World History Project - 1750 to the Present
Course: World History Project - 1750 to the Present > Unit 5Lesson 2: The System of Imperialism | 5.1
READ: Tools of Imperialism
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.
First read: preview and skimming for gist
Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.
Second read: key ideas and understanding content
Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- How are “colonialism” and “imperialism” different?
- What were some ways of thinking about the world that supported imperialism?
- What physical tools helped imperial powers to create empires?
- What is gunboat diplomacy?
- How did science sometimes function as a tool of imperialism?
- What is indirect rule?
Third read: evaluating and corroborating
Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
- The tools of imperialism were being developed at the same time as other transformations were reshaping the world. What are some connections you see between these tools and transformations like industrialization, the rise of capitalism, reformism, and liberal and nationalist political revolutions?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.
Tools of Imperialism
Painting of a large ship that has caught fire after being attacked by British forces. Some crew members are shown swimming away from the burning boat as others escape in row boats.
By Trevor Getz
Imperialism was the idea that launched a thousand ships. The leaders of industrial empires used the ideas of imperialism to support their actions around the world.
Imperialism is an idea—a belief that a society has a right, and perhaps a duty, to conquer or dominate other places and rule or subjugate other people. But the word is also often used to describe things that actually happen because of these ideas. For example, adventurers and armies travel abroad, and try to get other people to do what they want. Sometimes they do this without actually conquering and claiming control of these other communities. We call this "informal imperialism", because there is not a formal claim to sovereignty or the establishment of a colony. Sometimes, territories and people are actually conquered and a colony is established, creating another set of practices that we usually call "colonialism". In all cases, people's lives are changed and, sometimes, taken. Imperialism starts as an idea, but it has substantial consequences.
How does all of this happen? What are the physical methods, instruments, and technologies that help turn imperialism (the idea) into the imperialist practice of colonialism? The many different answers to these questions would fill several books, but here is our take on it.
Ways of thinking about the world
Of course, the first tool of imperialism is just the way pro-empire thinkers see the world. You know by now that in the long nineteenth century, empire promoted a variety of ideas. There was the incorrect belief that the people of the world could be divided by race, and that some races were better than others. There was another, similar belief that some people were civilized, while others were barbarians or savages who could be upgraded to "civilized" if they were taught to act differently. This encouraged the attitude that the imperial society should act like a "father", teaching and disciplining the "children" of the colonies.
Photo of British military men gathered outside the Hoyts de Luxe theater. They carry a banner that says “Honoring the memory of ‘Nelson’”
These ideas helped to justify the creation of empires in the age of industrialism. They also brought people together in organizations that supported imperialism, such as the American National Geographic Society or the British Navy League or, later, Japan's Imperial Rule Assistance Association. These organizations published books and messages to convince the public that empire was a good idea, and they lobbied their governments to expand the empire.
The tools of imperialism
Many tools of imperialism were abstract ideas, but there were also actual, physical tools. Industrial age weapons, for starters, allowed imperialists to coerce or conquer people with low-tech weapons. Railroads and steamships allowed imperialists to move armies, supplies, and administrators to control large and distant territories more effectively. New medicines allowed them to survive diseases that had previously kept them out of tropical areas. Telegraph and radio technology allowed imperial governments to communicate with their far-flung ships, governors, and agents. Imperialists used these and other industrial technologies to claim that they were superior to the people they wanted to rule.
Industrial empires with high-tech weapons or larger militaries could often bully other states into doing what they wanted, without ever invading or directly controlling them. This informal control is how Latin America, the Ottoman Empire, and China encountered imperialism. Britain, France, Japan, the United States, or another imperial power would demand something. Usually, this was something economic, like better trade deals or access to local markets. If the local government refused, the imperial power would send in a diplomat backed by a fleet or an army. Because imperial powers so often relied on powerful navies, it also became known as "gunboat diplomacy".
Cartoon drawing of US President Theodore Roosevelt running across the Caribbean Sea barefoot, carrying a baseball bat and pulling behind him a train of naval ships.
Knowledge was another tool of imperialism, used in at least two ways. First, as with technology, imperialists felt knowledge proved their superiority, and justified colonial rule. Scholars from the empire would visit a place that had nothing to do with them and claim that it was without knowledge. They would dismiss oral tradition, local knowledge, and skills that weren't industrial. They would reject ways of writing that differed from their formal disciplines like History or Anthropology. Similarly, they dismissed local religions as inferior to their own.
In a more practical way, imperial powers used knowledge they gained from traveling the world. Imperial ships didn't just carry soldiers and sailors; they also carried scientists. Science and empire were mutually reinforcing. Empires funded scientists to travel around the world, and those scientists encountered new knowledge that often benefited the empire in some way. The botanists, anthropologists, historians, and others who went to study foreign places were also, in some ways, acting as spies. They gathered knowledge about valuable resources as well as local politics and conditions that allowed armies and governments to march in and rule them.
The tools of rule
Once a colony was actually conquered or otherwise acquired, a new set of tools came into use. These were the tools of administration and bureaucracy. Colonial administrations created laws, and systems of government, that locals had to follow. Colonial subjects could not argue for what they needed, or appeal a bad situation, unless they followed these laws and used these courts. But the courts were often unfamiliar and didn't use the local languages. This gave the colonizers a great deal of power, since they made, interpreted, and enforced the laws. Local people could sometimes create pressure to change laws, but usually with limited success.
Photo of Indian currency worth 5 rupee. The currency is shaped like smaller, US bill and has a photo of King George V on the right side.
Money was another important tool of colonial rule. Colonialism brought conquered people under a new capitalist, industrial system. Colonial subjects suddenly had to work for wages and pay taxes. Many were perfectly happy to ignore the colonial government, if possible. But they were still forced to pay taxes. To pay taxes, they needed money. To get money, they needed to work for the people who had it.
And who had that money? Mostly companies that were run from the center of imperial power. These companies wanted to make profits and pay as little as possible to workers. Some ran the big rubber plantations of Southeast Asia, other companies bought the products that local people made. In West Africa, the price of cocoa was set by a board that was dominated by the big chocolate companies like Nestle and Cadbury. Obviously, they wanted to pay as little as possible to the cocoa growers to keep costs low and profits high.
The companies, on the other hand, paid very little in taxes. The colonial administration made money by taxing local populations, or by putting import taxes on manufactured goods going to the colonies. In particular, locals had to pay extra for goods imported from countries other than the imperial power. For example, British colonies put big taxes on goods coming to India from Japan, Siam, or France. They wanted sales to go to British companies. At the same time, these taxes helped pay the soldiers and administrators who ran the colony.
Colonies were expensive. Labor was cheap, but salaries for imperial administrators and soldiers were quite high. Colonial administrators needed a tool for keeping down those costs. Rebellion was also really costly, so administrators needed to prevent unrest.
The method they often used is called indirect rule. This was a strategy learned partly from the British experience in India, who in turn had learned from Mughal rule in South Asia before them. Indirect rule meant finding some locals and appointing them, at much lower salaries than Europeans (or Americans). Locals often acted as clerks, soldiers, and minor officials under supervision by citizens of the imperial power. Local labor was less expensive, and they also understood the local society better. Indirect rule, of course, had a weak spot. Local clerks, soldiers, and officials became experts on the imperial system. If they turned against colonial rule, the empire was in big trouble.
And finally, schools. In the colonies, schools were set up mostly to train locals in basic skills so they could serve as clerks, soldiers, and officials. They were to learn adding and subtraction, reading and writing, and the language of the colonizers. But schools did something else. They taught locals all of those ideas of imperialism—that they were inferior, that they were less civilized, and that all important knowledge came from the imperial power. This method was especially used in the colonies of European states. Again, there was an ironic problem here. Once people could read in the languages of Europe, they could read European thinkers who argued that everyone deserved liberty or equality, and use that to evaluate colonialism's legitimacy.
Photo of schoolchildren in Madagascar sitting at their desks with their teacher standing in the background.
So you see, everything comes back to ideas. Imperialism was a set of ideas that inspired actual practices and policies in the real world, namely colonialism. These were extremely unjust practices, in many cases. But along with colonialism and imperialist ideas, other ideas promoting freedom and individual sovereignty traveled around the world, and those ideas would be very difficult for colonial governments to control.
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.
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