Although smaller nations experienced both positive and negative effects of colonization, they primarily suffered from exploitation. Large imperialistic nations were focused on economic profitability, and as such, the well-being of colonists was not always a priority. The parent countries also often used their vast military superiority to harshly enforce their policies or suppress rebellion. Despite a mostly negative impact, the cultural diffusion that occurred as a result of imperialism may have contributed to colonies’ ability to organize, rebel, and eventually gain independence. This mixture of positive and negative factors complicates the image of imperialism, but it may be argued that the practice was largely harmful in the short term but at least relatively beneficial in the long term.
The first priority of imperialistic nations was to successfully organize a trade configuration with colonies that would both further industrialization and allow for economic prosperity. As such, the well-being and rights of colonists were not always honored. In fact, the independence of colonies was often actively discouraged, as this would destroy the economic pattern of imperialism. Large countries depended on colonies or smaller nations to supply raw materials, which were produced at the parent country and sold back to the colony. Although the theory of Social Darwinism encouraged parent countries to “civilize” their colonies, this may have mostly been in the interest of cultivating a more trade-friendly population. An example of the mindset of imperialistic country was the establishment of “spheres of influence” in China, by which Japan, Italy, Russia, and other nations attempted to divide exclusive trading privileges. Another example was the opium marketed to Chinese citizens by the British. These practices occurred regardless of the effects this might have on the citizens or on other nations.
In many cases, imperialistic nations resorted to military violence to ensure that their colonial or foreign endeavors were protected. Military acts were sometimes committed against large numbers and occasionally resulted in many injuries and deaths. For example, the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain ended when immense British naval forces crushed the Chinese, who were opposed to the harmful influence of Opium in their country. Another example is the Boxer Rebellion, which featured thousands of Chinese opposed to foreign traders. Although the Boxers did commit many acts of violence, an estimated 20,000 troops clearly overcompensated. They captured Beijing; killed, tortured, and raped the citizens; and forced the Chinese to sign treaties allowing for foreign occupation. A final example is the Sepoy Mutiny. When the British hired mercenaries rebelled, British troops killed, tortured, and humiliated many who were unarmed. Such acts of violence were committed solely in the name of maintaining an economic profit.
One positive aspect of imperialism may have been the effect of cultural diffusion among the larger and smaller countries. As the larger nations established their economic structures within the smaller countries, they inevitably spread many aspects of their culture to the inhabitants. Along with these came the ideas of the Enlightenment movement, which included concepts of democracy and human rights. Citizens of exploited countries became more educated, and although their economies were subject to the practices of the larger countries, they grew as a result. Finally, the injustices that many of the smaller nations suffered prompted them to rebel against their parent countries. Thus, countries who were at first unorganized with no means to expand were set on the road to independence.
Overall, the practice of imperialism was harmful to the countries subject to it. The economic focus of imperialistic nations caused them to overlook the well-being of colonists and foreign citizens. The military acts of violence carried out by the larger nations were often intolerable and disrespectful. In the end, many of the smaller countries only profited in that through the harmful practice of imperialism, they were better-equipped to rise to independence.
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Lincoln, Daniel and Jacob Lewis. “Indian Imperialism.” 05 Mar 1998. 10 Apr 2008.
“Social Darwinism,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007. http://encarta.msn.com. © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.