The Sun Had Set on One Imperial Power (In the Pacific) While on Another Yet, the Sun Was Still Rising
Anyone interested in power must visit Persepolis. Its ruins stand defiantly in a parched valley in southern Iran, the ultimate statement of humans’ capacity to dominate vast multitudes of their fellow humans. Amid the intricately carved stairways, walls and plinths stand the two halls from which the Achaemenid Empire radiated its power, from the Indus to the Danube. The Apadana, begun by Darius in 518 BC and finished by Xerxes, was where the King of Kings received tribute from the variety of peoples he ruled. With walls 60 metres long, its huge ceiling of Lebanese cedar was supported on 72 columns of carved grey marble, each 19 metres high. Next to the Apadana is the even larger Throne Hall, its massive roof once supported by 100 columns, each of its eight carved stone doorways depicting the King of Kings wrestling with a mythical monster.
As mentioned above, imperialism is a system where a large, powerful nation dominates and exploits smaller nations, which are known as colonies. Together, the imperial power and her colonies are known as an empire. In most cases, the imperial nation is euphemistically referred to as the ‘mother country’. It establishes control over its colonies against their will – for example, through infiltration and annexation, political pressure, war or military conquest. Once control is established, this territory is claimed as a colony. Colonies are governed by either the imperial nation, a puppet government or local collaborators. A military presence is often stationed in the colony, to maintain order, suppress dissent and uprisings and deter imperial rivals.Prior to World War I the world’s largest, richest and most dominant imperial power was Great Britain. The British Empire famously occupied one-quarter of the globe (“the sun never sets on Britain” was a famous slogan of the mid-19th century). British colonial possessions in the late 1800s included Canada, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, several Pacific and Caribbean Islands, South Africa, Rhodesia, Egypt and other parts of Africa.British imperialism was focused on maintaining and expanding trade, the importation of raw materials and the sale of manufactured goods. Britain’s imperial power was reinforced by her powerful navy, the world’s largest, and a fleet of mercantile (commercial) vessels. France was another significant imperial power. French imperial holdings included Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), some Pacific islands and several colonies in west and north-west Africa. The German Empire included Shandong (a province of China), New Guinea, Samoa and other Pacific islands, and several colonies in central and south-west Africa. The Spanish Empire had once included the Philippines and large parts of South America, though by the early 20th century Spain’s imperial power was dwindling. Empires closer to continental Europe included Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman sultanate. Russia ruled over Finland, Poland and several central Asian regions as an imperial power. Russia’s disastrous war against Japan in 1904-5 was an attempt to extend her imperial reach into Korea and northern China.
Unlike the British or French colonies, economically the German colonial empire was not important for the mother country. It was also of little significance for the rising tensions between the European Great Powers prior to the First World War. For the overseas expansion of European states in the decades before 1914, informal imperialism and indirect rule were often much more important than formal colonialism, as discussed during the famous Robinson/Gallagher controversy. The economic expansion of European firms, banks and merchants, sometimes openly supported by “their” respective governments, created spheres of influence that could later became areas of international and imperialist competition. However, even if states and governments tried to control this form of economic expansion and hoped to use it in connection with “national” political aims, economic and financial imperialism very often remained a multinational project. It would be wrong to assume that “British”, “French” or “German” enterprises always acted in the interests of their governments. In Neo-Rankean terminology, used both by contemporary diplomats and by diplomatic historians, states acted as subjects and consequently the economy was nationalized. However, economic imperialism followed its own rules, which in some cases fit with the respective national political interests but did not necessarily have to (Barth, Boris, 2005). The intricate diplomatic and political problems caused by economic expansion are illustrated by the example of the famous Baghdad Railway project. Since the late 1880s German banks, especially the Deutsche Bank, had been active in Turkish affairs and in financing several Turkish railway enterprises. At the turn of the century the position of German firms was so strong that one can refer to certain regions of Turkey as parts of a German economic informal empire. The government of the Ottoman Empire tried to persuade the German bankers to extend the already existing railway lines to Baghdad and the Persian Gulf, mainly for strategic reasons. However, as mentioned above, in 1903 these ideas met with British resistance, as this line would have been the fastest route to India and would have been controlled by German firms. At the same time, the German public discovered the project and started to “nationalize” it. However, despite the fact that both German public opinion and the German government favored this “German” railway line, it remained a multinational enterprise: more than one-third of the capital came from French investors and French bankers, although the French government openly opposed the project. Before 1914 financial imperialism very often remained multinational despite governmental attempts to nationalize it. Banks viewed these projects as commercial opportunities and were unconcerned with national prestige. Many governments were not even informed about the activities of “their” banks, although in general they were aware that many firms did not follow the respective “national” aims, but were mainly interested in earning money (Robinson, Ronald, 1953).
In conclusion, it is hard to decipher whether the disturbance from outside have been beneficial or detrimental given Conrad’s somewhat implicit portrayal of imperialism in his book. Proponents of imperialism say that the effects of imperialism were positive, but evidence shows that it led to the effects that were detrimental, than they were positive. Imperialism changed the world and made it a more difficult world to live in. The portrayal of African as backward and ignorant amounted to discrimination and racism. Imposition of eastern values was also tantamount to accepting superiority of European civilization. The effects are still felt to this day.
Barth, Boris / Osterhammel, Jürgen (ed.): Zivilisierungsmissionen. Imperiale Weltverbesserung seit dem 18. Jahrhundert, Konstanz 2005.
Morris, Andrew J.: The Scaremongers. The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1896-1914, London 1984.
Kennedy, Paul: The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism 1860-1914, London 1982.
Robinson, Ronald / Gallagher, John: The Imperialism of Free Trade, in: Economic History Review 6, 1953, pp. 1-15; Louis, W. M. Roger: Imperialism. The Robinson and Gallagher Controversy, New York 1976.