Though the term “Imperialism” was first used to refer to the expansionist policies of Napoleon I, and is frequently associated with the colonial rule of the European states over other countries, ‘imperialism’ is as old as Empire is. Referring to its long history D. K. Lake says, “It is one of the oldest known political institutions, characterizing relations between peoples in ancient Mesopotamia, China, and Rome through modern Europe” (7232). While defining imperialism, scholars often are found to be blindfolded by its negative impacts. For an instance, Michael Parenti depends on the economic exploitations of imperialism as the basis of his definition, as he says, “By imperialism I mean the process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people” (24).
Different Trends in the Definitions of Imperialism
A true impartial tone about the core nature of imperialism is Lake’s definition, as he says, “Imperialism is a form of international hierarchy in which one political unit, or polity, effectively governs or controls another polity” (7232). Since Lake’s political perspective focuses on the core political aspect of imperialism, it, though implicitly, implicates other aspects also through the two terms “effectively governs or control” and “another polity”. The term “effective control” refers to suppressions in various economic and cultural forms because the dominant polity in imperialism cannot assimilate “another polity” within itself by obliterating the otherness and the distance that prevails between the dominant and the dominated. Lake refers to this failure of the imperialistic dominant to shed the otherness as a primary cause of suppression in the following quote: “Exploitation of the weak by the strong is not essential to imperialism, but it is an often natural outgrowth of effective domination. The affinity between domination and exploitation explains the typically pejorative status of the term.” (7232) In fact, the definition of imperialism is such that it cannot shed off its oppressive and repressive apparels.
Difference between Imperialism and the First Stage of European Colonialism
The existential basis of Imperialism essentially lies in the early European Colonialism. Though the overall concept of imperialism is different from early European colonialism, the underlying motif to rule the weaker people is existent at the core of these two forms of dominance. Indeed the later one is more associated with the political systems of ruling the people of an area than the colonialism is. Whereas imperialism depends on the systemic ruling to prolong the rule and maximize the output from it, colonialism tends to extract the benefits from an area irrespective of its welfare. This indifference to the wellbeing of the area as well as the people evolves from the mercantilist policies of the first stage of European Colonialism. Mercantilist policy of the early European colonialism was depended the search of resources that were intended to feed the growing need for raw materials of the newly emerging mills and factories during the industrial revolution. But during the increasing defeat of the British Colonial power in America and the growth of trade -among the existing colonialist European state and the colonies under their control- rendered a new twist on the old mercantilist policies of the early colonialism. Soon the direct exploitation of the areas and the nations took a more disguised form of power that was exercised through a systematic ruling. Shadow authority of the government of ruling countries replaced the economic interest groups in the colonies. Thus at the end of the first stage of colonialism, Imperialism strengthened its hold on their colonies. Through the whole history of Imperialism tends to disguise itself in subtler but more effective form of power in the face of increasing uprising and awareness of the people in their subjugated area.
Industrial Revolution and the Emergence of Imperialism
Industrial Revolution was one, but not the only, reason that provided the foundation of the Empires, as Fieldhouse says, “Modern empires were not artificially constructed economic machines. [it]…..was a complex historical process in which political, social and emotional forces in Europe and on the periphery were more influential than calculated imperialism” (281). During the later half of the 18th century, Industrial Revolution, both directly and indirectly, contributed to the rise of Imperialism. Being backed by the knowledge of science and the inventions of new technology, innumerous industries, mills and factories started to bloom all over Europe. Consequently the local resources ran short to feed these industries. Also due to the expansion of trade and commerce, the European countries needed to find new resources as well as new markets for the products. During the same period, technology based transport system contribute to the mobility of goods and people. Consequently the industry-based economy in industrialized Europe functioned as incentives to conquer the weaker nations and to capture their resources. The tendency of the industrialized countries behind capturing the overseas resources was to be the direct owner rather than paying for what they needed for their industries. It is widely accepted that Britain and France were the two colonial powers that initiated the imperial expansion and captures of the weaker countries by force. Elaborating the British interests in the imperialist expansion, Gareth Austin says, “Industrial-Revolution technology enabled British firms not only to take over the overseas markets….to make great inroads into the domestic markets of handicraft industries in Asia and Africa” (5). The technology-blessed military power also inspired to go into warfare with the weaker nations and subjugate them. Another factor that contributed to turn the colonial authorities into imperial power was the competition among the countries for strengthening hold on the world economy and market. One of the prerequisites to win the competition was prolong their rule through systematic and effective control. The emergence of Capitalism is considered as one of the crucial factors that contributed to the Imperialistic expansion of trade and business. In fact, capitalism itself is based on the idea of expansion, as Parenti says,
“A central imperative of capitalism is expansion. Investors will not put their money into business ventures unless they can extract more than they invest…The capitalist ceaselessly searches for ways of making more money in order to make still more money. …Given its expansionist nature, capitalism has little inclination to stay home” (49).
American, British and French Models of Imperialism
The commonality among the American, British and French Imperialisms is that all these three were motivated by an intention to hold markets and to feed the demand for cheap labor. But American imperialism stands alone because of some of its dominants features that the British and the French imperialism lack. Along with the economic interests, a moral and civilizing tone underlies the American imperialism. That Christianity is “god’s chosen” path of life and it should be spread over the heathen nations motivated the American Frontiers during the later half of the 19th century. Regarding the moral tone of American Imperialism Michael Streich says,
“As a “Christian” nation that saw itself as “God’s chosen,” many Americans viewed imperialism as a way of spreading the Christian Gospel to so-called “heathen nations.” This motive was a part of President William McKinley’s decision to keep the Philippines. The United States had a moral duty to uplift peoples in lands considered uncivilized”. (3)
Indeed this moralizing motivation prevented the Frontiers of the 1890s from being mere economic plunderer and exploiter, and to differentiate themselves from other Imperialists along this line. In this sense, the American Empires emerged as an Expansionist power that was morally willing to assimilate the captured area within its own ruling body as well as to provide the dominants with the scope to decide about own wellbeing, though such American morals behind its expansionist view took time to be fully actualized. But the British as well as the French Imperialisms were devoid of any morality that motivated them to establish their empires on economic premises. This commercial perspective of the two empires perpetually contributed to the distance between the dominant and the dominated. Now though the age of British and French types of imperialism ended, a new era of economic imperialism has begun.
Merits and Demerits of Imperialism
Imperial rule in an area has both merits and demerits. But the merits are essentially the legacies of imperialism. An imperial state, even if it is not motivated by any moral zeal like some of the empires, would develop the infrastructures, such as buildings, roads, communications systems, etc in the captured areas. As well, in order to employ, cheap labor available in those areas the imperialist trained people to create skilled manpower. Thus the people receive both knowledge and infrastructural properties from the dominants. Also being in touch with the people of superior culture, the dominated culture is changed towards a better end. During the first half of the 20th century, the imperialists had an attempt to justify their imperialistic presence in different areas of the world. Such a trend for justification was a common characteristic of modern imperialists, Winston Churchill was found to justify the British Imperialism: “[The aim of British Empire is] to give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to place the earliest seeds of commerce and learning” (Churchill 149). But there has always been a question as to whether these promises of an Empire are real or to what extent the Empire can adhere to these promises. But the negative impacts of imperialism on the subjugated area simply outweigh the positive ones. Torture, poverty, illiteracy, exploitation etc are often associated with imperial power (Hobson 39-47).
The term ‘Imperialism’ along with its historical connotation has been defined by different scholars in different ways, but the underlying commonality of the definitions refer to a form of domination of one political, socio-cultural and economic unit of geographical area over the others as one of the primary characteristics of imperialism. Necessarily the definitions of imperialism often include the cross-national implications of the dominations such economic, social, cultural and political implications. The connotation of ‘Imperialism’ is impregnated with the historical implications of the subjugation of various geographical areas by the powerful nations at different periods.
Austin, Gareth. “Economic Imperialism”, November 21, 2010. Available at
Churchill, Winston. The River War. London: Kissinger Publishing. 2004
Fieldhouse, Michael. “The Myth of Economic Exploitation”, Historical problems of imperial Africa. (Eds. Robert O. Collins, James McDonald Burns). London: Markus Weiner. 1994.
Hobson, A. John. Imperialism: A Study. London: Ben Pub.1902
Lake, D. Kelly. “Imperialism: Political Aspects”, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 2001. 20 November, 2010. Available at
Parenti, Michael. Against Empire. New York: City Light Books. 1995.
Streich, Michael. “American Imperialism in the 1890s”, January 10, 2010. November 21, 2010. available at