Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.


Imperialism is a term used to describe the domination of one state over a number of others. In the early twenty-first century imperialism is generally thought to be a bad idea. After World War II ended in 1945—and increasingly during the late twentieth century—most people came to view imperialist policies as both morally reprehensible and as economically unsound.

During the Cold War both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were officially opposed to imperialism and generally tried to prevent other countries from pursuing such policies. This was partly because their two ideologies, communism in the Soviet Union and democratic capitalism in the U.S., were opposed to imperialism. They also had national interests that conflicted with those of the major European imperial powers. In addition, the many newly independent countries of the Third World opposed European imperialism, which they believed had been only recently bad for them.

But imperialism has not always been so unpopular. Indeed, many countries have openly and aggressively pursued imperialist expansion. Throughout much of human history there have been writers who have extolled imperial conquest, politicians that have designed policies to enable imperial rule, and peoples who have supported imperial designs.


Historically, there have been many forms of imperialism. Indeed, arguably, the whole history of human civilization may be written as the rise and fall of consecutive imperial political powers. These started to occur after the Neolithic (or farming) revolution, which led humans to settle and create political units capable of organizing political, administrative, economic, and military power on a large scale. The first instances of these political enterprises occurred where fertile arable land, water, staple food crops, and suitable climate and geography intersected with the arrival of human beings emigrating, at first from Africa and increasing their numbers substantially.

The parts of the world which allowed the formation of the first substantial states were the Middle East (particularly along the Nile and Euphrates rivers), in the river valleys of north India, and in the coastal lands and large river valleys of China. Typically, an imperial order was preceded by a system of smaller states coexisting with one another in relations that varied from amicable trade and cultural intercourse to violent conflict and war. Such multi-state systems broke down when one of the participating states was able to accumulate sufficient power to overwhelm the others and replace a society of competing and cooperating states with imperial rule. This was the manner in which, for examples, the Egyptian, Persian, Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, and Aztec empires were formed.

The ancient imperial states of Rome and China were created at almost the same time by similar processes and sustained by broadly similar methods of military force and then administrative efficiency. On the other hand, empires based on the outstanding abilities of a singular individual—Alexander the Great, who, according to legend, wept when he had no more worlds to conquer; Attila the Hun, who defeated the Roman imperial forces; the Mogul empires, which were later even more extensive—were based almost solely on military conquest, and often did not long survive their creator’s death.

The more recent cases of European imperialism are interesting for two reasons. First, attempts to displace the state system within Europe by an imperial domination of one state have failed since the collapse of the Roman Empire. The resulting constant competition helped create the expansionist tendencies of the European system as a whole. Secondly, the collection of European states expanded their own system throughout the world through a number of competing yet cooperating imperial orders, thereby developing the modern global state system.

Recent European-based imperial expansion is often treated as if it were the only instance of imperial subjugation by one political entity over another. This is an extremely ahistorical perspective. Competition within and between political structures, sometimes involving territorial expansion and imperial conquest, is part of the process of human evolution. The most recent forms have often—but not always—involved the subjugation of non-Europeans by European peoples. But this is more a reflection of the distribution of power in the modern era than it is of the European peoples having a more deeply developed imperial ambition than others.

Imperial expansion is as much an expression of power relations as it is of cultural intentions.

Ancient Imperialisms

The first three areas to be brought under intensive agricultural cultivation and thereby support large settled populations with stable political entities were in the Middle East, northern India, and China. In each area, competing states soon vied for supremacy and one emerged, for some time, as the dominant imperial power.

For several thousand years in the Middle East, the Egyptian state, ruled by Pharaohs and based on the alluvial soil and annual floods of the Nile Valley, was the dominant military force. It rested on a large population, mass infantry, advanced horse-utilizing military technology, and an agricultural output well organized by a sophisticated state administration. It successfully competed with other neighboring entities, particularly the Persian Empire, which was able to build a similar edifice on the basis of the Euphrates River.

In northern India, the two great rivers, the Ganges and the Indus, also supported state systems, which were from time to time to generate dominant powers. This process is described in The Arthashastra by Kautilya, a fourth-century Indian political philosopher often compared to the Italian philosopher Machiavelli, whose learned works were designed to assist a ruler in his dealings with rivals, his subjects, and other states. This system was to be later subjugated by the Moguls.

In east Asia, Chinese civilization also supported a period known in Chinese history as that of the Warring States. This came to an end in the third century B.C., when these diverse but culturally similar states were unified by Ch’in to create the Chinese imperial state.

In the Mediterranean world, Greek civilization also threw up a city-state system 2,500 years ago. Like contemporary China and India, and later Europe and Central America, the Greek world comprised a number of discrete sovereign authorities welded together by a common civilization. Wars between the Greek states were common. Indeed, the first study of international relations deals with one of the longest of the generalized wars between them. Thucydides’ History of The Peloponnesian Wars, which describes a state system not unlike the modern one, marked by trade, diplomacy, competing national ambitions, internal disputes over power and policy, and war. These states coexisted in this form until they were overwhelmed by one of their number, when Alexander the Great of Macedon united them all by conquest in the fourth century B.C. He then went on to create, also by conquest, an empire which stretched from Greece to Egypt to India.

Alexander made architectural and civic improvements in vanquished cities, particularly those in or near Greece—probably because he felt the communities had lost too many Greek characteristics due to centuries of Persian rule. Yet he respected the customs and religion of all conquered territories, although this was likely done more for political reasons than benevolence on his part. As Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote in Alexander: “He thus made firm his hold on the territory he conquered, not only by the best measures for military occupation, but by fostering political good-will in the cities.”

The Empire of Alexander the Great, however, had little firmer basis than his own ambition and military genius, and disintegrated shortly after his death into a few separate regimes. The region of the eastern Mediterranean then reverted to its more common condition of a number of competing state entities. This ended with the imposition of Roman imperial power during the centuries before the birth of Christ.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was based on the Mediterranean coastal region with the water transport system at its core. It was created by conquests, which elevated Rome from one city-state among many, to the dominant imperial power. As Roman arms extended its power, so its techniques and material basis expanded. Initially, Roman power depended on a powerful infantry, but this was augmented by other military arts learned in the long process of conquering the Mediterranean seaboard from the Atlantic to the Persian Empire. The Romans were governed by an aristocratic, representative, and republican form of government. Their imperial expansion and then rule did not depend on the whims of one or indeed a generation of military conquerors. Only after the empire was stabilized did the Emperor replace the Senate.

The Mediterranean enabled Roman galleys to transport military power, food, and other supplies along internal lines of communication. Vines, olives, fish, pastoral animals, and wheat provided the staple foods. The Romans then added a system of roads, water supplies, and cities to this imperial economy. Roman legions could then both protect the frontier against barbarians and move quickly along internal lines of transportation to deal with rebellions. They used a very advanced and detailed administration based on a common law for all citizens of the empire, although slaves may have comprised one-half the population of the Italian peninsula at the peak of the empire. Although Rome was the principal beneficiary of this system, local oligarchies (government by a small faction of persons or families) were brought sufficiently within its orbit to provide it with the support base to maintain the empire for hundreds of years.

This empire was based initially on military conquest that extended it from England, through Germany, the Balkans, the Levant (countries on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea), and Egypt—for long its granary—to the North African Atlantic seaboard and the rest of North Africa. Its economy was based on slavery, a labor force that was, during the early empire, supplemented by continuous conquest and enslavement of the defeated peoples. In its later and declining years, it was sustained by extensive use of increasingly murderous games, which may have consumed a quarter of imperial economic output by the third century, in order to keep the urban mobs docile politically by providing “bread and circuses.”

The Western Roman Empire lasted for eight hundred years, and then was overrun by the barbarian tribes from the Eurasian steppes. The Eastern Empire, centered on Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), lasted longer in various forms, being progressively eroded until 1453 when it was also overrun by a barbarian tribe, the Ottoman Turks.

Gibbon’s famous argument says that the Roman Empire fell because the adoption of Christianity sapped the early ferocity of the Romans and they lost the ability to rule fairly but, more importantly, harshly when the moment required. But, in addition, the Roman technical and organizational military advantages were sapped by years of revealing them to their opponents; the sources of slave power eroded with the end of conquests and were difficult to replace; and the skills of the Romans’ opponents improved. As an imperial system, the Romans also probably lacked the incentive and initiatives to implement technological change in a manner that might have enabled their infantry to withstand the continual erosion of their capacity to master the cavalry of the horsemen of the steppes. In addition, the Empire was beset with internal divisions that periodically sparked civil wars. During its decline this produced the two empires, with Byzantine Constantinople surviving into the fifteenth century.

Chinese Empires

The Chinese imperial state, formed during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), lasted to the present era. China culture dates back to between 2,500 and 2,000 B.C. in what is now central China. Centuries of migration and development brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, and political organization recognizable as Chinese civilization.

After the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) much of what became modern China was unified. In that year, the state of Ch’in, the most powerful of the Warring States, subjugated its rivals. The king of Ch’in consolidated his power, took the title of Emperor, and imposed Ch’in’s centralized, non-hereditary bureaucratic system on his new empire.

The organizational and cultural continuity of the Middle Kingdom was then accompanied by cycles of rise and decline of imperial dynasties. Tyrannical dynasties were often followed by long periods of stability. Confucian thought concentrated on each person’s place in society and harmony, rather than the rights of the individual: the scholar-officials had high social status and provided theories for maintaining social harmony, while the peasantry provided the food.

The alien peoples on the frontiers of Chinese civilization twice conquered China and established new dynasties, only to be absorbed into the system of culture and governance. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes were the first alien people to conquer all of China. It came under alien rule for the second time in the seventeenth century, when Manchu conquerors came again from the north.

But for centuries, the only foreigners that Chinese rulers saw came from the less-developed societies along their borders. The Chinese believed they were the self-sufficient center of the universe, surrounded by inferior barbarian peoples. This view was not disturbed until the nineteenth century and China’s confrontation with the West. China then assumed its relations with Europe would be conducted according to the tributary system that had evolved between the Emperor and the lesser states on China’s borders, including Vietnam, Korea, and Thailand.

The imperial expansion of the Chinese state was undertaken by military expeditions pushing out the frontiers in the north and south. To defend against barbarians, the fortified walls built by the various warring states were connected to make the Great Wall. A number of public works projects were also undertaken to consolidate and strengthen imperial rule, requiring enormous levies of manpower, resources, and repressive measures. The imperial system initiated during the Ch’in dynasty set a pattern that was developed over the next two millennia.

Han Dynasty

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) a civil service examination system was initiated and paper developed. The Han Dynasty also developed its military powers and expanded the empire westward as far as the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang, securing caravan traffic across the “silk route” to the Roman Empire. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of Vietnam and Korea in the second century B.C. The Han court developed the “tributary system,” under which non-Chinese states were allowed semi-autonomy in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han overlordship. But in 220, the Han imperial dynasty collapsed into nearly four centuries of rule by warlords, although technological advances continued, including gunpowder and advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography.

Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by a Chinese peasant and peaked during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Chinese armies reconquered Annam and kept back the Mongols. A huge Chinese fleet sailed as far as the coast of Africa and many Asian nations sent tribute to the Chinese emperor. These Ming maritime expeditions stopped suddenly with the last voyage of the grand fleet in 1433. The great expense of large-scale maritime expeditions was abandoned for northern defenses against the Mongols. Conservative officials also believed naval expansion and commercial ventures were alien to Chinese ideas of government. The powerful Confucian bureaucracy wanted an agrarian-based society.

During the Ming Dynasty, with a population of 100 million and a prospering economy, arts, and political system, the Chinese believed that they had achieved the most complete civilization and that nothing foreign was needed. The Chinese entered a period described by Mark Elvin in The Pattern of the Chinese Past as high-level equilibrium, or stagnation.

Qing Dynasty

Nonetheless, in 1644, the Manchus took Beijing and established the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911). Although the Manchus were not Han Chinese, they assimilated a great deal of Chinese culture during the conquest and retained many Ming institutions, including the civil service system. Confucian philosophy, emphasizing the obedience of subject to ruler, was enforced as the state ideology. The Manchus conquered Outer Mongolia and Central Asia to the Pamir Mountains, and established a protectorate over Tibet. Under Manchu rule the Chinese empire achieved its largest territorial extent and received tribute from many other states.

New threats to the integrity of the Chinese Empire then came by sea from the south as Europeans began arriving in the sixteenth century. The success of the Qing Dynasty in maintaining the old order proved to be a liability when the empire was confronted with growing challenges from seafaring Western powers. Centuries of peace and self-satisfaction had hardened the attitudes of the ruling elite and its power.

China proved unable to meet the new challenges, and the Qing Dynasty collapsed and ended the two-thousand-year-old system of dynastic imperial rule. It was already experiencing economic difficulties, as over 300 million Chinese had no industry or trade to absorb the labor supply. Scarcity of land led to widespread rural discontent and a breakdown in law and order, and revolts erupted in the early nineteenth century. Secret societies gained ground, combining anti- Manchu subversion with banditry. The European imperial powers pressed onto this weakened state.

Collapse of China’s empire

First, in 1557, the Portuguese established a foothold at Macao from which they monopolized foreign trade at Canton. Soon after the Spanish arrived, followed by the British and the French. Trade between China and the West was carried on in the guise of tribute: foreigners were obliged to follow the elaborate, centuries-old ritual imposed on envoys from China’s tributary states as the imperial court expected that the Europeans would be treated as cultural and political tributaries.

The first exception was Russia, which began seizing Chinese territory. The Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 with Russia established a border between Siberia and Manchuria (northeast China) along the Amur River. It was China’s first bilateral agreement with a European power. In 1727, the Treaty of Kiakhta defined the remainder of the eastern Sino-Russian border. But other Western efforts to expand trade on equal terms were rebuffed, the official Chinese assumption being that the empire was not in need of foreign products. Despite this attitude, trade flourished, even though after 1760 all foreign trade was confined to Canton.

Then, in the 1840 Opium War, China was humiliated militarily by superior British weaponry and technology and faced territorial dismemberment. In 1911 the dynastic system of imperial China collapsed into civil war and was eventually replaced by communism in 1949. The communist historians then wrote their own history of China, built on a dogmatic Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally, socialism. It conveniently ignored Chinese imperialism.

Theory in Depth

Imperialism is a practice that is designed to benefit the imperial power, and not those who are subjugated by it. It is most rapacious when the imperial power is a proponent of naked force and simple looting, as with Genghis Khan, and most benign when pursuing advantageous commercial exchange, like the U.S. Nonetheless, there may be collateral benefits to the subjugated power because more advanced techniques of production and even cultural practices are introduced to the weaker and subjugated society. This conception has been criticized by post-colonial theories, who argue that all societies are morally equal and none benefit from being conquered.

The pursuit of imperialism usually involves an imperial or metropolitan government of a substantial state that is well organized and has a coherent identity. This state is often distinguished by its military power which may arise from its having a large population or territory, being well organized for war, or having developed some military technology which gives it the capacity to win wars and extend its rule over other states. The people who rule this state then will need the ambition to use that power to extend their rule. Historically, most countries that acquire considerable power usually develop the ambition to use it. This is not always the case, however, and imperial China did not expand in the late-fifteenth century although it clearly had the naval power to do so. The state then uses its power to conquer other societies. Generally, it will have to pursue a general systemic policy of aggression and subjugation in order to qualify for the description “imperialist.” A state which conquers one or two neighboring territories would usually be described as a merely regionally aggressive state. It then rules the conquered territory to its advantage by deploying skills other than sheer force to maintain its domination. This involves the establishment of administrative, trading, financial, and ideological systems which maintain imperial rule and ensures that it benefits the imperial country— since a loss-making colony is not worth maintaining. The conquering state often, and more commonly at least in the modern era, uses an ideology to disguise and justify its behavior. Occasionally this ideology—such as Islam or communism—may indeed be the driving force of the imperial impulse, but this situation rarely lasts long if the conquests are only maintained at a cost and for ideological gratification. In any case, such unprofitable imperial adventures run the risk of quickly generating imperial overstretch and subsequent contraction. Most imperial states are then eventually defeated by internal decay, resistance within the imperial domains, an inability to retain conquests earlier achieved, or by other imperial powers defeating them in the contest for resources.

Whether an imperial system survived its initial creation depended on the capacity of the ascendant imperial power to consolidate and maintain its rule against both internal revolt and external attack. The skills required for this task were quite different from the capacity to impose an imperial order in the first place. The administrator with bureaucratic procedures and records needed to replace the soldier.

The Imperialist System

The imperialist impulse and process generates several types of state, which may be recognized in the historical accounts so far given.

Many historians feel that at the core of the imperial project is an imperial power, run by people with ambition, determination, and a murderous taste for expansion. It also, importantly, needs the power to translate the ambition into practice. The experience generates an arrogant culture, which typically despises others and to some degree glorifies the violence, bloodshed, and mayhem which violent conquest requires. Individuals of ferocious character usually command.

The recipient of these ambitions is the colonial society, subjugated by force of arms and quiescent either before, during, or after the imposition of alien rule. Since its own national culture becomes subordinate it then, typically, in some measure becomes self-deprecating and values the culture of the imperial power, often more than its own. It is also usually less well developed, although this may be restricted to solely the military arts. And the wealth generated by the colony must not only be siphoned off to the imperial power, but that which remains organized and distributed by it.

Empires also create settler states, either the better to consolidate their rule and the exploitation that accompanies it, or for reasons of strategy in which the settler communities can be better relied on than those who are merely conquered. The Romans often settled their frontier provinces with retired soldiers; the Norman nobility was awarded portions of the conquered English realm; the Spanish settled South America, and the British North America and Australasia. The fate of these settler states is often problematic when the empire that aided them recedes. European-dominated states remain secure in the Americas; yet Russians remain stranded in the former republics of the Soviet state; while the settler-dominated state apparatuses in Southern Africa have yielded to indigenous political power.

Countries Based on the Imperialist System

The forms of the imperial state are almost too diverse to accept categorization; the impulse to empire lies deep in human nature. The ancient world offers many examples of talented megalomaniacs successfully pursuing imperial conquests—Alexander the Great or Genghis Kahn—only for these to be abandoned after the leader’s death.

It also offers, in Rome, a long-surviving imperial system of rule based on sophisticated military organization, technology, order, and imperial law, but still dependent on suppression and slavery. Similarly, China developed through an integration of a civilization with an empire from about the second century B.C. that was to last until 1911, and arguably to the present day. Islam, as a religious empire, was based on conquest and then conversion to a religion and has also survived. The Ottomans took over the Levant and became dominant and Islamic, but still an empire based on foreign control, and eventually collapsed. The Aztecs, on the other hand, were very primitive in their system of subjugation and sacrifices and quickly collapsed, as did the Zulus when confronted by superior external power.

The modern world offers similar diversity. The Hapsburg Empire was founded in dynastic power yet expanded into a global system of bullion imperialism and military districts justified by Catholic doctrine. The British Empire was always commercial, but augmented by settlers, first in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and then in the far flung territories outside Europe. The Napoleonic Empire was one that started with a revolutionary imperialism that even appealed to the supreme intellect of Beethoven before descending into a more transparent French dictatorship. German imperialism and military conquest in both World War I and World War II was fueled by nationalist ambition to acquire resources in Eastern Europe. Japanese expansion and the creation of the Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, with Japan and its Emperor at the head, was also clearly self-interested. Soviet imperialism, like Islamic imperialism, was inexplicable without reference to ideology and strategy. U.S. imperial ambitions have always been tied to free trade and commerce, foundations laid by the British in the Thirteen Colonies.

Imperialist states, then, have been governed by: Egyptian Pharaohs, noble Greeks, famous Roman authors, Chinese emperors, pagan cavalry, Islamic zealots, Turkish warlords, African chiefs, Amerindian princes, Spanish Catholic grandees, English Queens, Russian empresses, French revolutionaries, German Kaisers, American Republicans, and Russian communists. Few systems of rule fail to answer the imperial call if the opportunity arises.

Theory in Action

In the pre-modern world the pursuit of empire was a common aspiration. States were formed, related with one another and competed for imperial dominion. The size of the empires these states could create were dependent on: its initial military capabilities; the size of the imperial economy; the administrative structures they could devise and sustain; and continuing military power they could effectively deploy against hostile forces of both rebellion and invasion at point of threat. They usually required ambitious, ferocious and determined leadership. The modern era was to expand these capabilities, and so the size of the empires they supported.

The Mongol Empires

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) expressed his motives: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”

Genghis was born Temujin in 1162 on the great Eurasian heartland steppes. In 1187 the Mongols made him their great leader and gave him the name Genghis Khan (universal ruler). But the Mongol shepherds and horse people were not then united into one political entity. Genghis soon defeated rival Mongol clans, and in 1206 he was declared Khan of Khans and king of “all people who lived in felt tents.”


Genghis then concentrated his forces against other empires in order to expand his own. In 1207 he began the conquest of modern China, then divided into three separate empires: the Qin; Tangut to the north; and the Sung Empire in the south. The Mongols subdued the Tanguts in 1209 and then campaigned against the Qin Empire in 1211. Genghis continued his army’s advance until 1215, when modern Beijing was conquered and most of the Qin Empire came under his control. In 1218 Genghis turned on the Kwarezm Empire—which encompassed modern Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkestan—and led a force of 90,000 men from the north and sent a general with 30,000 men to attack from the east. Genghis’ army was victorious and a full-scale invasion of the Kwarezm Empire took place. The entire area was added to the Mongol Empire.

Genghis started his conquests with the advantage of a mass, highly skilled, extremely mobile cavalry force, which, although often outnumbered, overcame adverse numbers by maneuverability and ferocity. As with other imperialists, each victory taught Genghis new methods of warfare, which were used to make his forces stronger. With the Kwarezm Empire destroyed, an army of 20,000 was sent to Russia to seize more territory. In 1223, those Mongol warriors beat a Russian army of 80,000 and began the conquest of the Russian principalities. The Mongols fought their way through Russia and into Europe and destroyed entire cities in Hungary, Poland, and Russia.

These triumphs were arrested by the death of Genghis Khan, who died from internal injuries when he fell from his horse during a hunt in 1227. This sent the advancing armies back to create a new leader. Genghis had united the Mongols and created the largest empire ever built in the life of one man. “With Heaven’s aid I have conquered for you a huge empire,” Genghis told his sons before he died. “But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That is left for you.”

The Empire was divided between Genghis’ three sons: the Golden Horde in west Asia, including Russia; the Middle East Khanate; and the main area of the East Asia Khanate, including the Mongol homeland. Despite this, the Mongol Empire was still controlled by one man, Ogadai (1185-1241), who was officially elected Khan in 1229. Ogadai was a ruthless barbarian who set about expanding the Great Mongol Empire.

Genghis left orders to increase the size of the Mongol Empire, in particular by conquering China. It only took five years for the Mongol armies to complete this and the Chinese emperor was finally killed in 1234. The following year, the Mongols sent troops both east and west to capture the Asian lands lost after Genghis’ death, to reoccupy the Korean peninsula, and to advance into Europe. One hundred and fifty thousand Mongol troops attacked Europe in 1236 and captured many new territories. That same year, Korea was reoccupied and a rebellion there was crushed.

After the Mongol conquest of China there opened a vast international trade, and along the routes people exchanged ideas. A wealth of information flowed along with the goods. The Chinese people were not forced to adopt Mongol customs or religion, but there certainly were restrictions. People were not allowed to gather in public or own weapons of any kind. The Khans were probably weary of the sheer numbers of the Chinese. The conquered peoples did not like the occupation and its restrictions, but probably found ways to adjust and go on living as normal a life as possible. Many Chinese even served as low-ranking officials in the Mongol government.

The Mongol army conquered lands well into Europe between 1236 and 1242. The troops entered Russia and in 1237 attacked the city of Riazan, which became the first of many to fall to the Mongols. Riazan was offered the standard Mongols terms: surrender, and hand over one tenth of everything, including people, and pay constant tribute. Only then would the Mongols spare the city. The city refused and it was destroyed. Throughout 1237 and 1238 several Russian principalities were similarly conquered. One of the last cities in Russia to be conquered was Kiev, when it too fell to the Mongol catapults and poisoned arrows in 1240. The city was burned to ashes and most of the population slaughtered. The Mongol armies then moved on and between 1240 and 1241 seized many cities in Poland and Hungary, including the cities of Buda and Pest, which were all but destroyed. (These two cities would unite to become Budapest in 1872.) The Mongols then continued towards Vienna. During these battles, well over 220,000 Polish, Hungarian, and other soldiers were killed by the Mongols.

Breakdown of the Mongol empire

In early 1242 the Mongols reached the outskirts of Vienna. But Ogadai had died a month earlier, and the Mongols retreated to their Russian territory to choose a new Khan. No Mongol invasion of Europe was to take place again, although the Mongols remained in control of Russia for the next 250 years.

In 1259 two men were declared Khan. The internal conflict that followed was a major turning point of the Mongol Empire. It was never united again after 1260. Kublai was proclaimed the only Khan in 1264, and moved the Mongol capital from central Mongolia to Beijing. He then spent most of his life in China, where he enjoyed the culture and felt more at home. There was a loss in communication and messages took longer to travel across the empire. As a consequence, many Mongols could not relate to China, and the coherence of the empire was lost. This left much of the empire to local self-rule and the empire Genghis Khan had created began to crumble.

Despite the internal breaking up of the Mongol Empire, Kublai continued to expand its territory, and in 1267 started to bring all of modern China within the Mongol Empire. This gave the Chinese a national territory that survives to this day. In 1274, Kublai decided to expand his empire beyond China and attacked the islands of Japan. But typhoon turned these campaigns into dismal failures.

Kublai died in 1294, leaving the legacy of a unified China. But by 1335 the Mongols were forced out of the Middle East, and revolution and attacks left much of the empire in pieces. Finally, in 1368 the Yuan Dynasty, started by Kublai in China, was overthrown by the Chinese and replaced with the Ming Dynasty, who drove out all remaining Mongol armies. The Mongol Empire had lasted from 1206, when Genghis was proclaimed Khan of Khans, until 1368. Thus, one of the largest empires ever created was destroyed in 162 years.

The impact of these Mongol empires was often arrested by the deaths of individual leaders and only sustained where the conquering military forces were able to assume ruling-class status within existing state structures—as occurred with the Manchu Dynasty in China. Generally their motivation was the ambition of ferocious leaders and loot for their followers.

The Turkish Ottoman Empire

The Turks emerged in the mid-sixth century as a nomad empire in the heart of Asia in what is now Turkestan. The Turks then scattered over a vast area of the Russian steppes, speaking related dialects. From the ninth century, Turks began to enter the Arab Caliphate as slaves or adventurers serving as soldiers and so infiltrated the world of Islam. The Caliph Mu’tasim (833-842) was the first Muslim ruler to surround himself with a Turkish guard. Turks rose to high rank—commanding armies, governing provinces, and sometimes ruling as independent princes. The disintegration of the Abbasid Empire and then the Samanid collapse at the end of the tenth century opened the Persian and Arab territories to Turkish nomad tribes.

Growth of the empire

In 956 the Seljuk Turks embraced Islam and soon after so did many other Western Turks. In the late-eleventh century the Seljuks entered West Asia and prolonged the life of the moribund caliphate for another two hundred years, took Asia Minor away from Christendom, and opened the path to the later Ottoman invasion of the Levant and Europe.

In 962 one of the Turkish officers, Alp-tagin, seized the town and fortress of Ghazna in what is now Afghanistan. The Kara-Khanids, another Turkish people, crossed the Jaxartes River and captured the city of Bukhara in western Asia in 999. Turks also made expeditions into India, then a mosaic of principalities with no strong state capable of resisting invaders. They looted Hindu shrines and destroyed idolatry in the name of Allah and his Prophet.

The Turks then drove towards the Byzantine frontiers and produced a social crisis in the Persian and Arab lands. The nomadic Turks raided estates, destroyed crops, robbed merchant caravans, and fought other nomads—such as Kurds and Bedouin Arabs— for the possession of wells and grazing lands. They began raiding Byzantine territory. Turkish armies pushed into the valleys of Armenia and Georgia, and into Anatolia. An invasion of Egypt was only abandoned at the news of an impending Byzantine counterstroke.

The Roman Emperor, Romanus Diogenes, tried to clear the Turks out of his dominions, but the Turks met him at Manzikert (in modern eastern Turkey) in 1071 and inflicted a catastrophic Byzantine defeat, making Asia Minor Turkish. This struck a fatal blow at Christian and imperial power in Anatolia. With the Byzantine army defeated, the Turks spread over the central plateau, first in pastoral settlements, then taking possession of towns and fortresses. The Byzantine Empire faced total ruin.

In 1453, the Turks conquered the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Under Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481), the Ottomans rebuilt the devastated city. The Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire, 1481-1566, shortly ensued, under three sultans: Bayezid II (reigned 1481-1512), Selim I (reigned 1512-1520), and Suleiman I the Magnificent (reigned 1520-1566). Bayezid extended the empire in Europe, added outposts along the Black Sea, put down revolts in Asia Minor, and turned the Ottoman fleet into a major Mediterranean naval power. Selim first eliminated all competition by having his brothers, their sons, and all but one of his own sons killed. During his short reign the Ottomans moved into Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Arabia, and Egypt. At Mecca, the chief shrine of Islam, he took the title of caliph, ruler of all Muslims. The growth of the empire was for some time an impediment to European trade, and led European states to seek routes around Africa to China and India, an inconvenience that helped lead to the discovery of the New World.

The empire in its prime

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent brought the Ottoman Empire to its zenith and from 1520 until 1566 ruled the most powerful state in the world. He more than doubled Ottoman territory, expanding it throughout the Balkans and Hungary to the gates of Vienna, captured Belgrade (1521) and Rhodes (1522), broke the military power of Hungary, and in 1529 lay unsuccessful siege to Vienna. He also waged three campaigns against Persia. Algiers fell to his navy in 1529 and Tripoli (now Libya) in 1551. In 1570, his successor, Selim the Sot, invaded Cyprus, then under Venetian jurisdiction. The Ottomans sacked the capital, Nicosia, and massacred 30,000 of its Greek inhabitants.

One reason the Ottoman Empire was able to survive as long as it did was the way the conquerors treated the ordinary people of their ever&dash∈tending empire. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Balkans. The Turks often acted with extreme prejudice toward military or government officials, but the people were free to practice their own religion, and mixed marriages were permitted, if not openly encouraged. Nonetheless, the burden of financing the empire often fell upon the conquered peoples in the form of taxation.

Decline of the empire

The decline of the Ottoman Empire began in 1566. As Suleiman grew tired, his viziers, or prime ministers, took more authority. After his death the army gained control of the sultanate. This growing internal weakness was confronted by growing powers in the west. The nation-states of Europe emerged from the Middle Ages under strong monarchies and built armies and navies which were powerful enough to attack the decaying Ottoman Empire.

In 1571 the combined fleets of Venice, Spain, and the Papal States of Italy defeated the Turks at the great naval Battle of Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. Although the empire rebuilt its navy, the central government became weaker and large parts of the empire began to act independently with nominal loyalty to the sultan. The army was still strong enough, however, to prevent provincial rebels from asserting complete control. Indeed, new campaigns were undertaken, the Caucasus and Azerbaijan seized, and the empire expanded to the peak of its territorial extent.

Reforms undertaken by seventeenth-century sultans did little to prevent decay. Beginning in 1683 with the attack on Vienna, repulsed in 1688 by Eugene of Savoy, the Ottomans were at war with European enemies for forty-one years. In this, the empire lost much of its Balkan territory and possessions on the shores of the Black Sea. In addition, the Austrians and Russians began to intervene on behalf of the sultan’s Christian subjects.

The weakness of the central government and its military decline led to increasing loss of control over the provinces. Local rulers carved out regions in which they ruled directly, regardless sultan in Istanbul. Local populations often preferred their rule to the corrupt administration of the distant capital. The notables formed their own armies and collected their own taxes, sending only nominal contributions to the imperial treasury.

Under Mahmud II (1785-1839) the empire further declined, despite reforms in the army, government, and education. Greece won independence in 1829. Control of North Africa passed to local notables and in Egypt Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) set the foundation of an independent kingdom. In 1853, Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) of Russia commented on the Ottoman Empire: “We have on our hands a sick man, a very sick man.”

The Ottomans then developed strong ties with Germany, and fought on the Germans’ side in World War I. Russia hoped to use the war to gain access to the Mediterranean and perhaps capture Constantinople, an aim frustrated by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its withdrawal from the war. Nonetheless, the Ottoman Empire was defeated. The punitive post-war settlement outraged the Turkish nationalists. In 1922 the last sultan, Mehmed VI (1861-1926), fled after the sultanate was abolished. A new republican government emerged at Ankara, capital of the new Turkish non-imperial nation-state.

The Indian Mogul Empire

Indus Valley civilization flourished in northern India from 2600 B.C. to 2000 B.C. The Aryans who invaded India in 1500 B.C. from the northwest found an already advanced civilization. They introduced Sanskrit and the Vedic religion, a forerunner of Hinduism, to the area. Buddhism was founded in the 6th century B.C. and spread throughout northern India, most notably by the great king Asoka (269-232 B.C.), who also unified most of the Indian subcontinent for the first time. But thereafter India was divided into warring states.

In the sixteenth century, Muslim invaders conquered these states and founded the great Mogul empire, centered on Delhi, which lasted until 1857. Babar (1482-1530), a Turkish-Mongol prince from Afghanistan and the founder of the Mogul Empire, invaded India in 1526. His grandson, Akbar the Great (1542-1605), strengthened and consolidated this empire. He was the greatest of the Mogul emperors and under his 49-year reign, conquered all of northern India and Afghanistan, and extended his rule far south. The long reign of his great-grandson, Aurangzeb (1618-1707), represented both the greatest extent of the Mogul empire.

The Moguls were a Muslim elite who ruled over a Hindu majority. Akbar maintained his rule by Mogul military might and religious tolerance. For employment in government positions, talent and ambition took precedence over ethnicity and religious faith. Akbar also took a great interest in the arts, particularly architecture. But after Akbar’s death—he may have been poisoned by Muslim government officials who were suspicious of his religious tolerance—the empire began to decline. This decline continued under Aurangzeb (1618-1707), who became emperor in 1658. Mogul control in south India came under increased pressure with revolts by the Hindu Maratha princes. To worsen matters, Aurangzeb lacked Akbar’s religious tolerance, imposed special taxes on Hindus, destroyed their temples, and forced them to convert to Islam. Soon after Aurangzeb’s death, the empire began to break up, enabling the British to step in.

The new emperor, Bahadur Shah I (reigned from 1707 to 1712), was unable to prevent Mogul decline and his efforts to collect taxes and to impose greater control over the Rajput states of Amber and Jodhpur were unsuccessful. His policies toward the Hindu Marathas were also a half-hearted mixture of conciliation and suppression: they were never defeated and resistance to Mogul rule persisted in the south. The provinces became increasing independent with the decline of Mogul central authority in the period between 1707 and 1761. This resurgence of regional identity accentuated both political and economic decentralization as Mogul military powers ebbed. The provinces, particularly Bengal, Bihar, and Avadh in northern India, became virtual independent kingdoms recognizing the Mogul Emperor in name only.

These provinces laid the foundations for the princely states under the British Raj. These princes relied on the support from their relatives, from the lesser nobility, and from the peasants. Their rule was very personalized, with followers swearing allegiance to the ruler alone and not to the state. As such, with the death of a prince, allegiances shifted and loyalty divided, making cooperation impossible. The princes were thus never strong enough to dominate any sizeable territories and the Mogul Empire shrank, although it lasted until 1858 in the face of growing European, particularly British, encroachments.

Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, first visited India in 1498, and for the next century the Portuguese had a virtual monopoly on European trade with the subcontinent. The English East India Company set up its first factory at Surat in western India in 1612 and expanded its influence by fighting the Indian rulers and the French, Dutch, and Portuguese traders simultaneously. Bombay was taken from the Portuguese and became the seat of English rule in 1687. The defeat of the French and Mogul armies by Lord Clive in 1757 laid the foundation of the British Empire in India. The East India Company continued to suppress native uprisings and extend British rule until 1858, when India was formally transferred to the British Crown following the Indian Mutiny in 1857-1858. British rule was enabled by the fall of the Mogul Empire and the subsequent division of India.

By the sixteenth century in Eurasia, the balance between the nomadic cavalry and the agrarian peoples had shifted irrevocably to the latter. They had a continuing advantage in numbers, supplemented by an increasingly well-organized infantry and further supplemented by firepower, artillery, fortifications, and better means of transport and mobility. These characteristics were to be consolidated by the peoples of Western Europe and, augmented by maritime technology, produce some of the mightiest and far-reaching imperial structures thus far devised. As they ventured outside Europe they encountered other imperial structures already constructed far from the Eurasian heartland.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs dominated northern Mexico in the early sixteenth century, at the time of the Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés (1485-1587). They originated from north Mexico as a small, nomadic, tribal people living on the margins of civilized Mesoamerica. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they settled in the central basin of Mexico, where small city-states fought one another in shifting alliances. The Aztecs consolidated on small islands in Lake Texcoco around Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

During the fifteenth century the Aztecs created an empire that was larger than any in the Americas except that of the Incas in Peru. It had a highly specialized and stratified society with an imperial administration and a trading network, as well as a tribute system, a sophisticated agricultural economy, and a developed, primitive religion. The annual round of rites and ceremonies in the cities involved human sacrifice. It was a flourishing, savage imperial system.

Aztecs had professional military officers but no professional army. Every boy was trained to fight and a vital part of everyday life for the Aztecs was warfare. A boy became a man by capturing his first prisoner. The Aztecs’ courage and strength helped them build their empire and establish themselves as the fiercest of all the tribes in the Valley of Mexico. War was partly a ritual: a site was chosen and armies met in a battle that was usually short and ended with the surrender of the weaker side and the taking of prisoners.

The objective was to disable an opponent by striking his leg so he could be taken prisoner. Prisoners were the real war trophies, since they were used as sacrifices in religious festivals. The Aztecs and their enemies used spears, slings, and bows and arrows to fight at close range. Blades were chipped from obsidian (rock of volcanic glass) and mounted on weapons. A freshly made obsidian blade was as sharp as the Spaniards’ steel swords, but soon lost its edge and was easily broken. The Spaniards used steel swords, guns, armor, and cannons. The Spaniards’ purpose was military victory and then profit.

Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 1519, and the Aztecs greeted the Spaniards. The Spaniards set up camp and Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler, sent gifts of gold to Cortés. The Spaniards burned their own ships and set off for Tenochtitlan with four hundred Spaniards, sixteen horses, and several cannons. Cortés persuaded many of the subject nations who were enemies of the Aztecs to join him. The Spaniards soon reached Lake Texcoco and with their native allies were invited to stay in one of the palaces by Moctezuma II. Fighting broke out, Cortés took Moctezuma II hostage and tried to control Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards led the final attack on Tenochtitlan with four hundred men and about 150,000 rebellious native allies. The Aztec capital was finally destroyed in 1521 and Mexico City was built on top of the ruins.

The Spanish introduced horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs to the American continent. They also brought fruits, sugar, and other grains, and took potatoes, tomatoes, beans, maize, and whatever bullion they could find (and it was vast) back to Europe. They divided the continent into military districts, which later became independent states.

The Incas

The Incas were the last great empire in South America. The civilization started around 1200 and lasted more than three hundred years—until the Spaniards arrived around 1530. At its peak the Inca Empire stretched from Ecuador to Chile, or almost 3,000 miles.

The Incas built an extensive irrigation system and grew many different kinds of staple crops, including the potato. They used animal manure and bird droppings, known as guano, as fertilizer. Those that lived in the desert lowlands grew tomatoes, tropical fruit, and cotton; the Incas that lived in the mountains grew potatoes. People at high elevations herded llama and alpaca, which supplied food and wool. The Incas also grew peppers, peanuts, avocados, and beans. Orchids were grown for medicine and people chewed cocoa leaves. The Incas built vast stone terraces on the mountainsides.

The capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco, had a population of up to 300,000 people. They had a highly organized system of government, with the king as head and a High Council. The system had a structure of elected officials who governed and its territory was divided into administrative provinces. The people paid taxes, often through labor contributions.

The Incas had initially created this empire by conquering other tribes. The entire Inca Empire had a population of about ten million people. The Incas built a 10,000- to 20,000-mile road system, including pontoons and suspension bridges. But the Incas were also proficient craftsmen and administrators and organized their communications by mail from runner to runner who might cover 350 miles a day. In battle, they used spears and whips.

In 1532 Spaniards arrived and the Incas thought they were their gods, which diminished initial resistance. Many people quickly died from the diseases the Spanish brought from Europe. The Incas were then defeated in the field by the Spaniards’ guns, against which they were no match. Their domain was then divided into areas of military administration under the Spanish Empire and provided considerable booty for the victorious Europeans.

The Zulu Empire

The Zulus are a tribe native to the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. Historically, the Zulus were a warrior nation and believed themselves to be descendants of the patriarch Zulu, the son of a chief in the Congo basin in central Africa. European apartheid-era textbooks taught that South Africa was virtually empty of human habitation when colonized by the Dutch in 1652. In truth, the Zulu people had begun to migrate towards their present location in Natal during the sixteenth century.

The crucial turning point in Zulu history occurred during the reign of Shaka (1787-1878), king of the Zulus from 1816 to 1828. Prior to his rule, the Zulus consisted of numerous clans or political entities that were culturally related but disorganized. Shaka is depicted as a mighty and fearsome warrior who united the clans into a single powerful tribe. He introduced a new system of military organization and revolutionized his army’s weaponry and military tactics. He also introduced new battle formations and was a strict and brutal disciplinarian. Soldiers were required to remain celibate and violation of this was punishable by death. Shaka greatly increased the power of his tribe, and conquered clans and tribes were incorporated into the Zulu nation. In eleven years he increased their number from 1,500 people to fifty thousand warriors alone.

From the time of Shaka, the Zulus fought many wars of defense to keep themselves from being dominated by the encroaching European powers and settlers. Before they succumbed to the British, Chief Bambatha led the final Zulu uprising in 1906. From then on the tribe that had once been master of much of the eastern coast and interior of South Africa, was subjected to an increasingly harsh series of racist laws in the state of South Africa that led to poverty and disempowerment. This was maintained until apartheid was abolished in South Africa in 1994.

European Modern Imperialism

Imperialism is now most popularly used to describe the expansion of Europe from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. This expansion was truly exceptional because it created worldwide imperial systems, which were often larger, more populous, and more diverse than preceding ones. But they were not exceptional in purpose or design.

The imperialism of Europe created the modern and contemporary world. It was based on: technological advantages which were progressively extended through a social system which encouraged scientific advances; the correspondingly superior military power of the European states; the more productive economies of the European peoples which their societies encouraged; the larger populations which, for a while, these processes generated in Europe; and the better organized political and administrative forms the states of Europe devised which enabled them to channel superior resources to expansion. At different times the Europeans excused and supported these activities by suitable ideologies including, at first, varieties of Christian doctrine and later by a Darwinian social and scientific outlook.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe broke into a myriad of political organizations loosely described as “feudalism.” While this political anarchy resolved itself into better order, the secular authority of the Holy Roman Empire and the spiritual authority of the Pope, operating through the Universal Church, were at least theoretically acknowledged. But during the Dark and Medieval Ages, from the time of Charlemagne (742) to the first voyage to America in 1492, Christendom was confined to Europe by the Mongols, Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and the Atlantic Ocean. The power of various European states ebbed and waned, often creating small imperial systems: the Holy Roman Empire, the Norman lands, and the Plantegenet English empire. But limited feudal, dynastic states were the norm.

The Christian Crusades were mounted into the Levant against Islam in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but repelled by the Arabs and the Ottomans. The Europeans then embarked on a period of quite brilliant expansion to the west and south, which took them to imperial mastery of much of the world. This was not driven by a more rapacious culture, or by a more avaricious economic system. What marked out the modern Europeans was their greater capacity, deriving from their better developed and more advanced economic, military, and political systems. This higher level of development was achieved by the combination of commercial capitalism and the intra-European competitive state system.

These processes generated an internal revolution in Europe. Each state adopted the most advanced system the other states produced which led to a continuing process of technological progress, which an empire, like China, found difficult to generate. Then in 1492, Columbus broke Europe out of its geographic confines by connecting it to the wider world into which European power penetrated for the next five centuries.

The Advance of European Imperial Power

European imperial power advanced into the world in phases. During the sixteenth century the two Iberian states created the initial structure of the Atlantic economy. Under the Papal Treaty of 1494, Spain and Portugal divided the world between them approximately at longitude 60 degrees (an imaginary line which would cut through modern-day Newfoundland, the western Atlantic, and Brazil), with Spain taking that to the west, Portugal that to the east.


Spain had recently evicted the Muslims and developed the finest infantry in Europe. After Cortés’ conquests in Mexico in the early-sixteenth century, the Spanish used large and impressive galleons to transport booty from the New World back to the Old. When the Habsburg House of Austria joined that of Spain, it added artillery to its murderous armory. Its ferocious Catholicism, hardened by the fight with Islam and sharpened by the Inquisition, served as a fine imperial ideology to excuse the pursuit of riches and justify conquest. The diseases the Spaniards carried, often recently imported from Asia during the Plague, killed more Amerindians than the formidable steel weapons, cavalry, and religious zeal which they had never before encountered. Some estimates had their population falling from around fifty million down to two million.The Spanish created an empire that stretched from contemporary California and Florida to Tierra del Fuego, the islands that make up the southern tip of South America. They then explored the Pacific Ocean, which became for three centuries a Spanish “lake” across which Spanish merchant fleets transported booty from the Philippines. During most of this time, Spain was governed by Hapsburgs as a part of one of the largest European dynastic domains.


Portugal was smaller, but also better placed and less distracted by European ambitions. The Papal deal had given it what became Brazil and the rest of the world to the east. Portuguese captains then undertook remarkable voyages which brought them to Africa and Asia on numerous and profitable voyages of discovery and enrichment. The Portuguese met Spanish power in Southeast Asia, at longitude 120 degrees, where Spain took the Philippines and Portugal Malacca and what became Timor. But Portugal was more limited in military power and was confined by size and then current technology to naval trading stations, and a chain of Portuguese ports circled the globe from Brazil to Japan.

For a time the crowns of Portugal and Spain were united by dynastic succession and the Habsburgs ruled the most extensive empire the world had known and on which the sun truly never set, embracing as it did territories in Europe, America, Africa, the Pacific, and Asia. But within two centuries it became exhausted by the efforts of defending it.

In Asia, European power was at first limited to trading stations (often fortified) established along the coast after 1511 and the early phase of the Age of Vasco da Gama. Portugal was restricted to trading stations in southern Africa, Goa, Malacca, Macao, Japan, the Spice Islands, and Timor. These fortifications often gave the Portuguese a capacity to intervene in local politics but not for the imposition of extensive imperial rule on a heavily populated continent. During the seventeenth century the Iberian states began to face rivals in their quest for world imperial dominion from the Protestant Netherlands and Britain and Catholic but nationalist France.

The Netherlands

In 1648 the Netherlands emerged from the Thirty Years War independent of the Habsburgs and became, arguably, the first liberal capitalist state, and soon set about using their naval power to acquire colonies in New York, Cape Town, and the East Indies. They did this in competition with the British, against whom they fought and lost several wars, relinquishing New York and Cape Town in the process. Nonetheless, they held onto colonies, including the Netherlands East Indies until 1949, and during those three centuries exploited them remorselessly and effectively, transferring great wealth to the small and wealthy European state.

Britain and France

The British began their imperial trajectory in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), a late medieval warlord of immense capacities. England was consolidated as a state and successfully defended against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It then began the conquest of North America, where it established a series of colonial settlements. These became the thirteen colonies, profitable to the British as trading partners monopolized by British merchant marine.

The French also joined in the imperial conquest of North America by claiming the Hudson Valley corridor to the Great Lakes, and then moving into the Mississippi Valley with a view to joining Canada to New Orleans in the Gulf. This was an area immensely rich in timber, pelts, and fertile land for colonial settlement. Several wars between the British and French necessarily ensued, but were inconclusive before 1756.

The Seven Years War—the first genuinely world war—was fought between the British and French empires in 1756-1763, and waged for profitable imperial possessions in North America, the Caribbean, India, and east Asia. This war ended in a British victory and the French were evicted from Canada—and from India. The thirteen British colonies now had little need for British protection and declared their independence in 1776, which led to war.

The resulting United States of America now became the first serious version of the modern settler colonial state, liberal in government but imperial towards other territory despite its anti-imperial ideology. It set about acquiring more territory owned by others in a series of purchases (Louisiana and Alaska), seizures (Texas), and colonizations that pushed the frontier to the Pacific coast. The combination of resource rich territory and industrious population made the U.S. an outstanding example of the benefits to be derived from imperial expansion and settlement.

The British had temporarily ended the ambitions of the French outside Europe, but they re-directed their attentions. After the revolution of 1789, the French created an empire in Europe under the direction of the military genius, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. He revolutionized the map of Europe through a series of military campaigns that saw him effectively undefeated in the field from 1798 to 1813. This made France the imperial ruler of the richest continent on earth, but unable to expand outside it after the defeat of the French fleet by Britain’s Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. The French control of Europe was then ended by their defeat in Russia in 1812-1813, in Spain in 1814, at the Battle of the Nations in 1814, and finally and decisively, by the Duke of Wellington overwhelming Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo in 1815. Napoleonic rule, however, greatly enriched France.

The British were now the masters of the world outside Europe. They undertook the first attempt to create a global commercial system in place of discrete imperial aggrandizements. With mastery of the world’s oceans after 1805, a small but capable and mobile army, a rapidly industrializing economy soon producing nearly forty percent of world output, and with a financial system based in London, the British now attempted to open the world to free trade and commerce. Between 1815 and 1870 the British used their power not to enlarge their already extensive colonies, but to open the world to commerce. After 1870 a number of other states emerged as rival powers and undertook imperial expansion designed to take territories into their own exclusive zones in traditional imperialist fashion. These included a revived France under Napoleon III, a newly unified Germany led by Otto von Bismarck, the post-Civil War United States, and, in east Asia, the Russians and the Japanese.

Asia’s experience

During this process Asia was opened to European power. At first, this involved exposing reluctant states to commerce, a procedure started by the British in the 1840 Opium War with decaying imperial China, and extended by the U.S. in Japan in 1853. But as the European states became more powerful, the trading stations around the coast of Asia were not sufficient to provide access to the increasing quantities of raw materials and foodstuffs and larger markets that the Europeans believed Asia potentially presented. The Europeans undertook the conquest of Asia proper.

The Russians spread across the great Eurasian steppe and its large population and military technology, including gunpowder, took its toll. Under a series of aggressive rulers, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, they seized territory from the nomadic tribes and then the Chinese state from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and expanded as far as Alaska, which they later sold to the U.S. In the nineteenth century they annexed a number of mostly Muslim republics in Central Asia.

In the 1870s the French began the conquest of the Indochina states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The Japanese, newly modernized and understanding the benefits of colonial expansion, defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 and constructed an empire in east Asia that was to continue to expand until 1943. The United States seized the Philippines from Spain in the war of 1898. And by the 1870s even the British had returned to imperial expansion and, in quick succession, expanded their direct rule across the whole of India, Burma, the states of Malaya, and the north Borneo colonies. The Dutch also accelerated their conquest of the entire East Indies.

The Europeans then began carving up China. The Middle Kingdom was unable to resist the attacks of the imperial powers by the late nineteenth century. Russia seized territory to the north; and Japan to the east. The British, Germans, and French established spheres of influence with “Treaty Ports” and extra- territorial rights. And finally, when patriotic Chinese resisted, the U.S. organized a joint force to put down the Boxer Rebellion. In 1911, the dynastic state finally collapsed, to be replaced in theory by a republic, but in fact by a civil war which did not end until 1949.


At the same time, the Europeans completed their conquest of Africa. Africa was first integrated into the Atlantic economy by the provision of slaves. Slavery had existed in Africa since pre-Roman times and had been maintained by the Arabs. Slave-based plantation economies were well known to the Mediterranean world and were introduced to the Canary Islands. Slavery was then brought to America. The American natives often did not serve this function well and African slaves were imported. During the three centuries of the slave trade, tens of millions of Africans were transported to the Americas and their use was integral to the establishment of imperial economies for the production of sugar, then cotton.

The Portuguese consolidated their hold on Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. The Spanish retained Spanish Sahara. The French established a Second Empire, adjacent to France, in North Africa as far south as the Equator. Late in the century, the British pursued a railway and corridor from the Cape to Cairo and acquired a string of possessions from the South African colonies to Egypt. The late-coming Germans took some colonial remains in South West Africa, Tanganyika, and German Somalia. The rush was so indecent that the Congress of Berlin was convened in 1884-1885 to provide order to the onslaught and draw some clear boundaries. Even then, Italy later joined the scramble and acquired Libya in 1909 and Ethiopia, indecently late, in 1935. By that time no independent states existed in Africa, although most powers were having trouble making a profit from African colonies except where precious metals were found. Even then, as in South Africa, the British found the European Boer settlers a problem to contend with in war.

Decline of Imperial Systems

This competitive expansion of the European- based empires, contributed to the tensions that led to war in 1914, but the real causes were in Europe. Nonetheless, the defeat of the Central Powers led to them losing their imperial systems. In Europe, this created modern national states in the place of the German and Austro-Hungarian dynastic creations.

But losing a war is not necessarily the only way to lose an empire. For a good example of the problems that widespread colonization can cause, one need look no further than Great Britain. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful nation on earth. Their empire extended to all parts of the world. But the difficult war fought against the Boers hurt British prestige. Decades later, victory in World War I had nearly bankrupted the country. It became harder and harder to justify spending money on strange lands thousands of miles away from home. Moreover, Indian troops had fought for Britain on the assumption that they would be granted independence, which did not happen. The Indian people grew agitated, and feelings of betrayal and nationalism surged. A generation later, Britain tapped all of her resources once again to win World War II. The people were weary of talk about the glory of empire, and wanted the government to concentrate on the needs of its citizens at home. “Conquering these new areas cost money, as did setting up the governments to run them,” wrote William W. Lace in The British Empire: The End of Colonialism. By 1945, Britain no longer had the money or the will for imperialism. Britain’s prize for winning both world wars would be the loss of its empire and the loss of its status as the most powerful nation on earth.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I led to the creation of a modern Turkish national state and a re-division of the Middle East. Persia (Iran) also became a nation-state. Under the League of Nations system of mandates, the British got Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, and Gulf states, and the Saudi Arabian regime came under British protection. These were added to the neighboring Egypt and the Sudan to control the route to India. The French got Syria and the Lebanon with its large Christian community dating from the Crusaders. These moves were in part designed to give the Europeans access to oil reserves rapidly emerging as the world’s most valuable commodity.

Defeated in 1918, Germany was reorganized for military expansion under Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939. It then pursued the same imperial aims once more under the Nazi regime from 1939 to 1945. This involved German imperial domination of Europe from France to the Urals to the benefit of the German state and people. This was briefly achieved by aggressive war in the early 1940s.

The Soviet Union

But the last great European empire was that of the revolutionary Soviet regime led by Vladimir Lenin, which replaced tsarist rule in Russia. The Soviet Union’s imperial system was created in three layers. After 1917 Lenin took over most of the Russian imperial state, crushing secessionist nationalist movements after the Bolsheviks seized Moscow and St. Petersburg, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia but also in Central Asia. In a deal with Hitler in 1939 the Soviets then annexed territory in Eastern Europe, including the states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as much of Poland. After 1945 they directly annexed the rest of Poland and also established puppet, semi-colonial regimes in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Rumania. This was the inner colonial territory. Then in the 1970s, during the retreat of U.S. power, they were able to acquire client regimes in Indo China, Cuba, several African states, and parts of the Middle East.

But this empire was not profitable to the Soviet state. Indeed, by the 1980s it was a severe drain on its resources. The cost of this imperial system was greatly increased by the policies of the Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982, Leonard Brezhnev. Maintenance of the satellite states took up one-quarter of the Soviet economy by 1980. This cost included large subsidies to communist Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, cheap energy sales to the east European puppet regimes, and grants and aid to the many Third World regimes that had come under Soviet patronage. In addition, the Soviets maintained a defense budget to compete with the U.S.-but with an economy perhaps ten percent as large. In the late 1980s, this whole imperial edifice, created with great ideological zeal and at considerable material cost, was dismantled by the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.

Analysis and Critical Response

The last phase in the expansion of the imperial power of the European states after 1870 was so spectacular that it sparked a major controversy about the reasons for it. A number of explanations were offered at that time, and subsequently by historians.

The most obvious was that they conquered other countries because they had the power to do so. This theory of “the pursuit of power” was advanced by Hans J. Morgenthau in his textbook on international relations, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. This pursuit of power had been common behavior by states since the Neolithic revolution. The disparity in power between the Europeans and others was for long so great that it made imperial conquest very cheap. The “lust for power” inherent in the state, particularly its military forces, provided a culture within which conquest could be justified by the security and strategic interests of the state. Even if conquest was distant, annexation could be justified in terms of denying resources to rival states. Democrat critics often pointed to the aristocratic nature of the ruling classes of nineteenth and early twentieth century European states and the believed predilection for war, chivalry and battle endemic to that class. This was, however, a difficult argument to later adduce for non-aristocratic states like the U.S. or Australia.

Other authors produced culture-based arguments. Some of these were centered on the culture of Christendom in Europe, which, it believed, had some responsibility to civilize primitive cultures and bring them within the bounds of Christian civilization. This rarely, however, looks more than a ex post facto justification for state policy undertaken for more practical and usually profitable reasons. It is unlikely that Cortés, for example, was more inspired by the conversion of souls than by the pursuit of booty. Other writers, less charitably again, believed that the arms manufactures drove states to expand their ambitions in order to fill profitable arms production contracts. This, again, proved more difficult to demonstrate than assert.


More commonly blamed, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was the European system of production itself, now known as capitalism. Among such critics were both liberals, like John Hobson in his book Imperialism: A Study and marxists, like Vladimir Lenin in his polemic Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Hobson, an opponent of the British pursuit of the Boer War, wrote in 1900 against the European settler states in southern Africa. He argued that the capitalist countries of Europe were by the end of the nineteenth century dominated politically by the owners of capital. These capitalists could not find sufficient profitable outlets for their investments. As a result, they successfully urged the governments to pursue overseas and colonial expansion so that they could invest safely in these new colonies and make a profit. In the Boer War British capital was after the rich opportunities offered by gold and diamond mining in the Boer republics. To deal with this problem, Hobson argued, income should be redistributed to the poor in Britain, so that capitalists would be able to find profitable outlets and markets at home.

Lenin published his pamphlet in 1917 as part of his general program of seeking the revolutionary overthrow of the Russian Tsarist regime. He wanted to link the First World War to capitalism in order to garner support from the numerous Russian opponents of the war for his revolutionary cause. Taking much of his argument from Hobson, he said that under “monopoly capitalism” the states of Europe were driven by large financial cartels pushing each country to seek imperial conquest in order to gain profitable investment opportunities. In the process of competing for these colonies, they had gone to war with each other. The only way to stop that war was to overthrow capitalism.

These arguments were ill-founded. Most investments from the capitalist countries did not go to their colonies but to other independent and wealthy capitalist states. Imperialism and war had existed as part of the human political condition since the Neolithic revolution. The First World War had its origins almost entirely in European politics. And when Lenin did replace tsarism with a revolutionary state it proved to be among the most expansionary and war-like in the world.

Benefits of Imperialism

A common view is that one positive aspect of imperialism is that new ideas and superior technologies are introduced into the conquered lands. Some feel, however, that this is an arrogant, Eurocentric viewpoint, that any positive qualities of colonialism are far outweighed by the disease, slavery, suspicion, ill feelings, and oppression often brought to new lands. Yet more than a few historians do point to specific positive qualities of imperialism, all while acknowledging the negative. As William Prescott wrote of the Aztecs in his 1837 work Conquest of Mexico:

How can a nation where human sacrifices prevail, and especially combined with cannibalism, further the march of civilization? The influence of the Aztecs introduced their gloomy superstition into lands before unacquainted with it, or where, at least, it was not established in any great strength.

Prescott did not feel that this alone justified the Spanish conquest and acknowledges the atrocities that occurred during battle, but also stated that not every result was bad for humanity, and that Cortés and his soldiers were, in many ways, simply a product of their time. In addition, it should be remembered that the destruction of the Aztec Empire may not have been possible without the surrounding Native American tribes who allied themselves with the Spaniards.

The Mongol conquest of China is often linked with the opening of a massive trade route that spread ideas and discoveries to groups of people who had before not even known of each other’s existence. This certainly was a positive aspect. The Mongol occupation also probably helped to strengthen Chinese ethnic pride. However, it is unlikely that the Chinese benefited more, in the long run, from Mongol control than from earlier native rule.

For most of human history, philosophers have accepted that imperial expansion and conquest are a necessary part of organized political societies and their interaction with one another. In classical Greece, the martial skills and dispositions were cultivated alongside those of the intellect to produce a rounded citizen. Pericles’ speech over the Athenian dead in Thucydides makes a virtue of dying for democratic Athens. Alexander the Great was raised in the imperial tradition and ranks high among Greek heroes for pursuing conquest by force throughout his short life. The Romans made heroes of their conquerors and Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul may be read as propaganda advertising his qualifications for even higher office. This tradition continued into Christian Europe. Indeed, the greatest of the Renaissance political philosophers, Machiavelli, devotes considerable space to advising The Prince on how to deal with a conquered province.

Imperial behavior applied equally to states of differing ideological hues: the Islamic Ottoman Turks; the Christian Charles V and Philip II, dynastic rulers of the extensive Hapsburg dominions; the Bourbon absolutist monarchy in France; commercial and liberal Britain; Revolutionary France under the Directorate and Napoleon, both in pursuit of the conquest of Europe; Napoleon III and the new French empire in Africa; Kaiser Wilhelm and the Nazis in pursuit of German military imperialism into eastern Europe; Teddy Roosevelt and the “New Imperialism” of republican America; and the egalitarian settlers of Australia and New Zealand in their pursuit of the domination of the southwest Pacific.

In this pursuit of imperial expansion, societies had many and diverse proponents. Charles Darwin’s account of The Evolution of the Species, with its implied doctrine of the survival of the fittest species, was readily turned into “Social Darwinism” in justification for the conquest of the socially backward by the technologically advanced. Marx argued that European colonialism of stagnant Asia would prod what he called the “Asiatic Mode of Production” out of its lethargy and into the world of capitalist progress.


Again, this is not to say that the imperialist impulse has lacked critics. Throughout history, the commercial and agricultural classes may have preferred what the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, extolled as Perpetual Peace. Kant argued that a society of rational republican states would be peaceable. But other impulses beat in the human heart and the expansionist ambitions of a Genghis Khan or Catherine the Great would offer periodic reminder of the aphorism: “If you seek peace, prepare for war.” Nonetheless, the final period of European expansion coincided with the evolution of liberal and representative governments whose spokesmen had more interest in commercial and cultural exchange than imperial conquest. From them, evolved the contemporary critics of imperialism who dominate Western considerations of the phenomenon in the early twenty-first century.

Liberals have decried imperial expansion since Richard Cobden and his biographer, John Hobson, in International Mancriticized European colonialism in the nineteenth century. In this, they merely followed American liberal and anti-imperial sentiment that originated in the American Revolutionary War. Ignoring its own record of colonial expansion, the U.S. then embarked on Great Power status in 1917 with a full-blown, anti-imperial ideology. During the second part of the twentieth century American power was then deployed successfully to dismantle the European colonial structures. In this pursuit, it was motivated partly by liberal ideology and partly by a desire to access the closed markets and other commercial opportunities of the colonial empires, as David Mosler and Bob Catley described in their book, Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World. The Marxist school has, since Lenin’s 1917 polemic, persistently criticized what it claims to be the uniquely capitalist form of imperialism. Among its recent proponents has been Harry Magdoff in The Age of Imperialism. Its force has been, understandably, diminished by the long period of expansion undertaken by the Soviet state, only to be followed by its collapse. The unworkability of Soviet economics as an alternative to market forms has contributed to the demise of the Marxist school.

For a period in the 1970s, the Marxist school was supplanted by “Dependency Theory,” of whom Andre Gunder Frank, who wrote On Capitalist Underdevelopment in 1975, was the best-known author. This theory held that during the era of colonialism the Europeans had created dependent economies in the Third World which, because of their structural dependence on the world market, would always remain poor and underdeveloped. This argument was taken up by many Third World intellectuals and regimes but was progressively abandoned by the 1990s. This was because its adherents had created such murderous regimes whenever they had come to power, notably in Pol Pot’s Khmer Republic; because many Third World states adopting liberal and market economics did indeed develop; and because its postulates were increasingly seen as excuses by incompetent Third World regimes for their own failures.

The Current Status of Imperialism

Contemporary critics of imperialism tend to be more cultural in form. They often derive their argument from people like Franz Fanon, a black Francophone who depicted Third World citizens as The Wretched of the Earth, subjugated by rapacious Europeans, whose very psychology could not survive healthily in its suborned condition without a violent resistance. Mahatma Ghandi pursued a pacifist form of this argument in his support for traditional Indian cultural modes. The Arab American Edward Said, in Orientalism, developed a similar perspective deriving from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. This position, often termed “post-colonial theory,” argues that the non-European world is persistently misrepresented and demonized by Western politicians and intellectuals, thereby justifying the political domination over it, which Europeans pursue. This argument ignores the waves of imperial expansion and contraction—many of them by non-Europeans—that have gone into the making of the modern world. It is, nonetheless, widely felt in parts of the Third World.

Yet the European empires did retreat. The European retreat from the Americas started with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was then extended during the Napoleonic Wars when most Spanish colonies in the Americas declared their independence at the behest of Simon Bolivar and with the encouragement of the British and protection of the British fleet. The emancipation of the Americas then proceeded through the nineteenth century with slave revolts in Haiti, secession in Brazil, and agreed self-government in Canada.

After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the Europeans. The British and French assumed League of Nations mandates in the region, but those states, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel and Palestine, quickly acquired their independence. As U.S. power replaced that of the European colonialists by the 1970s, so the structure of power in the region assumed classical geopolitical new dimensions, together with some new attempts at imperial expansion, including the abortive Iraqi annexation of Kuwait in 1991.

The emancipation of Asia began with the dismantling of the German Empire after defeat in 1918. Australia, New Zealand and Japan got mandated territories in the process. Then in 1945 the Japanese Empire was also emancipated. In 1946, the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines. Two years later the British began their evacuation of Asia with the independence of the Indian Raj into four major successor states. In 1957 and 1963 the British left their southeast Asian possessions, most of them forming the Federation of Malaysia, and finally, in 1997, Hong Kong. China asserted its sovereignty under a communist regime in 1949, the same year in which the Dutch were evicted from Indonesia by a combination of nationalist war and U.S. diplomatic pressure. In 1956 the French left Indo China, after waging an unsuccessful war to maintain their colonial possessions. European imperialism in Asia was largely finished.

The Europeans’ exit from Africa was similarly rapid. Italy lost its colonies after its defeat in 1943. The French tried to maintain their empire but desisted after their defeat in the Algerian Civil War in 1958. The British, as in Asia, were keener decolonizers and started the process in Ghana in 1957. It was then extended—albeit not without difficulty—throughout their African possessions in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, the short-lived Central African Federation, Uganda, and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. In 1960, Belgium left the Congo. The Portuguese hung on their ancient colonies in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique until a 1974 anti-colonial military coup in Lisbon. In South Africa and South West Africa/Namibia the apartheid regimes ended in 1994. Africa had gone back to the Africans.

The Pacific Ocean territories were, by and large, the last to be emancipated. New Zealand left Samoa in 1962 and the British vacated Fiji in 1970. The Australians granted independence to Papua/New Guinea in 1975 and the British quickly thereafter vacated Melanesia. But the French still retain New Caledonia and Tahiti and the U.S. American Samoa. But these remained among the few exceptions to the generalization that the Europeans had, with the exception of the settler states, vacated their imperial conquests in the wider world.

Why did imperialist Europe retreat?

Most of this retreat occurred at a time when the dominant powers of the international system, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, were opposed to the kind of classic imperialism which the Europeans practiced. These superpowers supported anti-colonial movements against European power and put considerable pressure on the imperial powers to retreat.

The colonized people also became more difficult to rule as the ideas and techniques, particularly weaponry, spread more widely among them. Local and traditional rulers of colonial territories believed they could as well govern their people as Europeans. As these processes occurred, so the cost of governing colonies rose.

At the same time the anti-colonial ideas so deeply rooted in the socialists and liberal political movement in Europe spread among the increasingly enfranchised lower classes, so the willingness to bear the rising financial and casualty costs of imposing imperial rule fell. In Britain, for example, the first seriously anti- imperialist government was the Labour government of 1945 to 1951. The French abandoned Indo China when the electorate rejected the cost after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

By 1960 it had become clear to most European regimes that it was actually less profitable, if not unprofitable, to be imperialist. This realization dawned on the Soviets in the 1980s. Some imperial states then preserved the policy for other reasons: the political pressure of settlers (Britain); archaic calculations by military or fascist regimes (Portugal); or a geo-strategic calculation, for example, to have somewhere to test nuclear weapons (France).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is most commonly believed that the appropriate and most desirable form of political organization is the nation state. This idea was first forcefully pursued by liberals like the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in his Fourteen Points of 1917. It has been taken up by the Charter of the United Nations that enshrines this doctrine.

Why Has There Been No Total World Empire?

Until the modern era, the level of technology would not support a global empire. The Habsburgs possessed a globe-encompassing domain, but probably ruled no more subjects than contemporary China and found it impossible to sustain. The British were supreme for perhaps thirty years, but even then had trouble in the Crimean War of 1854 to 1856. Today, the United States is the only remaining superpower, but is still vulnerable, as evidenced by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

No power has been able to imperialize the modern state system, although a succession have tried, as Paul Kennedy described in 1987 in Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: the Habsburgs, Bourbon France, Pitt’s England, Napoleonic France, nineteenth-century Britain, Germany under the Kaiser and the Nazis, the Soviets, and now, arguably, the United States. This is because of the operation of countervailing tendencies. The operation of the Balance of Power leads other countries to unite against the aspiring dominator. Powers that are too ambitious, find themselves exposed to “Imperial Overstretch.” The tendency for “combined and uneven development,” leads other states to match eventually the innovations of the most powerful. And the technology for making global dominance a serious possibility is not yet available.


Imperialism usually starts with military conquest; it then uses this opportunity to install an administration or government, which organizes a transfer of resources from the colony to the metropolitan state. At the simplest level, this may be achieved by looting, as with Genghis Khan, or with bullion transfer, as with the Habsburgs, or with tribute to the Chinese empire. The more sophisticated means are systemic, like Rome or Britain, and involve colonies and colonial administrations who are made to trade profitably only within the empire. This may be expanded by investments in appropriate commodities like mines, plantations, or factories. Settlements may be used to get suitable labor to extract wealth, as in the Thirteen Colonies, in Australia or New Zealand, or in South Africa. If empire is not profitable, by the exchange of goods or by resource transfer, it will be sooner or later abandoned.

But the search for a single motive for imperialism may be fruitless. It stems from well springs deep in the human personality, and from impulses deeply buried in political societies.