Scramble for Colonies and Road to War
In the second half of the nineteenth century many nations faced a problem of surplus of manufactured goods for which they had to find outside markets. The answer to the problem, as evidenced from the experience of England, was possession of colonies. Besides being a market for surplus goods, colonies could serve another useful purpose. Mass production needed large scale supply of raw materials such as grains, cotton, rubber, crude oil, minerals, etc. Industrialists did not want to be dependent on other countries for the supply of raw materials. They wanted direct control of the sources of these raw materials. The desire for markets and control of the sources of raw materials was a major factor in the making of imperialism.
After the 1870s, England, along with major powers such as France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany joined in the scramble for colonies as a market for surplus goods. America’s turn came in 1898 when it defeated Spain and seized the Philippines. It is interesting to note that in every case, whether in India or China or Africa, the first step towards integration of explored territories was taken by imperial agents or missionaries or monopolistic trading companies. In less than twenty years the whole of Central Africa was partitioned and incorporated in the empires of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Italy.
In 1876 barely 10 percent of Africa was under European rule. By 1900 practically the whole of Africa was colonised. Britain, France and Belgium had divided the continent between them, leaving a few areas to Germany and Italy. Britain, France, Russia and Germany also established “spheres of influence” in China. Japan took over Korea and Taiwan. France conquered Indo-China; the US the Philippines from Spain, while Britain and Russia agreed to partition Iran.
The attempts to carve out colonies in Africa, as happened elsewhere, involved them in bloody battles in which the indigenous people lost. New weapons such as breech-loading rifles and Gatling machine guns gave European armies the decisive edge in most of the battles.
Partition of Africa: In 1876 King Leopold II of Belgium took the lead in exploring and seizing through his International African Association, a great rubber producing region, what is now known as Belgian Congo. In 1881 a French expedition occupied Tunis, to the great displeasure of the Italians who had been longing to annex it. In 1891 they occupied the Ivory Coast, Dahomey in 1892 and Madagascar in 1895. Great Britain, apart from conquering Natal and the Transvaal in south Africa, annexed many parts of Africa. In 1883 Great Britain succeeded in securing control over Egypt. The Gold Coast colonies, Uganda, Zanzibar, part of East Africa, and Rhodesia became part of the British Empire. Between 1884 and 1890 Germany acquired Togoland, the Cameroons, German South-West Africa and German East Africa. The scramble for territory among the great European powers resulted in the completion of partition of “The Dark Continent of Africa” by the end of the century. Only countries such as Liberia, Morocco and Abyssinia remained un-annexed.
Monopoly industry brought huge profits to its owners. The result was accumulation of surplus money. The captains of industry found out that by exporting capital abroad they could earn increased profits. They began to invest the surplus money in colonies where there was a pressing need for railways, electricity, roads, etc. Apart from direct investment, loans were also arranged from the “mother country”. When England made loans to India for the constructions of railways, the rails, engines and other required accessories were purchased in England again at a profit to English manufacturers. Thus both investors and manufacturers found it in their interests to support colonialism. This alliance of industry and finance seeking profits in markets of goods and capital was the essential characteristic of imperialism.
English economist John A. Hobson defined Imperialism as follows: Imperialism is the endeavour of the great controllers of industry to broaden the channel for the flow of their surplus wealth by seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the goods and capital they cannot sell or use at home.
Two major financial crashes, one in Vienna and the other in New York, led to a full blown economic depression in Europe and America in the mid-1870s. The depression severely affected production, prices and wages. Cheap grain flooded the markets of western European nations affecting the domestic producers who suffered due to fall in prices. People began to question the wisdom of free trade policies. Germany precipitated a crisis by its protectionist policy. Its Tariff Act of 1879 imposed tariffs on industrial and agricultural imports into Imperial Germany. Soon other nations followed suit. As Britain could fall back on its policy of colonial trade preferences, it revoked trade treaties in 1898 with France and Germany. Tariff actions and counter-actions by the various European powers escalated protectionism and political friction. The leaders who administered the empires realised that the outcome of such conflict would depend on the strength of their armed forces. So they vied with each other in building their arsenal, thereby creating the conditions for war.