Last time we talked about French instability as a problem for all of Europe. In 1789, the French had their revolution. In 1799, they acclaimed a dictator who plunged Europe into another war. The memory of the Napoleonic wars would not die easily among Europe’s other powers, and for much of the nineteenth century European diplomacy was centered on keeping France in her place. In this lecture I want to take a different approach and consider England as a problem for European security, as well. People have long had the idea that Britain brought stability to Europe. It was not an aggressive power, but was interested in maintaining the status quo. British diplomacy was about maintaining the balance of power, or so the story goes. There is an element of truth in this, but Britain’s interest in European stability had less to do with its emerging democratic institutions than it did with its world-wide interests. If France and, later, Germany brought war to the Continent, Britain brought war and exploitation to the rest of the world. In this sense, although Britain wanted political stability in Europe, there was no altruism involved here, since a powerful European state could threaten Britain’s world-wide interests. This is why the British were against France keeping Belgium. It is also why Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914 brought Britain into the First World War.
During the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries, Britain became an aggressive colonial power, seizing trading posts and colonies around the world from other European powers. Whereas Spain, Portugal, and some Italian city-states acquired great colonial empires in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Holland, France, and England began to compete directly with these older powers during the seventeenth centuries. Initially, the Dutch and the French enjoyed a great deal of colonial success, setting up trading posts and colonies in areas around the globe that included North America, Africa, India, and Asia. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Britain had become the most formidable colonial rival of all.
Britain fought three wars with the Dutch during the seventeenth century over commercial rights, one from 1652-1654, another from 1664-1667, and the last from 1672-1674. In the process, the Brits took much of the Dutch colonial empire, including India, and a
North American city called New Amsterdam that they renamed New York. With the Dutch out of the picture, Britain fought two more wars during the eighteenth century that also resulted in major colonial gains. In the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1711), the Brits took Gibraltar and Minorca from Spain, as well as gaining the exclusive right to supply the Spanish colonial empire with slaves. Then in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which I mentioned in a previous lecture, Britain shut the French out of the colonial business in North America, taking France’s settlements in what is now Canada and the northern United States. Thus, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britain was an aggressive colonial power, determined to fight its European neighbors for every commercial and maritime advantage. By 1800, no other country could rival Britain’s control of world commerce or the seas.
Before we continue into the nineteenth century, we need to consider an important terminological distinction. I have been talking about European Colonialism so far, but as we head into the nineteenth century, I will begin using the term Imperialism. The two terms are closely related, but in the end there are some important distinctions between them. Colonialism as a phenomenon dates back much further than Imperialism. It is already evident in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and describes the establishment of trading networks. Usually, a colony was some outpost near water that was dedicated to increasing trade with the mother state. Only rarely did colonial powers reach beyond the individual trading networks to attempt to take over an entire country or region. This was usually due to concerns about political control. Colonial powers could only control so much foreign territory, before the people living there got their own ideas. There was, for example, a constant struggle between British powers and American colonials over the extent of European settlement. Officially, Americans were not supposed to settle land beyond the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States, and the British did all they could to prevent such expansion. These attempts at control failed.
Imperialism is a much looser term than Colonialism, but it is important to us, because it describes a key change in Europe, namely the industrial revolution. What is different about Imperialism is that industrialized states (in the nineteenth century, this came to include Russia, Japan, and the United States) could now project power into all parts of the globe, taking over huge swaths of territory without needing to colonize it with their own citizens. These industrial states needed access to raw materials to run their industries, so they were not as interested in trade, as they were in simple extraction of raw materials. (One of the most oppressive and vicious Imperial powers was tiny, though heavily industrialized Belgium, which looted raw materials from the Congo for its industrial base.) In addition, imperial powers exerted great economic and diplomatic pressure on areas that they did not wish to control directly. Thus, imperialism describes an entire system of domination that industrialized powers used to get what they needed out of non-industrial regions and powers.
Having defined Imperialism, we now need to place this broad term into a particular time frame. Imperialism as a period begins in 1880 and runs until 1945. It is characterized by the massive increase in industrial might, fierce competition among states for access to natural resources, strident nationalism. It also has an additional characteristic: it marks the end of Euro-centrism, as Japan and the United States joined the imperial club. The rise in both the total power and the number of competing countries increased the political pressure around the globe, as the various actors kept bumping up against each other. Between 1870 and 1900, Britain increased its territory by one half and its population by one third. The new state of Germany, which we will discuss in another lecture, acquired 1 million square miles of territory between 1880 and 1900. France acquired 3.5 million square miles, during the same period.
Now let us turn to Britain’s position within the rise in Imperialism during the 19th century. Imperial Britain, as opposed to Colonial Britain, appears during the Crimean War (1853-1856). This war was fought over Russian demands for the right to protect Orthodox Christians living under the Ottoman sultans, who were Muslims. Fearing Russia’s desire to extend its influence into the Ottoman Empire, the British and French declared war on Russia. The war was a complete disaster for everyone, with many people killed to no apparent purpose. Each side lost about 250,000 men, with most of the deaths due to disease, rather than enemy activity. In the end, Ottoman Turkey’s boundaries were confirmed, and the Russians got a diplomatic black eye. This had long-term implications for Europe on a number of levels. First, Austria had supported Britain, France, and Turkey, though it did not join the war. This meant that Russia withdrew all diplomatic support from Austria. Thus, when Austria battled Prussia for leadership over a new German state, she could only call on France and Britain for help, which amounted to receiving no help at all. Second, from the British perspective this war established how essential a strong navy was to the defense of British interests around the world, and it also made the navy a focus of national pride. There would now always be a consensus within British national politics that the Navy had to be funded properly. The British Empire, in addition to being a giant economic enterprise, was now also every Englishman’s birthright.
The Crimean War’s political effects must be understood in terms of British experiences in other parts of the world. Let us begin with India. The British East India Company had been working in India since the eighteenth century. (You will recall that the Brits stole the Dutch interests in the region.) The East India Company was, however, in serious financial trouble by the mid-nineteenth century, and its only hope for survival was to give it access to more of India’s territory. Thus, between 1848 and 1852, Britain annexed a series of Rajas that greatly increased the East India Company’s total resources. This process of annexation soon took on a life of its own, as resistance appeared. In 1857, the Sepoy Rebellion broke out against British Imperial rule. This rebellion was actually sparked by religious objections to Britain’s gun ammunition. The British used a particular kind of gun cartridge that was lubricated with animal fat. The problem with this system lay in how the cartridge was used. In order to load the gun, a soldier had to rip open the cartridge’s wrapper with his teeth. Hindus and Muslims both objected to the use of this cartridge and rose up in rebellion. This rebellion then led to further occupation, a process that came to an end in 1876, when the British Prime Minister declared Queen Victoria to be Empress of India.
What you need to understand about this process is that the Britain’s economic interests impelled her toward a greater empire. With India firmly under British control, Egypt became central to British imperial policy. The French had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. Finding common interest in keeping the canal open, the Brits and the French initially managed it jointly. In 1882, however, locals rose up against imperial rule and the British occupied Egypt. This exacerbated tensions between Britain and France, setting the stage for an imperial competition between the countries in Asia. France had developed an extensive empire in Asia and the Pacific. Already in 1847, the French took Tahiti. In 1853, they acquired New Caledonia. In the 1870s, they took all of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Rumors that the French were moving into Burma finally led Britain to annex that region in 1886.
European leaders were not unaware of the dangers this situation created. There were, in fact, attempts to regulate the Imperial competition, so that the major powers could avoid war. In the drama that ensued, Otto von Bismarck was one of the central manipulators, and the Continent of Africa was the main victim. We begin with 1876. In that year, King Leopold of Belgium invited a group of geographers to a conference in Brussels to talk about exploiting Africa’s natural resources. In 1877, the King set up a private company, called Association Internationale du Congo, which would explore the Congo River and set up trading posts. By 1884, this committee had signed treaties with over 450 local tribes, and on this basis it asserted the right to control the entire region of what it today Zaire.
Before we continue with Africa, we need to go back to Europe, because here we can see that one of the fundamental strategic problems in the nineteenth century was the rivalry that emerged between Britain, France, and the new Germany. In 1877, war broke out again between the Russians and the Ottomans, as the Russians came to the aid of separatist uprisings in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria. Russia and her allies won, and in January 1878, the treaty of San Stefano was signed, ratifying Russia’s gains in the Balkans. This alarmed the British and the Austrians, who felt their respective interests were threatened. In order to avoid an international crisis, a congress was held in Berlin that revised the treaty of San Stefano, giving some of Russia’s gains to Austria. Otto von Bismarck presided over this conference, doing his best to assure that no power became too powerful to threaten the new political status quo that he had created in Europe. (We will talk about the rise of Prussia in another lecture.) What I want to show you today is that the pressure was getting too great within Europe, and it had to be vented somewhere. Bismarck helped make sure that it would be vented in Africa.
Now we return to Africa. In 1881, partly at the connivance of Britain and Germany, the French invaded Tunisia. Both the British and the Germans wanted to direct French foreign policy away from the public desire to avenge their defeat by Prussia in 1871. While the French were engaged in North Africa, Belgium was still busy in the Congo, extracting raw materials and oppressing the local population. Belgian gains made the Portuguese unhappy. The Italians were already unhappy with French gains in Africa, and the spread of envy led to another conference in Berlin called the Berlin West Africa Conference. This conference created the so-called Congo Free State and inaugurated the largely peaceful carving up of the entire African Continent. Within twenty years, 95% of Africa would be under European control, as Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal established empires. These empires were products of European political and economic rivalries. When Africa was finally cut up, and there was no place else to go, these rivalries returned to Europe. It is, therefore, no accident that the First World War would begin with a small crisis in the Balkans.
Now we must step back for a moment and consider European rivalries through Britain’s empire. The first thing we note from a British perspective is that Britain’s mercantile and maritime policy created a constant need to push Britain’s borders out into the world. By the time the Crimean War began, Britain already had 200 years of colonial experience behind it. When other European countries got into the act, the impulse to defend an existing colonial network was transformed into an imperial agenda. The British did not annex certain regions because it added to their total wealth; they acted defensively to prevent other European powers from threatening their global interests. This is what the Congress of Berlin was all about. Here we get back to a theme I mentioned earlier: central to this development was the spread of industrialization. As industries appeared across Europe and then, later, the United States and Japan, imperial competition became more intense. If Britain was to insure that it remained the premier imperial power, it needed a strong Navy. Thus, no other power could be allowed to grow strong enough to challenge British Naval supremacy. This is why the Brits pursued a status quo policy on both borders and military spending on the European Continent. When Germany emerged as a powerful naval and imperial competitor, the foundation of the next great war in Europe was already laid.