What Is Imperialism? Is It the Same as Colonialism?

(Last Updated On: May 12, 2019)
What Is Imperialism?
American cartoon of John Bull (England) as an Imperial Octopus. His arms are reaching out to various regions.

What Is Imperialism?

Getting to the heart of the question – what is imperialism? – can be a little tricky, for a few reasons. The concept itself can bring about strong feelings by those who have been negatively affected by it. Use of the word has also changed over time, and now gets applied to many different situations. Imperialism is often conflated with colonialism as well, so the web gets very tangled.

(As an aside, we will touch a little bit on how the pair differs here, but colonialism is a whole can of worms that deserves its own discussion.)

But let’s cut to the chase. What, in its most raw form, is imperialism? Essentially, imperialism is rooted in the idea of expansionism; which is the desire to extend one’s power. Imperialism is an extension of that ideology.

The dictionary describes imperialism as a nation’s policy to extend its power over other nations. This extension of power often takes the form of conquest. It’s for this reason that we can consider imperialism more than “just an idea.” It’s both an ideology and a policy.

To give a quick run-down on why colonialism and imperialism are different; colonialism specifically refers to conquest by settlement and economic exploitation. It is still based on the fundamental ideas of expansionism and subjugation of other nations, like imperialism, though.

Roots of Imperialism

Humans have always had a desire for more power, dating back to when we were all still fighting for scraps of food (and barely figuring out fire). The term “imperialism” is actually relatively new, cropping up sometime around the 16th century, but imperialist ideas and policies existed well before then. Think of the Roman Empire or the Crusades. There is a reason vast chunks of Europe are based on Roman laws and culture.

Interestingly, the use of the word “imperialism” is pretty closely tied to the territorial expansion of many world powers during the 16th century. If you’re wondering whether or not there was an inciting event, there most certainly was one. Europe’s discovery of the Americas lines up pretty well with the emergence of the term.

Spain, Britain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands were all among the first powers from this era to implement imperialistic policies.

New Imperialism

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of New Imperialism (or Neo-Imperialism). Rather than being a shift in how imperialism was implemented, New Imperialism is better described as a historical time period. During this era, we saw America and Japan join the ranks of the other European imperialists. Together, these powers would individually end up conquering most of Asia and basically the entirety of Africa.

To put things into perspective, the New Imperialist era saw the “Scramble for Africa.” The Scramble (or Race) for Africa was a time period in which European powers individually competed for and divided Africa among themselves. In case you were wondering, no, Europe did not consult the needs/wants of those indigenous to Africa during the time. 

Because the era of New Imperialism saw the establishment of many new colonies, it’s fair to see why imperialism and colonialism often get confused with one another. But as we discussed earlier, the terms have slight differences in what they refer to. Colonialism is often a form or byproduct of imperialism, but imperialism doesn’t always manifest as colonialism.

Why Was Imperialism Legitimized?

Why did people ever think the systematic conquering of other nations was okay? The root causes, which you’ve probably already guessed, are founded heavily in racism and superiority complexes.

The Scramble for Africa was justified by presenting native Africans as a “lesser race” to the white European invaders. Imperialist movements have almost always been justified as “uplifting” those native to the region. In this way, imperialist nations can assume a perceived moral high ground, in which they are spreading their religion, culture, and language for the “benefit” of others.

Of course, this operates under the assumption that western capitalism and culture is the global way-to-go. But whether or not you think that’s the case, most would probably agree that forcing your views on others in an oppressive manner is wrong. 

Does Imperialism Require Conquest?

No, imperialism doesn’t require a violent takeover of territory (though it does take that form now and again).

Imperialist efforts can be far less overt than one might assume. America’s efforts (which were largely a failure) to combat Communism and usher in a global democracy share imperialist ideals. Specifically the “uplifting” of other governments and the assumption that democracy is the only valid political structure.

The past relationships Britain and France shared with China and Iran (among others) can be described similarly. Both nations imposed heavy trade treaties that allowed other countries to retain political control, but that lent Britain and France extreme control over their economies.

For more, check out these related posts from the Sporcle Blog:

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.



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