How did European countries justify their imperialism?

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is "the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power or dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas." European imperialism began in the sixteenth, century when explorers from...

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is "the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power or dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas." European imperialism began in the sixteenth, century when explorers from Europe looked for new trade routes to the Far East, explored the Americas, and colonized North America, South America, and Asia. This time period is referred to as the era of Old Imperialism.

The era of New Imperialism began in the nineteenth century, when European powers established extensive empires in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China. These empires were set up in the wake of technological, scientific, and industrial advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The European powers that participated in both the old and new eras had several justifications for their imperialism.

Firstly, and above all, their motivation was economic. In the old era, European explorers plundered existing native civilizations for gold and other precious materials. In the new era of imperialism, subjugated nations supplied new markets for products, a cheap labor force, and raw materials for manufacturing that they could easily obtain and over which they could maintain control. In some instances, ruling European nations plundered materials from their colonies as brazenly as had explorers centuries ago, and cruelly treated natives as little more than slaves.

Another justification for imperialism was exploration and expansion. European nations wanted to discover unknown lands, conduct scientific and medical research, and win personal and national glory.

European nations also claimed to pursue imperialism for humanitarian and religious reasons. Christian missionaries set out to convert Native populations to what they perceived was the one true religion, the dominant religion of the empire. In doing this, they strove to teach Western values and Western culture. Many white people felt it was their obligation to "help" the non-white peoples of the world. This sentiment was brought out in the famous poem "The White Man's Burden" by Rudyard Kipling, in which he urges Great Britain and the United States to "take up the white man's burden" as a moral obligation and to help their subjugated non-white underlings, who were little better than "half devil and half child." This was connected with theories of Social Darwinism, which postulated that whites were inherently superior and should be dominant over weaker races.

Finally, imperialism was pursued by European powers for military and political reasons. In the viewpoints of the participating governments, national security necessitated having military bases in strategic locations all around the world. Having a powerful empire was also a source of national pride.

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European countries justified their imperialism through their ethnocentric beliefs. Europeans, and later on Americans as well, believed in ideas like social Darwinism, and the "white man's burden." These beliefs permeated through imperialist societies. Additionally, they viewed European/Western society and culture as being "civilized," while they viewed other cultures as primitive and uncivilized.

The idea of social Darwinism was similar to Charles Darwin's theories regarding animal survival. Darwinism stated that the strong will survive, or adapt to survive, while the weak will die off. Social Darwinism was the belief that strong nations would thrive and conquer weaker peoples who were not strong enough to survive on their own. This justified the conquering of territory where people were less technologically or industrially advanced.

The idea of the "white man's burden" comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. In his poem, Kipling implies that it is a duty of European/Western nations to colonize other peoples due to their inferiority. Kipling's poem portrays non-white people as animalistic and uncivilized and argues that they should be colonized and civilized for this purpose. This idea also implies that by colonizing non-white people, the colonizers were actually doing a service to those they colonized.

Of course there was the economic aspect of colonization as well. By colonizing, imperialist European countries were able to procure significant wealth from raw materials in the territories they conquered. This wealth served as a further encouragement and justification for imperialism.

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Many Europeans who supported imperialism argued that new colonies, and the new markets they brought, were necessary to avoid over-production, which would lead to economic depression. (Opponents of imperialism, such as John Hobson, said that was nonsense, but it was the reason that Lenin described imperialism as the "final stage of capitalism.) Also, it's important to note that many examples of imperialism, especially British imperialism, began with investment in foreign countries. When political events in those countries jeopardized the capital invested in them, business leaders prevailed on governments to intervene militarily, which sometimes lead to almost direct rule. This happened most obviously in Egypt.

The issue of raw materials, as well as the "White Man's Burden," both referenced above, were very important, as was social Darwinism, which justified imperialism as part of a natural stuggle between races.

One of the more intriguing arguments imperialism is that the acquisition of colonies in Africa and elsewhere tended to distract from the class struggles prevalent in the industrialized European societies. Leaders appealed to patriotism and to the jobs that imperialism supposedly created to get popular support for acquiring territories overseas.

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There were a number of ways in which European countries justified their imperialism.

Some of the justifications had to do with necessity.  They argued that they needed to take an empire because they needed the resources from the places they imperialized.  They argued that they needed empires so as to keep up with the other European countries.  These justifications are based solely on need, not on the idea that imperialism was good for those who were colonized.

There was another strand of justification, though, that did argue that imperialism was good for the colonized.  This can be best seen in Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden."  In this view, the people who got colonized were lesser people who needed to be civilized and brought into the modern world.  The idea was that imperialism was a positive good because it helped those people come out of their "backwardness" and become more like modern Europeans.

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