How has Imperialism helped shape the modern world?
Imperialism can be defined as the forceful extension of a nation’s authority by establishing political
and economic domination of other nations. Imperialism allows for the economic advancement of one
country at the expense of its territory. Territories were robbed of their natural resources. Racism exploded.
Poverty, famine, deforestation, and political turmoil still remain, long after territories became free of
imperialist rule.
During the 19th century and early 20th century, Britain, Spain and other European countries
shamelessly exploited the land and people of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The Imperial
states would simply claim land and resources found in these areas, and start using the land and resources in
any way they chose. Sometimes they would take it by force. Other times the imperial powers would claim to
have purchased it, but at ridiculously low prices. The people who lived on this land were forced to grow a
cash crop for the imperial power, and would be paid very little for their efforts. In Kenya, for example, Lord
Delamare from Britain bought 100,000 acres of land for 1 cent per acre. He then had the people who lived
on this land plant mostly coffee, all of which would be sold to the people in Britain. These people were paid
very little for their work, and saw none of the profit. This type of exploitation was very common.
Western culture and traditions were imposed upon its territories, establishing a framework of
western superiority and instilling the belief that the European was superior. Westerners believed they
were “civilizing” their subjects and created a ‘West is Best” mentality. British imposed English as the official
language in India, and worked to make the Indians adopt western culture and customs over Indian ones.
The official language in India is still English. This creates a problem for any Indian who doesn’t speak
English, of which there are many. Education in Africa was established within an ethnocentric framework.
Though it is true that imperialists made an effort to educate, they brought European education, disregarding
the agriculture, crafts and religion Africans had been teaching to their children for generations. Further, the
history the Europeans taught was European history. The languages they taught were European languages.
The education wasn’t even meant to “better” the future of Africans. When Mozambique gained
independence, for example, they had only two doctors. Zaire had only thirteen college graduates at its
independence. It is clear the imperialist was interested in establishing its superiority over the people in
their territories by disregarding the cultures of the regions, and educating the people in the ways of
“western superiority.”
Racism is something whose origins can be found in imperialism. European disease all but wiped out
the indigenous populations in Latin America. The Europeans needed people to work their land and
plantations. The African slave trade started. Slaves were treated horrifically. The only way Christian
Europeans could justify this treatment of innocent people who were kidnapped from their land and sold
into slavery was to believe that they, the Europeans, were superior to the Africans. They convinced
themselves that they were actually helping the African slaves, and that the Africans were like children and
incapable of taking care of themselves. They also believed that the Africans were barbarians and
uncivilized, and that they, the Europeans needed to civilize them. This was referred to as the “white man’s
burden.” Thus, not only did imperialism rob people of their land and resources, but it created the deplorable
mind set of white superiority over blacks, an attitude that still permeates Western culture today.
Sustainable development was of little interest to the imperial state, resulting in deforestation,
poverty and hunger in many of the territories. Imperial states wanted to make the most amount of money
in the shortest amount of time. In Latin America, they needed land to grow crops. Entire forests were often
rapidly destroyed. Sometimes they would do this for the lumber, other times it would be to simply clear the
land to grow food. Monoculture, the growing of a single crop, was a common practice in Africa. Before the
imperialists came, Africans grew a variety of nutritious crops that provided for a healthy diet. They had
plenty of food. But, the imperialists decided that Senegal should grow peanuts. The people would sell this
commodity and use the profit to import the other food that was needed. One problem with this model is
that the value of the commodity would fluctuate. So, if the value of peanuts dropped, so to would the profit
earned from growing it. This practice of growing only one or two crops has persisted, even though African
countries have gained their independence. The prices of the commodities decrease, while manufactured
products increase. The lack of sustainable development during imperialist times has persisted, leaving
many countries with widespread poverty and hunger.
Imperialism did nothing to improve a colony’s national infrastructure. Though railways and roads
were built, they were meant to quicken the pace at which a country’s resources could be exploited. All of the
railways in Africa, for example, ran to the sea. They were built to take crops and minerals to ships heading
back to Europe. Nothing was built to aid the country’s long-term development.
Imperial states did not consider linguistic, ethnic, or religious differences when dividing up land
into different colonies; the effect of these land boundaries created considerable political turmoil. Israel, for
example, has been embroiled in land disputes with Palestine since its creation. Israel would not have come
into existence without strong financial support from Western sates. Many Middle Easterners see this
support as a form of Western imperialism. The countries of Middle East, even when ruled by the Ottoman
Empire, were unified in their Muslim faith. The existence of Israel, therefore, has become a very personal
issue to many Muslims. Many young Middle Easterners remain vindictive toward the West. This is a strong
reason behind terrorist attacks, and the constant political unrest and turmoil in the Middle East.
The impacts of Imperialism during the 19th and 20th centuries are still being felt in territories no
longer under imperialist rule. Natural resources have been exhausted. Famine and poverty are widespread.
Racism is strong, and the political unrest in many formerly occupied territories is ever present.
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