Domestic Perspectives On Imperialism

Britain’s Domestic Perspectives On Imperialism

Growth of Popularity

Imperialism’s popularity in Britain can be marked by three different phases or contributors:

  1. The start: William Gladstone’s election
  2. The development: The growth of newspapers and journalism
  3. The peak: Widespread acceptance

The start: William Gladstone’s election

William Gladstone was a liberal prime minister (for four terms lasting from 1868-1894) who replaced conservative PM, Benjamin Disraeli.

‘[We have] no business taking these engagements when our hands are full’

He was elected in a period where the ability to vote was extended therefore the need to talk to the voters grew to properly represent their needs. He didn’t say anything about giving pre-existing colonies independence despite not wanting new colonial expansion. Essentially the opposite of Disraeli.

He campaigned against colonial wars of the time, including the Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) where Britain opposed Afghan entry into North-West India.

Hence, his disinterest in expansionism could be interpreted as proof of the lack of popularity surrounding the empire in its early days.

The development: The growth of newspapers and journalism

As literacy rates grew in Britain following increased school hours for the population, so did the popularity of affordable newspapers

Newspapers began to use catchier headlines and short, blunt articles usually in explicit support of imperialism. This development in content and political stance could be attributed to the Hobson-Lenin Theory. As owners and publishers of newspapers were capitalists, they were most likely to lean towards supporting overseas expansion which would benefit their own businesses. 

The often patriotic content of newspapers also affected British politicians and their policies in fear that they were not doing enough for the country. Hence many of them would continue their support for imperialism. In a sense, there was propaganda at play.

Case study: General Charles Gordon

General Charles Gordon was a well-known British army officer who would be transformed into a Victorian Christian Martyr following his death in Sudan.

In 1881, as a Jihadist group sought to rebel against Ottoman-Egyptian military occupation in Sudan, Gordon left retirement to return and defend Sudan. As the British public learned of Gordon’s struggles in defence, they pressured the government to dispatch further assistance to him.

However, Gordon and his men were killed by the time the troops had arrived. This subsequently angered the pro-imperialist press who would rename Gladstone from GOM (Good Old Man) to MOG (Murderer of Gordon). Many people in the public had also supported Gordon’s involvement.

The peak: Widespread acceptance

As a result of growing Jingoism (bombastic enthusiasm towards building the empire) and patriotism, imperialism began to seep into public entertainment. This included musicals, plays and songs that were widely enjoyed by the working and low to the middle class

Many of these songs would glorify the empire, such as G. W. Hunt’s ‘MacDermott’s War Song’ (otherwise known as ‘Jingo Song’).

Opposing Perspectives

While imperialism is generally depicted as popular amongst the British public at the time, more recent interpretations have suggested otherwise.

‘Gentlemanly Capitalism’

A New Imperialism theory first presented in British Imperialism (1993) by historians Peter J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins. It argues that British imperialism was driven by the business interests of wealthy merchants who intended to invest in expansion as a way to grow their markets. 

William Morris

William Morris was a revolutionary socialist who embraced Marxism in the 1880s. He established the Socialist League in 1884.

He felt that it was difficult to change the working class’ on imperialism as they were found to just go with whatever was promoted to them. 

‘The truth is, any approach to Jingoism, however feeble, is certain to be popular with the whole mass of non-political people.’

Modern historical interpretations

The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004) by Bernard Porter argued against the conclusions of previous academic studies, saying that the public didn’t really care for imperialism. It also suggested that imperialism did not have much of an influence on British popular culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Empire Project (2009) by John Darwin agrees with Porter, saying that the celebrations were ‘lost in the mass of non-imperial production’. 

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) by Jonathan Rose argues that the working class held negative or even repulsive feelings and attitudes towards imperialism

Cartoons against imperialism

Germany’s Domestic Perspectives On Imperialism


The New German Reich was only established on 18th January 1871, consisting of the Kingdom of North German Confederation and South German states. 

The German political system was liberal but less liberal and democratic than France or Britain. Laws had to be approved by the Kaiser, the Chancellor and ministers, and the House of Parliaments.

The Kaiser, the hereditary monarch, was responsible for foreign policy and appointing the Chancellor

Prior to 1871, German foreign policy was mostly focused on internal affairs as supported by Otto von Bismarck (first chancellor of a unified Germany). Bismarck was appointed chancellor by Kaiser Wilhelm I and had a large influence over German policymaking.

However, Bismarck was forced to resign by Wilhelm II in 1890 who preceded his father on the throne. Wilhelm II’s foreign policy was called Weltpolitik (‘world politics’) which emphasized aggressive diplomacy, acquisition of overseas colonies and development of a large navy in order to transform Germany into a global power. This was popular with the German public.

So despite his disagreements with imperialism and expansionism, Bismarck would reluctantly establish overseas colonies due to the German public opinion who wanted international prestige. This coincided with the later stages of the ‘Scramble for Africa’. 

Public support for imperialism

Many late nineteenth-century Germans perceived colonial acquisitions as a sign of nationhood. It was also seen that overseas colonies came hand-in-hand with dreams of a world-class navy.

Does Germany Need Colonies? (1879) by Friedrich Fabri identifies some of the motives behind European imperialism, hence reaffirming German support towards imperialism.

‘By obtaining colonies, we can restore Germany’s position as the most prestigious, important and influential nation in Europe.’

As Germany was a younger nation and had entered the ‘Scramble for Africa’ later than the rest of the major European powers, this would most likely contribute to the public’s more aggressive desires for domination as associated with new German patriotism. 

France’s Domestic Perspectives On Imperialism

Rise of French nationalism

Notable events leading up to the New Imperialism period

French nationalism and support for overseas expansion could be linked to the following events that have served to be a humiliation to France:

  1. Treaty of Paris (1763) –  France gives up all territories in mainland North America.
  2. The French Revolution (1787-1799) – France experiences a fundamental change socially and politically; a major social upheaval.
  3. Battle of Waterloo (1815) – Napoleon the Great is defeated, marking the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
  4. Treaty of Frankfurt (1870) – France is defeated by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War and cedes Alsace-Lorraine.

Jules Ferry on French colonial imperialism

Jules Ferry was twice prime minister of France who was notably known for his success in extending the French colonial empire. His arguments for imperialism could be broken down into three main motives:

  1. Economical
  2. Humanitarian
  3. Patriotic

He formed the idea of acquiring a great colonial empire, principally for the sake of economic exploitation following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Seeing France as an industrialized and populated country, he argued for the need for colonies as new markets for French exports. These colonies were also stopping points for warships and trade.

Considering France was a country where human rights were asserted, Ferry was criticized for attempting to justify slavery and colonialism in a speech to the Chamber of Duties in March 1884:

‘…the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have a duty to civilize the inferior races.’

Ferry would also suggest that a nation is great by deploying activities rather than spreading peaceable light. The colonies would allow them to be self-sufficient in terms of national self-defense

Growth of French journalism

Similarly to Britain, there was significant growth in newspapers and journalism. Circulation of the daily press increased from only 150,000 in 1860 to 1 million in 1870 and 5 million in 1910.

Empire in French popular culture

The colonial empire would be widely romanticized and presented in various forms of popular media, including novels, paintings and music.

French naval officer and novelist Pierre Loti’s exoticism showed itself through the expression of ethnocentric French colonial ideologies in his stories’ representations of indigenes’ race and identity such as the character Chrysantheme in Madame Chrysantheme.

Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse’s paintings of exotic native life throughout the empire have been shown to ignore the true atrocities happening in colonies as it mostly focuses on the male desire and fantasies.

Widespread immigration

While initial immigrants to French colonies mainly consisted of military personnel, merchants and missionaries, the regularisation of the empire would attract many more immigrants from different backgrounds and occupations.

Most were attracted by the possibility of experiencing ‘adventure’ abroad as a result of the media’s misinterpretation of colonies and colonial life abroad.

There was also perceived popularity amongst women to migrate to the colonies for the purpose of ‘domesticating and taming’ the colonies. Hence, many female immigrants were there for humanitarian work at hospitals or orphanages. La Femme Aux Colonies (‘The Women in Colonies’) states that:

‘A woman who arrives in Tonkin is sure of success. There are no women in Tonkin who fail to marry.’

Annaba (an Algerian town) saw a population of 5,000 Europeans by the mid-1840s. The area’s development would see local-born Europeans outnumbering foreign migrants by the 1890s.