Imperialism: Then and Now
In the nineteenth century, European powers were in a race to amass greater territories, power and wealth. As a result, they went all over the world in search for new lands to conquer and peoples to work for them. During this time, they established dominion and authority over people of other lands and countries. These European countries, joined later by Japan and the United States engaged in imperialism, not only in extending their borders but more so in subjugating peoples and showing themselves as a superior race compared to those they conquered.
The new imperialism of the late nineteenth century could be attributed to the industrial expansion of European countries and their competition to get natural resources that could fuel their economies, factories and other industrial activities. It was also an effort on the part of these European countries to secure their national interest because economic power would also mean greater political power, not only in their own countries but in the whole continent. Almost all of the major powers at the turn of the century engaged in imperialism and colonialism all over the world.
Soon enough, however, imperialism was not only about economic power and territories, it also became a subjugation of cultures and the destruction of more than just the natural resources of the conquered places. The cultural fabric of societies was also impinged upon by Europeans and a lot of traditional societies fell to the sway of the imperialists. The experience of Africa and most of Asia testify to this. Even in the twenty-first century, the impact of Imperialism could still be felt and the dominant countries during the
Impact of Imperialism and Colonialism
Imperialism is a package—it is meant to dominate and impose cultural and economic structures on those who are conquered by the Imperialist. If Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart would be used as a basis, the ethnic and tribal system of governance and justice were supplanted by what the British implemented. Christianity, as practiced by the British, was also imposed upon the natives and dramatically changed their religious views and beliefs.
In the case of the Igbo ethnic group, where Achebe’s main character Okonkwo belonged, Christianity, together with British institutions became dominant. By the time that Okonkwo returned to his clan after his exile, the traditions and systems they knew were no longer the same. The British already imposed on them their own version of how things should be run and how the natives should follow.
The results of these impositions were confusion, strife and a growing sense of inferiority and acceptance of white rule among the natives. Okonkwo wanted war as a tool of reasserting the tribal traditions, beliefs and systems. Yet, the Igbo tribe did not have the drive and the desire to fight the White Men because of fear. The British justified these impositions on the grounds that the natives were primitive and that what they bring are superior systems and structures to what the natives already have. On the part of the British, they felt that they were bringing civilization and enlightenment to the natives of Africa. While this good intention was there, the consequences of the impositions were hardly laudable and the cultural fabric of the tribes is never the same.
Bringing enlightenment and progress to the world seems to be the battle cry of imperialism and expansionism. They considered themselves as the light of the world and everything else was in darkness. The White Man then had the responsibility to go out into all the world to bring the light into the darkness. Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden exemplify the irony of all these efforts—the White Man went to war in order to bring peace, they created roads and buildings but these were not accessible to the natives—these were also for the use of other White Men in foreign lands.
Social Darwinism holds that societies evolve using the principle of Darwinism and survival of the fittest. As such, societies were in competition for the goods and other items that could bring them improvement along the evolutionary path. This line of thinking flows from the deterministic point of view that views history as a progressive narrative and that human societies are on the path to becoming better and better.
Throughout the development and evolution of humans, social instincts and sentiments also developed to enable some groups to become more dominant than others. Those who do not have the tools and the resources needed to survive in the highly competitive social world will likely perish and be relegated to extinction. As the Europeans and White Men realized their superiority over other societies that did not have the same level of industrialization that they do, they realized that they have to compete for limited natural resources and finite wealth all over the world.
Social Darwinism permeated the thinking of academics and governments during the turn of the nineteenth century. Most of European countries realized the competition that they have with other countries for resources that could lead them to the becoming a better society. On the other hand, other sectors in imperialistic countries then appealed to religion and the need to bring enlightenment and progress to the rest of the world. Against this backdrop of mixed intentions, imperialism advanced throughout the known world.
In Achebe’s novel, the District Commissioner who was to write about the The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger considered the society of the Igbo as a lower form of civilization and thus justified the intervention of the British in their natural way of life and of doing things. Such view also elevated the British, at least in the novel, as a highly superior culture and society compared to what the natives had.
Kipling’s poem depicted other peoples as wild, sullen and even “half-devil.” Such remarks point out the prevailing thoughts about what would be termed as “savages” in Africa and elsewhere in the world. The White Man’s burden is really to himself. Sharing knowledge and empowering other peoples are but secondary to securing wealth, honor and power for the White Man’s own country. Imperialism has its many faces. It has a good face, especially when philanthropy is at stake. Yet, it has more ugly faces in the form of cultural destruction, subjugation, racism and outright suppression of the rights of other peoples to their independence and harnessing their own natural resources.
If imperialism could be seen as an attitude and not only as the actual act of occupying another country, then the world now still has its shares of imperialists using modern methods. The United States of America is being viewed by a number of countries in the world as exhibiting the new face of imperialism under the guise of promoting democracy in the world.
As the only remaining Superpower in the world, it seems to say to the rest of the world that it is in charge of peace keeping and of making the world safe. While this may be a laudable intent, many observers point out that the US is but perpetuating its economic interests in its War on Terror. Perhaps so. The bases of the war have never been proven. What is difficult to establish, however, is the direct link between the occupation of Iraq and the economic interests of the US. In terms of culture, political structures, the United States has become a modern-day Imperialist because of the way it superimposes its systems on Iraq. Imperialism is changing its face depending on the social situations and the state of the present world. What is at stake is the cultural identity of peoples and their right to govern themselves based on what they believe is right and acceptable. Subjugating them and superimposing structures will only make matters worse.
Achebe, C. (1994) Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor.
Kipling, R. (1994). White Man’s Burden. In Achebe (1994). Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor.