In this article, I want to walk you through the Colonialism and Imperialism UPSC, World History UPSC Notes.

Imperialism and colonialism both these are used interchangeably however, both differ in meaning substantially. Let us have a look.

Colonialism and Imperialism


Imperialism, state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas. Because it always involves the use of power, whether military force or some subtler form.


Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.

Colonialism is the practice of establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory.

Simply, while colonialism is referring to establishing the colonial territories overseas, Imperialism is to create and expand the empire. Imperialism is a broader category of domination that encompasses colonialism.

The age of modern colonialism began about 1500, following the European discoveries of a sea route around Africa’s southern coast (1488) and of America (1492). With these events, sea power shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and to the emerging nation-states of Portugal, Spain, the Dutch Republic, France, and England. By discovery, conquest, and settlement, these nations expanded and colonized throughout the world, spreading European institutions and culture.

Colonialism vs Imperialism :

Imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s
power and influence through military force or
Colonialism is the practice of acquiring partial
or full control over another country and
exploiting it economically.
Imperialism is the ideology that drives
Colonialism is a practice of extending
territories, forming colonies and settlements,
and exploiting the resources of them.
Imperialism can be categorized into formal
and informal imperialism.
Colonialism produced two main types of
colonies: settler colonies and dependencies.

The Age of Imperialism (1870-1914)

Although the Industrial Revolution and nationalism shaped European society in the nineteenth century, Imperialism—the domination by one country or people over another group of people—dramatically changed the world during the latter half of that century.


Imperialism did not begin in the nineteenth century. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, an era dominated by what is now termed Old Imperialism, European nations sought trade routes with the Far East, explored the New World, and established settlements in North and South America as well as in Southeast Asia.

They set up trading posts and gained footholds on the coasts of Africa and China and worked closely with the local rulers to ensure the protection of European economic interests. Their influence, however, was limited. In the Age of New Imperialism that began in the 1870s, European states established vast empires mainly in Africa, but also in Asia and the Middle East.

From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, Western Europe pursued a policy of imperialism that became known as New Imperialism. This New Imperialist Age gained its impetus from economic, military, political, humanitarian, and religious reasons, as well as from the development and acceptance of a new theory—Social Darwinism— and advances in technology.

Economic Reasons

  • By 1870, it became necessary for European industrialized nations to expand their markets globally in order to sell products that they could not sell domestically on the continent.
  • Businessmen and bankers had excess capital to invest, and foreign investments offered the incentive of greater profits, despite the risks.
  • The need for cheap labor and a steady supply of raw materials, such as oil, rubber, and manganese for steel, required that the industrial nations maintain firm control over these unexplored areas.
  • Only by directly controlling these regions, which meant setting up colonies under their direct control, could the industrial economy work effectively—or so the imperialists thought.
  • The economic gains of the new imperialism were limited, however, because the new colonies were too poor to spend money on European goods.

Military and Political Reasons

Leading European nations also felt that colonies were crucial to military power, national security, and nationalism.

  • Military leaders claimed that a strong navy was necessary in order to become a great power. Thus, naval vessels needed military bases around the world to take on coal and supplies.
  • Islands or harbors were seized to satisfy these needs. Colonies guaranteed the growing European navies safe harbors and coaling stations, which they needed in the time of war.
  • National security was an important reason for Great Britain’s decision to occupy Egypt.
  • Protecting the Suez Canal was vital for the British Empire. The Suez Canal, which formally opened in 1869, shortened the sea route from Europe to South Africa and East Asia.
  • To Britain, the canal was a lifeline to India, the jewel of its empire.
  • Many people were also convinced that the possession of colonies was an indication of a nation’s greatness; colonies were status symbols.
  • According to the nineteenth-century German historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, all great nations should want to conquer barbarian nations.

Humanitarian and Religious Goals

Many Westerners believed that Europe should civilize their little brothers beyond the seas.

  • According to this view, non-whites would receive the blessings of Western civilization, including medicine, law, and Christianity.
  • Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) in his famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden” expressed this mission in the 1890s
  • When he prodded Europeans to take up “their moral obligation” to civilize the uncivilized. He encouraged them to “Send forth the best ye breed to serve your captives’ need.”
  • Missionaries supported colonization, believing that European control would help them spread Christianity, the true religion, in Asia and Africa.

Social Darwinism

In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) published On the Origin of Species. Darwin claimed that all life had evolved into the present state over millions of years. To explain the long slow process of evolution, Darwin put forth the theory of natural selection. Natural forces selected those with physical traits best adapted to their environment.

Darwin never promoted any social ideas. The process of natural selection came to be known as survival of the fittest. The Englishman Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was the first to apply “survival of the fittest” to human societies and nations.

Social Darwinism fostered imperialistic expansion by proposing that some people were more fit (advanced) than others.

The Europeans believed that they, as the white race, were dominant and that it was only natural for them to conquer the “inferior” people as nature’s way of improving mankind.

Thus, the conquest of inferior people was just, and the destruction of the weaker races was nature’s natural law.

Western Technology

Superior technology and improved medical knowledge helped to foster imperialism. Quinine enabled Europeans to survive tropical diseases and venture into the mosquito-infested interiors of Africa and Asia.

The combination of the steamboat and the telegraph enabled the Western powers to increase their mobility and to quickly respond to any situations that threatened their dominance.

The rapid-fire machine gun also gave them a military advantage and was helpful in convincing Africans and Asians to accept Western control.

Summary:  Causes of the new imperialism
  • Need for markets
  • Raw materials
  • Source of investments
  • Need for military bases
  • National security
  • Source of pride – nationalism
  • White man’s burden
  • Spread of Christianity
  • Social Darwinism
  • New medicine
  • New weapons
  • Transportation

Imperialism in Asia


The British took control of India in 1763, after defeating the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). The British controlled India through the British East India Company, which ruled with an iron hand.

In 1857, an Indian revolt, led by native soldiers called sepoys, led to an uprising known as the Sepoy Mutiny. After suppressing the rebellion, the British government made India part of the empire in 1858, as mentioned previously.

The British introduced social reforms that advocated education and promoted technology. Britain profited greatly from India, which was called the “Crown Jewel of the British Empire.”

The Indian masses, however, continued to live close to starvation and the British had little respect for the native Indian culture.

The Dutch held the Dutch East Indies and extended their control over Indonesia, while the French took over Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

The Russians also got involved and extended their control over the area of Persia (Iran).


Since the seventeenth century, China had isolated itself from the rest of the world and refused to adopt Western ways. The Chinese permitted trade but only at the Port of Canton, where the rights of European merchants were at the whim of the emperor.

Imperialism in China began with the First Opium War (1839–1842) when the Chinese government tried to halt the British from importing opium. This resulted in a war in which Britain’s superior military and industrial might easily destroy the Chinese military forces.

The Treaty of Nanking (1842) opened up five ports to the British, gave Britain the island of Hong Kong, and forced China to pay a large indemnity.

In 1858, China was forced to open up eleven more treaty ports that granted special privileges, such as the right to trade with the interior of China and the right to supervise the Chinese custom offices.

Foreigners also received the right of extraterritoriality, which meant that Western nations maintained their own courts in China, and Westerners were tried in their own courts.

Between 1870 and 1914, the Western nations carved China into spheres of influence, areas in which outside powers claimed exclusive trading rights.

France acquired territory in southwestern China, Germany gained the Shandong Peninsula in northern China, Russia obtained control of Manchuria and a leasehold over Port Arthur, and the British took control of the Yangzi valley.

The United States, which had not taken part in carving up China because it feared that spheres of influence might hurt U.S. commerce, promoted the Open Door Policy in 1899.

John Hay, the American Secretary of State, proposed that equal trading rights to China be allowed for all nations and that the territorial integrity of China is respected.

The imperial nations accepted this policy in principle but not always in practice. For the United States, however, the Open-Door Policy became the cornerstone of its Chinese policy at the beginning of the twentieth century.


Japan was the only Asian country that did not become a victim of imperialism. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Japanese expelled Europeans from Japan and closed Japanese ports to trade with the outside world, allowing only the Dutch to trade at Nagasaki.

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry (1866–1925), an American naval officer, led an expedition to Japan. He convinced the shogun, a medieval-type ruler, to open ports for trade with The United States.

Fearful of domination by foreign countries, Japan, unlike China, reversed its policy of isolation and began to modernize by borrowing from the West.

The Meiji Restoration, which began in 1867, sought to replace the feudal rulers or the shogun, and increase the power of the emperor. The goal was to make Japan strong enough to compete with the West.

The new leaders strengthened the military and transformed Japan into an industrial society. The Japanese adopted a constitution based on the Prussian model with the emperor as the head.

The government was not intended to promote democracy but to unite Japan and make it equal to the West. The leaders built up a modern army based on a draft and constructed a fleet of iron steamships.

The Japanese were so successful that they became an imperial power. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, Japan defeated China and forced her to give up her claims in Korea.

Japan also gained control of its first colonies—Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands—and shocked the world by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Japan’s victory was the first time that an Asian country had defeated a European power in over 200 years.

Imperialism in the Middle East

The importance of the Middle East to the new imperialists was its strategic location (the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa), vital waterways (canals and the Dardanelles), and valuable oil resources.

The Europeans divided up the Middle East in the following manner:

Great Britain: Britain’s control of the Suez Canal forced her to take an active role in Egypt as well as to acquire the militarily valuable island of Cyprus to secure oil resources for industrial and military needs.

The British also secured concessions in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. Pipelines were built to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Russia: Traditionally, Russia sought to gain control of the Dardanelles as an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and an area of expansion. Russia helped to dismember the Ottoman Empire and gain independence for several Balkan states.

Germany: In 1899, German bankers obtained the Ottoman Empire’s consent to complete the Berlin-Baghdad Railroad.

Techniques of Imperialism

  1. Conquest and annexation
    • Overpowering native rulers
    • Conquering their lands
  2. Concession and Franchise
    • Exclusive right to exploit resources
    • Eg. Bagdad railway in Turkey made by Germans
  3. Sphere of Influence
    • Sharing regions for exploitation and development
    • Eg. Britain and Russia in Persia
    • Eg. European countries in china.
  4. Protectorate
    • Control via Puppet rulers
    • Indian provinces
  5. Economic control
    • taking charge of finances
    • Eg. Turkish economy controlled by a European organization
  6. Mandate system
    • Paris peace conference 1919
    • Colonies assigned to league of nations
    • The delegated authority called ‘Mandatories’

Consequences of Imperialism

  • The new imperialism changed both Western society and its colonies. Through it, Western countries established the beginning of a global economy in which the transfer of goods, money, and technology needed to be regulated in an orderly way to ensure a continuous flow of natural resources and cheap labor for the industrialized world.
  • Imperialism adversely affected the colonies. Under foreign rule, native culture and industry were destroyed. Imported goods wiped out local craft industries.
  • By using colonies as sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured goods, colonial powers held back the colonies from developing industries.
  • One reason why the standard of living was so poor in many of these countries was that the natural wealth of these regions had been funneled to the mother countries.
  • Imperialism also brought a confrontation between the cultures. By 1900, Western nations had control over most of the globe. Europeans were convinced that they had superior cultures and forced the people to accept modern or Western ways.
  • The pressures to westernize forced the colonial people to re-evaluate their traditions and to work at discouraging such customs as foot binding in China and Sati in India.
  • Although imperialism exploited and abused colonial people, Western countries introduced modern medicine that stressed the use of vaccines and more sanitary hygiene that helped to save lives and increase life expectancy.
  • Imperialism created many political problems. European nations disrupted many traditional political units and united rival peoples under single governments that tried to impose stability and order where local conflicts had existed for years, such as in Nigeria and Rwanda.
  • Ethnic conflicts that developed in the latter half of the twentieth century in many of these areas can be traced to these imperial policies.
  • Imperialism also contributed to tension among the Western powers. Rivalries between France and Great Britain over Sudan, between France and Germany over Morocco, and over the Ottoman Empire contributed to the hostile conditions that led to World War I in 1914.

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