How Europeans Justified Imperialism: "Expansion Was Everything"

"Expansion Was Everything"

Read about nineteenth-century Imperialism, the Congress of Berlin, and W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis of the profound consequences of Europe's colonization of Africa.  
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19th Century Imperialism

In the late 1800s, English businessman Cecil Rhodes made a fortune claiming huge tracts of land in South Africa—places rich in gold and diamonds—and brutally exploiting the labor of the local population, who he considered to be members of an inferior race. Thousands died as a result of the labor practices his businesses used in Africa. In his later years, he wrote that “the world is nearly all parceled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach, I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.” 1

Rhodes was an imperialist, and to an imperialist, “expansion was everything.” Imperialism is the policy of expanding the rule of a nation or empire over foreign countries by force. In the 1800s, European nations acquired great wealth and power from both the natural resources of the lands they conquered and the forced labor of the people from whom they took the land. Imperialists used ideas from eugenics and Social Darwinism to justify their conquests. To imperialists like Rhodes, the idea that there would soon be no opportunity for further expansion was unsettling.

The French held similar views. In a speech to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1884, Jules Ferry, who twice served as prime minister of France, said:

Gentlemen, we must speak more loudly and more honestly! We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races. . . . I repeat, that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races. . . . In the history of earlier centuries these duties, gentlemen, have often been misunderstood, and certainly when the Spanish soldiers and explorers introduced slavery into Central America, they did not fulfill their duty as men of a higher race. . . . But in our time, I maintain that European nations acquit themselves with generosity, with grandeur, and with the sincerity of this superior civilizing duty. 2

European Colonization of Africa

A few months later, France took part in an international meeting known as the Congress of Berlin. It was called by Otto von Bismarck, then chancellor of Germany, and was attended by 15 nations. They came to establish rules for dividing up Africa—the only large landmass Europeans had not yet fully colonized. By agreeing to abide by those rules, the group hoped to avoid a war in Europe. They paid little or no attention to the effects of their decisions on Africans or the people of any other continent. The results of their efforts can be seen in the following map. The inset shows Africa just before the Congress of Berlin; the main map shows the continent in 1914.

At the Congress of Berlin in 1884, 15 European powers divided Africa among them. By 1914, these imperial powers had fully colonized the continent, exploiting its people and resources.

In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois, an African American scholar and activist, summed up the meeting held some 30 years earlier in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. In it, he revealed that the Congress of Berlin was having an impact on Africa nearly two weeks before the first group of delegates arrived in Germany.

The Berlin Conference to apportion the rising riches of Africa among the white peoples met on the fifteenth day of November, 1884. Eleven days earlier, three Germans left Zanzibar (whither they had gone secretly disguised as mechanics), and before the Berlin Conference had finished its deliberations they had annexed to Germany an area over half as large again as the whole German Empire in Europe. Only in its dramatic suddenness was this undisguised robbery of the land of seven million natives different from the methods by which Great Britain and France got four million square miles each, Portugal three quarters of a million, and Italy and Spain smaller but substantial areas.

The methods by which this continent has been stolen have been contemptible and dishonest beyond expression. Lying treaties, rivers of rum, murder, assassination, mutilation, rape, and torture have marked the progress of Englishman, German, Frenchman, and Belgian on the dark continent. The only way in which the world has been able to endure the horrible tale is by deliberately stopping its ears and changing the subject of conversation while the deviltry went on.

It all began, singularly enough . . . with Belgium. Many of us remember [Henry] Stanley's great solution of the puzzle of Central Africa, when he traced the mighty Congo sixteen hundred miles from Nyangwe to the sea. Suddenly the world knew that here lay the key to the riches of Central Africa. It stirred uneasily, but [King] Leopold of Belgium was first on his feet, and the result was the Congo Free State. . . . But the Congo Free State, with all its magniloquent heralding of Peace, Christianity, and Commerce, degenerating into murder, mutilation, and downright robbery, differed only in degree and concentration from the tale of all Africa in this rape of the continent already furiously mangled by the slave trade. That sinister traffic, on which the British Empire and the American Republic were largely built, cost black Africa no less than 100,000,000 souls, the wreckage of its political and social life, and left the continent in precisely that state of helplessness which invites aggression and exploitation. “Color” became in the world's thought synonymous with inferiority, “Negro” lost its capitalization, and Africa was another name for bestiality and barbarism.

Thus, the world began to invest in color prejudice. The “Color Line” began to pay dividends. For indeed, while the exploration of the valley of the Congo was the occasion of the scramble for Africa, the cause lay deeper. . . . Already England was in Africa, cleaning away the debris of the slave trade and half consciously groping toward the new Imperialism. France, humiliated and impoverished, looked toward a new northern African empire, sweeping from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. More slowly, Germany began to see the dawning of a new day, and, shut out from America by the Monroe Doctrine, looked to Asia and Africa for colonies. Portugal sought anew to make good her claim to her ancient African realm; and thus a continent where Europe claimed but a tenth of the land in 1875, was in twenty-five more years practically absorbed. 3

  • 1W. T. Stead, ed., The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes (London: William Clowes Ltd., 1902), quoted in Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadarajan, Imperialism Past and Present (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 15.
  • 2Jules Ferry, “Speech Before the French Chamber of Deputies, March 28, 1884," Discours et Opinions de Jules Ferry, ed. Paul Robiquet (Paris: Armand Colin & Clie., 1897), trans. Ruth Kleinman, available from the Fordham University/Modern History Sourcebook.
  • 3W. E. B. Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” Atlantic Monthly, May 1915, 707–14.

Imperialist Cecil Rhodes

Imperialist Cecil Rhodes

This caricature, “Rhodes Colossus,” depicts British imperialist Cecil Rhodes straddling the continent of Africa after announcing plans for a telegraph line from Cape Town to Cairo.

Wikimedia Commons

Colonial Presence in Africa

Colonial Presence in Africa

At the Congress of Berlin in 1884, 15 European powers divided Africa among them. By 1914, these imperial powers had fully colonized the continent, exploiting its people and resources. See full-sized image for analysis.

Facing History and Ourselves

Connection Questions

  1. What motivated European nations to colonize Africa and Asia in the 1800s? How did they justify their conquest of other lands and people?
  2. What do you think it meant to Jules Ferry to “civilize the inferior races” of Africa? What effect was this policy likely to have on the culture and way of life of Indigenous Africans?
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois writes: “Thus, the world began to invest in color prejudice. The ‘Color Line’ began to pay dividends.” What does he mean by “invest”? In what sense was color prejudice an “investment” for imperialists?
  4. How might the legacies of imperialism and this period’s stereotypes about Africa influence the way people view the world today?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "'Expansion Was Everything'," last updated August 6, 2016.

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