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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

Imperial Conquest: The Nation's Savior
Le Petit Journal

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the European powers divided up the African continent among themselves, a process that came to be known as the "Scramble for Africa." In many ways, European imperialism resulted from Otto von Bismarck's (1815-1898) iron-fisted diplomacy, which maintained peace and stability in European affairs until his abrupt dismissal in 1890. Territorial aggrandizement was thus no longer possible on the Continent. As the European states pursued their territorial ambitions overseas, most Europeans believed that imperial expansion was the logical, even inevitable, outcome of the economic and technological progress they had witnessed in the previous decades. The relative ease with which overseas empires were acquired or enlarged greatly enhanced European feelings of superiority, even a racial superiority, which social Darwinists loudly trumpeted. The "Scramble for Africa," despite the obvious negative consequences, fired the imaginations of Europeans with its stories of bravery, daring feats, and exotic places. Many Europeans believed that overseas empires were not only economically rewarding, but even absolute economic necessities. Dazzled by the prospects of vast, untapped markets for their manufactured products, impossibly lucrative investment opportunities for their capital, cheap and unlimited raw materials for their industries, and docile and very cheap labor for their mines and plantations, European governments, investors, industrialists, and average citizens became ardent imperialists. Moreover, since 1873 Europe had been struck by a long-running downturn in the business cycle, often referred to as the Long Depression, which made the economic attractiveness of overseas empire even greater. In the long run, however, the European overseas possessions were net losses. Certainly many individuals and companies, such as Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) and his DeBeers Consolidated Diamond Mining Company in South Africa, made vast fortunes, but European governments and taxpayers heavily subsidized the entire imperial operation. Such information is readily available to the modern researcher, but Europeans in the 1880s did not have access to the historical statistics we now have. In this excerpt from an editorial appearing in a Paris newspaper, the orthodox view is succinctly articulated.

Questions to Consider
  • According to the editorial, what impact would a colonial empire have on the French economy?

The future and wealth of France depend above all on the extension and prosperity of our colonies. When factories produce more than consumers need, work must stop for a time, and workers, condemned to inactivity for a more or less long period, must live off their savings and suffer without there being any possibility to institute a remedy for the evil. The reasons for the abnormal situation can be boiled down to a lack of markets for our products. Once the French genius is put to colonizationn we will find a draining of our overflow of our factories, and at the same time we will be able to secure, at the source of production, the primary materials needed in our factories.

Source: Excerpt from the Petit Journal in William H. Schneider, An Empire for the Masses (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982), 62.