Heather DeLancett HIST 445 – Spring 2011 Prof.

Bitter First Short Paper

Defining European Imperialism

Our task of analyzing the globe spanning phenomenon of “European Imperialism” from our current paradigms and place within imperialist and post-colonial history is a bit daunting. The resources at hand to guide us are testament to the multiplicity of theories, approaches and focuses that scholars utilize to contextualize the meaning and methods of these events. The span of time focused on by each individual researcher changes, or is changed by, the stipulative definitions employed for analysis. Several scholars point to two events – the discovery of the “New World” and navigation around the Cape of Good Hope – as the catalysts which broke open a new era in human history and began the series of events categorized in our study of European Imperialism. Starting in the late 15th century, these new opportunities for global trade and territory acquisition were seized by the dominant European nation states and the world, and what it means to be human in it, has been irrevocably changed in a relatively short span of time. Taking the surveyed resources on our topic, there are clearly some complimenting and contrasting approaches. In the style of presenting a range of contrasting theoretical analyses, “Theories of Imperialism” and “European Imperialism, 1830-1930 - Climax and Contradiction” both offer a variety of perspectives. These two sources are good companions as summaries of a


range of period in Imperialism’s scholarship – Mommsen offers his interpretation of many of the various primary sources presented by Conklin and Fletcher. These theories tend to emphasize the rise of ideologies, particularly nationalism, free market liberalism and scientific racism. A great deal of time and thought is given to whether Imperialism is a necessary consequence (or stage) of capitalism, and if so, whether it is an acceptable consequence for the political and economic health of a nation. Retracting from the ideological approach, “Tools of the Empire – Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century” and “Ecological Imperialism – The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900” both aim for more empirical and practical cause and effects of European expansionism. Though these authors differ in spans of time covered, their approaches to understanding Imperialism focus on the means of change, both controlled (e.g. weapons, horses, etc.) and uncontrollable (e.g. diseases, weeds, etc.). Even by looking only at the supposedly “controlled” types of means which were products of the Industrial Revolution, both of these perspectives bring the ideologies down to the ground by throwing into question how much choice was involved as humans played out developing drama of evolution. Focusing on the people directly impacted by colonialism, “The European Colonial Empires – 1815-1919” and “Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperialism” shine light upon the local politics and cultural transfusions and transmutations of specific colonial locations. These books focus on the desire for resources driving colonialism, but specifically on the human dimensions of mass migrations and slavery as experienced by the colonizers, indigenous peoples and the enslaved. These views into our economic and political histories explain the roots of so much of our global strife, economic inequalities, and geographical tensions which we are the bearers of today.


Most of these perspectives define European Imperialism as the forcible expansion of more powerful and/or technologically advantaged nation states into the lands of less powerful groups for profit, resources, trade and increased prestige. This composite definition is a baseline template to grasp the subject of our investigations, but lacks the precision of specific methods, time range and territorial regions to be very useful as a working definition for research. From my perspective, it would be most beneficial to partition the great generalization of “European Imperialism” into three distinct periods – Age of European Exploration, Age of European Innovation, and the Age of European Exploitation. While it may still present a challenge to find distinct timeline boundaries, this method of categorization may prove helpful for exploring the tightly interwoven interplay between biology, technology, ideology and psychology as these elements evolved and changed during European expansionism. It strikes me that there were different actors, goals, means and consequences of each of these stages. By seeking to define the characteristics of each “wave” of this phenomenon, our investigations could seek more precision in definition without falling prey to over-generalizations or disassociating ourselves from other region’s historical periods of expansionism.


Works Cited
Conklin, A. &. (Ed.). (1999). European Imperialism, 1830-1930 - Climax and Contradiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Cook, S. B. (1996). Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperialism. New York: Longman. Crosby, A. W. (1986). Ecological Imperialism - The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. Headrick, D. R. (1981). The Tools of the Empire - Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. Mommsen, W. J. (1980). Theories of Imperialism. (P. Falla, Trans.) Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. Wesseling, H. L. (2004). The European Colonial Empires – 1815-1919. (D. Webb, Trans.) London: Pearson Education Limited.

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