Expansion Turns into Empire Building

By the 1800s, European nations with strong central governments had become more powerful. As the Industrial Revolution took off, some European nations grew rich. Spurred on by their new economic and military strength, these nations embarked on a path of aggressive expansion that modern historians call the “new imperialism.” The new imperialism was a period in which industrial nations scrambled for territories that would provide them with raw materials and serve as markets for their manufactured goods.

In just a few decades, beginning in the 1870s, Europeans brought much of the world under their control. The new imperialism exploded out of a combination of causes. The main causes can be categorized as: economic, political, military, humanitarian, and religious.

Need for Resources Drives Further Expansion

The Industrial Revolution created needs and desires that spurred overseas expansion. Manufacturers wanted access to natural resources such as rubber, petroleum, manganese for steel, and palm oil for machinery. They also wanted to expand their global markets by increasing the number of consumers to whom they could sell their manufactured goods.

Bankers, too, backed overseas expansion, which would provide new opportunities for investments. For some countries, colonies offered a valuable outlet for rapidly growing populations.

Political and Military Motives

Political and military issues were closely linked to economic motives. Steam-powered merchant ships and naval vessels needed bases around the world to take on coal and supplies. Industrial powers seized islands or harbors to satisfy these needs.

Nationalism, a driving force in Europe throughout the 1800s, played a major role too. As Europeans started seizing territories overseas, it set off a race among rival nations. When France moved into West Africa, rival nations like Britain and Germany seized nearby African lands to halt further French expansion.

Western leaders claimed that colonies were needed to protect their national security interests. Sometimes, Western nations acquired colonies for the prestige of ruling a global empire.

Humanitarian and Religious Goals

Many Westerners felt a genuine concern for their “little brothers” beyond the seas. Missionaries, doctors, and colonial officials believed they had a duty to spread what they saw as the blessings of Western civilization, including its medicine, law, and the Christian religion.

Influence of Social Darwinism

Behind the idea that the West had a civilizing mission was a growing sense of racial superiority in the West. Many Westerners had embraced the ideas of Social Darwinism. They applied Darwin's ideas about natural selection and survival of the fittest to human societies. European races, they argued, were superior to all others, and imperial conquest of weaker races was simply nature's way of improving the human species.

Although this reasoning was never part of Darwin's ideas, it became popular among many people in the West. As a result, the cultural heritage of millions of non-Westerners was destroyed because their societies were deemed inferior.

Western Imperialism Spreads Rapidly

Starting in the late 1800s, the great powers of Europe divided up almost all of Africa along with large chunks of Asia. The European powers included Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy. The United States acquired the Philippines and gained influence in parts of Latin America.

Illustration of an industrial area with factories and smokestacks, near a city.

The growth of European industrial economies required raw materials to fuel its factories. New colonies provided both natural resources and new markets for European manufactured goods.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments