What were the motives for nineteenth-century European imperialism?

Some of the motives for nineteenth-century European imperialism were trading privileges in Asia, the chance to enhance European nations' prestige, the opening of the Suez Canal, the results of the Berlin Conference, and Social Darwinism.

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Nineteenth century European imperialism was caused by a number of factors. Some of these—such as economic incentives—were not new. Others—such as Social Darwinism—had not yet been used as a justification for imperialism.

The West sought trading privileges in China and elsewhere in Asia. The British even smuggled opium into China...

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Nineteenth century European imperialism was caused by a number of factors. Some of these—such as economic incentives—were not new. Others—such as Social Darwinism—had not yet been used as a justification for imperialism.

The West sought trading privileges in China and elsewhere in Asia. The British even smuggled opium into China against that government's wishes. China tried to stop foreign imperialism, but it was defeated in the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century.

European leaders sought to enhance their nations' prestige. For example, the French king seized Algeria in 1830 for this reason. He also hoped that the seizure of Algeria would buttress his own position as king of France.

In 1869, the Suez Canal was opened. This greatly reduced travel and shipping time between Europe and Asia. It also gave the British an incentive to gradually take over Egypt.

The Berlin Conference of 1884–85 permitted and encouraged European colonization of Africa. This became known as the "Scramble for Africa." The consequences for Africa, which included King Leopold's rape of the Congo, were dire.

There was intense competition between the navies of the Great Powers. Germany, united as a single nation in 1871, built a navy that challenged Britain's naval supremacy. The U.S. built a formidable fleet, too.

Imperialism was justified by Social Darwinism. The Europeans believed they were superior to Africans and Asians, so it was their right to establish colonies and rule over benighted peoples. Later, researchers would discredit Social Darwinism.

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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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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.

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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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