What were the motives for 19th century European imperialism?

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mrkirschner's profile pic

mrkirschner | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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The quest for colonies in Africa and Asia was a major theme of European history of the 19th Century. The primary motive for colonies was economic. Through the acquisition of colonies, the European countries acquired a vast wealth of resources that could be utilized in their burgeoning industries. These resources included metals, cotton, and gemstones. In Asia, silks and spices were the major commodities that were traded. The colonies also supplied the mother countries with an exclusive market to peddle their finished goods and establish exclusive trade arrangements. The colonies also provided a cheap labor force which also maximized profits.

The acquisition of colonies also had political motives. A notion existed that the more colonies that a country owned, the more powerful that country was. The sense of nationalism that existed in these countries drove national leaders to seek security, pride, and supremacy through the acquisition of territories.

The Europeans had a sense of superiority about their culture and people. There was a belief that the people they were taking over were uncivilized or backward. Many believed that it was the duty of civilized nations to modernize primitive populations. Added to this feeling was the notion that it was the responsibility of Christian people to seek converts and save the uncivilized masses. This was yet another motivation for the acquisition of colonies.

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mkoren | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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The Europeans had several motives for becoming imperialistic in the 1800s. One of the reasons was based on economic factors. Europeans were developing industries, and they needed raw materials to make the products in their factories. It was cheaper to get the raw materials from their colonies than to buy them from other countries. Plus, by having colonies, these countries would have a guaranteed market to which they could sell the products from their factories. This could allow the European countries to make a lot of money.

Another reason was political. The Europeans were competing for power and prestige. The more colonies they had, the more power and prestige they would have. It would also give their navy a place to stop and resupply and refuel as they traveled the world.

Finally, there were cultural reasons for establishing colonies. The Europeans believed their way of life was superior to the way of life of the people they were controlling. They believed it was their duty to spread this superior way of life to other places. This included the spreading of their religion to the places they were controlling. They could then help the people of these places live a better life.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There were a number of motives for this imperialism.  The ones that are most commonly cited are:

  • Economic gain.  Countries wanted to gain empires so they could take resources from those empires and so that the empires could be captive markets for their goods.
  • Military power.  The larger the empire, the more the imperial country could project its power around the world.
  • Imperial prestige.  The larger the empire, the prouder the country could be.  Having a large empire was seen as a sign that a country was a major power in the world.
  • The "civilizing mission."  European countries felt that they had a superior civilization and that they had an obligation to spread that civilization to other countries.

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gsenviro's profile pic

gsenviro | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The most common motives for 19th century European imperialism are:

  1. Quest for more power: The most powerful military will have the most colonies and hence a quest for power broke out between european powers.
  2. Quest for raw material to propel their industries: Industrialization was rapidly taking place and to fuel this rapid growth raw material was needed, which was not available in europe.
  3. Quest for new markets to sell their increased production: Rapid industrialization led to higher production of goods, which needed new markets for their consumption and colonies served as an ideal ground for that.
  4. Political considerations: Each powerful country wanted its say in world economics and policy matters and a higher number of colonies simply exerted that power.
  5. Religious motives: Many christians believed people of other countries esp. in Africa and Asia to be religiously inferior and deeply believed it to be their duty to force a european way of education, life and religion on these regions.