Introduction: What is Imperialism?



“Your father’s lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times... before the Empire.”

From Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope.

In the Star Wars movies, the Empire continually seeks to expand its control from the capital planet Coruscant to outlying regions in the universe. Hyperdrive-equipped starships allow planets light years apart to easily interact. This advanced technology provides the foundation for the Galactic Empire to increase its wealth and extend its reach by controlling and taxing interplanetary trade. To keep production costs down, Imperial companies compete to find the cheapest workers, often settling on droid robots or slave labor. The Empire directs its engineers to create the latest in military technology, such as Galaxy Guns, turbolasers, and planetary shields. To dominate trade and high-tech innovation, the Empire makes sure to control key natural resources, such as Tibanna gas and precious crystals (especially those needed for making lasers and lightsabers). Exploiting the wealth of the galaxy also means conquering and terrorizing the population, even blowing up entire planets. Inevitably, rebels, such as Luke Skywalker, resist the brutal occupation of the Empire (Wookieepedia).


Though Star Wars takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” many earthly empires have not been that different from the fictitious Galactic Empire. In all empires, a group of people expands its rule over others. Empires typically enrich themselves through the control of natural resources, labor and trade.

The core territory of an empire usually consists of a dominant nation or kingdom with a shared language and religion—such as ancient Rome during the Roman Empire or the United Kingdom during the British Empire. This core group typically conquers and then exploits weaker territories on the periphery of the empire by demanding unequal trade, taxes, tribute, or plunder. Some of the most famous empires started when a dictator or emperor overthrew a democratic government. For example, Nazi Germany overthrew the Weimar Republic. The French Revolution led to Napoleon’s French Empire. And, Imperial Rome overthrew the Roman Republic just as the Galactic Empire that Jedi Knight Obi-Wan fought against overthrew the Old Republic.

Throughout world history, kingdoms and nations have competed to expand their territories and power at the expense of others. The largest empires began small and expanded to rule over ethnically and religiously diverse groups of people, often with the aid of a technological advantage. For a time, they would appear unstoppable, like the Empire in Star Wars. For example, in the 13th century, in less than 100 years, the Mongols used lightning-fast archers on horseback to expand their empire over 6,000 miles from northern China to Eastern Europe.

But just when the empire was at its peak, it split up into four smaller kingdoms. Other empires rose and fell even more quickly. In just three years (1939-1942), Nazi Germany used the speed of new modern aircraft and tanks to conquer most of Europe before losing it all two years later. Both the Mongols and the Nazis used new lightning-quick military technology to dominate areas around them. Both rapidly expanded their territories.

Neither empire could sustain its prime area of conquest. No empire ever does.

Historians divide imperialism into two types, formal and informal. With formal imperialism, one country establishes direct political control over a territory, often as a colony or protectorate. Good examples of this type of control include British rule of the colonies in America before 1776, India (1858 – 1947), Hong Kong (1842 – 1997), and Kenya (1920 – 1963). Informal imperialism uses indirect means, usually economic but often with a lurking military threat, to control a nation or territory. Informal rule is generally less expensive than formally taking over a territory. It spreads control more subtly through technological superiority, large loans (debt) that cannot be repaid, ownership of land or private industry, or forcing countries to agree to uneven trade agreements. For example, the British Empire defeated China militarily in 1842 and forced the Chinese government to sign a treaty granting favorable trade and access to Chinese markets. But the British did not occupy the country or seize direct control of its government. In Guatemala in the 1950s, American banana companies owned 70 percent of the arable land in the country (Koeppel 125). When a democratically elected Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz, tried to force the companies to sell back 6 percent of their uncultivated land, the American government—through its Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA)—helped the Guatemalan military to overthrow Arbenz and install a dictator sympathetic to the American companies. These maneuvers required little effort or expense on the part of the U.S. government. In the end, the big American banana companies kept their land and their economic control of the country. The United States government succeeded in controlling Guatemala economically without having to conquer, occupy, or administer a country directly (123-131).

Why Study Imperialism?

Even though empires don’t last forever, they often leave behind a lasting legacy of changes in the forms of political, economic, and cultural influences. We study empires, then, to help us understand why the modern world is the way it is. For example, hundreds of millions of Latin Americans today speak Spanish and Portuguese because, five hundred years ago, their ancestors were conquered by Spain and Portugal. The Islamic Empire spread its religion from Arabia to Morroco to India. Even though this imperial expansion occurred over one thousand years ago, the empire’s religious influence lives on. Despite Islam’s origins on the Arabian Peninsula 4,500 miles away, Indonesia, in Southeast Asia, has the largest Muslim population today. These far-reaching and long-lasting influences make sense when we understand the history of empires. And, remarkably, in the modern era, England, a small island nation on the periphery of Eurasia, came to rule over the most impressive empire of all.

The fact that England became a dominant world power through its rule of the British Empire, the largest empire in the history of the world, baffles us even today. How did a small island country (about the size of Oregon) on the far edge of the Eurasian continent come to rule over one-quarter of the world’s land mass and population? It must have had some unusual advantages over every other country.

Certainly, the wealth and technological advances emerging from the Industrial Revolution contributed a great deal to the success of the British Empire, especially in the nineteenth century, when England first industrialized. However, the first European colonial empires, and their increasing control of global trade, began before the Industrial Revolution, so the answer must be more complex. When and why did European imperial dominance take form? And why didn’t powerful Asian countries such as China or India conquer Europe instead of the other way around?

Studying modern empires also helps us to learn about the origins of the uneven distribution of wealth and technology in the world today. In 2010, Europe and the United States—often referred to as “the West”—made up only 15 percent of the world’s population yet controlled 53 percent of the world’s wealth (“Global distribution of Wealth”). As we learned in the Industrial Revolution chapter, it’s no coincidence that these same countries have been at the fore of technological revolutions that occurred in the last two centuries. In 2010, English was the dominant language of the Internet and computer programming. Despite the relatively small number of native English speakers in the world compared to Chinese or other languages, there are more English language websites than any other language (“Internet World Users”). Why are Europe and the United States today so wealthy in contrast to the rest of the world? We will find that competition, innovation, greed and luck had much to do with ”Western” dominance.

Finally, we study the rise and fall of modern empires so that we might learn from the mistakes of the past. The United States is, thus far, the dominant global power of the 21st century, so Americans in particular would do well to understand the history of modern empires. Although the United States has rarely taken over countries to govern them formally as colonies, American military and economic influence may be the most far-reaching in world history. In 2011, for example, the United States spent 42.8 percent of the military expenditures of all countries in the world (“World Military Expenditures”); that’s just over 700 billion dollars in one year of U.S. military spending—more than the next 14 biggest military spenders combined and almost 400 percent more than the next-largest spender, China (“List of Countries by Military Expenditures”). Perhaps most surprising of all, the United States maintains soldiers in over 150 countries. Why is American military spending so high in contrast to the rest of the world? What political, economic, cultural, and moral lessons can Americans learn from the history of modern empires? And, has imperialism made the world a better place? Can it ever?




Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton