The Ideologies of Imperialism

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Candice Goucher, Charles LeGuin, and Linda Walton, In the Balance: Themes
in Global History (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998), selections from chapter 17,
“The Tentacles of Empire: The New Imperialism and Nationalisms in Asia,
Africa, and the Americas.”
Abstract: This essay explores the ideologies that both motivated and justified
colonialism, and documents its specific cultural effects on Europeans. It
begins by looking at the racial and religious justifications for empire, and
moves to the ways in which the colonial experience informed European art,
archaeology, and literature. Overall, it demonstrates that the colonial
experience was not one felt only by colonized peoples. Instead, it was an
important means by which European identities were constructed as well.
The Ideologies of Imperialism
Many ideas emerged in the nineteenth century in support of imperialism and
were even driving forces behind it. Scientific and pseudoscientific knowledge
had a tremendous impact on the language of imperialism and offered
justification for it. One of the most influential ideologies of imperialism came
in response to the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin as adapted by
Herbert Spencer, known as social Darwinism. Spencer and others used
pseudoscientific ideas of racial inferiority on the basis of skin pigmentation
and other physical characteristics (such as head size and shape) to justify
imperialism. Accordingly, people were classified as separate “races” along an
evolutionary scale, and the subjugation of peoples of color was considered
the inevitable consequence of the superiority of white men. While by no
means all Europeans adopted the stance of racial superiority dictated by
social Darwinists, the pseudoscientific origins of racism were to have a
virulent and long-lasting impact around the globe.
Christianity and the Missionary Enterprise
Though Catholic missionaries—Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans—
accompanied the sixteenth-century expansion of Europe and had a lasting
influence in Asia and Africa, they were most successful in the Americas. In
the nineteenth century, however, the Protestant missionary movement
provided ideological support for the new imperialism, especially in Asia and
Africa. The biblical command “Go ye into all the world, and preach the
gospel to every creature” was literally taken up by Protestant men and
women as they moved out from their homes, cultures, and societies to make
their own particular contributions to the new imperialism through
evangelization, converting other peoples to Christianity.
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The Annenberg Foundation copyright © 2004
While dedicated to converting the “heathen” unbelievers of the nonEuropean world to the saving grace of Protestant Christianity, many
missionaries engaged as well in medical work and teaching, setting up
hospitals and schools as bases for their evangelical activities. The motives of
missionary men and women were complex and diverse. Many European and
American women simply accompanied their husbands on missions, but
others went as single women for whom the mission was an attractive
alternative to marriage or spinsterhood at home. The missionary life was also
one of the few adventurous opportunities available to women and offered a
perfect female vocation when coupled with either an intense experience of
religious conversion or a steady background of religious training in family,
school, and church.
Though by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most missionary
volunteers came from the rural Midwest, the American missionary
movement began in New England, coordinated by the American Board of
Commissioners for Foreign Missions, headquartered in Boston. In 1819 the
first mission destined for the Sandwich Islands (the Hawaiian Islands) left
Boston harbor on the Thaddeus. When the ship arrived on the big island of
Hawai’i five months later, the missionaries on board ship were approached
by islanders bringing articles for trade. One of the missionary wives, Sybil
Bingham, was appalled by the nakedness of the men, crying out, “O, my
sisters, you cannot tell how the sight of these poor degraded creatures, both
literally and spiritually naked, would affect you!”
At the turn of the century, Emma and Elizabeth Martin and many other
young women from the rural American Midwest, dedicated their lives to
saving the world in their own generation. Aged 30 and 27, Emma and
Elizabeth left their family home in Otterbein, Indiana, in the spring of 1900 for
missionary work in China. Both women were college graduates, and Emma
had studied medicine at Chicago Woman’s Medical College. But their
education did not prepare them for the challenges of the train trip across the
United States, let alone for the rigors of life in China at the turn of the century.
They arrived in time to experience the Boxer Uprising.
European and American women often saw their role as one of uplifting
women in foreign lands both spiritually and socially and working to improve
their treatment by men, though at times missionary women found themselves
in societies where women had more power than in the missionaries’ own.
Both sincere and corrupt Christians, some with little education, spent much of
their lives in foreign lands. Most were tolerated, and some of the European
travelers became popular in their adopted cultural settings and are still
remembered with affection by the communities in which they resided. One of
the most famous missionaries in Africa, David Livingstone, spent decades in
Southern Africa and had only one convert.
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Some missionaries also recognized the great difficulties inherent in trying to
accommodate Christianity to vastly different religious and cultural traditions
and devoted much of their time to translation work and educating themselves
in the cultures of the peoples they sought to convert. They recorded local
customs and cultural traditions, including languages. For example, the British
missionary James Legge, working at the China Inland Mission in the late
nineteenth century, made translations of the Chinese classics that are still
widely used today. Missionaries in Africa recorded languages, history, and
cultural observations. Missionary accounts of the persistent slave trade in
Africa figured heavily in the antislavery movement in the United States. On
occasion they deliberately exaggerated and invented cultural practices
attributed to African peoples in order to sway congregations back home to
support missionary efforts.
The very nature of the missionary enterprise reinforced the goals of the new
imperialism. Missionaries provided essential information needed for
conquest. They served as critical communication links in areas remote from
the colonial centers. Their mission stations were key trading points for the
transfer of European manufactured goods, as well as ideas. To the
missionaries, conquered peoples were “sinners to be saved.” By justifying
conquest of other peoples with the purpose of converting them to
Christianity, the goals of missionaries dovetailed with the political and
economic goals of European and American nation states. As the American
missionary and China scholar S. Wells Williams put it, the Chinese “would
grant nothing unless fear stimulated their sense of justice, for they are among
the most craven of peoples, cruel and selfish as heathenism can make men, so
we must be backed by force, if we wish them to listen.”
The Culture of Imperialism
The expansion of imperialism in the nineteenth century was reflected in
complex, often subtle, ways in the works of writers, artists, and composers.
Those who colonized relied also on the processes of acculturation, the
transmission of Western culture to the colonies, to create a culturally unified
empire. Sometimes the cultural forces of imperialism were as effective as any
military conquest.
Claiming and Constructing Cultures
When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he was accompanied by French
scientists who produced a lengthy work (twenty-four volumes!) called The
Description of Egypt. This work details the splendor of Egypt’s past as
preparation for the appropriation of that past by European powers. The
Franco-Prussian War (1870) led to an increase in French geographical societies,
which linked geographical exploration to the imperial enterprise. Some
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armchair travelers never left their own cultures but still produced imaginative
renderings of life and monuments. Later in the nineteenth century, as European
expeditions became more common, many travelers to Egypt and other parts of
the world recorded what they saw with great accuracy.
Imagining the Past
The Italian grand opera Aida by Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned by the
Khedive (the hereditary title granted to Egyptian rulers by the Ottomans) of
Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal and was first performed in
Cairo in 1871. Set in ancient Egypt as imagined by Verdi, Aida tells the story
of the Ethiopian princess Aida and her tragic love for Radames, the Egyptian
warrior. Aida innocently betrays her lover, who is condemned to death for
treason, and in the final act both Aida and Radames die entombed together.
The historical background of the story is the conflict between Egypt and
Ethiopia, but the contemporary setting was that of Anglo-Egyptian rivalry in
East Africa during the mid-nineteenth century.
Aida represented an imagined Egyptian past reconstructed by Europeans and
ironically commissioned for the opening of the strategically important Suez
Canal, the control of which would continue to be contested between
Europeans and Egyptians over the next century. The Suez Canal was a vital
link in the economic web of imperialism, providing for the rapid and efficient
transportation of goods and people between Europe and its African and
Asian colonies. The city of Cairo itself mirrored European cultural and
political presence juxtaposed with the Egyptian past. The east quarter of the
city was still a native preindustrial city, where itinerant water peddlers
controlled the water supply and the homes were plunged into darkness at
nightfall. The western part of Cairo, the colonial city, was home to Europeans;
the water supply came from a network of conduits connected with a steampumping station near the river, and the streets were illuminated with
gaslights at night. The opera house where Aida was staged was built by the
Khedive; it faced the colonial city and was part of the imported landscape.
Collecting Cultures
The mapping and description of the world was a responsibility of colonial
governments, which employed scientists, linguists, and other scholars to
carry out the tasks of recording, collecting, and preserving knowledge and
artifacts. Archaeology and anthropology flourished in the context of
nineteenth-century imperialist ventures. Recovering the artifacts of antiquity
was an undertaking financed by imperialism and carried out by European
archaeologists, who employed “native” guides and workers, but who gained
fame and wealth for themselves from the artifacts they unearthed. Through
their observations and study of other peoples and cultures, European
anthropologists heightened the popular awareness of cultural differences and
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often presented other cultures as museum pieces, unchanging and passive, in
contrast to the dynamism of European culture.
Those who collected knowledge and artifacts were both trained specialists and
ordinary travelers, including both men and women, some of whom found
conventional life in Europe so stultifying that they fled its restrictions and
expectations for the freedoms of colonial territories. Others acted as officials of
governments or institutions, as did the Hungarian Emil Torday (1875–1931),
who left Europe for the Belgian Congo in 1900, employed first by the Belgians
and later by the British Museum. He eventually learned local languages and
came to adopt an informed understanding of the African peoples (including the
Kuba) he befriended and admired. As Torday later wrote, “I had not the
slightest desire to see Europe again, and if it had been possible I would have
stayed on for the rest of my life.” Emile Torday collected nearly 3,000 objects
and established standards of ethnographic research techniques using oral
interviews, a strong historical framework, and extensive field documentation.
The collections of arts from Africa and Pacific Oceania made by Torday and
others found their way from British, German, French, and Belgian territories to
the museums of London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.
The Literature of Imperialism
In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, the development of the novel
accompanied the emergence of nationalism, and imperialism is likewise
woven into the fabric of literary works like a glittering gold thread
illuminating sources of wealth that supported the aristocratic social life
portrayed in the works of such authors as Jane Austen (1775–1817), the Bronte
sisters, Charlotte (1816–1855) and Emily (1818–1848), and even Charles
Dickens (1812–1870). The household economy of Thomas Bertram portrayed
in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) depends on plantations on the distant
Caribbean island of Antigua, and this consciousness intrudes ever so subtly
into the novel. Acknowledgment of economic dependence produces a kind of
cultural, and even racial, repugnance, juxtaposing orderly, white European
society with the dark, chaotic forces of foreign places and peoples.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s wife, the mad Bertha Mason,
has a Jamaican mother who was said to be insane. In Jamaica to make his
fortune, the young Rochester innocently married Bertha Mason there, and
after returning to England was tormented by her until her own suicide, which
also resulted in the maiming and blinding of Rochester. Emily Bronte’s great
novel, Wuthering Heights, features the wild and passionate character
Heathcliff who is said to have had a black father. Heathcliff was found by the
father of the heroine, Catherine Earnshaw, in Liverpool, a leading slavetrading port in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Wealth
derived from the slave trade provided the income for rich families whose
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homes were spread across the north of England. When the products of the
slave trade or of plantation economies in the West Indies intrude on English
life, they represent the forces of darkness, chaos, and tragedy.
Not only foreigners figure in the complexities of interaction between the
imperial center and its colonies: Europeans who have fallen into the lower tiers
of society as criminals are exiled to colonies where they can make new lives for
themselves while they extend the power of empire over indigenous peoples in
colonial territories. In Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations (1861), the hero, Pip,
early in his life befriends a convict, Abel Magwitch, who is transported to a
penal colony in Australia. Later Pip is the recipient of wealth bestowed on him
by Magwitch, but mistakenly believes his benefactor to be the mysterious and
elusive aristocrat Miss Havisham. When Magwitch returns illegally to England,
Pip initially rejects him because of his unsavory background (including his
Australian penal exile) but finally reconciles with his surrogate father. Pip
ultimately bestows on Magwitch the acknowledgment of fictive kinship, as
Australia was wrapped in the protective embrace of England and the dark
forces of aboriginal life there were pushed further into the interior, away from
the civilized spaces of cities such as Melbourne.
The British Empire became more than a tangential factor alluded to in
references to plantations in the West Indies or the backgrounds of characters
in the writings of Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936). Kim (1901) is perhaps the
quintessential novel of the empire, the story of an orphaned white boy who
grows up as a native in the streets and bazaars of Lahore. At least part of Kim
is semiautobiographical: Kipling was born in Lahore, grew up speaking
Hindustani, and lived as any other native speaker until he was sent to school
in England. Kim becomes involved in international espionage in India but is
eventually sent away to school and returns to take up service in the British
colonial government. Much of the power of Kim derives from the young
man’s interaction with an old Tibetan monk who is searching for the river
that will cleanse him of sins. Kim becomes the monk’s disciple and returns to
him at the end of the novel, when both discover what they have been seeking:
the monk, his river; and Kim, his destiny. The most poignant and remarkable
feature of Kim is the sympathetic treatment of Indian culture that still does
not contradict the legitimacy of British imperial power. Kim’s (and Kipling’s)
view of India is a deeply ambivalent one: each finds something precious
there, but the view remains one of the colonial power benevolently
patronizing the peoples it conquers.
Another European writer whose work is grounded in imperialism is the
Polish-born English writer, Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), the author of Heart of
Darkness (1898–1899). As a young man, Conrad spent his life at sea, and the
settings of his novels derive from his experiences in the South Seas, Central
Africa, and Asia. Conrad was deeply ambivalent about imperialism and
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extremely adept at portraying the dark side of European exploitation of
colonial lands and peoples and the attitudes imperialism fostered among both
exploiter and exploited. In Heart of Darkness Conrad exposed the dark
underpinnings of the imperialist venture in characters whose souls are
blighted by their experiences. He probably based his characters on the actions
and beliefs of real persons in the Congo. In Nostromo (1904) Conrad showed
the economic exploitation of a fictional independent Central American
republic, dominated by foreign interests because of a rich silver mine. The
intertwining of economic and cultural imperialism in Conrad’s eyes provides
a rich source of literary complexity that universalizes his characters’
dilemmas to the heart of modern humanity.
By the early twentieth century, deep ambivalence characterized modern
European writers who confronted the dehumanization of imperialism but
were themselves caught in its web. For indigenous peoples in colonized
territories, the ambivalences were different, but just as troubling, in their
confrontation with the world constructed by European expansion in the
nineteenth century. The adoption of European culture and institutions—
Westernization—was at once a means of empowerment, enabling former
colonies to assert their independence, and a source of profound anxiety about
their own cultural identity. At the same time the dynamic interaction between
European and non-European peoples and cultures produced a rich
confluence of cultures reflected in musical forms, art, literature, and aspects
of material life such as food and clothing. Similarly, the tension between
European and non-European cultural forms has its counterpart in the
tensions between tradition and modernity that shaped music, art, and
especially literature in the twentieth century.
Imperialism knit the world together as an extension of Europe, but Europe’s
exposure to other peoples and cultures also contributed in important ways to
the reconstruction of European identity in the twentieth century. As the
world has become technologically interconnected, the emerging global
culture has been constantly and rapidly transformed, producing increasingly
unstable, fragmented, and ambiguous cultural and social identities, but also
bearing the imprint of a rich sense of possibility produced by the dynamic
interaction of cultures.
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