The Age of Imperialism: Duty or Demise?

Explorers in the 15th and 16th century navigated the globe through the fuel of gold, glory, and god. Three centuries later, the western countries have resuscitated these motives and have gone even further to call it “civilizing the backward peoples”. The age of imperialism was a dark era, where people in Africa, Latin America, India, and other small countries suffered from harsh rule by the European and North American countries. The creation of the theory of Social Darwinism after Darwin published his famous Origin of Species in 1859 marks the start of what the western countries called their duty. They always had a sense of a duty, a superiority in which white-skinned, developed countries would dogmatically consider themselves above those of other skins and underdeveloped countries.

In a sense, the westerners are privileged with the right of saying they are superior. But in no way are these westerners given the rights of calling the imperialized countries “backward”. Western Countries did feel it was their duty to “civilize” the underdeveloped countries -and they did have a partial right to do so- but they took it to an unfathomable degree that only increased the tensions between countries. Western countries such as Britain, Portugal, France, and Spain started imperialism in the 19th century. Each of these countries took a fair amount of Africa and Latin America. They tried to impose their own decrees, often by force.

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They did this because it was inherent in their mindset that these “lower” people needed civilizing in order for them to be even slightly useful and capable of completing tasks. Although many historians disagree that the western countries had any rights for imperialism, there were certain motives and goals that were not purely Mephistophelean. A country like Britain, far more technologically and organizationally advanced, would feel it only necessary for their technology to spread to these underdeveloped countries. Although using the words “civilizing” and “backward” people may be extreme, the African and Latin American countries were in fact far less technologically advanced than the Western countries. If it was not for western imperialism, countries in Africa would not have had infrastructure and set boundaries for their countries. Instead of only a few countries being in turmoil in Africa, the whole continent would have been in chaos.

African countries moved from the ancient tribal setting to the new, modern government and country setting. This was crucial for African countries because this transformation was necessary to keep pace with the rest of the world in terms of technology and stability. It can even be seen that many African countries like Sudan and Somalia are now in conflict because after the Imperialist countries, which had kept order in these territories, evacuated the countries, the African natives were left for themselves. They did not know how to rule properly, or with order. Hence, the effects are far greater genocides, crimes, and disorder throughout these countries than when the Imperialist countries were ruling.

India can also be taken as an example. When Britain imperialized India for economic purposes (Dutch East India Company), it also created stability in the government, infrastructure such as VT Station, and a relatively controlled environment in terms of culture and language. So, when the Western countries said it was their duty and their right to help the “backward” peoples, they were correct because without the Western countries’ influence, many of the countries that were imperialized would be in dire melee right now. Even though it is safe to say that the Western countries did have a duty to help modernize the underdeveloped countries, they took it to an unacceptable level in which they not only destroyed the country’s’ culture and economy, but also wreaked havoc upon the natives of the countries through slaveship and difficult living conditions. Ghana was imperialized by Britain in 1859.

During this time, they went through many wars (Boer Wars) and even the culture and artifacts transformed from the original African traditions to including more Western designs because the only way these artists could now make money was by selling it to Westerners. Therefore, items such as ivory and impressions of kings and queens were included into the artworks of African culture. Economically, the natives of the imperialized countries suffered greatly because of the economic monopoly and lordship imposed upon the countries. Many time, the natives were forced to buy commodities from the western countries. Also, since western countries were able to make their products much cheaper and more efficiently, many small scale merchants suffered huge losses. Other natives were sent into slavery and were treated very harshly.

The Belgian King who bought the Congo region for himself imposed such painful restrictions and beatings on the natives, it could be considered as a genocide. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness elegantly portrays the effects of imperialism on the natives of the country. He views the slaves and the white people mercilessly ordering them to work as Conrad goes metaphorically further into the heart of darkness. Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant also shows the malignant effects of imperialism on the Burmese population. The Westerners can call it their “duty” to civilize the people they felt were beneath them, but what they did once they imperialized for their own country’s greatness cannot be seen as “civilizing” the “backward” people.

For one thing, they were not “backward” people for they were able to exist for the last 2 milleniums. Also, by making them slaves and imposing harsh restrictions on them, they were sometimes further “de-civilizing” both the natives and the westerners. The statement that “many western countries felt it was their duty to “civilize” the “backward” people of the world.” cannot be refuted because it is actually what most of the western countries felt. They felt they were superior and it was their right to help those inferior to them.

What they did not realize was that those natives that they were trying to “civilize” were not as uncivilized as they thought. And even though the western countries were able to impose some positive aspects to their age of imperialism, many negative aspects also emerged. So, even though the statement aforementioned does have credibility, it cannot be said that the western countries were able to complete their “duty” that they set out to achieve.