No historical process is more difficult to understand, yet more pervasive than imperialism: the series of actions by which a people, territory or state take over, and retain control of the land, resources, inhabitants, institutions, and potential of others. Given the enormity of what imperialism involves, it is hard for the historian or political theorist to pin it down, and when he attempts to, he restricts himself from seeing it clearly in other forms, guises, and places. Consequently, when most academicians have to deal with the phenomena, they conveniently assume its existence, too readily pass over its continuance, and too often predict its demise prematurely, and without any explanation. Imperialism seems to be everywhere; yet, nowhere, explaining why historians, unless absolutely necessary, hate to discuss it.
Dictionaries are little help in explaining imperialism because the definitions they provide generally assume what they are supposed to explain. The dictionary I have in my hand says that imperialism is: (1) the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or a nation over foreign countries; (2) an imperial government; and (3) an imperial system of government. These definitions, like those for the adjective - imperial - or the root noun - empire - are clearly too political, institutional, and static in character, not to mention tautological, for explaining the process in all its forms, especially economically, culturally, and indirectly. Students of words and makers of dictionaries seem no more willing to exploit the subject than other academicians.
If forced still to give some explanation for the phenomenon, British and American historians, the ones most concerned now with the process, generally resort to any factor but a clearly
political/governmental one in suggesting why it happened. Colonies were apparently picked up
because of a variety of geographical, social, psychological, economic, and irrational causes which governments ultimately were obliged to take control of, and responsibility for.
Domestic pressures because of a lack of resources to go round may have obliged governments to encourage emigration. Atavistic impulses or humanitarianism, especially 'the white man's burden' - and increasingly a combination of the two - could have caused imperialism. Then there could have been all kinds of opportunities for aggressive managers in the private or public sector to seize the initiative at the expense of those unable to prevent it, as Hilaire Belloc once put it: "Whatever happens we have got the maxim gun and they have not." (Quoted from Lance E. Davis and Robert A. Huttenback, Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire, p. 4.)
More specifically, settlement of apparently unpopulated lands because of over population in the host
country is a favorite social explanation, though it generally overlooks the role of government policy, whether it be religious persecution or crime prevention, in starting penal colonies there of one sort or another in the first place, and there were few really profitable, unpopulated places left. Then geographical and psychological considerations, especially because of a lack of security, are often used to account for their expansion. Of course, economic causes, especially in modern times, have been used to explain it - the pursuit of raw materials, cheap labor, and new markets, culminating in the famous claim by Nikolai Lenin that imperialism is the last stage of capitalism.
Traditional historians dealing with the modern phenomenon, usually political and diplomatic ones, echew the use of the word, imperialism, if at all possible. T. O. Lloyd, for example, in The British Empire, 1558-1983, announced in its Preface that it "invokes such a triumph of political commitment over historical precision that it will not be used in this book." (p. ix) Instead, he suggested using a host of other expressions - an aggressive foreign policy, imperial enthusiasm, imperial expansion, an imperial economic policy, a process of exploitation of imperial subjects, closer imperial unity, and Lenin's claim that it was the result of collapsing capitalism - to help explain what he was discussing at any given point, and readers could interchange the more precise terms he was using for imperialism if they chose - and in that way give it its myriad of meanings.
The only trouble with Lloyd's approach is that he almost never used these more precise terms to explain Britian's expansion in any context. The beginnings of the British empire, according to Lloyd, started during the reign of James I, and were to due to English establishment, thanks to the granting of royal monopolies, of bases for trading in out of the way places from the Great Moghul on the Indian sub-continent, and royal charters for settlements on the apparently uninhabited Atlantic coasts of the North American continent and on small islands in the West Indies - St. Christopher, Barbuda, Antigua, and Montserrat - "...that the Spaniards had not considered worth settling." (p. 2)
It is only later we learn that there were Indians of various sorts already living there, and they, though originally inclined to help out the colonists, and the Spanish were soon trying most diligently to root them out. Indians finished off the Virginia Company, the first tobacco colony, on Good Friday, 1622, forcing the Crown to make it a royal colony so that it could help supply its own means for
withstanding Spanish opposition - what became the model for subsequent trading companies, and a rash of other charters for territory around the globe. Also, Lloyd said little about English Protestant sovereigns' continuing efforts to subdue largely Roman Catholic Scotland and Ireland.
English settlement of less attractive West Indian islands had been partly the result of Spanish frustration of an English commercial offensive to force towns of the Spanish Main to permit trade by its privateers. In 1562, John Hawkins - thanks to Queen Elizabeth's investment in the venture - brought a ship-load of African slaves, and sold them at great profit in Caribbean ports. Hawkins, cousin of Francis Drake, repeated the process two years later, but in 1568, he was met by a Spanish fleet when they arrived at San Juan de Ulloa, and Hawkins and Drake both were lucky to escape with their lives from the disaster. Hawkins was rewarded for his efforts with a knighthood - the coat of arms of which included a black slave - and Drake, similarly rewarded, went on to carry out more aggressive and lucrative attacks on Spanish holdings around the world. In the process, the Queen received a 4,700 per cent return on her original investment.
In sum, contrary to what Lloyd claimed, the renewal of the British empire had a lot to do with effforts by the Crown and the Royal Navy, and they played an increasing role in the expansion of Europe as the world's goods became better known. The traders who induced them into action
purchased monopolies from the King to engage in the slave trade - the buying and selling of persons who had been forcibly kidnapped and held by others - and royal charters for colonies, some of which were used by pirates to prey on the Spanish Main. The process was driven by a desire for fees, and exorbitant profits by the Stuart kings, and their courtiers were loaded with the necessary venture capital for the enterprises in the face of Parliament's refusal to grant him necessary taxes - what resulted in the so-called 'Eleven Years' Tyranny', and the coming of the English Civil War. The companies and colonies were the means by which the Crown, a dynastic state, attempted to survive.
Once the Cavaliers had been defeated in England, and Charles I beheaded, Lloyd admitted as much: "While the King found it convenient to have a source of income that Parliament could not touch or question, people in England did not reckon the advantages of colonies in terms of the grants of revenue that they could make." (p. 45) Oliver Cromwell accelerated the process by seeing to the passage of the Navigation Act which gave English ships a monopoly in colonial trade, though the government increasingly issued expensive licenses of exemptions to foreign shippers for revenue purposes. The Staple Act of 1663 prevented English colonies from trading with Europe or its colonies, giving English manufacturers a monopoly for their goods.
The republican government sought colonies with a vengeance, Cromwell's Roundheads grabbing them up at Spanish, Stuart, and Dutch expense. The Stuarts' remaining hold on Ireland and Scotland was completely crushed during the early 1650s. In 1655, the British government tried to take Hispaniola from Spain by force, and when it was frustrated, it settled for capturing Jamaica and the Mosquito Coast, and reviving the East India Company. Charles II finally made good on Cromwell's aggression against the Dutch by seizing New Amsterdam in 1664. To enhance naval expansion, the Crown established the Greenwich Observatory in 1675 whose tasks were to chart the oceans, and to determine longitude by inventing a reliable chronometer.
The English imperialists even had their own ideologue, political philosopher John Locke. He was the secretary of Lord Ashley, the Whig leader who was deeply involved in the development of the Carolina colony, and later became a Lord Commissioner of the 'Lords of Trade', the body Charles II esblished to manage the growing empire. Locke claimed the the land was unoccupied, and should belong to whoever cultivated it. "...Colonial developments," Lloyd explained, "always gave Englishmen the idea that they were moving into empty land and seeing what could be made out of it." (p. 41) Carolina's proprietors went on to try to construct a feudal society there, but it was not very successful, given Locke's ideas about cultivation establishing ownership of the land in question.
England's imperial growth was almost entirely the result of Crown action - the granting of monopolies and charters for trade and land it neither controlled nor owned, protecting their settlements and trading posts from foreign interference and competition, establishing colonial governments in the hope of making them more secure and affordable, backing up what was being done in the colonies, on occasion, with military support and scientific knowledge, and supplying institutions and ideas of various kinds to keep colonial interests from flagging. In sharp contrast to what the Spanish and French were doing, Lloyd concluded, "...the Lords of Trade certainly had no money to spend on the colonies; and would been quite as surprised as any earlier generations at a suggestion that they ought to be spending money on them." (p. 46) In sum, according to him, since Britain has achieving an empire on the cheap, with the assistance of many others, and without any big designs, there was little chance that it was engaging in imperialism.
The process grew during the 18th century when Britain battled France's attempt to gain mastery of Europe, and added extensively to its colonial holdings as a result. Of the seven wars Britain fought with France, only the American Revolution was about the colonies, but still the Bourbons lost almost all their empire in the process. France bargained away its colonies at the end of the various war in order to gain concessions on the continent. In sum, Britain amassed a colonial empire by a kind of governmental inadvertance, and was only forced to deal with the problem when its policy of 'benign neglect' led to revolt by the under taxed American colonies, obliging London to seriously entertain the idea of getting rid of them.
The French Revolution and industrial development stopped all that. The conflagration in Europe so changed colonial arrangements, trade relations, economic organization, and the role of government that Britain could not contemplate getting rid of any colonies for fear of helping the enemy, and she was amassing more and more colonies in her naval struggle against Napoleon's attempt to master Europe. When the Emperor consolidated his hold on the continent, culminating in the Berlin Decrees which barred British trade with French-controlled areas, the Crown tightened by sea its grip over its holdings, and their relations with one another by blockading commerce with the continent. The consequent industrial revolution to meet the demands of the war so expanded the state that Britain played with the idea of recovering the former American colonies.
The 19th century saw Britain do by design with territory and settlement what she had previously delegated almost completely to others. To manage better the disparate colonies, the Colonial Office was established. Given Britain's control of the sea, and commerce to protect and promote established colonies, it again turned to private individuals to develop their interiors, especially in South Africa and New Zeland. The London money market provided the financing for government bonds, issued by them and the American Republic, and the United Kingdom increasingly provided the labor to do the work they entailed. To stop the most troublesome trade - that in slaves - Britain declared the slave-trade illegal in 1807, the institution itself illegal in 1834, and forcefully used the Royal Navy to suppress it by other powers thereafter. The new arrangements were solidified by Britain's adoption of freed trade in 1846 - what allowed for the efficient exchange of its manufactured goods for the raw materials and food from the colonies.
This plan percolated quite nicely, especially after Britain adopted Lord Durham's principle of colonial self-government for Canada in 1840, until the Sepoy rebellion in India in 1857 - conveniently called The Mutiny by London - and other Europeans powers, particularly Imperial Germany, joined the chase. In this context, the Crown renewed direct control of the colonies it still possessed, and went out of its way to gain new ones. With Britain and France deeply involved in Egypt's fate because of the potential of the Suez Canal - what ultimately involved London in taking over the country much in the fashion that Washington has recently done in Iraq - Bismarck started grabbing up African colonies to restrain German nationalism in Europe, causing British governments, in London and in the Commonwealth, going wild in doing the same thing. When gold was found in quantity in the Transvaal aka South African Republic, thanks to the activities of the British South African Company, the UK went wild with imperial enthusiasm.
Once Britain painted the globe largely red, it was hardly surprising that historians finally becoming interested in explaining it. J. A. Hobson explained: "Finance manipulates the patriotic forces which politicians, soldiers, philanthropists, and traders generate; the enthusiasm for expansion which issues from these sources, though strong and genuine, is irregular and blind; the financial interest has those qualities of concentration and clear-sighted calculation which are needed to set Imperialism to work."
(Quoted from Imperialism - A Study, p. 59) After the Boer War ended, Hobson added: "Although the new Imperialism has been bad business for the nation, it has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation." (p. 40) Of course, Marxists went wild with this claim, Rosa Luxemburg contending that "Imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital," and Lenin adding that Britain invested almost 50% of its financial capital in its colonies, concluding that this resulted in imperialism which would be its downfall.
Britain, of course, lost its empire during the 20th century - the settlement colonies, along with India and Pakistan, becoming self-governing states within the Commonwealth, while crown colonies, thanks to the growing power of nationalism, were given independence after WWII, especially after the Suez Affair when she could clearly no longer afford them. In the process, Britain finally learned that formally taking over countries had been an expensive business for the tax payer, and that its financial circles, despite Hobson's and the Marxists' claims, had not been its primary cause.
South Africa's Cecil Rhodes, and who better to know, was essentially correct when he said that Britain's "...imperialism was nothing more than philanthropy plus five percent!" (Quoted from Davis and Huttenback, p. 318.) - meaning that the London government was far too willing to supply its impressive forces, administrative subsidies, and high taxes to serve the colonies' interests in making the empire. The five perfect was the interest that government bond holders received for supplying the capital required for the expensive experiment.
The American Republic learned these lessons during the 19th century while it was establishing the profitable country it needed to prosper through expansion, purchase, and annexation. Washington, while operating on the shoe-string budget, was able to mount the necessary wars against the native inhabitants, foreign interlopers, and recalcitrant subjects to keep the expansion going, while purchasing and bargaining away big pieces of real estate from European powers for future development. According the Niall Ferguson, America bought no less than 1,693,662,720 acres of land during the time at a price of $17each.
While Washington continued to prepare the way, private citizens, either singly or in some kind of organization, took advantage of the agricultural, commercial, industrial, and financial opportunities with the least tax burdens possible - what Britain continued to support through its covert philanthropy.
British capital was much in evidence in financing the most expensive build-up of North American ranching, mining, and infrastructure, providing much of the money for both the U.S. and Canadian railroads - what was the biggest driving force for their expansion at the expense of the natives. In the 1880s, another collapse in ..."American railway securities resulted in a depression throughout Britain," (Quoted from Davis, and Huttenback, p. 60.)
When the American Republic reached the Pacific, it was hardly surprising that it started reaching beyond, as the European powers were madly doing - what resulted in the annexation of the Philippines, Spain ceding Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, and America annexing the Hawaiian Islands in the process. Washington clearly did not know if the United States was just an American power, a Pacific one, or an Atlantic one, or both. The problem was solved in 1903 when the US Marines arranged the annexation of Panama from Colombia, setting the stage for the building of a canal across the isthmus which would facilitate her being both. As she struggled to determine her mission in the world, claining all the while that she was not engaged in empire-building, she continued to benefit from British investment.
While Ferguson believes that the Supreme Court in deciding that Puerto Rico was merely a possession - unlike Alaska and Hawaii which were incorporated into the States by congressional approval - cast the die which made America a Pacific power, and well it did for quite awhile - the European powers exhausting themselves in two world wars surprisingly improved America's potential in the Atlantic, thanks to Woodrow Wilson's call for national self-determination at the end of the first one, and Roosevelt pushing the Atlantic Charter after the second one. New nations in Eastern Europe gutted the Austrian and German empires, and the Charter set the stage for an empire-free world of independent nations, engaged in free trade, and abandoning of the use of force to gain territory and settle disputes.
While Wilson's expectations were considerably frustrated by his excessive demands in the Versailles Treaty, the refusal of the American Seante to joint the League of Nations, and the surprising emergence of the Soviet Union and Japan as world powers, Washington did not give up on its plan for an empire-free world which constantly suited its purposes and interests. America started cutting Britain and Japan down to size when it came to naval power, the threat of war, war debt, the gold standard, trade, and expenditure - helping create a political climate that the weakened League proved unable of dealing with. In the process, it nearly bankrupted Britain, while encouraging Japan, Italy, and Nazi Germany to bite off more than they could chew.
When this was finally demonstrated - Roosevelt refusing Churchill's plea to change sides at Moscow's expense at the Yalta Conference for fear of Washington and London biting off more than they could chew - America set about building an international organization which would serve its long-range goals, given the country's lack of enthusiasm for imperialism, and foreign entanglements - its dream of returning to isolationism. The country's limited resources, especially in oil, research, and geographic position, would not permit it, especially in light of the threat of communism and Soviet superiority. The task was to get a country in denial of its imperial position to go along with the process despite its much more parochial wants and wishes.
The United Nations, with a General Assembly to articulate unimportant countries' wishes, and a Security Council, with a Washington veto, to guarantee nothing was done without its approval, was established. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization) was set up to achieve by design, thanks to the loans that the new Washington-based Interanational Monetary Fund could provide to promote free trade, tariff reductions like the British had established a century before. And given America's overwhelming economic strength, its dollar, not gold, became the international standard of value. Finally, America's military organization around the world, thanks to bilateral and multilateral treaties inspired to contain communism, would give it a thrust almost wherever it wanted without anyone else being able to do much about it.
Within this institutional framework, America wasted little of its resources in establishing a hegemony like the world had never seen. Economically, Washington, bolstered by the Marshall Plan, was able to make its financial resources work most efficiently in establishing new markets in the developed world, and sources of raw materials in the underdeveloped one without the wasteful competition that Britain's efforts had suffered from. Soon even defeated Germany and Japan became the leading purchasers of American exports. As America's trade surplus steadily rose, it was able to decrease its foreign aid as a percentage of GDP to the lowest in the world. And foreigners increasingly immigrated to the States to keep down the costs of products produced - Wal-Mart becoming the model of how to succeed.
When America could not induce allies, potential friends, and apparent enemies to follow its leads, it resorted to a variety of covert operations to achieve its goals by stealth, surprise, and snooping, thanks to the aggressive egos of its leadership. Washington's assassinations, coups, interventions,
perversion of elections, corruption of intelligent political dialogue, encourging terrorism and the use of prohibited weapons are legion, as William Blunt has duly recorded in Rogue State, and there must be more that still remains unknown to the public. While the CIA and other intelligence agencies were carrying out their black operations, the National Security Agency was increasingly developing the capacity to identify almost every possible threat.
When the Soviet Union went into its death throes, and scholars like Paul Kennedy started recognizing the increasingly imperial character of America, too many of them were still inclined to play down its significance and permanence. When Washington became a borrower of other people's money in the 1980s to pay for its expansion, many saw it as the beginning of the end of the American colossus, Kennedy seeing it go the same way as other over-stretched empires. They overlook, though, its global character - what guarantees that the dollar, capital flows, labor movement, oil production, and the like maintains some kind of stability. While others may complain about Washington's unilateralism when it bombs some recalcitrant country, or ousts some tryant, other countries, as we are seeing in Iraq, are obliged to join in, no matter how long it takes, and how obnoxious the work. Washington has taken all the philanthropy out of its imperialism.
In sum, the American empire is not going away any time soon.