Carlton J. H. Hayes

From Nationalism to Imperialism




The direct link between nationalism and imperialism is here well highlighted and documented. A useful reminder for those who think that international capitalism is behind imperialism and gloss over the state machine and the state factions that are, actually, the real engine of any imperialistic initiative.

From : A Generation of Materialism, 1871-1900, Harper & Row, New York, 1941



Basically the new imperialism was a nationalistic phenomenon. It followed hard upon the national wars which created an all powerful Germany and a united Italy, which carried Russia within sight of Constantinople, and which left England fearful and France eclipsed. It expressed a resulting psychological reaction, an ardent desire to maintain or recover national prestige. France sought compensation for European loss in oversea gain. England would offset her European isolation by enlarging and glorifying the British Empire. Russia, halted in the Balkans, would turn anew to Asia, and before long Germany and Italy would show the world that the prestige they had won by might inside Europe they were entitled to enhance by imperial exploits outside. The lesser powers, with no great prestige at stake, managed to get on without any new imperialism, though Portugal and Holland displayed a revived pride in the empires they already possessed and the latter's was administered with renewed vigor. [1]

Public agitation for extending overseas the political dominion of European national states certainly began with patriotic intellectuals. As early as 1867 Lothar Bucher, one of Bismarck's associates in the Prussian foreign office, published in the influential Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung a series of articles endorsing and advertising the hitherto neglected counsels of Friederich List: "Companies should be founded in the German seaports to buy lands in foreign countries and settle them with German colonies; also companies for commerce and navigation whose object would be to open new markets abroad for German manufacturers and to establish steamship lines. . . . Colonies are the best means of developing manufactures, export and import trade, and finally a respectable navy." [2]

The next year Otto Kersten, traveler and explorer, founded at Berlin a "Central Society for Commercial Geography and German Interests Abroad," with an official journal, Der Export. Simultaneously the "Royal Colonial Institute" was founded at London; and a brilliant young English gentleman, Sir Charles Dilke, returning from a trip around the world, published his patriotic and immensely popular Greater Britain. [3] Two years later, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War, the redoubtable Froude scored his fellow Englishmen in the pages of Fraser's Magazine for their blindness to imperial glories. In 1872 Disraeli practically committed the Conservative party in Britain to a program of imperialism, and in 1874 Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, dean of political economists in France and implacable foe of tariff protection, plumped for French imperialism in a "scientific" treatise, De la Colonisation chez les peuples modernes.

These were foretastes. Heartier fare was served immediately after the Russo-Turkish War and the Congress of Berlin. In 1879 Friedrich Fabri, a pious promoter of Christian foreign missions, asked rhetorically "Does Germany need Colonies?" and answered with a resounding "Yes!" Germany's surplus population, he argued, should have places where it could go and still buy German goods and share in the other blessings of German Kultur. Fabri was eloquently seconded in 1881 by Hübbe-Schleiden, a lawyer and sometime explorer in equatorial Africa, who now insisted that through imperialistic endeavors "a country exhibits before the world its strength or weakness as a nation." [4] In like vein the historian Treitschke edified his student audiences at the University of Berlin with the moral that "every virile people has established colonial power." In 1882 a frankly propagandist "Colonial Society" was formed in Germany through the joint efforts of a naturalist, a geographer, and a politician [5], while in France Professor Leroy-Beaulieu brought out a new edition of his classic with the dogmatic addendum that "colonization is for France a question of life and death: either France will become a great African power, or in a century or two she will be no more than a secondary European power; she will count for about as much in the world as Greece and Rumania in Europe." The following year Professor John Seeley published his celebrated Cambridge lectures on the Expansion of England. The book took the British public by storm. It sold 80,000 copies within a brief time and won for its author the warm discipleship of Lord Rosebery and a knighthood.

In 1883 the stridently imperialistic "Primrose League" was launched by Tory Democrats, and soon afterwards the more sedate "Imperial Federation League" by nationalistic Liberals. In 1883, also, was founded a "Society for German Colonization." And capping the academic contributions to the imperialist cause, Froude published Oceana in 1885, while Alfred Rambaud, historian of Russia and first occupant of the chair in contemporary history at the Sorbonne, edited in 1886 a co-operative work on La France coloniale.

Already, statesmen were following the professors and proclaiming that commerce and investments should follow the flag. If Gladstone hesitated, Disraeli and Salisbury did not; nor did such "new" Liberals as Rosebery, Chamberlain, and Grey. Jules Ferry surely did not hesitate. Replying to parliamentary critics of his aggressive policy in Tunis and Tonkin, he marshaled in speeches from 1881 to 1885 all the professorial arguments: that superior races have a civilizing mission to inferior races; that an industrial nation needs colonial markets; that coaling stations are requisite for navy and mercantile marine; and that if France refrained from imperialism, she would "descend from the first rank to the third or fourth." [6]

Bismarck seemed to hesitate more than he actually did. [7] He privately expressed sympathy with imperialist ambitions in 1876 and publicly backed them, at least in the case of Samoa, in 1879. By 1884-85 he was persuading the Reichstag that colonies were vital to national economy. "Colonies would mean the winning of new markets for German industries, the expansion of trade, and a new field for German activity, civilization, and capital.” [8]

Most simply, the sequence of imperialism after 1870 appears to have been, first, pleas for colonies on the ground of national prestige; second, getting them; third, disarming critics by economic argument; and fourth, carrying this into effect and relating the results to the neo-mercantilism of tariff protection and social legislation at home.

There were, of course, complexities in the imperialistic movement. In so far as it was economic, it did not affect the "capitalist class" as a whole, but only particular business interests: exporters and manufacturers of certain commodities such as calico and cheap alcoholic beverages; importers of rubber, raw cotton, coffee, copra, etc.; shipping magnates; some bankers, though a very small percentage of all; and those "parasites of imperialism," the makers of arms and uniforms, the producers of telegraph and railway material, etc. But these last did not "cause" imperialism; they merely throve on it.

Christian missions provided an important adjunct to imperialism. They spread and multiplied in the second half of the nineteenth century as never before, in part as a reaction, we have suggested elsewhere, to the prevalent materialism in Europe, and in larger part because of the immensely improved means of travel and communication throughout the world. A missionary might have gone his way, like a merchant, the one conveying spiritual and the other material goods to heathen peoples, without any thought of raising a national flag over them or subjecting them to European rule. Actually, however, missionaries like merchants lived in a nationalistic age, and many of them were quite willing, on occasion, to invoke the naval or military protection of their respective national states. Not a few of Europe's footholds in other Continents were obtained as penalties for the persecution of Christian missionaries. Even where missionaries did not directly prompt the extension of European dominion, they frequently paved the way for adventurers who did; and stories published back home by them or about them stimulated popular interest in, and support of, imperial undertakings. About David Livingstone, for example, something like a cult grew up in England, so that when he died in the wilds of Africa on May Day, 1873, his body was borne with hierophantic solemnity all the way to Zanzibar and thence under naval escort to England, where finally it was deposited amid Britain's national heroes in Westminster Abbey on April 18, 1874. The year was that of Disraeli's accession to the premiership, and for the popular favor accorded his subsequent imperial activities, he should have thanked the dead Livingstone more than any live merchant or banker.

It was a time, too, when evolutionary biology was beginning to occupy a central place in European thought, when hundreds of naturalists, emulating Darwin, engaged in scientific expeditions to strange distant regions and furnished millions of ordinary stay-at-homes with fascinating descriptions of the extraordinary flora and fauna they had observed. Already in 1861 the Franco-American Du Chaillu had reported from Gabun in equatorial Africa his amazing discovery of the gorilla, which was readily imagined to be the "missing link" between ape and man. In 1867 he published an account of a race of pygmies he had found, and for years afterwards his pen poured out popular tales of African adventure. Meanwhile, in the early '70's, Faidherbe was exploring upper Egypt, Nachtigal was visiting Khartum, De Brazza was following Du Chaillu into the hinterland of Gabun, Skobelev with notebook in hand was investigating the borders of Turkestan, Evelyn Baring (the later Lord Cromer) was describing the natural wonders of India, and Henry Morton Stanley was "finding" Livingstone for the New York Herald and an avid public, and then heading an Anglo-American scientific expedition into the vast Congo basin. Presently George Goldie was exploring the Niger country, Joseph Thomson was leading an expedition into east-central Africa, Harry Johnston was traversing Angola and meeting Stanley on the Congo, and Frederick Lugard, a young veteran of the Afghan War, was penetrating Nyasaland and Uganda.

Of these explorers, the majority had military training. Faidherbe was a French general, former governor of Senegal, and Skobelev a Russian general who was to win laurels in the Russo-Turkish War. Nachtigal was a German army surgeon, De Brazza a French naval officer. Cromer and Goldie and Lugard had all been British soldiers. As a group they were intensely patriotic, and they nicely combined with scientific interests a zeal to serve the political, economic, and military interests of their respective nations. They were prime promoters of imperialism, and most of them remained as pro-consuls of provinces they charted and helped to appropriate.

Sheer love of adventure was a potent lure to imperialism. Africa in particular, by reason of the widespread advertising its marvels and dangers received at the beginning of the '70's, beckoned to bold and venturesome spirits in Europe, and some of the boldest became empire-builders in the grand style, in a few cases acquiring fabulous personal wealth, in all cases experiencing that sense of power which comes from great achievement. Stanley was patently an adventurer. He had no surplus goods to sell, no surplus capital to invest. He was a self-made man, if ever there was one. A Welshman by birth, with the original name of Rowlands, he ran away from home and school at an early age to find work in Liverpool, first in a haberdasher's shop, then with a butcher. When this grew tedious he worked his way across the Atlantic to New Orleans and fell in with a merchant by the name of Stanley, who adopted him. At the outbreak of the American Civil War he enlisted in the Confederate army, only to be taken prisoner at the battle of Shiloh; then, "with ready versatility he joined the Union army to fight against his former comrades-in-arms. Toward the close of the war he discovered a latent talent for journalism, which, when peace returned, led him to Salt Lake City to describe the extraordinary customs of the Mormons, then to Asia Minor in search of thrilling adventure, then with General Hancock against the Indians, with the British against Abyssinia, and to Crete, and Spain." [9] He went to central Africa in 1871 because he was sent, but he remained to build a huge empire for another and the queerest kind of adventurer - a man who was not self-made and who never set foot in Africa, but who was as hypnotized by African dreams as by female realities - Leopold of the Belgians, Leopold of the Congo Free State.

But the adventurer-imperialist par excellence was Cecil Rhodes, and his extraordinary career began by accident. A sickly youth, son of an Anglican clergyman and intended for the church, he was bundled off in 1870, for purposes of health, to an elder brother's farm in southern Africa. He arrived just when diamonds were discovered in the near-by Kimberley fields. He joined other diggers, dug more industriously and successfully, and within a year found himself wealthy and healthy. He returned to England for study at Oxford, but the study was desultory and he was soon back permanently in South Africa, adding gold mines to diamond mines, running Cape politics, projecting British sway the entire length of the Continent up to Cairo, and doing much to realize it.

The star German adventurer was Carl Peters. Son of a Lutheran clergyman and graduate of the University of Berlin, he contracted imperialist fever on a visit to England and set out in 1884 in disguise and under an alias - he was still in his twenties - to build an empire in East Africa. His method was simple, and the results startling, even to Bismarck. By a judicious distribution of toys plus injudicious application of grog, he got twelve big black chieftains, within ten days, to make their X's on documents conveying to Germany a total of 60,000 square miles. But that was only a start. Peters kept right on enlarging German East Africa until an Anglo-German convention of 1890 set bounds to his activity.

Explorers and adventurers gave rise to a peculiar species of organizer and administrator, despotic and ruthless and most devotedly imperialistic. Peters and Rhodes were transmuted by the African environment into this species, and so too were Cromer in Egypt and Milner at the Cape. For the glory of themselves and their countries, such local potentates carried on without too much regard for merely economic considerations or for the international engagements of their distant home governments. They were on the spot and knew better than London or Berlin or any other capital what had to be done, and they usually did it in an expansive way.

The actual course of empire - the order in which distant areas were appropriated by European powers - was determined less by design than by chance. Murder of a missionary or trader and consequent forceful intervention might occur anywhere. In some instances, curiously frequent in Moslem countries, native rulers practically invited intervention by living far beyond their means and contracting debts which they were unable to repay. Such was the basis of European imperialism in Egypt, Tunis, Persia, and to a large extent in Turkey. For example, the Khedive Ismail of Egypt, a squat, red-bearded gentleman with a passion for ostentation and the externals of European culture, spent half a billion dollars in the twelve years after his accession in 1863, running up the Egyptian public debt from 16 million to 342 million and continuing to borrow money from European bankers at ever more onerous rates. In 1875 he could only get a quarter of the face value of short-term bonds bearing 20 per cent interest. In 1876 he sold his shares of Suez Canal Company stock to England, and consented to joint supervision of his finances by representatives of England, France, Italy, and Austria. Soon this control was narrowed to England and France, and in 1882 to England alone. No doubt bankers and investors egged on both the khedive to spend and the English government to collect, but a less prodigal khedive, and one more intelligently concerned with the welfare of his subjects, might have staved off foreign rule. The contemporary Mikado of Japan did.

Especially active in directing the course of empire after 1870 were the European colonists already settled in Algeria, South Africa, and Australasia. These performed the same function in the latter part of the nineteenth century as their prototypes in the America of the eighteenth century. French settlers in Algeria were more eager than the government at Paris to make all adjacent African lands French. British and Dutch settlers in South Africa had almost a psychosis about others getting anywhere near them, and from the former, rather than from London, came the main drive for British expansion northward. Australians and New Zealanders were continually pressing the home government to forestall alien seizure of South Sea islands.

In many instances European flags were hoisted as a sport - a competitive sport - with about the same indifference to economic motives as characterized the later planting of American and other flags on cakes of ice around the North or South Pole. As one reads of successive French flag raisings in oases of the Sahara and on coral reefs of the Pacific, one gets a lively impression that it was all pour le sport.

Some capitalists undoubtedly promoted imperialism, and more profited by it. But in the last analysis it was the nationalistic masses who made it possible and who most vociferously applauded and most constantly backed it. Disraeli and Joseph Chamberlain were good politicians as well as patriots, and with a clairvoyance greater than Gladstone's, they perceived that in a country where the masses were patriotic, literate, and in possession of the ballot, a political party which frankly espoused imperialism would have magnetic attraction for them. So it proved. An unwonted popularity attended the Conservative parties of Britain and Germany during the '80's and '90's. The masses, of course, had no immediate economic interest in the matter, and it would have required an extraordinary act of faith on their part to believe the predictions of imperialistic intellectuals that somehow, sometime, everybody would be enriched from the Congo or the Niger or Tahiti. Rather, the masses were thrilled and stirred by front-page news in the popular press of far-off things and battles still to come. They devoured the yarns of a Rider Haggard - he had been secretary to the governor of Natal in the '70's and he knew his Africa. They learned by heart the vulgar verses of a Rudyard Kipling - he had lived in India and been a chum of doughty, swearing British soldiers. And the sporting impulse which drew crowds to prize fights and to football and cricket matches, evoked a whole nation's lusty cheers for its "team" in the mammoth competitive game of imperialism.

Into the imperial-mindedness of the masses, scarcely less than into that of Rhodes or Peters, Ferry or Chamberlain, fitted neatly the preaching of Darwinian sociology, that human progress depends upon struggle between races and nations and survival of the fittest. Obviously most eligible for the "fittest" were the white peoples of Europe, who therefore owed it to science as well as to civilization (and religion) to establish their supremacy over inferior populations in all other continents. Which of them would ultimately be adjudged the absolutely fittest would depend on the outcome of conflict among themselves as well as with lesser breeds. This preaching justified competitive imperialism and cloaked attendant ruthlessness in the mantle of idealistic devotion to duty. It was summarized by Kipling at the close of the generation (1899) in his famous lines:

Take up the White Man's Burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered fold and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.


Notes by the author

[1] For fuller treatment of national prestige as the basic factor in imperialism, and incidentally for devastating criticism of the Marxian interpretation, see Arthur Salz, Das Wesen des Imperialismus (Leipzig. 1931), and Walter Sulzbach, Nationales Gemeinschaftsgefühl und wirtlschaftliches Interesse (Leipzig, 1929). A kindred "atavistic" theory has been propounded by Professor Joseph Schumpeter in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, XLVI (1918-9). 1-39. 275-310.

[2] Friedrich List, National System of Political Economy, Eng. trans. by Lloyd (London, 1916), 347.

[3] Dilke anticipated what was to come by emphasizing the economic and military value of "uncivilized" colonies in the tropics, while disparaging the alleged worth of such "white" colonies as Canada. His book reached an eighth edition in 1885.

[4] Friedrich Fabri, Bedarf Deutschland der Ko1onien? (Gotha, 1879); Wilhelm Hübbe Schleiden, Deutsche Kolonisation (Hamburg, 1881).

[5] Freiherr von Maltzan, Herr von der Brüggen, and Prince Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Cf. See, Die deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft, 1882-1907 (Berlin, 1908).

[6] The economic arguments of Ferry were clearly ex post facto. They were stressed in his preface to Leon Sentahéry's Le Tonkin et la Mère Patrie (Paris, 1890).

[7] See M. E. Townsend, The Rise and Fall of the German Colonial Empire (New York, 1932), and, for a somewhat different view, H. R. Rudin, Germans in the Cameroons, 1884-1914 (New Haven, 1938).

[8] Verhandlungen des deutschen Reichstages, March 16, 1885, p. 1864; Jan. 10, 1885. p. 524; June 26, 1884, p. 1073.

[9] P. T. Moon, Imperialism and World Politics (New York, 1926), 65.


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