The Pros and Cons of Imperialism

I’m just kidding. It’s all cons.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

Arguing against imperialism

So, every year when we talk about imperialism, some kid will inevitably say something like, “Well, yeah. But imperialism was good for Africa. They transformed the economy and also built a ton of infrastructure they didn’t have before, like roads.” And what I say is, “You’re right. There were some physical improvements made to the land that can still be used after the Europeans left, but it wasn’t really in great condition and was only built to extract natural resources.”

But here’s what I want to say to that kid…

“Seriously? You’re saying that Africa should be grateful because the Europeans left a few roads behind? And you don’t think that the successors of the great postclassical trading kingdoms of Mali, Great Zimbabwe, or the Swahili states would have also eventually gotten around to building roads and bridges? Remember Mansa Musa? He is the richest guy in the history of the planet. I think he could have built a few roads if Europe would have just left them alone.

And another thing! I would argue that the Africans would have built way better infrastructure that would have actually served their people unlike the Europeans who were just building it to get out diamonds and rubber and a few human hands! Ugh.” Calm down, Emily. It’s OK. They’re just teenagers. They don’t know.  

Anyway, imperialism leaves behind a few really important legacies around the world, but for today I’m going to focus on Africa.

Imperial legacies: Institutions

First, it does leave behind infrastructure like roads and bridges, but not really a lot that will serve the people of Africa. They only build hospitals, for example, in the cities where white Europeans are living. And schools are not a priority because they don’t need an educated workforce to go work in the mines. Sure, Christian missionaries do some of this but not nearly to the extent that they would need to to serve the entire continent.

The way the Europeans structured their African colonies was basically to set up a shell government – bare bones infrastructure that was just enough to organize labor and get natural resources out. It all got funneled through the colonial administration and to the mother country.

This is going to be important later because when African nations get their independence, this is still the way the government is set up – so whoever takes charge is basically taking the place of the entire British Empire, for example. All of the wealth of their country flows through them and they have an enormous amount of power. Some leaders will be George Washingtons and not take advantage of their position but more of them will be Napoleons who turn into strong men that suck their national economies dry. More on that in the 20th century.

Imperial Legacies: borders

The other big legacy of imperialism in Africa are the borders. When the Europeans sat down at the Berlin Conference and drew lines on a map they were not taking into consideration the Africans at all. They drew borders that separated one ethnic group into 2 or 3 new colonies or, even worse, that forced two historic enemies into the same colony. Africa is still reeling from the legacy of these boundaries – just look at the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

The Europeans made this problem worse by intentionally favoring one group over another. Often they would take a minority group and put them in charge. The minority group was grateful for the power and so they served the Europeans, often with a lot of brutality against a majority group that might have oppressed them in the past.

So, again, when African nations get independence later they will often eliminate the Africans who served in the colonial governments as traitors. This makes sense, but they are also getting rid of the only people who have governing experience.

How did The West justify imperialism?

So all of this begs the question, how could so many people think this was a good idea for so long? The easy answer is racism. And, in a surprise turn of events, the easy answer is also the right answer. Racism.

The Europeans in the 1800s truly believed that they were superior to most other places on earth. And why wouldn’t they? They had the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, Exploration, Conquest, the Industrial Revolution! They were controlling most of the world!

And people throughout history have wanted to see themselves and their people as better than everyone else – look at the Middle Kingdom in China, or xenophobia against non-Greeks in the classical Age and the Roman attitudes against “barbarians”, or even the original exclusion of non-Arabs from Islam. It always happens and shouldn’t surprise us. But what makes this time so much more extreme is that Europe has way superior technology and science to back them up.

“scientific” racism

I want to make this clear – from here on out, basically every time I say the word science, just imagine I’m doing air quotes around it. Because what the Europeans consider scientific in the 1800s is in no way actually based on fact. But they believe it is. The first part of this is scientific racism. Since the 1600s there has existed the idea that the world can be divided into a few main races, each with their own distinct physical and mental attributes.

European scientists (again, air quotes) look around the world and notice that people of color tend to be doing most of the manual labor. Also, a lot of them are less educated than, say, Europeans. They observe this fact and conclude that people of color are not as intelligent and are better suited to physical work than the other races. Now you might be thinking, but didn’t the Europeans put the people of color into those manual labor jobs? Didn’t they create this system that they are now using as scientific fact to justify? And if you’re thinking that, then, good job – you’re paying attention! And also you would have been a terrible imperialist.

race and Social darwinism

So this idea of separate races with separate traits already exists. And in walks Charles Darwin. Now, to be clear, I am not using air quotes when I say that Charles Darwin was a scientist. And I have no idea whether or not Charles Darwin was a racist, I’ve never met the guy. He just wanted to study bird or turtles or whatever. But his ideas propel scientific racism into full scale Social Darwinism.

Darwin proposed two big ideas: evolution and survival of the fittest. Basically, the more fit species will adapt, evolve, and survive over time while the weaker species will die out. He was writing about animals but scientific racists look at his work, published in 1859, and look around at the world as it existed in that moment, and went, “Aha! It’s science!”

They began to argue that industrialization and imperialism were just proof that white Europeans and Americans were just the more evolved species. (Notice that we’re now thinking of races as different species – not all just human beings.) It was natural that they would evolve to dominate the other, inferior races.

race and (wrong) evolutionary theories

And they also did a thing that is insanely racist and also really requires a visual – please check out antisocialstudies.org after the episode. As these ideas about evolution got established, Darwin also proposed that apes and human beings evolved from the same ancestors. Yeah we’re going here…

Imperialists then propose that because black people’s darker skin looks more like monkeys than a white person’s does, they must be further behind in the evolutionary process. Oof. This is bad.

Imperialism | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: Wikimedia Commons
“A scientific demonstration from 1868 that the Negro is as distinct from the Caucasian as the Chimpanzee. Josiah Nott was a polygenist who believed that the “races” of man had always been separate.” This was from Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon’s Indigenous races of the earth (First published 1857) (Wikimedia Commons)

There is a diagram from an American textbook in the 1850s called the Types of Mankind that shows in succession the heads of a chimpanzee, an African, and a European. What this diagram is suggesting is that Europeans are the most highly evolved and, thus, the logical leaders of the world. Oh and also. The European head in the diagram? It’s from a statue of Apollo. Yeah. The Greek god. Talk about a superiority complex.

So these ideas justify to many Europeans the terrible things that are done to non-white people across the world during the Age of Imperialism. And keep in mind that people were taught this as scientific fact for generations.

Think about all of the things that we are taught today and how most of us just accept that it must be true. I could have made all of this stuff up but you trust me because I’m a teacher and I have a podcast; they don’t just give these to anyone!

An artifact that hits this point home for me is a British children’s book from 1899 called “An ABC for Baby Patriots.” I posted a link on my website but it has pages that say things like,

“A is the Army that dies for the Queen
It’s the very best Army that ever was seen.

B stands for Battles by which England’s name
Has for ever been covered in glory and fame.

C is for Colonies rightly we boast
That of all the great nations, Great Britain has most.”

Yeah. But it gets worse. On this next page it shows two European kings pulling a line of African kings with chains around their necks. The last king in line just looks like a straight-up ape. Remember – this is a children’s book.

Imperialism | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: Curation: Alex Q. Arbuckle Images: University of Florida, George A. Smathers LibrariesImperialism | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: Curation: Alex Q. Arbuckle Images: University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries

“K is for Kings once warlike and haughty
Great Britain subdued them because they’d been naughty.”

What?!?! Did you just call grown African kings naughty? And you said that they were warlike and haughty? They aren’t the ones who just conquered your entire continent with guns, shipped men off to be slaves on plantations, and made the ones who stayed work in mines and get their hands chopped off. What?! Ugh.

The Civilizing Mission

Europeans believed that they were civilizing an uncivilized continent. They were bringing them technology and Christianity and general goodness. The U.S. isn’t exempt from this. If you’ve ever seen the famous painting about Manifest Destiny – I’m sure your 8th grade U.S. History teacher showed this to you at some point.


It’s a white woman in a flowing toga floating westward. Behind her, in the east (where the U.S. is) it is light and there are trains and ships and technology. In front of her (in the unconquered west) it is darker and there are natives and Mexican people. She is carrying with her two things – a telegraph cable and a Bible.

Oh and, y’all know books like the Jungle Book and Tarzan were written to enhance this message right? Mogley is the only human surrounded by animals but he can dominate them because he has access to technology – fire. And in the Disney movie they even added in a song where the orangutan sings “I wanna be like you. Walk like you talk like you!” And Tarzan is a guy who gets saved when a white woman shows up with a book. It’s that simple.

Let’s move on before I lose my mind. But think about the impact that that message would have on generations of young Europeans. They grow up believing that they are inherently better than the rest of the world – physically, mentally, scientifically. They haven’t learned their world history and realized that every region of the world has had Golden Ages and high points where they easily could have argued that they were the best. Europe just happened to have theirs at a time when technology and information was advancing so quickly they could force the rest of the world to acknowledge their Golden Age.

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