What similarities are there between the imperialism of Britain and France?

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Both British and French global imperialism shared many distinct similarities. Both of these nations were products of the European scientific revolution and Enlightenment, which generated ideologies that championed science and human reason as the most efficacious forces for promoting the progress of human civilization. The corollary to this argument was that, because scientific thinking and rational planning had occurred in (Western) Europe first—leading to an explosion in productive technologies, overseas exploration, and industry—Europe had something to teach the rest of the world about how to best manage its affairs. Both the British and the French subscribed to this kind of ethnocentrism and sought to civilize the apparently “primitive” parts of the world in similar ways. The French, for example, sent legions of Jesuit Catholic missionaries to all of its overseas colonies in an attempt both to better understand indigenous populations as well as to convert them to Christianity. The British, too, spread their version of Protestant Christianity across the world.

Both the French and the British were involved in brining “better” science and understanding to their colonies, as well. For example, in the nineteenth century, the British attempted to introduce the precepts of urban hygiene, sanitation, and public health (which had initially been extolled back home by the civil administrator Sir Edwin Chadwick) in places like China, Australia, New Zealand, and the New World. The French similarly exported their versions of urban modernity to their colonies. Colonial Cairo in Egypt, for example, was remodeled after the Egyptian social reformer Ali Mubarak visited the French city of Paris and was awed by its organization and cleanliness. Across the world, both the British and the French were busy convincing colonial peoples that the Western, European way of life was superior in every conceivable way.

As is well known, both the British and the French were also heavily invested in the transatlantic slave trade, and their empires couldn’t have survived without the enormous wealth that was generated by the use of slave labor to extract colonial raw materials. Both nations maintained fortified colonial outposts along the West and Gold Coast of Africa, all the way down to the horn and the coast of South Africa. Once activists of abolition—especially those connected to the Christian Church—began to seriously criticize the morality of human slavery, both Britain and France ultimately gave up the trade and declared slavery illegal. They even did this at similar times (the British in 1833, the French in 1848, after their second revolution). All in all, both of these imperial nations conducted their colonial affairs with an extremely similar set of mentalities, attitudes, behaviors, and strategies.

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