Imperialism is the system of political control exercised by the dominant country over the domestic and foreign policy and over the domestic politics of another polity, which we shall call the periphery (countries at the margins of the economic hierarchy).

Imperialism is a modern phenomenon and distinctly different from pre-modern forms of conquests and political domination. Features of imperialism are:

  1. Sharp increase in international flow of commodities, men and capital.
  2. Interdependent set of relations between countries at different levels of industrial development.
  3. Advanced and superior technology in imperialist countries.
  4. Competition between advanced capitalist countries.

Empire Versus Imperialism

Empire in the era of capitalism is imperialism. In earlier eras the motive was exaction of tribute. Under capitalism the economies and societies of the conquered or dominated areas were transformed, adapted and manipulated to serve the imperatives of capital accumulation in the imperialist countries placed at the center of the economic hierarchy.

DefinitionColonialism refers to the practice of establishing colonies in foreign territories and governing them directly.Imperialism refers to the policy or ideology of extending a nation’s power and influence over other regions.
ControlColonial powers exercise direct control over the colonies through appointed officials and military presence.Imperial powers exert control through various means such as economic dominance, political influence, or military intervention.
MotiveThe primary motive behind colonialism is the acquisition of resources, cheap labor, and expanding the empire’s territory.Imperialism aims at extending political, economic, and cultural dominance for strategic interests, resources, and global influence.
GovernanceColonies are often governed by officials sent from the colonial power, imposing their own laws and institutions.Imperialism may involve indirect control, allowing local governments to operate under the influence of the imperial power.
ScopeColonialism typically focuses on establishing settlements and directly controlling specific territories.Imperialism can have broader scope, encompassing various forms of control without necessarily establishing colonies.
ExamplesBritish colonization of India, French colonization of Algeria.European imperialism in Africa during the Scramble for Africa, American imperialism in the Philippines.


Formal imperialism involves annexation and direct rule while informal empire means indirect rule by local elites who are independent legally but politically dependent on the dominant country.

The new imperialism was the extension into the periphery (Asia and Africa) of the political struggle in Europe. For the British this “impulse” meant protecting the route to India through Egypt and the Suez Canal which necessitated control over the headwaters of the Nile and a predominant position in North Africa.

For the French and Germans the impulse meant acquiring “places in the sun” to demonstrate national prestige.

Mercantilism and Early Trading Empires

The competition between different European powers encouraged the introduction of new military techniques. This increased military power combined with economic progress to push Europe forward and ahead of other continents. The growth of trans – Atlantic trade was spectacular. The establishment of the empires and churches and administrative systems followed trade. Shipbuilding industry developed around the major ports of London and Bristol in Britain, Antwerp in Belgium and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. 

This competition encouraged the progress of the science of navigation which enabled European domination in trade with other areas. Every colony or trading centre was a new economic stimulus.

The task of setting up the chartered companies carried out the empire. This worked to the advantage of the state as it was at a minimum cost. After 1660s the colonies became royal possessions and royal agents headed the government. French colonial government was as authoritarian as that of Spain.

Some of the Western states developed their colonies in the tropics, in India, Africa, Latin America and Australia.

Britain soon emerged as the leader. She had many advantages — the first was a developed banking and financial system. Her geographical location at the westward flank of Europe helped her to maintain a distance from the continent when she wished. The most important factor, which gave Britain an edge, was that it was the first country to undergo the Industrial Revolution. This enabled it to dominate Europe and to acquire colonies.

Industrial capitalism—Imperialism of Free Trade

The Industrial Revolution in Britain as that unusual moment in world history when the world’s economy was built around Britain; when she was the only world power, the only imperialist, the only importer, exporter and foreign investor.

The early British industrial economy relied for its expansion on foreign trade. Overseas markets for products and overseas outlets for capital were crucial.By 1815 Britain had already become the preeminent world power, combining naval mastery, financial credit, commercial enterprise and alliance diplomacy. The following decades of British economic hegemony were accompanied by large-scale improvements in transport and communications, by the increasingly rapid transfer of industrial technology from one region to another, and by an immense increase in manufacturing output, which in turn stimulated the opening of new areas of agricultural land and raw material sources.

With the spread of industrial capitalism, the need grew for colonies as markets for manufactured goods especially textiles and suppliers of raw materials such as cotton and food grains. The colony emerged as a subordinate trading partner whose economic surplus was appropriated through trade based on unequal exchange.

From the mid-twentieth century onwards, decolonization gathered pace, as did the rise of multinational companies, international donor agencies and the entire gamut of mechanisms of international economic influence. This process is generally known as Neo-colonialism.

The history of the world from the late fifteenth to the mid twentieth century as the rise and decline of its domination by European powers. Britain was the first unquestioned world power. Since 1870 this position was under challenge from other countries in Europe who were industrializing and gaining military and economic power. Even when this domination ended formally, the influence of Britain, and then the US, continued, be it in multinational banks and financial institutions, parliamentary democracy.

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