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The White Man's Burden

While millions of Europeans landed on foreign shores with knapsacks on their backs, others were running ashore with gun in hand. The Europeans with guns weren’t fighting wars, though. They were civilizing the “uncivilized.” During the nineteenth century, the leading nations of Europe developed an insatiable appetite for colonizing and expanding empires, much the way the expansionist French, English, and Spanish had done in the 1500s. The European nations were of course looking for new markets and new raw materials for manufacturing. The European powers were locked in a fierce competition and they needed more land and more wealth. Places like Africa had just what the Europeans needed.

The only problem with colonizing Africa was that Africa was inhabited by millions of native Africans. To justify taking land and resources away from other peoples, not just in Africa but in India and other places, Europeans developed a sense of “responsibility.” They believed that Europe was responsible for taking civilization to the barbarians in the primitive and uncivilized parts of the world. The “White Man’s Burden,” or the “burden of civilized Europeans to civilize the uncivilized,” made it easier for nineteenth-century Europeans to practice an imperialism that was in some ways similar to and in some ways different from the old imperialism. In no place was this imperialism demonstrated more than in Africa. What resulted was a rush to snatch up as much land as possible before the other countries did. The late 1800s proved to be a bad time to live in the Third World.

New vs. Old Imperialism

Historians have adopted the terminology “old imperialism” and “new imperialism” to distinguish between the two distinct periods of imperialism and expansion in European history. The old imperialism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries featured primarily Portugal, Spain, England, and France exploring uncharted lands in search of gold and other treasures (see Chapter 6). These nations also hoped to find new lands full of souls that could be added to their kingdoms. There was indeed a sense of competition among the European powers that drove them to explore and colonize. Under the system of old imperialism, natives suffered from all sorts of things brought on by Europeans including slavery, war, and disease. In extreme cases, entire civilizations died off from war, disease, or both.

Would You Believe?

It would be nearly impossible to calculate accurately the number of non-Europeans conquered during old imperialism. It is estimated under the system of new imperialism, though, that the Europeans managed to conquer or subjugate about half the world's non-European population.

The new imperialism occurred in the late nineteenth century and shares some similarities with old imperialism. The new imperialists also wanted natural resources not available in their homelands, including gold, diamonds, tea, and more. Like the old imperialism, indigenous peoples suffered heavy population losses. With the invention of the rapid-fire guns toward the end of the 1800s, the indigenous peoples of Africa had no chance at all. There were several documented incidents of tens of thousands of natives being executed or killed in combat by European imperialists. Also like the old imperialism, new imperialism grew partly out of a sense of competition among major European powers including Britain, France, Germany, and Italy.

But new imperialism was unique, too. In the nineteenth century, imperialism was motivated at least partly by the enormous population pressure in Europe and the desire of smaller nations like Britain to have a place for the population to overflow. Also, new imperialism involved the search not only for new sources of raw materials but also for new markets for manufactured goods. In some ways, industrialization encouraged imperialism. There were plenty of intangible reasons for imperialism, too.

Justification for Imperialism

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), born in India and educated in England, earned a great deal of popularity for writing stories like the children’s favorite The Jungle Book. However, Kipling also earned a measure of notoriety for his poem White Man's Burden. Written in 1899 to encourage the United States to invest in the development and the civilization of the Philippines, the poem reflects much of the sentiment of Europeans toward imperialism. The following lines epitomize the odd sense of duty Europeans claimed:

Take up the White Manburden

The savage wars of peace

Fill full the mouth of Famine

And bid the sickness cease;

Europeans saw Africans, native Australians, Pacific Islanders, and others as primitive savages plagued by war, poverty, disease, and ignorance. The sense of duty to “civilize” the nonwhite peoples of the unindustrialized lands ranged from genuine religious and humanitarian concerns at one end of the spectrum to snobbery and arrogance at the other. Some Europeans wanted to spread Christianity while others

wanted to prove that the nonwhite peoples were inferior beings. Many believed that administration of the nonwhite people by European governments would keep the savages safe from tribal warfare.

Would You Believe?

Darwin's theories appalled the religious community because his theory of evolution appeared to contradict the Biblical account of creation.

Many Europeans justified the expansion into Africa and other unindustrialized areas by calling the moves “social Darwinism.” Charles Darwin (1809-1882) built upon an already-existing theory called evolution. In his shocking books On the Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), he outlined his take on evolution and natural selection. He maintained that species that are weaker tend to die out and species with superior traits tend to survive, hence the idea of “survival of the fittest.” Contemporary Europeans applied this idea to imperialism. They pointed out that the stronger species, Europeans, would eventually overrun or stamp out the inferior species, the nonwhites, simply by laws of nature. These Europeans saw imperialism as part of the natural order of things.

Continental Quotes

“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life."

—Cecil Rhodes, demonstrating the typical European sense of superiority during the nineteenth century.

India under British rule serves as a perfect example of such ideology. The British followed the Portuguese into India in the 1600s, but had more staying power. The powerful British East India Company succeeded in subjugating India in its entirety by the mid-1800s. Indians tried to get rid of the oppressive British for centuries, having one last go at it in 1857 and 1858. The British put down the Great Rebellion and continued to rule India. A tiny detachment of Brits administered the government there. They were elitists who considered the Indians inferior just as other Europeans thought of Africans. The British did bring some improvements to India, including some education and massive miles of railways. However, except for a few Indians who worked as government officials, the majority of the Indian population saw no change in their quality of life.

The Land Grab in Africa

Colonization of Africa occurred relatively late in the nineteenth century for the most part. The French had settlers in Algeria earlier in the century, as did the British and Dutch in South Africa. The Dutch were in South Africa first, but the British took it from them. After 1850, the descendants of the Dutch in South Africa, called Boers or Afrikaners, declared their independence from Britain. Portugal had a few holdings along the African coast.

Would You Believe?

It was during the scramble for African land that the dark side of new imperialism really showed. For example, during the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, as the British dominated Sudan with the machine gun, the British suffered about 50 deaths and 500 wounded while the Sudanese lost 10,000 men, with 15,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoner.

Aside from those European-dominated areas, Africa remained free from European rule until about 1880. After 1880, the European powers fell into a feeding frenzy and tried to gobble up as much African land as they could. Twenty years later, the whole continent “belonged” to Europe. The British grabbed South Africa, Rhodesia, Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and some smaller states. Included in the British takeover was the violent Boer War against the Boers. The French ended up with Madagascar, French West Africa, the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Algeria, and French Equatorial Africa. The Italians managed to hang on to Libya and parts of Somalia, while the Germans clung to Cameroon, German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, and Togo.

Belgium got the Belgian Congo, which they ruled ruthlessly. Ethiopia and Liberia managed to maintain relative independence, although Italy would attempt to colonize Ethiopia in the twentieth century. As the land grab unfolded, nations picked sides, worked together, plotted against others, and basically created a diplomatic nightmare that eventually would lead to heated rivalries and showdowns.

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