Europe was able to conquer the Americas first because, at the risk of being insensitive and oversimplifying, the Americas were the easiest to conquer. They didn’t have immunities to a lot of Old World diseases since they didn’t share the same domesticated animals and so they were already seriously weakened before most colonists even showed up. But Africa and Asia were different. They had highly centralized governments – like the Aztec and Inca – but they also had been interacting across Afro-Eurasia for thousands of years.
Industrialization and imperialism
It wasn’t until western Europe gained such superior technology that they were finally able to fully conquer these places. And the industrial revolution gave Europe that leg up. Take guns, for example. Before this time period, guns were loaded by putting three separate pieces down the barrel – gunpowder, wadding, and the actual bullet (at this point just a round ball of lead). They were really inaccurate and took a long time to reload.
But as the Industrial Revolution pressed on, people starting making guns more efficient. They created the bullet cartridge that effectively had all three parts wrapped up in one. And they reshaped the bullets to be pointed and a lot more accurate coming out of the barrel. Eventually they created repeating rifles that could shoot more than once before they had to be reloaded. And the first machine gun was invented in 1884, the same year that all of Europe sat down in Berlin and starting carving up Africa on a map.
The Industrial Revolution didn’t just make imperialism easier. It was also the reason for imperialism. Competing European countries needed access to more and more raw materials to fuel their advancement. The American colonies were fine for sugar and tobacco but Africa had mineral wealth – gold and tin – and other resources like timber and rubber which was becoming necessary for machine parts and eventually tires for bicycles and then early cars.
So, by the mid 1800s, Europe had the motivation and the ability to fully take over the great continent of Africa. Add on top of that the fact that the continent had been seriously weakened for about 300 years due to the slave trade and the internal fighting it created. Most of its young men who would fight the Europeans off had already either been enslaved or died in war. But still, there was enough political organization left that most of the European powers decided they didn’t need to necessarily completely colonize Africa the way Britain had done North America, for example. They just needed to send enough officials down to oversee the extraction of natural resources and so they relied a lot on Africans to rule each other. This is important – but we’ll come back to it in a second.
The Berlin Conference
So how did Europe decide who got what part of Africa? Remember the Congress of Vienna early in this century? The main powers got together and decided to balance each other’s power so that a Napoleon would never happen again. They did the same thing with Africa. They sat down at a conference in Berlin – the Berlin Conference – and negotiated for territory in Africa. Obviously no African people were present, that would be insane! To be clear, Europe had already been scrambling for Africa for decades now but this just formalized the process and helped avoid conflict between European nations over borders.
This was a big event for some of the newcomers in Europe, especially a young nation called Germany. It had been formed out of the remnants of Prussia and parts of the late Holy Roman Empire and turned into a military power by Otto von Bismarck in the mid 1800s. They were late to the conquering game but don’t you worry, they’ll make up for lost time.
What ensued at the Berlin Conference was basically a massive, and way more consequential, game of Settlers of Catan. France got longest road, England got largest army, and Belgium was just sitting on a bunch of 6’s and 8’s on rubber. But Germany was scrappy and buying up all those dev cards to work its way into the game.
Anyway, Africa gets carved up as part of European empires. And here are a few names you may have heard of but totally forgotten who they are:
King Leopold and the Congo
King Leopold – he’s the king of Belgium and a pretty bad dude. He’s the one who kind of started this whole Scramble for Africa by venturing into the interior under the pretext of philanthropy and discovery. He starts establishing claims to the Congo, which is why everyone freaks out and sets up the Berlin Conference before chaos ensues.
There’s a fantastic/terrible book about the Congo called King Leopold’s Ghost. Basically, Belgium allowed for most of the land of the Congo to be controlled by private companies who were allowed to do whatever they wanted with no legal repercussions in the pursuit of natural rubber.
They created military forces of native people to keep control over the workers – not workers, enslaved people. And the white company men were basically allowed to do whatever they wanted with the people there – it was like Westworld but a million times worse because these were actual human beings, not dreamy James Marsden robots. Slaves who didn’t meet their quotas would have their hands cut off and millions died of disease. So there’s that.
Cecil Rhodes and the Diamond Trade
Another guy you’ve probably heard of is Cecil Rhodes. He was a mining magnate and prime minister of the Cape Colony (South Africa) in the 1890s. His company also founded the country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and named it after him. Cecil Rhodes basically controlled all of southern Africa and its diamond mines, out of which he formed the De Beers Diamond Company, which still today controls 35% of the global diamond trade.
Cecil Rhodes discovered so many diamonds in southern Africa that there was concern that they would no longer be valuable. So his company did two things: first, he monopolized the market. He took control of basically all the diamond mines and then sold them strategically to jack up the price.
The other thing his company did was figure out a way to stabilize the market so that there would always be a demand for diamonds. Now this part happened after Rhodes died but it’s really interesting so I’m going to talk about it anyway. They hired an American ad agency in 1938 to figure out how to get regular people, not just the super rich, to buy diamonds. And the key was they needed to figure out a way for them to never sell them. How could they connect them with an emotion so that they would be kept forever (and off the market, not flooding the supply)? And thus, the diamond engagement ring was born. Because, you know, “a diamond is forever.”
Other types of imperialism
Back to imperialism, economic control like we saw across sub-Saharan Africa was the most common type. However, there were other situations where major powers would exert extreme influence over a country without actually controlling it. Let’s look at two examples: Egypt and Cuba.
Egypt and the Suez Canal
Here comes Napoleon again, stirring the pot and causing chaos. As part of Napoleon’s attempt to be Julius Caesar, I guess, he invaded Egypt and France occupied the country for a few years. Napoleon began a study of an ancient canal that connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea that had been around since BCE times. Eventually a French company built the Suez Canal on its remains, finished in 1869. The canal was controlled by a private company with the majority of the shares owned by the French and a minority owned by Egypt, but financial troubles caused Egypt, how nice. But, financial troubles caused Egypt to have to sell its shares to the British.
And now, let’s pause for a second to talk about how the U.S. Civil War totally screwed over Egypt…
So Egypt had just asserted its full independence from Napoleonic France and the struggling Ottoman Empire and it had a new nationalist leader named Muhammad Ali – not the boxer. He was trying to catch Egypt’s economy up with the west. And he was doing it through one of Egypt’s best exports – cotton.
His economy was doing really well, especially because most of the cotton from the American South was not able to get to the rest of the world in the 1860s thanks to the embargo by the north during the Civil War. This drove up cotton prices worldwide, helping places like Egypt and India. Muhammad Ali spent that cotton money like it was going out of style. He was trying to industrialize and westernize. Then, in 1865, when the Civil War ended, American cotton flooded the market and wrecked the Egyptian economy. Whoops.
So now, the British and French co-own and manage the Suez Canal in technically-independent Egypt. This gets them access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean trade and is going to be super important – so much so that the British are going to fight a war over it when the Egyptians finally take control of it. But if you’ve seen season 2 of the Crown then you already know this.
Another example of a western country having influence, if not complete control, is the United States in Cuba. So to backup a little bit, the United States in the first half of the 1800s was really just closing its doors and trying to catch up to Europe. But they wanted to make sure that Europe didn’t get too close or too involved in our hemisphere (that’s how we started to see it.)
So in the early 1800s we issued the Monroe Doctrine. This basically said, stay out of our backyard. If foreign powers intervene or try to take over parts of the Americas – which had all just become independent (South America, Mexico, Haiti) – then the U.S. would treat it like an attack on its own soil. We made it look like we were saying this to protect the new democracies of Latin America but we also wanted a lot of that land for ourselves, eventually.
So in this context, Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War should be seen through the lens of imperialism. We were trying to compete with Europe by gaining more land and resources. But our first foray into full-scale imperialism – where we attempt to gain colonies, not just more land that is annexed as part of our country – is the Spanish American War in 1898.
The Spanish-American War
(The Cuban War for Independence)
Important point. We’re the only ones who call it the Spanish-American War. It’s really the Cuban War of Independence. They had been fighting the Spanish for years and were doing pretty well, which freaked us out. We had always assumed that Cuba would eventually be part of the U.S. We would buy it from Spain like we did Florida – but now it looked like they were going to get full independence. That can’t happen.
Using the accidental explosion of the U.S.S. Maine as our excuse, we get involved in the war on the side of the Cubans, helping them gain independence from Spain. You’re welcome. But by doing this, we insert ourselves into their political process and “help” them write a new constitution that gives us a ton of privileges. How nice of us.
We inserted a thing called the Platt Amendment into the Cuban constitution that said that U.S. troops would leave Cuba only after they signed it. It basically said that the U.S. could intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it believed that Cuban independence was being threatened. But… wouldn’t the U.S. intervening also threaten Cuban independence? Stop asking questions and just sign the document!
A few years later, we also forced them to sign an agreement giving us an indefinite lease on Guantanamo Bay, where we set up a naval base and prison. The current Cuban government sees this as an illegal military occupation and hasn’t cashed any of the rent checks we send them.
Out of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. also got a few former Spanish colonies as our own – the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. So now, the U.S. has officially entered the Age of Imperialism as well. But, instead of just focusing on the conquerors, let’s now look at the impact of imperialism on the conquered places…