head in the 1840s and
3.26 lb in the 1860s, were consuming 5.7lb in the 1890s – but this
represented an average annual import of 224 million lb compared with
less than 98 millions in the 1860s and about 40 millions in the 1840s.
While the British abandoned what few cups of coffee they had drunk
to fill their teapots from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Americans and
Germans imported coffee in ever more spectacular quantities, notably
from Latin America. In the early 1900s New York families consumed
1 lb of coffee per week. The Quaker beverage and chocolate manu­
facturers of Britain, happy in dispensing non-alcoholic refreshment, got
their raw material from West Africa and South America. The canny
Boston businessmen who founded the United Fruit Company in 1885
created private empires in the Caribbean to supply America with the
previously insignificant banana. The soap manufacturers, exploiting
the market which first demonstrated to the full the capacities of the new
advertising industry, looked to the vegetable oils of Africa. Plantations,
estates and farms were the second pillar of imperial economies. Metro­
politan traders and financiers were the third.
These developments did not change the shape and character of the
industrialized or industrializing countries, though they created new
branches of big business whose fortunes were closely tied to those of
particular parts of the globe, such as the oil companies. But they
transformed the rest of the world, inasmuch as they turned it into a
complex of colonial and semi-colonial territories which increasingly
evolved into specialized producers of one or two primary products for
export to the world market, on whose vagaries they were entirely
dependent. Malaya increasingly meant rubber and tin, Brazil coffee,
Chile nitrates, Uruguay meat, Cuba sugar and cigars. In fact, with
the exception of the USA, even the white-settler colonies failed to
industrialize (at this stage) because they too were caught in this cage
of international specialization. They could become exceedingly pros­
perous, even by European standards, especially when inhabited by free
and, in general, militant European immigrants with political muscle in
elected assemblies, whose democratic radicalism could be formidable,
though it usually stopped short of including the natives.* A European
* In fact, white democracy usually excluded them from the benefits won for white skins, or
even refused to consider them as fully human.
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
wishing to emigrate in the Age of Empire would probably have done
better to move to Australia, New Zealand, Argentina or Uruguay than
anywhere else, including the USA. All these countries developed labour
and radical-democratic parties, or even governments, and ambitious
systems of public social welfare and security (New Zealand, Uruguay)
long before European states did. But they did so as complements to the
European (i.e. essentially British) industrial economy, and hence it did
not pay them – or at any rate the interests committed to exporting
primary products – to industrialize. Not that the metropoles would
have welcomed their industrialization. Whatever the official rhetoric,
the function of colonies and informal dependencies was to complement
metropolitan economies and not to compete with them.
The dependent territories which did not belong to what has been
called (white) ‘settler capitalism’ did not do so well. Their economic
interest lay in the combination of resources with a labour force which,
consisting of ‘natives’, cost little and could be kept cheap. Nevertheless
the oligarchies oflandowners and compradore traders – local, imported
from Europe or both – and, where they had them, their governments,
benefited from the sheer length of the period of secular expansion for
their region’s export staples, interrupted only by short-lived, though
sometimes (as in Argentina in 1890) dramatic crises generated by trade
cycle, overspeculation, war and peace. However, while the First World
War disrupted some of their markets, the dependent producers were
remote from it. From their point ofview the era ofempire, which began
in the late nineteenth century, lasted until the Great Slump of 192933. All the same, in the course of this period they were to become
increasingly vulnerable, as their fortunes were increasingly a function
of the price of coffee (which by 1914 already produced 58 per cent of
the value ofBrazilian and 53 per cent of Colombian exports), ofrubber
and tin, of cocoa, beef or wool. But until the vertical fall in the price of
primary commodities during the 1929 slump, this vulnerability did
not seem of much long-term significance compared to the apparently
unlimited expansion of exports and credits. On the contrary, as we
have seen, before I 914 the terms of trade appeared to be, if anything,
running in favour of the primary producers.
Nevertheless, the growing economic significance ofsuch areas for the
world economy does not explain why, among other things, there should
have been a rush by the leading industrial states to carve up the globe
into colonies and spheres of influence. The anti-imperialist analysis of
imperialism has suggested various reasons why this should have been
so. The most familiar ofthese, the pressure ofcapital for more profitable
investment than could be ensured at home, investment secure from the
rivalry of foreign capital, is the least convincing. Since British capital
65
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
exports expancied enormously in the last third of the century, and
indeed the income from such investments became essential for the
British balance of payments, it was natural enough to connect the ‘new
imperialism’ with capital exports, as J. A. Hobson did. But there is no
denying that very little indeed of this massive flow went to the new
colonial empires: most of British foreign investment went to the rapidly
developing and generally old white-settler colonies, soon to be recog­
nized as virtually independent ‘dominions’ (Canada, Australia, New
Zealand, South Africa), and to what might be called ‘honorary’
dominions such as Argentina and Uruguay, not to mention the USA.
Moreover, the bulk of such investment (76 per cent in 1913) took the
form of public loans to railways and public utilities which certainly
paid better than investment in the British government debt – an average
of 5 per cent as against an average of 3 per cent – but were equally
certainly less lucrative than the profits of industrial capital at home,
except no doubt for the bankers organizing them. They were supposed
to be secure rather than high-yield investments. None of this means
that colonies were not acquired because some group of investors did
not expect to make a killing, or in defence of investments already made.
Whatever the ideology, the motive for the Boer War was gold.
A more convincing general motive for colonial expansion was the
search for markets. The fact that this was often disappointed is irrel­
evant. The belief that the ‘overproduction’ of the Great Depression
could be solved by a vast export drive was widespread. Businessmen,
always inclined to fill the blank spaces on the map of world trade with
vast numbers of potential customers, would naturally look for such
unexploited areas: China was one which haunted the imagination of
salesmen – what if every one of those 300 millions bought only one box
of tin-tacks? – and Africa, the unknown continent, was another. The
Chambers of Commerce of British cities in the depressed early 188os
were outraged by the thought that diplomatic negotiations might
exclude their traders from access to the Congo basin, which was believed
to offer untold sales prospects, all the more so as it was being developed
as a paying proposition by that crowned businessman, King Leopold
n of the Belgians. 7 (As it happened, his favourite method of exploitation
by forced labour was not designed to encourage high per capita
purchases, even when it did not actually diminish the number of
customers by torture and massacre.)
But the crux of the global economic situation was that a number of
developed economies simultaneously felt the same need for new markets.
If they were sufficiently strong their ideal was ‘the open door’ on the
markets of the underdeveloped world; but if not strong enough, they
hoped to carve out for themselves territories which, by virtue of own66
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
ership, would give national business a monopoly position or at least a
substantial advantage. Partition of the unoccupied parts of the Third
World was the logical consequence. In a sense, this was an extension
of the protectionism which gained ground almost everywhere after r879
(see previous chapter). ‘If you were not such persistent protectionists,’
the British premier told the French ambassador in 1897, ‘you would
not find us so keen to annex territories.’8 To this extent the ‘new
imperialism’ was the nitural by-product of an international economy
based on the rivalry of several competing industrial economies, inten­
sified by the economic pressures of the r88os. It does not follow that
any particular colony was expected to turn into Eldorado by itself,
though this is what actually happened in South Africa, which became
the world’s greatest gold-producer. Colonies might simply provide
suitable bases or jumping-off points for regional business penetration.
That was clearly stated by an official of the US State Department
round the turn of the century, when the USA followed international
fashion by making a brief drive for a colonial empire of its own.
At this point the economic motive for acquiring some colonial terri­
tory becomes difficult to disentangle from the political action required
for the purpose, for protectionism of whatever kind is economy oper­
ating with the aid of politics. The strategic motive for colonization
was evidently strongest in Britain, which had long-established colonies
which were crucially placed to control access to various zones of land
and sea believed to be vital to Britain’s worldwide commercial and
maritime interests or, with the rise of the steamship, which could
function as coaling stations. (Gibraltar and Malta were old examples
of the first, Bermuda and Aden turned out to be useful examples of the
second.) There was also the symbolic or real significance for robbers of
getting an appropriate share of loot. Once rival powers began to carve
up the map of Africa or Oceania, each naturally tried to safeguard
against an excessive portion (or a particularly attractive morsel) going
to the others. Once the status of a great power thus became associated
with raising its flag over some palm-fringed beach (or, more likely, over
stretches of dry scrub), the acquisition of colonies itself became a status
symbol, irrespective of their value. Around 1900 even the USA, whose
kind of imperialism has never before or since been particularly associ­
ated with the possession of formal colonies, felt obliged to follow the
fashion. Germany deeply resented the fact that so powerful and dynamic
a nation as herself should own so notably smaller a share of colonial
territory than the British and the French, though her colonies were of
little economic and less strategic interest. Italy insisted on capturing
notably unattractive stretches of African desert and mountain in order
to back her standing as a great power; and her failure to conquer
67
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
,,
II j
Ethiopia in 1896 undoubtedly lowered that standing.
For if great powers were states which acquired colonies, small powers
had, as it were, ‘no right’ to them. Spain lost most of what remained
of her colonial empire as a consequence of the Spanish-American War
of 1898. As we have seen, plans to partition the remainder of Portugal’s
African empire between the new colonialists were seriously discussed.
Only the Dutch quietly kept their rich and ancient colonies (mainly in
South-east Asia), and the King of the Belgians, as we have also seen,
was permitted to carve out his private domain in Africa on condition
that he allowed it to be accessible to all, because no great power was
willing to give others a significant share of the great basin of the Congo
river. One ought, of course, to add that there were large tracts of Asia
and the Americas where, for political reasons, massive share-outs of
territory by European powers were out of the question. In the Americas
the situation of the surviving European colonies was frozen by the
Monroe Doctrine: only the USA had freedom of action. In most of
Asia, the struggle was for spheres of influence in nominally independent
states, notably China, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Exceptions to
this were the Russians and the Japanese – the former successful in
extending their area in Central Asia but unsuccessful in acquiring
chunks of north China, the latter acquiring Korea and Formosa
(Taiwan) as a result of a war with China in 1894-5. The main zones
of competitive land-grabbing were thus, in practice, in Africa and
Oceania.
Essentially strategic explanations of imperialism have thus attracted
some historians, who have tried to account for the British expansion in
Africa in terms of the need to defend the routes to, and the maritime
and terrestrial glacis of, India against potential threats. It is indeed
important to recall that, speaking globally, India was the core ofBritish
strategy, and that this strategy required control not only over the short
sea-routes to the subcontinent (Egypt, the Middle East, the Red Sea,
Persian Gulf and South Arabia) and the long sea-routes (the Cape of
Good Hope and Singapore), but over the entire Indian Ocean, includ­
ing crucial sectors of the African coast and its hinterland. British
governments were keenly aware of this. It is also true that the dis­
integration of local power in some areas crucial for this purpose, such
as Egypt (including the Sudan), drew the British into establishing a
much greater direct political presence than originally intended, and
even into actual rule. Yet these arguments do not invalidate an econ­
omic analysis of imperialism. In the first place, they underestimate the
directly economic incentive to acquire some African territories, of which
Southern Africa is the most obvious. In any case the scramble for West
Africa and the Congo was primarily economic. In the second place
68
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
they overlook the fact that India was the ‘brightest jewel in the imperial
crown’ and the core of British global strategic thinking precisely because
of her very real importance to the British economy. This was never
greater than at this time, when anything up to 60 per cent of British
cotton exports went to India and the Far East, to which India was the
key- 40-45 per cent went to India alone- and when the international
balance of payments of Britain hinged on the payments surplus which
India provided. In the third place, the disintegration of indigenous local
governments, which sometimes entailed the establishment of European
rule over areas Europeans had not previously bothered to administer,
was itself due to the undermining of local structures by economic
penetration. And, finally, the attempt to prove that nothing in the
internal development of western capitalism in the I 88os explains the
territorial redivision of the world fails, since world capitalism in this
period clearly was different from what it had been in the 1860s. It
now consisted of a plurality of rival ‘national economies’ ‘protecting’
themselves against each other. In short, politics and economics cannot
be separated in a capitalist society, any more than religion and society
in an Islamic one. The attempt to devise a purely non-economic expla­
nation of the ‘new imperialism’ is as unrealistic as the attempt to devise
a purely non-economic explanation of the rise of working-class parties.
In fact, the rise of labour movements or more generally of democratic
politics (see next chapter) had a distinct bearing on the rise of the ‘new
imperialism’. Ever since the great imperialist Cecil Rhodes observed in
1895 that if one wanted to avoid civil war one must become imperialist, 9
most observers have been aware of so-called ‘social imperialism’, i.e. of
the attempt to use imperial expansion to diminish domestic discontent
by economic improvements or social reform or in other ways. There is
no doubt at all that politicians were perfectly aware of the potential
benefits of imperialism. In some cases – notably Germany – the rise of
imperialism has been explained primarily in terms of ‘the primacy of
domestic politics’. Probably Cecil Rhodes’ version of social imperialism,
which thought primarily of the economic benefits that empire might
bring, directly or indirectly, to the discontented masses, was the least
relevant. There is no good evidence that colonial conquest as such had
much bearing on the employment or real incomes of most workers in
the metropolitan countries,* and the idea that emigration to colonies
would provide a safety-valve for overpopulated countries was little
more than a demagogic fantasy. (In fact, never was it easier to find
* In individual cases empire might be useful. The Cornish miners left the declining tin-mines
of their peninsula en masse for the goldfields of South Africa, where they earned a great deal of
money and died even earlier than usual from lung disease. The Cornish mine-owners, at less risk
to their lives, bought themselves into the new tin-mines of Malaya.
69
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
somewhere to emigrate to than between I 880 and I g I 4, and only a
tiny minority of emigrants went to anyone’s colonies – or needed to.)
Much more relevant was the familiar practice of offering the voters
glory rather than more costly reforms: and what was more glorious
than conquests of exotic territories and dusky races, especially as these
were usually cheaply won? More generally, imperialism encouraged
the masses, and especially the potentially discontented, to identify
themselves with the imperial state and nation, and thus unconsciously
to endow the social and political system represented by that state with
justification and legitimacy. And in an era of mass politics (see next
chapter) even old systems required new legitimacy. Here again, con­
temporaries were quite clear about this. The British coronation cer­
emony of 1902, carefully restyled, was praised because it was designed
to express ‘the recognition, by a free democracy, of a hereditary crown,
as a symbol of the world-wide dominion of their race’ (my emphasis). In short,
empire made good ideological cement.
How effective this specific variant of patriotic flag-waving was is not
quite clear, especially in countries where liberalism and the more radical
left had acquired strong anti-imperial, anti-military, anti-colonial or
more generally anti-aristocratic traditions. There is little doubt that in
several countries imperialism was extremely popular among the new
middle and white-collar strata, whose social identity largely rested on
a claim to be the chosen vehicles of patriotism (see chapter 8 below).
There is much less evidence of any spontaneous enthusiasm of the
workers for colonial conquests, let alone wars, or indeed of any great
interest in the colonies, new or old (except those of white settlement).
Attempts to institutionalize pride in imperialism, as by establishing an
‘Empire Day’ in Britain (1902), largely relied for their success on
mobilizing the captive audiences of school-children. (The appeal of
patriotism in a more general sense will be considered below.)
Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny that the idea of superiority to,
and domination over, a world of dark skins in remote places was
genuinely popular, and thus benefited the politics of imperialism. In
its great International Expositions (see The Age of Capital, chapter 2)
bourgeois civilization had always gloried in the triple triumphs of
science, technology and manufactures. In the era of empires it also
gloried in its colonies. At the end of the century ‘colonial pavilions’,
hitherto virtually unknown, multiplied: eighteen complemented the
Eiffel Tower in 1889, fourteen attracted the tourists in Paris in 1900. 11
No doubt this was planned publicity, but like all really successful
propaganda, commercial or political, it succeeded because it touched
a public nerve. Colonial exhibits were a hit. British jubilees, royal
funerals and coronations were all the more impressive because, like
70
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
ancient Roman triumphs, they displayed submissive maharajahs in
jewelled robes – freely loyal rather than captive. Military parades
were all the more colourful because they contained turbaned Sikhs,
moustached Rajputs, smiling and implacable Gurkhas, Spahis and tall
black Senegalese: the world of what was considered barbarism at
the service of civilization. Even in Habsburg Vienna, uninterested in
overseas colonies, an Ashanti village magnetized the sightseers. The
Douanier Rousseau was not the only man to dream of the tropics.
The sense of superiority which thus united the western whites, rich,
middle-class and poor, did so not only because all of them enjoyed the
privileges ofthe ruler, especially when actually in the colonies. In Dakar
or Mombasa the most modest clerk was a master, and accepted as a
‘gentleman’ by people who would not even have noticed his existence
in Paris or London; the white worker was a commander of blacks. But
even where ideology insisted on at least potential equality, it was
dissolved into domination. France believed in transforming its subjects
in Frenchmen, notional descendants (as school textbooks insisted, in
Timbuctoo and Martinique as in Bordeaux) of’nos ancetres les gaulois’
(our ancestors the Gauls), unlike the British, convinced of the essential
and permanent non-Englishness of Bengalis and Yoruba. Yet the very
existence of these strata of native evolues underlined the lack of ‘evolu­
tion’ ofthe great majority. The Churches set out to convert the heathen
to various versions of the true Christian faith, except where actively
discouraged by colonial governments (as in India) or where the task
was clearly impossible (as in Islamic regions).
This was the classic age of massive missionary endeavour.* Mission­
ary effort was by no means an agency of imperialist politics. Often it
was opposed to the colonial authorities; pretty well always it put the
interests of its converts first. Yet the success of the Lord was a function
of imperialist advance. Whether trade followed the flag may still be
debated, but there is no doubt at all that colonial conquest opened the
way for effective missionary action – as in Uganda, Rhodesia (Zambia
and Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi). And if Christianity insisted
on the equality of souls, it underlined the inequality of bodies – even
of clerical bodies. It was something done by whites for natives, and
paid for by whites. And though it multiplied native believers, at least
half the clergy remained white. As for a coloured bishop, it would
require a powerful microscope to detect one anywhere between 1880
and I g 14. The Catholic Church did not consecrate its first Asian bishops
* Between 1876 and 1902 there were 119 translations of the Bible, compared to 74 in the
previous thirty years and 40 in the years 1816–45. The number of new Protestant missions in
Africa during the period 1886–95 was twenty-three or about three times as many as in any
previous decade. 12
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
until the 1920s, eighty years after observing how desirable such a
development would be. 13
As for the movement most passionately devoted to the equality of all
men, it spoke with two voices. The secular left was anti-imperialist in
principle and often in practice. Freedom for India, like freedom for
Egypt and Ireland, was the objective of the British labour movement.
The left never wavered in its condemnation of colonial wars and con­
quests, often – as in the British opposition to the Boer War – at
considerable risk of temporary unpopularity. Radicals revealed the
horrors of the Congo, in metropolitan cocoa plantations on African
islands, in Egypt. The campaign which led to the great electoral
triumph of the British Liberal Party in 1906 was largely waged by
public denunciations of ‘Chinese slavery’ in the South African mines.
Yet, with the rarest exceptions (such as Dutch Indonesia), western
socialists did little actually to organize the resistance of colonial peoples
to their rulers, until the era of the Communist International. Within
the socialist and labour movement those who frankly accepted imperial­
ism as desirable, or at least an essential stage in the history of peoples
not yet ‘ready for self-governu1ent’, were a minority on the revisionist
and Fabian right wing, though many trade union leaders probably
thought discussions about colonies were irrelevant, or considered col­
oured peoples primarily as cheap labour threatening sturdy white
workers. Certainly the pressure to ban coloured immigrants, which
established the ‘White California’ and ‘White Australia’ policies
between the 1880s and 19 I 4, came primarily from the working class,
and Lancashire unions joined with Lancashire cotton””.masters to insist
that India must remain deindustrialized. Internationally, socialism
before 1914 remained overwhelmingly a movement of Europeans and
white emigrants or their descendants (see chapter 5 below). Colonialism
remained marginal to their interests. Indeed, their analysis and defin­
ition of the new ‘imperialist’ phase of capitalism, which they detected
from the later 1890s, rightly saw colonial annexation and exploitation
simply as one symptom and characteristic of that new phase: undesir­
able, like all its characteristics, but not in itself central. Few were the
socialists who, like Lenin, already had their eye fixed on the ‘inflamm­
able material’ on the periphery of world capitalism.
Insofar as the socialist (i.e. mainly Marxist) analysis of imperialism
integrated colonialism into a much wider concept of a ‘new phase’ of
capitalism, it was undoubtedly right in principle, though not necessarily
in the details of its theoretical model. It was also sometimes too inclined,
as indeed were contemporary capitalists, to exaggerate the economic
significance of colonial expansion for metropolitan countries. The
imperialism of the late nineteenth century was undoubtedly ‘new’. It
jiiiiiiiD
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
was the child of an era of competition between rival industrial-capitalist
national economies which. was new and which was intensified by the
pressure to secure and safeguard markets in a period of business uncer­
tainty (see chapter 2 above); in short, it was an era when ‘tariff and
expansion become the common demand of the ruling class’. 14 It was
part of a process of turning away from a capitalism of the private and
public policies of laissez-faire, which was also new, and implied the rise
of large corporations and oligopolies as well as the increased inter­
vention of the state in economic affairs. It belonged to a period when
the peripheral part of the global economy became increasingly sig­
nificant. It was a phenomenon that seemed as ‘natural’ in 1900 as it
would have appeared implausible in 1860. But for this link between
the post-1873 capitalism and expansion into the unindustrialized world,
it is doubtful whether even ‘social imperialism’ would have played such
part as it did in the domestic politics of states adapting themselves
to mass electoral politics. All attempts to divorce the explanation of
imperialism from the specific developments of capitalism in the late
nineteenth century must be regarded as ideological exercises, though
often learned and sometimes acute.
II
This still leaves us with the questions about the impact of western (and
from the 1890s Japanese) expansion on the rest of the world, and
about the significance of the ‘imperial’ aspects of imperialism for the
metropolitan c.ountries.
The first of these questions can be answered more quickly than the
second. The economic impact of imperialism was significant, but, of
course, the most significant thing about it was that it was profoundly
unequal, for the relationship between metropoles and dependencies was
highly asymmetrical. The impact of the first on the second was dramatic
and decisive, even without actual occupation, whereas the impact of
the second on the first might be negligible, and was hardly ever a matter
of life or death. Cuba stood or fell by the price of sugar and the
willingness of the USA to import it, but even quite small ‘developed’
countries – say Sweden – would not have been seriously inconvenienced
if all Caribbean sugar had suddenly disappeared from the market,
because they did not depend exclusively on that area for sugar. Virtually
all the imports and exports of any region in sub-Saharan Africa came
from or went to a handful of western metropoles, but metropolitan
trade with Africa, Asia and Oceania, while increasing modestly between
1870 and 1914, remained quite marginal. About 80 per cent of Euro73
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
pean trade throughout the nineteenth century, both exports and
imports, was with other developed countries, and the same is true of
European foreign investments. 15 Insofar as these were directed overseas,
they went mostly to a handful of rapidly developing economies mainly
populated by settlers of European descent – Canada, Australia, South
Africa, Argentina, etc. – as well as, of course, to the USA. In this sense
the age of imperialism looks very different when seen from Nicaragua
or Malaya than it does from the point of view of Germany or France.
Among the metropolitan countries imperialism was obviously of
greatest importance to Britain, since the economic supremacy of that
country had always hinged on her special relationship with the overseas
markets and sources of primary products. In fact it is arguable that at
no time since the industrial revolution had the manufactures of the
United Kingdom been particularly competitive on the markets of
industrializing economies, except perhaps during the golden decades
of 1850–70. To preserve as much as possible of its privileged access to
the non-European world was therefore a matter of life and death for
the British economy. 16 ln the late nineteenth century it was remarkably
successful in doing so, incidentally expanding the area officially or
actually under the British monarchy to a quarter of the surface of the
globe (which British atlases proudly coloured red). If we include the
so-called ‘informal empire’ of independent states which were in effect
satellite economies of Britain, perhaps one-third of the globe was British
in an economic, and indeed cultural, sense. For Britain exported even
the peculiar shape of her post-boxes to Portugal, and so quintessentially
British an institution as Harrods department store to Buenos Aires. But
by 1914 much of this zone of indirect influence, especially in Latin
America, was already being infiltrated by other powers.
However, not a great deal of this successful defensive operation had
much to do with the ‘new’ imperialist expansion, except that biggest
of bonanzas, the diamonds and gold of South Africa. This generated a
crop of (largely German) instant millionaires – the Wernhers, Beits,
Ecksteins, et al. – most of whom were equally instantly incorporated
into British high society, never more receptive to first-generation money
if it was splashed around in sufficiently large quantities. It also led to
the greatest of colonial conflicts, the South African War of 1899-1902,
which eliminated the resistance of two small local republics of white
peasant settlers.
Most of Britain’s overseas success was due to the more systematic
exploitation of Britain’s already existing possessions or of the country’s
special position as the major importer from, and investor in, such areas
as South America. Except for India, Egypt and South Africa, most
British economic activity was in countries which were virtually inde74
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
pendent, like the white ‘dominions’, or areas like the USA and Latin
America, where British state action was not, or could not be, effectively
deployed. For in spite of the cries of pain emanating from the Cor­
poration of Foreign Bondholders (established during the Great
Depression) when faced with the well-known Latin practice of sus­
pending debt-payment or paying in devalued currency, the government
did not effectively back its investors in Latin America, because it could
not. The Great Depression was a crucial test in this respect, because,
like later world depressions (including the one of the 1970s and 1980s)
it led to a major international debt crisis, which put the banks of the
metropolis at serious risk. The most the British government could do
was to arrange for the great house of Baring to be saved from insolvency
in the ‘Baring crisis’ of 1890, when that bank had, as banks will,
ventured too freely into the whirlpools of defaulting Argentinian
finance. If it backed investors with diplomacy of force, as it increasingly
did after 1905, it was to support them against entrepreneurs of other
countries backed by their own governments, rather than against the
larger governments of the dependent world.*
In fact, taking the good years with the bad, British capitalists did
rather well out of their informal or ‘free’ empire. Almost half of all
Britain’s long-term publicly issued capital in 1914 was in Canada,
Australia and Latin America. More than half of all British savings were
invested abroad after 1900.
Of course Britain took her share of the newly colonialized regions of
the world, and, given British strength and experience, it was a larger
and probably more valuable share than that of anyone else. If France
occupied most of West Africa, the four British colonies in this area
controlled ‘the denser African populations, the larger productive
capacities, and the preponderance of trade’ . 17 Yet the British object was
not expansion but defence against others encroaching upon territories
hitherto, like most of the overseas world, dominated by British trade
and British capital.
Did other powers benefit proportionately from their colonial expan­
sion? It is impossible to say, since formal colonization was only one
aspect of global economic expansion and competition, and, in the case
of the two major industrial powers, Germany and the USA, not a
major aspect of it. Moreover, as we have already seen, for no country
* There were a few instances of gunboat economics – as in Venezuela, Guatemala, Haiti,
Honduras and Mexico – but they do not seriously modify this picture. Of course British govern­
ments and capitalists, faced with the choice between local parties or states favouring British
economic interests and those hostile to them, would not refrain from backing the side helpful to
British profits: Chile against Peru in the ‘War of the Pacific’ (187g-82), the enemies of President
Balmaceda in Chile in 1891. The issue was nitrates.
75
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
‘I
other than Britain (with the possible exception of the Netherlands)
was a special relationship with the non-industrial world economically
crucial. All we can say with fair confidence is this. First, the drive for
colonies seems to have been proportionately stronger in economically
less dynamic metropolitan countries, where it served to some extent as
a potential compensation for their economic and political inferiority to
their rivals – and, in the case of France, her demographic and military
inferiority. Second, in all cases there were particular economic groups notably those associated with overseas trade and industries using over­
seas raw materials – pressing strongly for colonial expansion, which
they naturally justified by the prospects of national advantage. Third,
while some of these groups did rather well out of such expansion – the
Compagnie Franc;aise de l’Afrique Occidentale paid dividends of 26
per cent in 1913 18 – most of the actual new colonies attracted little
capital and their economic results were disappointing.* In short, the
new colonialism was a by-product of an era of economic-political
rivalry between competing national economies, intensified by pro­
tectionism. However, insofar as the metropolitan trade with the colonies
almost invariably increased as a percentage of its total trade, that
protectionism was modestly successful.
Yet the Age of Empire was not only an economic and political but
a cultural phenomenon. The conquest of the globe by its ‘developed’
minority transformed images, ideas and aspirations, both by force and
institutions, by example and by social transformation. In the dependent
countries this hardly affected anyone except the indigenous elites,
though of course it must be remembered that in some regions, such as
sub-Saharan Africa, it was imperialism itself, or the associated phenom­
enon of Christian missions, which created the possibility of new social
elites based on education in the western manner. The division between
‘francophone’ and ‘anglophone’ African states today exactly mirrors
the distribution of the French and British colonial empires. t Except in
Africa and Oceania, where Christian missions sometimes secured mass
conversions to the western religion, the great mass of the colonial
populations hardly changed their ways onife if they could help it. And,
to the chagrin of the more unbending missionaries, what indigenous
peoples adopted was not so much the faith imported from the west as
those elements in it which made sense to them in terms of their own
* France did not even succeed in integrating her new colonies fully into a protectionist system,
though in 1913 55 per cent of the French Empire’s trade was with the home country. Unable to
break the already established economic links of these areas to other regions and metropoles,
France had to buy a large share of her needs in colonial products – rubber, skins and leather,
tropical timber – via Hamburg, Antwerp and Liverpool.
t Which, after 1g18, divided the former German colonies between them.
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
system of beliefs and institutions, or demands. Just like the sports
brought to Pacific islanders by enthusiastic British colonial admin­
istrators (so often selected from among the more muscular products of
the middle class), colonial religion often looked as unexpected to the
western observer as Samoan cricket. This was so even where the faithful
nominally followed the orthodoxies of their denomination. But they
were also apt to develop their own versions of the faith, notably in
South Africa-the one region in Africa where really massive conversions
took place-where an ‘Ethiopian movement’ seceded from the missions
as early as 18 92 in order to establish a form of Christianity less identified
with the whites.
What imperialism brought to the elites or potential elites of the
dependent world was therefore essentially ‘westernization’. It had, of
course, begun to do so long before then. For all governments and elites
of countries faced with dependency or conquest it had been clear for
several decades that they had to westernize or go under (see The Age of
Capital, chapters 7, 8 , n). And, indeed, the ideologies which inspired
such elites in the era of imperialism dated back to the years between
the French Revolution and the mid-nineteenth century, as when they
took the form of the positivism of August Comte ( 1798-1857), a moder­
nizing doctrine which inspired the governments of Brazil, Mexico and
the early Turkish Revolution (see pp. 284, 2 90 below). Elite resistance
to the west remained westernizing even when it opposed wholesale
westernization on grounds of religion, morality, ideology or political
pragmatism. The saintly Mahatma Gandhi, wearing loincloth and
bearing a spindle (to discourage industrialization), was not only sup­
ported and financed by the owners of mechanized cotton-factories
in Ahmedabad * but was himself a western-educated lawyer visibly
influenced by western-derived ideology. He is quite incomprehensible
if we see in him only a Hindu traditionalist.
In fact, Gandhi illustrates the specific impact of the era of imperialism
rather well. Born into a relatively modest caste of traders and money­
lenders not previously much associated with the westernized elite
which administered India under British superiors, he nevertheless
acquired a professional and political education in England. By the late
1880s this was so accepted an option for ambitious young men from his
country that Gandhi himself began to write a guide-book to English
life for prospective students of modest circumstances such as himself.
Written in superb English, it advised them on everything from the
journey by P & o steamer to London and how to find lodgings, to ways
* ‘Ah,’ one such patroness is supposed to have exclaimed, ‘ifBapuji only knew what it costs to
keep him in poverty!’
77
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
of meeting the diet requirements of the pious Hindu and how to get
used to the surprising western habit of shaving oneself rather than
having it done by a barber.19 Gandhi clearly saw himself neither as an
unconditional assimilator nor as an unconditional opponent of things
British. As many pioneers of colonial liberation have done since, during
their temporary stay in the metropole, he choose to move in western
circles which were ideologically congenial – in his case those of British
vegetarians, who may safely be taken as being in favour of other
‘progressive’ causes also.
Gandhi learned his characteristic technique of mobilizing tra­
ditionalist masses for non-traditionalist purposes by means of passive
resistance, in an environment created by the ‘new imperialism’. It was,
as one might expect, a fusion of western and eastern elements for he
made no secret of his intellectual debt to John Ruskin and Tolstoi.
(Before the I 88os the fertilization of Indian political flowers by pollen
carried from Russia would have been inconceivable, but by the first
decade of the new century it was already common among Indian, as it
was to be among Chinese and Japanese radicals.) South Africa, the
boom country of diamonds and gold, attracted a large community of
modest immigrants from India, and racial discrimination in this novel
setting created one of the few situations in which the non-elite Indians
were ready for modern political mobilization. Gandhi gained his pol­
itical experience and won his political spurs as the champion of Indian
rights in South Africa. He could hardly as yet have done the same in
India itself, where he eventually returned – but only after the outbreak
of the 1914 war – to become the key figure in the Indian national
movement.
In short, the Age of Empire created both the conditions which formed
anti-imperialist leaders and the conditions which, as we shall see
( chapter 1 2 below), began to give their voices resonance. But, of course,
it is an anachronism and a misunderstanding to present the history of
the peoples and regions brought under the domination and influence
of the western metropoles primarily in terms of resistance to the west.
It is an anachronism because, with exceptions to be noted below, the
era of significant anti-imperial movements begins for most regions at
the earliest with the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and
a misunderstanding, because it reads the text of modern nationalism independence, the self-determination of peoples, the formation of ter­
ritorial states, etc. (see chapter 6 below) – into a historical record which
did not yet, and could not yet, contain it. In fact, it was the westernized
elites which first made contact with such ideas through their visits to
the west and through the educational institutions formed by the west,
for that is where they came from.Young Indian students returning from
78
p
THE AGE OF EMPIRE
Britain might bring with them the slogans of Mazzini and Garibaldi, but
as yet few of the inhabitants of the Pandjab, let alone of regions like
the Sudan, would have the slightest idea of what they could mean.
The most powerful cultural legacy of imperialism was, therefore, an
education in western ways for minorities of various kinds: for the
favoured few who became literate and therefore discovered, with or
without the assistance of Christian conversion, the high road of ambition
which wore the white collar of the clergyman, teacher, bureaucrat or
office worker. In some regions it also included those who acquired new
ways as soldiers and policemen of the new rulers, wearing their clothes,
adopting their peculiar ideas of time, place and domestic arrangement.
These, of course, were the minorities of potential movers and shakers,
which is why the era of colonialism, brief even by the measure of a
single human life, has left such lasting effects. For it is a surprising fact
that in most parts of Africa the entire experience of colonialism from
original occupation to the formation of independent states, fits within
a single lifetime – say that of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965).
What of the opposite effect of the dependent world on the dominant?
Exoticism had been a by-product of European expansion since the
sixteenth century, though philosophical observers in the age of Enlight­
enment had more often than not treated the strange countries beyond
Europe and European settlers as a sort of moral barometer of European
civilization. Where they were plainly civilized, they could illustrate the
institutional deficiencies of the west, as in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters;
where they were not, they were apt to be treated as noble savages
whose natural and admirable comportment illustrated the corruption of
civilized society. The novelty of the nineteenth century was that non­
Europeans and their societies were increasingly, and generally, treated
as inferior, undesirable, feeble and backward, even infantile. They were
fit subjects for conquest, or at least for conversion to the values of the
only real civilization, that represented by traders, missionaries and
bodies of armed men full of firearms and fire-water. And in a sense
the values of traditional non-western societies increasingly became
irrelevant to their survival in an age when force and military technology
alone counted. Did the sophistication of imperial Peking prevent the
western barbarians from burning and looting the Summer Palace more
than once? Did the elegance of elite culture in the declining Mughal
capital, so beautifully portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s The Chessplayers,
hold up the advancing British? For the average European, such people
became objects of contempt. The only non-Europeans they took to
were fighters, preferably those who could be recruited into their own
colonial armies (Sikhs, Gurkhas, Berber mountaineers, Afghans,
Beduin). The Ottoman Empire earned a grudging respect, because
79

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