The legacy of 19th century European imperialism reverberate to our present day. The competitions for prestige and profit and for competition’s own sake drove the European great powers (and a few not-so-great ones) to acquire territories on a massive scale that was quite different in nature from the early colonial ventures of the 16th-18th century. Here’s my take on the impacts fromÂ both structural developments and individual/collective agents that lead to this second phase of European colonialism.
Let me postulate that the European age of exploration was more-or-less a structural development due to increasing hostility of the Ottoman Empire and the cutting off of old trade routes that resulted thereof. Venice was in conflict with the Ottomans, and lost its Eastern Mediterranean possessions and thalassocratic credential. Subsequent Major conflicts between the Christian European polities and the Ottoman juggernaut has shown that, though none of the European powers individually had the resource to content with Istanbul, similarly the Ottomans could not break down any individual European powers in the Western Mediterraneans.
Iberian polities turned their considerable martial energy left over from the Reconquista towards south and eventually west. Portugal started with the exploration of West African coast, seeking a way to India to bypass the Ottomans. This was followed shortly by the Crown of Castile. Eventually France and England got into the game, with the discovery of the New World.
Exploration of new trade routes is what lead to the Age of Exploration, and the subsequent colonization of the Americas by Europeans. Here the preeminence of structural factors should be clear to see: no control of trade routes, no trade income. Hence the expensive investments by the centralizing monarchies to try to obtain the ultimate end goal: new trade routes. Colonization was a byproduct.
Contrast this with the European colonization of the latter part of the 20th century, the aims as far as they were defined were a lot more unclear. Was it for gaining profit, spreading culture, establish strategic control or for the sheer domination of peoples? Likely all of the before mentioned motivations played a part.
On the whole it has to be said that in the vast majority of scenarios, structural developments played a dominant role in this historical episode. European economies were advancing and needed additional resources and markets to expand. The fact that were multitudes of competing European powers advanced the inevitable necessity for these developments. To be able to compete with intra-European competitions each nation has to find cheap resources and ready markets, which can be supplied by colonization. Here a distinction can be observed that sets these kind of neo-colonialism from the earlier wave. All colonization was established in the Old World, where there had been settled Human civilizations and communities that developed alongside the European populations. They developed the same immunities as the Europeans and cannot be decimated in numbers in the same way that the indigenous people of the New World. This virtually guaranteed that the Europeans cannot overwhelm the native population the same way they had done in the Americas and establish an predominately European society with the exception of Australia. This means that the European colonies in Old World were characteristically repressive and discriminatory towards the native populations.
All of this make individual agents stand out in a way that might have been glossed over or whitewashed through different interpretations a la Columbus or Pizzaro. The infamous Leopold II of Belgium is a prime example of a human agent playing a significant role in the period. Establishing Belgian Congo for the inane reason of prestige and personal profit. By the end of Leopold’s personal control of the Congo territory, the population had fallen from an estimated 20 million to 10 million, an reduction of 50% by privation from exploitative endeavors to extract rubber for Leopold’s personal profit.
So it cannot be argued that the tragedies and human sufferings caused by the Europeans colonization in the second half on the 19th century was simply due to structural events or developments. The spread of liberal values and democratic principles in post-Napoleonic era Europe has produced, ironically, individuals and institutions with the freedom, desire and power to oppressed, dominate and exploit others that had not the ability to resist.