Europe’s Colonial Age
De koloniale rijken in de negentiende eeuw
The Colonial Empires of the 19th Century
European colonialism lasted barely a hundred years. The historian, Wesseling stated this in his earlier book, Divide and Rule: the partition of Africa. In Europa’s Colonial Age he proves this premise for all European colonial empires, which, at their high point, encompassed most of the inhabited world.
Wesseling ranges widely through history to show how differently colonial developments progressed in the various spheres of influence.
Before the Napoleonic time colonialism was primarily a matter of trading posts, while the American territories, with their already more durable settlements, were virtually all independent. It was only after this period that imperial colonialism emerged, although it was not until 1870 that the process was undertaken with any seriousness.
The last parts of unoccupied territory were divided amongst the European states, including such colonial newcomers as Italy, Belgium and Germany. While the latter two’s urge to conquer depended primarily on the initiative of one man, the imperial activities of France and Great Britain were more of a national affair, which, however, crystallised into two entirely different forms of government. This imperial dream was, short-lived, lasting only to the end of World War I, although it took another fifty years for the last remnants to disappear.
Wesseling makes it clear that economic profit was not the primary driving force. Nationalism and the desire to play a role on the world’s stage were far more important. With equal lack of bias he describes the conflict between the wish to conquer and the ethical conscience of the colonising nations, the controversial heritage of slavery and its consequences for the colonised territories.
Wesseling skilfully alternates the broad perspectives with attention to minor, often bizarre details. A war over a fly-swatter, a plan for a papal colony, and a British ambassador unable to stop Belgium’s annexation of the Congo because he happens to be on holiday: all these incidents help to make the book as fascinating as its central premises are provocative.