Friday, October 2, 2009

Imperialism and Empires

In the first part of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire, he details what he terms the “Centenarian Revolution” or the century of innovation after the American and French Revolutions. This time period is marked by rapid advancements in technology, especially in the developments of railways, steamships, and the telegraph. This made the world a lot “smaller” as trips across Eurasia could be measured in weeks instead of months and even years, and speedy communication across great distances was possible for the first time. But this “Centenarian Revolution” is only the foundation for Hobsbawm’s book, in the following chapters he begins to discuss the major movements in the 1800’s, focusing on the economic and political shifts. The 1800’s had a turbulent economy to say the least, industrialization was rapid, and yields were increasing dramatically. However, this is not a sign of prosperity. The effect of increased production was a steep decrease in prices. Every sector suffered in some way, from farmers to factory workers. Hobsbawm also details the political climate of the 1800’s. The major powers were competing to build empires and expand their influence around the world. Hobsbawm fittingly describes this as the “Age of Empire.”

I found the question presented in class, “Who benefited from Imperialism” rather intriguing, I wasn’t there for the discussion (I was out sick) but I did think about it on my own. Obviously benefitting were the imperialistic powers. Their colonies provided them with natural resources, global power and international prestige. Their economies could be stimulated, as having control over foreign ports benefits not only your own sailing ships but also can be a source of income. Colonies also provide a country with a base for both naval and military outposts as well, and as a time filled with warfare as there was extensive wars throughout the colonized world, from Africa, to the Pacific Islands, to South America. But I think there were some benefits to the colonized nations as well. They were at least connected into the world system, though it came at a high price. Things like constant oppression, racism and violence came with being colonized. Just think, the horrific Apartheid of South Africa is the direct result of colonization.

So I wonder, how would the former colonies be different today if not for the Age of Empire? Would India be the same rising power it is today if it hadn’t been under British control for a hundred years or so? How would Africa be different if it hadn’t been sliced up like a cake at the Berlin Conference? It is surely impossible to know, but it is interesting to consider.

Colleen Moroney


  1. Certainly I think Africa and the Middle East in particular would benefit from a lack of colonization. I can't say how they would have been different, but many of the problems in the developing world stem from either the systems of governance present in colonialism and the classes it created, or bad borders drawn by colonizers, or (specific to Africa) the slave trade. Some areas, such as India, haven't been as hurt by this since before the departure of the British, several civic institutions were built up. This isn't to say that colonialism is a net gain, but that infrastructure helped save some parts of the world from post-colonial chaos (relatively, at least)

  2. I think the Middle East and India would be extremely different without colonialism. For example, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict stems from a colonial problem-simply put the British promising both sides land. Even more so, in Iran, it goes past colonialism and more so to direct American and British intervention. For example, Operation Ajax, the CIA operation that removed a democratic president, Mossadegh, out of power and restored the authoritarian monarch, Shah Pahlavi.