3.3 High European Imperialism
What was the Concert of Europe?
What is meant by the Age of Divergence?
I’m discussing the fifth wave of globalization, industrial globalization of the 19th and 20th centuries. An amazing period, unprecedented economic advance, unprecedented reductions of poverty, unprecedented development and diffusion of technologies. An era of economic growth that we had never seen before in history and it has spread worldwide. We’re talking about the dynamics of that spread. And the diffusion of industrialization within Europe and around the world.
Here is a map of European empires around the year 1800. What we see here is that France and Britain, Spain, Portugal to a small extent have their empires in the Americas.
The Russian Empire has expanded throughout the northern part of the Eurasian land mass and in tropical Africa, and in south Asia and southeast Asia the European powers are beginning to establish local presence and local coastal, typically, colonies, but are not yet in full imperial control of nations.
In India, for example, the East India Company of Britain has carved out de facto sovereign control of parts of India, but this is control nominally by a private company, in fact, increasingly by the British state itself, but not full control of Britain over India as would occur as of the middle of the 19th Century in 1857-1858 when the British Raj in India began to rule.
And in Africa, notably, one can see from this map that Africa was not colonized as of 1800. It was poor. It was weak. It was subjected to the global slave trade still. But it was not colonized. Why is that?
Well, one major reason was that the disease epidemiology of Africa, especially the burden of malaria, was so great that it was a protective barrier against European domination. In Africa, malaria killed vast numbers of children, but those who survived childhood had adult immunity.
Whereas an adult, for instance, a sailor or military official from Europe coming to Africa as an adult, of course would have no acquired immunity against malaria. They might be able to survive right on the coast, especially if the mosquito burden is not very high, with mosquitoes being the vector or the transmitter of malaria, but when Europeans went inside, beyond the coast, into the interior, the death rates were startling.
Sometimes forts would be left and when they were revisited a year later, all of the Europeans would have died of malaria or other vector borne tropical diseases during that period. West Africa was known as the graveyard of Europeans. And remember, those diseases were killing Africans also, but mainly children, because repeated bouts of malaria led to, for those who survive, an acquired immunity as adults.
Within Europe itself, when Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo and definitively exiled, the powers that had united to defeat him, Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria, the Habsburg Empire, created a mechanism which proved to be by and large rather effective for a century at keeping the peace within Europe. And this system became known as the Concert of Europe. It’s often associated with the foreign minister of the Habsburg empire of the day, Metternich, who was one of the orchestrators of this balance of power politics. The idea is that the major countries would take care to prevent domination by any individual power as Napoleon had aspired to create and thereby, there would be a balance of power that would prevent domination by any one single power, and thereby keep the The 19th Century by and large within Europe was relatively peaceful compared with earlier centuries, compared with the Thirty Years War between the Catholics and the Protestants of 1620 to 1648, for example, and the bloody wars of the 18th Century.
Yes, there were wars in Europe. One can mention the Crimean War which was a war which pitted Russia as an expanding power in the Crimean region, resisted by Britain and by France in that case. And one should definitely mention the wars that created the German Empire, the German state, that were masterminded by Bismarck. And the wars of unification of the Italian states, so the creation of Italy and Germany from a large number of principalities and free cities and different regions owned by different monarchical powers throughout Europe to a unified Italy and a unified Germany. Those were created by wars, but those were limited wars.
Those were not European-wide wars, they were territorial wars. As the rest of Europe followed Britain’s lead and became industrial powers in their own might, they also followed Britain’s lead to become empires in their own right. So while this was a peaceful period relatively speaking within Europe, it was by no means a peaceful period for the rest of the world.
Fast forward to the world as it existed on the eve of World War I, we’re looking at the map of world empires in 1914 now and it’s useful to compare it with what we looked at before. Remember the map of 1800, the European powers had tiny footholds in Africa. Now look at Africa, it is completely colonized with tiny exceptions. Not tiny for them, but compared to the map of Africa. Ethiopia, still an independent power. It has resisted up to then the attempts by Italy to colonize Ethiopia. And in West Africa, Liberia is not a possession of a European imperial power. But the rest is. What happened?
How did Africa succumb to European imperial rule? The story is that it was dramatic and relatively sudden. There were encroachments along the coasts, expanding colonies, in the first half of the 19th Century, but malaria as well as other barriers stopped a full assault of the European powers.
By the second half of the 19th Century, European military prowess had increased dramatically as a result of industrialization. Machine guns, more powerful artillery, more powerful riflery, also because of scientific advances, Europe, starting with Britain discovered the path to safety from malaria found within the bark of a tree in, grown in South America. And it turned out the cinchona tree had a chemical that eventually was identified as quinine that was protective against malaria and curative.
And this was known to indigenous populations who used a mate, a kind of tea infusion of this bark, as an antipyretic in Peru. That means an anti-fever medicine. The British in their imperial escapades both learned about this, stole the plants and the seeds, started to cultivate quinine, learned to put it in tonic water and invented the great anti-malarial, gin and tonic, which became the drink of empire because now literally imbibing quinine or quinine as it’s sometimes called was a protection against malaria.
Suddenly, with increased military power, with the opening of profitable mines, with the discovery of diamonds and gold in parts of Africa, Europe swarmed in and had at least relative protection against this disease that had protected Africa from European imperial rule.
By then, in the age of high imperialism the Europeans were indeed very polite and very diplomatic to themselves. You’re looking now at a picture of European diplomats sitting around the table in Berlin, in 1884-85, in the Conference of Berlin, where very politely as you see the map on the wall, the European powers, to avoid any conflict among themselves drew the lines that would divide Africa among the European powers.
Look closely, you will not see any African faces at the table. This was purely a European affair. But Africa was divided, brutally, in a brutally racist manner, in a brutally exploitative manner by the European powers.
And that is why when we look at the map of the world in 1914, we find now that Africa is almost entirely imperialized by these industrial powers of Europe. We can see the same in many other parts of the world. Each one has its story, usually its bloody story. But of course, India succumbed fully to British rule. After 1882 Egypt in effect became part of the British Empire. Southeast Asia was divided among European powers. Indochina became part of the French Empire. And on and on it went.
This is what economists call the Age of Divergence. It’s almost a reprise of Adam Smith talking about the vast differential of power so that globalization enriched one part of the world and impoverished another part of the world. And this is a big part of the story that we see at the end of the 19th Century. This meant that during the period of high European imperial rule industrialization could not gain a foothold in most of what we call today’s developing world. No fault of their own, no fault of governments or institutions other than the institution of European imperialism itself.
The reach of Britain was primus inter pares, the first among equals one could say of the European powers. The British Empire truly had a global reach. This is a map showing not the British Empire at one moment of time, but all of the parts of the world where at some point the territory was part of the British Empire. The reach is absolutely vast throughout North America. Of course in Ireland, throughout Africa, the Middle East, south Asia, Oceania, the British Empire and the unique power of the British navy were extraordinary.
Some historians have noted the remarkable arrogance and ferocity that went along with this. The claim is that the very few areas shown in white in the map, mainly landlocked areas far from the coast are the only places where Britain did not at some point have an expeditionary force or a military incursion or fight a battle or make an invasion or claim an empire. This was the British age, from 1800 to 1950, roughly speaking.
The age of high European imperialism, but it was the age in which Britain really ruled the roost and the British navy sailed the seas, kept the sea lanes open, especially for worldwide trade that fed British industry. Britain’s financial center financed the world in a most remarkable way. And one would have looked as indeed observers did in 1910 or even up to July 1914 to believe that this was the definitive state of the world.