John A. Hobson

Imperialism, A Study


Chapter IV
Imperialism and the Lower Races


The statement, often made, that the work of imperial expansion is virtually complete is not correct. It is true that most of the “backward” races have been placed in some sort of dependence upon one or other of the “civilised” Powers as colony, protectorate, hinterland, or sphere of influence. But this in most instances marks rather the beginning of a process of imperialisation than a definite attainment of empire. The intensive growth of empire by which interference is increased and governmental control tightened over spheres of influence and protectorates is as important and as perilous an aspect of Imperialism as the extensive growth which takes shape in assertion of rule over new areas of territory and new populations.

The famous saying, attributed to Napoleon, that “great empires die of indigestion “serves to remind us of the importance of the imperialist processes which still remain after formal “expansion” has been completed. During the last twenty years Great Britain, Germany, France, and Russia have bitten off huge mouthfuls of Africa and Asia which are not yet chewed, digested, or assimilated. Moreover, great areas still remain whose independence, though threatened, is yet unimpaired.

Vast countries in Asia, such as Persia, Thibet, Siam, Afghanistan, are rapidly forging to the front of politics as likely subjects of armed controversy between European Powers with a view to subjugation; the Turkish dominions in Asia Minor, and perhaps in Europe, await a slow, precarious process of absorption; the paper partition of Central Africa teems with possibilities of conflict. The entrance of the United States into the imperial struggle throws virtually the whole of South America into the arena; for it is not reasonable to expect that European nations, with settlements and vast economic interests in the southern peninsula, will readily leave all this territory to the special protection or ultimate absorption of the United States, when the latter, abandoning her old consistent isolation, has plunged into the struggle for empire in the Pacific.

Beyond and above all this looms China. It is not easy to suppose that the present lull and hesitancy of the Powers will last, or that the magnitude and manifest risks of disturbing this vast repository of incalculable forces will long deter adventurous groups of profit-seekers from driving their Governments along the slippery path of commercial treaties, leases, railway and mining concessions, which must entail a growing process of political interference.

It is not my purpose to examine here the entanglement of political and economic issues which each of these cases presents, but simply to illustrate the assertion that the policy of modern Imperialism is not ended but only just begun, and that it is concerned almost wholly with the rival claims of Empires to dominate “lower races” in tropical and sub-tropical countries, or in other countries occupied by manifestly unassimilable races.

In asking ourselves what are the sound principles of world policy and of national policy in this matter, we may at first ignore the important differences which should affect our conduct towards countries inhabited by what appear to be definitely low-typed unprogressive races, countries whose people manifest capacity of rapid progress from a present low condition, and countries like India and China, where an old civilisation of a high type, widely differing from that of European nations, exists.

Before seeking for differences of policy which correspond to these conditions, let us try to find whether there are any general principles of guidance in dealing with countries occupied by “lower” or unprogressive peoples.

It is idle to consider as a general principle the attitude of mere laissez faire. It is not only impracticable in view of the actual forces which move politics, but it is ethically indefensible in the last resort.

To lay down as an absolute law that “the autonomy of every nation is inviolable” does not carry us very far. There can no more be absolute nationalism in the society of nations than absolute individualism in the single nation. Some measure of practical internationality, implying a “comity of nations,” and some relations of “right” and “duty” between nations, are almost universally admitted. The rights of self-government, implied by the doctrine of autonomy, if binding in any sense legal or ethical on other nations, can only possess this character in virtue of some real international organisation, however rudimentary.

It is difficult for the strongest advocate of national rights to assert that the people in actual occupation or political control over a given area of the earth are entitled to do what they will with “their own,” entirely disregarding the direct and indirect consequences of their actions upon the rest of the world.

It is not necessary to take extreme cases of a national policy which directly affects the welfare of a neighbouring State, as where a people on the upper reaches of a river like the Nile or the Niger might so damage or direct the flow as to cause plague or famine to the lower lands belonging to another nation. Few, if any, would question some right of interference from without in such a case. Or take another case which falls outside the range of directly other-regarding actions. Suppose a famine or flood or other catastrophe deprives a population of the means of living on their land, while unutilised land lies in plenty beyond their borders in another country, are the rulers of the latter entitled to refuse an entrance or a necessary settlement? As in the case of individuals, so of nations, it will be generally allowed that necessity knows no laws, which, rightly interpreted, means that the right of self-preservation transcends all other rights as the prime condition of their emergence and exercise.

This carries us on an inclined plane of logic to the real issue as ably presented by Mr. Kidd, Professor Giddings, and the “Fabian” Imperialists. It is an expansion of this plea of material necessity that constitutes the first claim to a control of the tropics by “civilised” nations. The European races have grown up with a standard of material civilisation based largely upon the consumption and use of foods, raw materials of manufacture, and other goods which are natural products of tropical countries. The industries and the trade which furnish these commodities are of vital importance to the maintenance and progress of Western civilisation. The large part played in our import trade by such typically tropical products as sugar, tea, coffee, india-rubber, rice, tobacco, indicates the dependence of such countries as Great Britain upon the tropics. Partly from sheer growth of population in temperate zones, partly from the rising standard of material life, this dependence of the temperate on the tropical countries must grow. In order to satisfy these growing needs larger and larger tracts of tropical country must be cultivated, the cultivation must be better and more regular, and peaceful and effective trade relations with these countries must be maintained. Now the ease with which human life can be maintained in the tropics breeds indolence and torpor of character. The inhabitants of these countries are not “progressive people”; they neither develop the arts of industry at any satisfactory pace, nor do they evolve new wants or desires, the satisfaction of which might force them to labour. We cannot therefore rely upon the ordinary economic motives and methods of free exchange to supply the growing demand for tropical goods. The resources of the tropics will not be developed voluntarily by the natives themselves.

“If we look to the native social systems of the tropical East, the primitive savagery of Central Africa, to the West Indian Islands in the past in process of being assisted into the position of modern States by Great Britain, or the black republic of Hayti in the present, or to modern Liberia in the future, the lesson seems everywhere the same; it is that there will be no development of the resources of the tropics under native government.” [71]

We cannot, it is held, leave these lands barren; it is our duty to see that they are developed for the good of the world. White men cannot "colonise” these lands and, thus settling, develop the natural resources by the labour of their own hands; they can only organise and superintend the labour of the natives. By doing this they can educate the natives in the arts of industry and stimulate in them a desire for material and more progress, implanting new “wants” which form in every society the roots of civilisation.

It is quite evident that there is much force in this presentation of the case, not only on material but on moral grounds; nor can it be brushed aside because it is liable to certain obvious and gross abuses. It implies, however, two kinds of interference which require justification. To step in and utilise natural resources which are left undeveloped is one thing, to compel the inhabitants to develop them is another. The former is easily justified, involving the application on a wider scale of a principle whose equity, as well as expediency, is recognised and enforced in most civilised nations. The other interference, whereby men who prefer to live on a low standard of life with little labour shall be forced to harder or more continuous labour, is far more difficult of justification.

I have set the economic compulsion in the foreground, because in point of history it is the causa causans of the Imperialism that accompanies or follows.

In considering the ethics and politics of this interference, we must not be bluffed or blinded by critics who fasten on the palpable dishonesty of many practices of the gospel of “the dignity of labour” and “the mission of civilisation.” The real issue is whether, and under what circumstances, it is justifiable for Western nations to use compulsory government for the control and education in the arts of industrial and political civilisation of the inhabitants of tropical countries and other so-called lower races. Because Rhodesian mine-owners or Cuban sugar-growers stimulate the British or American Government to Imperialism by parading motives and results which do not really concern them, it does not follow that these motives under proper guidance are unsound, or that the results are undesirable.

There is nothing unworthy, quite the contrary, in the notion that nations which, through a more stimulative environment, have advanced further in certain arts of industry, politics, or morals, should communicate these to nations which from their circumstances were more backward, so as to aid them in developing alike the material resources of their land and the human resources of their people. Nor is it clear that in this work some “inducement, stimulus, or pressure” (to quote a well-known phrase), or in a single word, “compulsion,” is wholly illegitimate. Force is itself no remedy, coercion is not education, but it may be a prior condition to the operation of educative forces. Those, at any rate, who assign any place to force in the education or the political government of individuals in a nation can hardly deny that the same instrument may find a place in the civilisation of backward by progressive nations.

Assuming that the arts of “progress,” or some of them, are communicable, a fact which is hardly disputable, there can be no inherent natural right in a nation to refuse that measure of compulsory education which shall raise it from childhood to manhood in the order of nationalities. The analogy furnished by the education of a child is primâ facie a sound one, and is not invalidated by the dangerous abuses to which it is exposed in practice.

The real issue is one of safeguards, of motives, and of methods. What are the conditions under which a nation may help to develop the resources of another, and even apply some element of compulsion in doing so? The question, abstract as it may sound, is quite the most important of all practical questions for this generation. For, that such development will take place, and such compulsion, legitimate or illegitimate, be exercised, more and more throughout this new century in many quarters of this globe, is beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is the great practical business of the century to explore and develop, by every method which science can devise, the hidden natural and human resources of the globe.

That the white Western nations will abandon a quest on which they have already gone so far is a view which does not deserve consideration. That this process of development may be so conducted as to yield a gain to world-civilisation, instead of some terrible débâcle in which revolted slave races may trample down their parasitic and degenerate white masters, should be the supreme aim of far-sighted scientific statecraft.


To those who utter the single cry of warning, “laissez faire, hands off, let these people develop their resources themselves with such assistance as they ask or hire, undisturbed by the importunate and arrogant control of foreign nations,” it is a sufficient answer to point out the impossibility of maintaining such an attitude.

If organised Governments of civilised Powers refused the task, they would let loose a horde of private adventurers, slavers, piratical traders, treasure hunters, concession mongers, who, animated by mere greed of gold or power, would set about the work of exploitation under no public control and with no regard to the future; playing havoc with the political, economic, and moral institutions of the peoples, instilling civilised vices and civilised diseases, importing spirits and firearms as the trade of readiest acceptance, fostering internecine strife for their own political and industrial purposes, and even setting up private despotisms sustained by organised armed forces. It is unnecessary to revert to the buccaneering times of the sixteenth century, when a “new world” was thrown open to the plunder of the old, and private gentlemen of Spain or England competed with their Governments in the most gigantic business of spoliation that history records. The story of Samoa, of Hawaii, and a score of South Sea Islands in quite recent years, proves that, at a time when every sea is a highway, it is impossible for the most remote land to escape the intrusion of “civilised” nations, represented by precisely their most reckless and debased specimens, who gravitate thither in order to reap the rapid fruits of licence. The contact with white races cannot be avoided, and it is more perilous and more injurious in proportion as it lacks governmental sanction and control. The most gigantic modern experiment in private adventure is slowly yielding its full tale of horrors in the Congo Free State, while the handing over of large regions in Africa to the virtually unchecked government of Chartered Companies exposes everywhere the dangers of a contact based on private commercialism. [72]

To abandon the backward races to these perils of private exploitation, it is argued forcibly, is a barbarous dereliction of a public duty on behalf of humanity and the civilisation of the world. Not merely does it leave the tropics to be the helpless prey of the offscourings of civilised nations; it opens grave dangers in the future, from the political or military ambitions of native or imported rulers, who, playing upon the religious fanaticism or the combative instincts of great hordes of semi-savages, may impose upon them so effective a military discipline as to give terrible significance to some black or yellow “peril.” Complete isolation is no longer possible even for the remotest island; absolute self-sufficiency is no more possible for a nation than for an individual: in each case society has the right and the need to safeguard its interests against an injurious assertion of individuality.

Again, though there is some force in the contention that the backward natives could and would protect themselves against the encroachments of private adventurers, if they had the assurance that the latter could not call upon their Government for assistance or for vengeance, history does not lead us to believe that these powers of self-protection, however adequate against forcible invasions, would suffice to meet the more insidious wiles by which traders, prospectors, and political adventurers insinuate their poisons into primitive societies like that of Samoa or Ashanti.

So far, we have established two tentative principles. First, that all interference on the part of civilised white nations with “lower races” is not primâ facie illegitimate. Second, that such interference cannot safely be left to private enterprise of individual whites. If these principles be admitted, it follows that civilised Governments may undertake the political and economic control of lower races – in a word, that the characteristic form of modern Imperialism is not under all conditions illegitimate.

What, then, are the conditions which render it legitimate? They may be provisionally stated thus: Such interference with the government of a lower race must be directed primarily to secure the safety and progress of the civilisation of the world, and not the special interest of the interfering nation. Such interference must be attended by an improvement and elevation of the character of the people who are brought under this control. Lastly, the determination of the two preceding conditions must not be left to the arbitrary will or judgment of the interfering nation, but must proceed from some organised representation of civilised humanity.

The first condition is deduced directly from the principle of social utility expanded to its widest range, so as to be synonymous with “the good of humanity.” Regarding the conduct of one nation towards another we can find no other standard. Whatever uncertainty or other imperfection appertains to such a standard, regarded as a rule for international policy, any narrower standard is, of necessity, more uncertain and more imperfect. No purely legal contentions touching the misapplication of the term “right” to international relations, in the absence of any form of “sanction,” affects our issue. Unless we are prepared to reaffirm in the case of nations, as the all-sufficient guide of conduct, that doctrine of “enlightened selfishness” which has been almost universally abandoned in the case of individuals, and to insist that the unchecked self-assertion of each nation, following the line of its own private present interest, is the best guarantee of the general progress of humanity, we must set up, as a supreme standard of moral appeal, some conception of the welfare of humanity regarded as an organic unity. It is, however, needless to insist upon the analogy between the relation of an individual to the other individuals of his society, and that of one society towards another in the commonwealth of nations. For, though cynical statesmen of the modern Macchiavelli school may assert the visible interest of their country as the supreme guide of conduct, they do not seriously suggest that the good of humanity is thus attained, but only that this wider end has no meaning or appeal for them. In the light of this attitude all discussion of general principles “justifying” conduct is out of place, for “just” and “justice” are ruled out ab initio. The standard here proposed would not, however, in point of fact be formally rejected by any school of political thinkers who were invited to find a general law for the treatment of lower races. No one would assert in so many words that we had a right to sacrifice the good of any other nation, or of the world at large, to our own private national gain.

In England, certainly, Lord Rosebery’s declaration that the British Empire is “the greatest secular agency for good known to the world” would everywhere be adopted as the fundamental justification of empire.

Lord Salisbury expressly endorses the principle, asserting that “the course of events, which I should prefer to call the acts of Providence, have called this country to exercise an influence over the character and progress of the world such as has never been exercised in any Empire before”; while the Archbishop of Canterbury propounds a doctrine of “imperial Christianity” based upon the same assumptions. It may, then, fairly be understood that every act of “Imperialism” consisting of forcible interference with another people can only be justified by showing that it contributes to “the civilisation of the world.”

Equally, it is admitted that some special advantage must be conferred upon the people who are the subject of this interference. On highest ground of theory, the repression, even the extinction, of some unprogressive or retrogressive nation, yielding place to another more socially efficient and more capable of utilising for the general good the natural resources of the land, might seem permissible, if we accepted unimpaired and unimproved the biological struggle for existence as the sole or chief instrument of progress. But, if we admit that in the highest walks of human progress the constant tendency is to substitute more and more the struggle with natural and moral environment for the internecine struggle of living individuals and species, and that the efficient conduct of this struggle requires the suspension of the lower struggle and a growing solidarity of sentiment and sympathy throughout entire humanity, we shall perceive two important truths. First, “expansion,” in order to absorb for the more “progressive” races an ever larger portion of the globe, is not the “necessity” it once appeared, because progress will take place more and more upon the qualitative plane, with more intensive cultivation alike of natural resources and of human life. The supposed natural necessity for crowding out the lower races is based on a narrow, low, and purely quantitative analysis of human progress.

Secondly, in the progress of humanity, the services of nationality, as a means of education and of self-development, will be recognised as of such supreme importance that nothing short of direct physical necessity in self-defence can justify the extinction of a nation. In a word, it will be recognised that “le grand crime internationnel est de détruire une nationalité.” [73] But even those who would not go so far in their valuation of the factor of nationality will agree that it is a sound practical test of conduct to insist that interference with the freedom of another nation shall justify itself by showing some separate advantage conferred upon the nation thus placed in an inferior position: partly, because it seems obvious that the gain to the general cause of civilisation will chiefly be contained in or compassed by an improvement in the character or condition of the nation which is the subject of interference; partly, because the maxim which recognises the individual person as an end, and requires State government to justify itself by showing that the coercion it exercises does in reality enlarge the liberty of those whom it restrains, is applicable also to the larger society of nations. Without unduly pressing the analogy of individual and nation as organisms, it may safely be asserted that imperial interference with a “lower race” must justify itself by showing that it is acting for the real good of the subject race. Mr. Chamberlain is no sentimentalist, and his declaration may rank as a locus classicus upon this matter. “Our rule over the territories [native] can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people.”

The moral defence of Imperialism is generally based upon the assertion that in point of fact these two conditions are fulfilled, viz. that the political and economic control forcibly assumed – by “higher” over “lower races” does promote at once the civilisation of the world and the special good of the subject races. The real answer, upon which British Imperialists rely in defending expansion, is to point to actual services rendered to India, Egypt, Uganda, &c., and to aver that other dependencies where British government is less successful would have fared worse if left either to themselves or to another European Power.

Before considering the practical validity of this position, and the special facts that determine and qualify the work of “civilising” other races, it is right to point out the fundamental flaw in this theory of “Imperialism,” viz. the non-fulfilment of the third condition laid down above. Can we safely trust to the honour, the public spirit, and the insight of any of the competing imperial races the subordination of its private interests and ends to the wider interests of humanity or the particular good of each subject race brought within its sway?

No one, as we point out, contends that so perfect a natural harmony exists that every nation, consciously following its own chief interest, is “led” as “by an invisible hand” to a course of conduct which necessarily subserves the common interest, and in particular the interest of the subject race. What security, then, can possibly exist for the practices of a sound Imperialism fulfilling the conditions laid down? Does any one contend that the special self-interest of the expanding and annexing nation is not a chief, or indeed the chief conscious determinant in each step of practical Imperialism? Primâ facie it would seem reasonable to suppose that many cases would occur in which the special temporary interests of the expanding nation would collide with those of the world-civilisation, and that the former would be preferred. It is surely unreasonable to take as proof of the fulfilment of the conditions of sane Imperialism the untested and unverified ipse dixit of an interested party.


While it is generally agreed that the progress of world-civilisation is the only valid moral ground for political interference with “lower races,” and that the only valid evidence of such progress is found in the political, industrial, and moral education of the race that is subjected to this interference, the true conditions for the exercise of such a “trust” are entirely lacking.

The actual situation is, indeed, replete with absurdity. Each imperialist nation claims to determine for itself what are the lower races it will take under its separate protection, or agrees with two or three neighbours to partition some huge African tract into separate spheres of influence; the kind of civilisation that is imposed is never based on any sober endeavour to understand the active or latent progressive forces of the subject race, and to develop and direct them, but is imported from Europe in the shape of set arts of industry, definite political institutions, fixed religious dogmas, which are engrafted on alien institutions. In political government progress is everywhere avowedly sacrificed to order, and both alike are subservient to the quick development of certain profitable trading industries, or to the mere lust of territorial aggrandisement. The recurrent quarrels of the armed white nations, each insisting on his claim to take up the white man’s burden in some fresh quarter of the globe; the trading companies seeking to oust each other from a new market, the very missionaries competing by sects and nationalities for “mission fields,” and using political intrigue and armed force to back their special claims, present a curious commentary upon the “trust for civilisation” theory. [74]

It is quite evident that this self-assertive sway lacks the first essentials of a trust, viz. security that the “trustee,” represents fairly all the interested parties, and is responsible to some judicial body for the faithful fulfilment of the terms of the trust. Otherwise what safeguard exists against the abuse of the powers of the trustee? The notorious fact that half the friction between European nations arises from conflicting claims to undertake the office of “trustee for civilisation” over lower races and their possessions augurs ill alike for the sincerity of the profession and the moral capacity to fulfil it. It is surely no mark of cynicism to question closely this extreme anxiety to bear one another’s burdens among the nations.

This claim to justify aggression, annexation, and forcible government by talk of duty, trust, or mission can only be made good by proving that the claimant is accredited by a body genuinely representative of civilisation, to which it acknowledges a real responsibility, and that it is in fact capable of executing such a trust.

In a word, until some genuine international council exists, which shall accredit a civilised nation with the duty of educating a lower race, the claim of a “trust” is nothing else than an impudent act of self-assertion. One may well be sceptical about the early feasibility of any such representative council; but until it exists it would be far more honest for “expanding” nations to avow commercial necessity or political ambition as the real determinant of their protection of lower races than to feign a “trust” which has no reality. Even were international relations more advanced, and the movement begun at the Hague Conference had solidified in a permanent authoritative body, representative of all the Powers, to which might be referred not only the quarrels between nations, but the entire partition of this “civilising” work, the issue would still remain precarious. There would still be grave danger lest the “Powers,” arrogating to themselves an exclusive possession of “civilisation,” might condemn to unwholesome and unjust subjection some people causing temporary trouble to the world by slow growth, turbulence or obnoxious institutions, for which liberty might be the most essential condition of progress. Apart from such genuine misapprehensions, there would exist the peril of the establishment of a self-chosen oligarchy among the nations which, under the cloak of the civilising process, might learn to live parasitically upon the lower races, imposing upon them “for their own good” all the harder or more servile work of industry, and arrogating to themselves the honours and emoluments of government and supervision.

Clear analysis of present tendencies points indeed to some such collusion of the dominant nations as the largest and gravest peril of the early future. The series of treaties and conventions between the chief European Powers, beginning with the Berlin African Conference of 1885, which fixed a standard for the “amicable division” of West African territory, and the similar treaty in 1890, fixing boundaries for English, German, and Italian encroachments in East Africa, doubtless mark a genuine advance in the relations of the European Powers, but the objects and methods they embody throw a strange light upon the trust theory. If to the care of Africa we add that of China, where the European Powers have lately taken common action in “the interests of civilisation,” the future becomes still more menacing. While the protection of Europeans was the object in the foreground, and imposed a brief genuine community of policy upon the diverse nations, no sooner was the immediate object won than the deeper and divergent motives of the nations became manifest. The entire history of European relations with China in modern times is little else than one long cynical commentary upon the theory that we are engaged in the civilisation of the Far East. Piratical expeditions to force trade upon a nation whose one principle of foreign policy was to keep clear of foreigners, culminating in a war to compel the reception of Indian opium; abuse of the generous hospitality given for centuries to peaceful missionaries by wanton insults offered to the religious and political institutions of the country, the forcible exaction of commercial, and political “concessions” as punishment for spasmodic acts of reprisal, the cold-blooded barter of murdered missionaries for the opening of new treaty ports, territory at Kiao Chow, or a new reach of the Yang-Tse for British trading vessels; the mixture of menace, cajolery, and bribery by which England, Russia, Germany, France, and Japan have laboured to gain some special and separate railway or mining concessions, upon terms excluding or damaging the interest of the others; the definite assumption by Christian bishops and missionaries of political authority, and the arrogant and extensive use of the so-called right of “extra-territoriality,” whereby they claim, not only for themselves but for their alleged converts and protégés, immunity from the laws of the land – all these things sufficiently expose the hollowness in actual history of the claims that considerations of a trust for civilisation animate and regulate the foreign policy of Christendom, or of its component nations. What actually confronts us everywhere in modern history is selfish, materialistic, short-sighted, national competition, varied by occasional collusion. When any common international policy is adopted for dealing with lower races it has partaken of the nature, not of a moral trust, but of a business “deal.”

It seems quite likely that this policy of “deals” may become as frequent and as systematic in the world of politics as in the world of commerce, and that treaties and alliances having regard to the political government and industrial exploitation of countries occupied by lower races may constitute a rude sort of effective internationalism in the early future.

Now, such political arrangements fall short in two important respects of that genuine trust for civilisation which alone could give moral validity to a “civilised” control of lower peoples. In the first place, its assignment of a sphere of interest or a protectorate to England, to Germany, or Russia, is chiefly determined by some particular separate interest of that country by reason of contiguity or other private convenience, and not by any impartial consideration of its special competence for the work of civilisation. If, for example, European Powers were really animated by the desire to extend Western civilisation to China for her own good and that of the world, they might more favourably essay this task by promoting the influence of Japan than by inserting their own alien occidentalism. But no one proposes to delegate to Japan this “trust"; every nation thinks of its own present commercial interests and political prestige.

Secondly, the civilisation of the lower races, even according to accepted Western lights, is nowhere adopted as the real aim of government. Even where good political order is established and maintained, as in Egypt or India, its primary avowed end, and its universally accepted standard of success, are the immediate economic benefits attributed thereto. The political government of the country is primarily directed everywhere to the rapid, secure, effective development of the national resources, and their profitable exploitation by native labour under white management. It is maintained and believed that this course is beneficial to the natives, as well as to the commerce of the controlling Power and of the world at large. That Indians or Egyptians are better off to-day than they were before our autocratic sway, not merely in economic resources but in substantial justice, may be quite true; it may even be accredited to us that many of our governors and officials have displayed some disinterested concern for the immediate well-being of the races committed (by ourselves) to our trust. But it can nowhere be sincerely contended that either we or any other Christian nation are governing these lower races upon the same enlightened principles which we profess and sometimes practise in governing ourselves. I allude here not to method of government but to ends. In the more enlightened European States and their genuine colonies, though present economic considerations bulk largely enough, they do not absorb the present and the future of public policy; provision is made for some play of non-economic forces, for the genuine culture of human life and character, for progress alike in individual growth and in the social growth which comes by free processes of self-government. These are regarded as essential conditions of the healthy growth of a nation. They are not less essential in the case of lower nations, and their exercise demands more thought and more experiment. The chief indictment of Imperialism in relation to the lower races consists in this, that it does not even pretend to apply to them the principles of education and of progress it applies at home.


If we or any other nation really undertook the care and education of a “lower race” as a trust, how should we set about the execution of the trust? By studying the religions, political and other social institutions and habits of the people, and by endeavouring to penetrate into their present mind and capacities of adaptation, by learning their language and their history, we should seek to place them in the natural history of man; by similar close attention to the country in which they live, and not to its agricultural and mining resources alone, we should get a real grip upon their environment. Then, carefully approaching them so as to gain what confidence we could for friendly motives, and openly discouraging any premature private attempts of exploiting companies to work mines, or secure concessions, or otherwise to impair our disinterested conduct, we should endeavour to assume the position of advisers. Even if it were necessary to enforce some degree of authority, we should keep such force in the background as a last resort, and make it our first aim to understand and to promote the healthy free operations of all internal forces for progress which we might discover.

Natural growth in self-government and industry along tropical lines would be the end to which the enlightened policy of civilised assistance would address itself.

Now, what are the facts? Nowhere has any serious organised attempt been made, even by Great Britain, by far the largest of the trustees, to bring this scientific disinterested spirit of inquiry to bear upon the races whose destiny she dominates. [75] The publications of the Aborigines Protection Society, and the recent report of the Native Races Committee, dealing with South Africa, indicate the vast range of unexplored knowledge, and the feeble fumblings which have hitherto taken the place of ordered investigations. [76] It is natural that this should be so. White pioneers in these countries are seldom qualified to do the work required; the bias of the trader, the soldier, or the professional traveller, is fatal to sober, disinterested study of human life, while the missionary who has contributed more than the rest, has seldom been endowed with a requisite amount of the scientific spirit or the scientific training.

Even the knowledge which we do possess is seldom utilised for light and leading in our actual government of native races. There are indeed signs of an awakening intelligence in certain spots of our Empire; administrators like Sir George Grey, Lord Ripon, and Sir Marshall Clarke have brought sympathy and knowledge to the establishment of careful experiments in self-government. The forms of protectorate exercised over Basutoland and Khama’s Country in South Africa, the restoration of the province of Mysore to native government, and the more careful abstention from interference with the internal policy of feudatory States in India, are favourable signs of a more enlightened policy.

In particular, the trend of liberal sentiment regarding government of lower races is undergoing a marked change. The notion that there exists one sound, just, rational system of government, suitable for all sorts and conditions of men, embodied in the elective representative institutions of Great Britain, and that our duty was to impose this system as soon as possible, and with the least possible modifications, upon lower races, without any regard to their past history and their present capabilities and sentiments, is tending to disappear in this country, though the new headstrong Imperialism of America is still exposed to the taunt that “Americans think the United States has a mission to carry ‘canned’ civilisation to the heathen.” The recognition that there may be many paths to civilisation, that strong racial and environmental differences preclude a hasty grafting of alien institutions, regardless of continuity and selection of existing agencies and forms – these genuinely scientific and humane considerations are beginning to take shape in a demand that native races within our Empire shall have larger liberty of self-development assured to them, and that the imperial Government shall confine its interference to protection against enemies from without, and preservation of the elements of good order within.

The true “imperial” policy is best illustrated in the case of Basutoland, which was rescued in 1884 from the aggressive designs of Cape Colony, stimulated by industrial exploiters.

Here British imperial government is exercised by a Commissioner, with several British magistrates to deal with grave offences against order, and a small body of native police under British officers. For the rest, the old political and economic institutions are preserved – government by chiefs, under a paramount chief, subject to the informal control or influence of public opinion in a national assembly; ordinary administration, chiefly consisting in allotment of land, and ordinary jurisdiction are left to the chiefs.

“As far back as 1855 Moshesh forbade the ‘smelling-out’ of witches, and now the British authorities have suppressed the more noxious or offensive kinds of ceremonies practised by the Kaffirs. Otherwise, they interfere as little as possible with native ways, trusting to time, peace, and the missionaries to secure the gradual civilisation of the people.”

“No Europeans are allowed to hold land, and a licence is needed even for the keeping of a store. Neither are any mines worked, European prospectors are not permitted to come in and search for minerals, for the policy of the authorities has been to keep the country for the natives, and nothing alarms the chiefs so much as the occasional appearance of these speculative gentry, who, if admitted, would soon dispossess them.” [77]

These sentences serve to point the path by which most of our Imperialism has diverged from the ideal of a “trust for civilisation.”

The widest and ultimately the most important of the struggles in South Africa is that between the policy of Basutoland and that of Johannesburg and Rhodesia; for there, if anywhere, we lay our finger on the difference between a “sane” Imperialism, devoted to the protection, education, and self-development of a “lower race,” and an “insane” Imperialism, which hands over these races to the economic exploitation of white colonists who will use them as “live tools” and their lands as repositories of mining or other profitable treasure.


It is impossible to ignore the fact that this “saner” Imperialism has been vitiated in its historic origins in almost every quarter of the globe. Early Imperialism had two main motives, the lust of “treasure” and the slave trade.

Gold and silver, diamonds, rubies, pearls, and other jewels, the most condensed forms of portable and durable wealth by which men in a single hazardous adventure, by fortune, fraud, or force, might suddenly enrich themselves – these from the ancient days of Tyre and Carthage have directed the main current alike of private and national exploration, and have laid the foundation of white dominion over the coloured races. From Ophix, Golconda, and the Orinoco to Ashanti, Kimberley, Klondiks, the Transvaal and Mashonaland it is the same story: to the more precious metals, tin and copper were early added as motives of nearer and less hazardous trading ventures, and the machine economy of recent generations has lifted coal and iron deposits to the rank of treasures worth capture and exploitation by civilised nations. But gold still holds its own as the dramatic centre of gravitation for Imperialism.

But along with these motives, and of even wider operation, has been the desire to obtain supplies of slave or serf labour. The earliest, the most widely prevalent, and the most profitable trade in the history of the world has been the slave trade. Early forms of imperial expansion were directed less to any permanent occupation and government of foreign countries than to the capture of large supplies of slave labour to be transmitted to the conquering country. The early Imperialism of the Greek States and of Rome was largely governed by this same motive. Greeks and Romans did not often effect large permanent settlements among the barbarians they conquered, but, contenting themselves with keeping such military and magisterial control as sufficed to secure order and the payment of tribute, drafted large numbers of slaves into their countries in order to utilise their labour. The Greek cities were mostly maritime, commercial, and industrial, and the slaves they drew from Eastern trade or from the Scythian and Thracian “hinterlands” they employed upon their ships and docks, in their mines, and as artisans and labourers in their towns: Rome, the capital of an agricultural State, used her slaves on a “plantation system,” ousting by this cheap forced labour the peasantry, who, driven into Rome, were subsisted chiefly upon public charity, defrayed out of the tribute of their foreign conquests. [78]

Now modern Imperialism in its bearing on the “lower races” remains essentially of the same type: it employs other methods, other and humaner motives temper the dominance of economic greed, but analysis exposes the same character at bottom. Wherever white men of “superior races” have found able-bodied savages or lower races in possession of lands containing rich mineral or agricultural resources, they have, whenever strong enough, compelled the lower race to work for their benefit, either organising their labour on their own land, or inducing them to work for an unequal barter, or else conveying them as slaves or servants to another country where their labour-power could be more profitably utilised. The use of imperial force to compel “lower races“ to engage in trade is commonly a first stage of Imperialism. China is here the classic instance of modern times, exhibiting the sliding scale by which sporadic trade passes through “treaties,” treaty ports, customs control, rights of inland trading, mining and railway concession towards annexation and general exploitation of human and natural resources.

The slave trade or forcible capture and conveyance of natives from their own to a foreign land has in its naked form nearly disappeared from the practice of Western nations (save in the case of Belgium in the Congo), as also the working of conquered people as slaves in their own country. [79]

The entire economic basis of the industrial exploitation of inferior races has shifted with modern conditions of life and industry. The change is a twofold one: the legal status of slave has given place to that of wage-labourer, and the most profitable use of the hired labour of inferior races is to employ them in developing the resources of their own lands under white control for white men’s profit.

“In ancient times the employer would not, if he could, go away from his own country to employ Libyans or Scythians in their native places. If he left home, it was not so easy to come back. He was practically in exile. In the second place, he was not sufficiently master of his slaves in their own country. If they were all of one nation and all at home, they might rebel or break loose. If a strong Government prevented that, it was at any rate much easier for individual slaves to escape – a consideration always of the utmost importance. In modern times, the increasing ease of communication has enabled white men to go abroad to all parts of the earth without suffering much real exile and without losing the prospect of returning home at will. Our Governments, judged by ancient standards, are miraculously strong; our superior weapons make rebellions almost impossible. Consequently we do not attempt to import blacks, coolies, and Polynesians into Great Britain. The opposition of the working classes at home would be furious; and, even if that obstacle were overcome, the coloured men would die too fast in our climate. The whole economic conditions are in favour of working the coloured man in his own home.” [80]

This conclusion, however, requires some qualification in the case of European colonies. The British colony of Queensland and the French New Caledonia are fed still with indentured labour from Polynesia; Natal has been “worked” in large measure by a similar flow of “coolie“ labour, while Chinese labour, free or indentured, has found its way into the Straits Settlements, Burma, Borneo, New Guinea, North and East Australia, and many parts of America, Oceania, and Africa, until checked or prohibited by legislation. Still, it is true that the general modern tendency is to work the coloured man in his own home, or in some neighbouring country to whose climatic and other natural characters he can easily adapt himself.

The chief economic condition which favours this course is not, however, the greater willingness of modern white men to sojourn for a while abroad, but the ever-growing demand for tropical goods, and the abundant overflow of capital from modern industrial States, seeking an investment everywhere in the world where cheap labour can be employed upon rich natural resources,

The ancients carried off the lower races to their own country, because they could use their labour but had little use for their land; we moderns wish the lower races to exploit their own lands for our benefit. The tastes for tropical agricultural products, such as rice, tea, sugar, coffee, rubber, &c., first aroused by trade, have grown so fast and strong that we require larger and more reliable supplies than trade with ill-disciplined races can afford us; we must needs organise the industry by Western science and Western capital, and develop new supplies. So likewise with the vast mineral resources of lands belonging to lower races; Western capital and Western exploiting energy demand the right to prospect and develop them. The real history of Imperialism as distinguished from Colonialism clearly illustrates this tendency. Our first organised contact with the lower races was by means of trading companies, to which some powers of settlement and rights of government were accorded by charter as incidental to the main purpose, viz. that of conducting trade with native inhabitants. Such small settlement as took place at first was for trade and not for political expansion or genuine colonisation of a new country. This was the case even in America with the London and Plymouth Companies, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, though other colonising motives soon emerged; our first entrance into the West Indies was by a trading settlement of the London Company in Barbados; the foundation of our great Eastern Empire was laid in the trading operations of the East India Company, while the Gold Coast was first touched by the Royal Africa Company in 1692. Holland and Francs were moved by the same purpose, and the tropical or sub-tropical settlements which later passed from their hands into ours were mostly dominated by commercialism and a government based avowedly on commercial exploitation. [81]

As we approach more recent times, investment of capital and organisation of native labour on the land, the plantation system, play a more prominent part in the policy of new companies, and the British North Borneo Company, the Sierra Leone Company, the Royal Niger Company, the East Africa Company, the British South Africa Company, are no longer chiefly trading bodies, but are devoted more and more to the control and development of agricultural and mining resources by native labour under white management to supply Western markets. In most parts of the world a purely or distinctively commercial motive and conduct have furnished the nucleus out of which Imperialism has grown, the early trading settlement becoming an industrial settlement, with land and mineral concessions growing round it, an industrial settlement involving force, for protection, for scouring further concessions, and for checking or punishing infringements of agreement or breaches of order; other interests, political and religious, enter in more largely, the original commercial settlement assumes a stronger political and military character, the reins of government era commonly taken over by the State from the company, and a vaguely defined protectorate passes gradually into the form of a colony. Sierra Leone, Uganda, and, at no distant date, Rhodesia, will serve for recent instances of this evolution.


71. Kidd, The Control of the Tropics, p.53 (Macmillan & Co.).

72. Chartered Company government is not necessarily bad in its direct results. It is, in fact, little else than private despotism rendered more than usually precarious in that it has been established for the sake of dividends. A “managing director” may be scrupulous and far-sighted, as Sir G.T. Goldie in the Niger Company, or unscrupulous and short-sighted, as Mr. Rhodes in the South African Chartered Company. The unchecked tyranny of the managing director may be illustrated by the evidence of the Duke of Abercorn tendered to the South African Committee. “Mr. Rhodes had received a power of attorney to do precisely what he liked without consultation with the Board, he simply notifying what was done.”

73. M. Brunetière, quoted Edinburgh Review, April 1900.

74. From the Times, 24th February 1902.


22nd February.

“The German missionaries who escaped after the mission house at Frayuen was destroyed by Chinese have returned. It is reported from Canton that the French bishop intends to protect the natives who destroyed the Berlin mission station. The first information showed that hostility existed on the part of the Catholics towards the native Protestants, but it is believed that the aggressors assumed Catholicism as a subterfuge. If the bishop defends them, the situation of the missions in Kwang-tung will become complicated.”

75. The recent formation of an African Society, in memory of Miss Mary Kingsley, for the study of the races of that continent, is a move in the right direction.

76. No slight is here intended upon the excellent work of the Society and the Committee here named. They have handled well and accurately their material. It is the work of original research that is so lacking.

77. Mr. Bryce, Impressions of South Africa, p.422.

78. Cf. Mr. Gilbert Murray in Liberalism and the Empire, pp.126-129 (Brimley Johnson).

79. In the British Protectorate of Zanzibar and Pemba, however, slavery still exists (notwithstanding the Sultan’s decree of emancipation in 1897) and British courts of justice recognise the status. Miss Emily Hutchinson, who is associated with the Friends’ Industrial Mission at Pemba, said it was five years since the legal states of slavery was abolished in Zanzibar and Pemba. Every one, including those who were most anxious that the liberation should proceed slowly, was dissatisfied with the present state of affairs. Out of an estimated population of 25,000 slaves in Pemba less than 5000 had been liberated so far under the decree (Anti-Slavery Society Annual Meeting, April 4, 1902).

80. Murray, Liberalism and the Empire, p.141.

81. Cf. Morris, The History of Colonisation, vol.ii, p.60, &c.

Last updated on 12.11.2006