The Effects of Imperialism

The new imperialism profoundly affected the political, economic, and social life of societies around the world. Colonial rule disrupted old civilizations and ways of life. European powers imposed alien cultures on people who had different values and religious beliefs. At the same time, the new imperialism brought economic expansion along with improvements in transportation, public health, and education.

Political Changes

In conquered territories, European nations set up governments that reflected their own traditions. They introduced European legal systems that relied on abstract principles of right and wrong. By contrast, traditional African forms of justice had emphasized consensus, or general agreement. Many African societies saw these foreign principles as unjust, especially when Europeans used these laws to take land from local people.

As Europeans carved up the world, they drew borders around the territories they claimed. Often, these artificially-drawn borders split ethnic or cultural groups. Or they lumped people who shared no common heritage together into one colony.

Photo of a group of students in a music classroom with some students holding sheets and others playing instruments while a nun looks on.

Missionaries brought not only religion, but cultural change. Girls at this French missionary school in China learn Christmas carols.

Analyze Context

What evidence can you find in the photo that this is a missionary school?

Economic Changes

European powers expected their colonies to be profitable. Colonial rulers therefore tapped local mineral and agricultural resources. Where mineral resources were lacking, colonial powers developed cash crops, such as rubber, cotton, palm oil, and peanuts. A cash crop is raised to be sold for money on the world market. The rise or fall of prices for cash crops affected standards of living in the colonies.

During the Age of Imperialism, a new global economic pattern emerged. Colonies provided raw materials for the factories of the industrial powers. European colonial powers then sold their manufactured goods to their colonies. The export of cash crops and natural resources in exchange for manufactured goods left colonies dependent on markets in the industrial world. Imports of machine-made goods destroyed indigenous cottage industries.

Growth of a Money Economy

The costs of governing colonies were huge, from salaries for officials and the military, to the costs of building roads, railroads, and schools. To pay for these costs, colonial governments required local people to pay taxes in cash.

The only way people could earn cash was to sell their labor, working on large plantations or in factories and mines owned by Europeans. Some became indentured servants or forced laborers who were shipped to other parts of the world to work on plantations or building projects.

Social and Cultural Changes

The rise of the money economy contributed to the breakdown of traditional cultures. Until Europeans arrived, most people lived in close-knit villages that had subsistence economies. People produced the goods they needed or traded for goods they could not produce. As the money economy grew, people needed to have cash.

To earn money, men often took jobs in distant mines or plantations. Their long absences undermined family life. Some families moved to colonial cities, hoping to improve their positions. As a result, the close-knit village life declined.

Christian missionaries worked hard to win converts, urging newcomers to the faith to reject traditional beliefs and customs. Missionaries set up schools that emphasized the superiority of Western civilization. Impressed by European wealth, power, and teachings, many colonial people embraced Christianity, rejected their traditional cultures, and accepted the idea of European superiority.

Improvements Bring Benefits and Disadvantages

Although the new imperialism broke down traditional patterns of life, some people argue that colonial rule brought important benefits.


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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