European colonial expansion

When they first entered Asia in the sixteenth century, Europeans encountered civilizations with powerful empires. The small number of Portuguese, for instance, was just enough for them to secure fortified coastal towns like Goa or Malacca, but they would never control the hinterlands. Later, the Dutch would settle in Batavia (Jakarta) but would invade Java only gradually.

This became a completely different story in the nineteenth century, which was the great colonial century. The progress brought about by the industrial revolution, particularly to the military field, would allow Europeans, with very few troops, to win decisive victories over societies that were overwhelmed, unable to understand the source of their adversaries’ superiority. From about 1765 to 1940, colonial wars were asymmetrical in that one of the sides had nearly absolute superiority over militarily and/or intellectually deprived societies. It would take time for the defeated to assimilate the conceptual tools and the means of responding victoriously to the European challenge.

Skirting Africa to invade Asia

Forty years before Christopher Columbus reached the threshold of the New World in 1453, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire disappeared, a thousand years after the fall of Rome. Europe, taken over as far as the Danube by the Ottomans (in the fourteenth century), was seeing the scope of its trade relations shrink. The future Pope Pius II wrote at the time, deploring the fall of Constantinople: “What have we just lost, exactly? Undoubtedly, the sovereign city, the capital of the Eastern Empire… Alas, Christian religion, you who have formerly experienced such extension, how can you restrict yourself thus and weaken? You have lost one of your eyes.”1

With the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean, Anatolia, and the Balkans in Muslim hands, the Indian Ocean had been the great trade route for centuries. Now, in the mid-fifteenth century, it was out of the reach of the Catholic world. It was the Muslims’ prerogative from the coasts of Eastern Africa to the Maluku Islands. Beyond, the Indian Chola Dynasty thalassocracy ruled it for a while, and the Chinese fleet sailed on it for their long journeys to the coasts of Africa.

The westernmost part of Europe and what remained of central Europe, under Habsburg rule, seemed quite isolated. How could Europeans gain access to the spices they so coveted when the essence of trade was in Muslim hands? This was when the Portuguese, spearheaded by Henry the Navigator, sailed beyond the Cape Verde islands and ended up crossing the Cape of Good Hope (1478). Soon, thanks to the services of a Muslim pilot, Vasco da Gama landed in India (1498). Christopher Columbus, a Genoan sponsored by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, reached the West Indies and the American continent in 1492. In 1519, the same year in which Cortés invaded Mexico, the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived in Brazil. In 1522, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition succeeded in its circumnavigation of the Earth, an unprecedented achievement.

It was high time for Europeans to break their land-side isolation. In 1529, the Ottomans besieged Vienna.2 Not only did this break their isolation, but the papacy divided the world, a world unknown to it, between the Spaniards and the Portuguese!3 The latter occupied a series of fortified towns in Asia, from Goa to Macau, but their low numbers and lack of cavalry prevented them from occupying the hinterlands.

Europe’s colonial—and exploratory—expansion proceeded in several stages. That of the Portuguese, who set up trading posts around Africa: Guinea, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Goa and Diu, and, beyond, Malacca (1511). On the American continent, the huge area of Brazil (1519) would be preserved in one piece once it was taken over. On the Spanish side, expansion was reduced in Asia to the Philippines (1564) but was considerable on the American continent: from California to the south of Chile and Argentina, and two viceroyalties, in Mexico and in Peru. This would be a lasting conquest on the American continent for the Spaniards and the Portuguese. Most of the New World speaks Spanish or Portuguese and practices Catholicism. At the very end of the fifteenth century, the naval forces were boosted by a series of innovations. The last of the galleys would be seen in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

It was in the early seventeenth century that the Portuguese would be supplanted in Southeast Asia by the Dutch (Batavia, 1619), in turn later unseated by the English. The latter landed in Calcutta in 1690 with their East India Company and soon went on to conquer the hinterlands. Contrary to all the land-borne invaders who in the course of history had swarmed in from the northwest, they unexpectedly arrived by sea from the northeast. They would benefit from the decline of the Mughal Empire, the country’s divisions, and their weapons superiority. In India, they clashed with the French, but Great Britain provided better support, and they would take over Bengal and the eastern coast despite General Joseph-François Dupleix’s efforts. In 1763, France signed the Treaty of Paris, recognizing its defeat in India and in Canada.

In Europe, Great Britain started the industrial revolution alone. This enabled it to take precedence over its competitors and establish its maritime and commercial hegemony at the expense of Holland and France. In 1788, it opened the first penitentiary on Australian territory, starting a process of occupation of the island continent. Shortly after the Napoleonian wars, it dominated a large part of India up to Delhi by playing on local divisions, using force against the Maratha Empire, and leaving potentates in power when they were cooperative. With Singapore (1819) and Malacca (1824) it established its control over the Indian Ocean. On route to India, it pushed the Dutch colonists, who had settled in the Cape since 1640, to the north (the Great Trek, 1836-1840), and to the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

After its repression of the “Indian Rebellion,” a mutiny led by the mostly Muslim Sepoys (1857), Great Britain took direct charge of the administration of the Indies, thus contributing to the country’s unity. As of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Indies, which at the time comprised India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka and a few small Himalayan states, were held by some seventy thousand Britons. A dense railway network connected the country and English became the language of the elites.

While a few Western European nations were taking over the world by the seas, including France in India and in North America, starting in 1556 Russia, under Ivan the Terrible, pushed back the Mongolian Khanates with its guns and began its advance to the Pacific in territorial continuity: Tomsk (1604), Irkutsk (1652), and Nerchinsk (1656).

After having secured its domination over the Kazakh steppes (eighteenth century), Russia pressed on toward the provinces of the Rivers Amur (1858) and Ussuri (1860). The conquest of Turkestan was achieved without difficulty: Samarkand (1868) then Khiva (1875). This was not the case in northern Caucasus, where Imam Shamil’s resistance in the mountains of Dagestan and of neighboring Chechnya lasted more than twenty years (1834-1859).
Great Britain, once it had secured its domination in India, forced the government of Beijing to accept importing opium. As the Chinese expressed reservations about this, Great Britain declared war on China (1840-1842). Hong Kong was occupied, and other ports, including Shanghai, would be opened. Unequitable treaties were signed shortly after a new Chinese defeat following the capture of Beijing by the British and the French (1860). The Taiping revolt was crushed (1864). The Russians occupied one million square miles of the Manchu Empire and founded Vladivostok (1875). France, after its difficult conquest of Algeria (1830-1847), undertook that of Vietnam and Cambodia, and came to dominate the Indochinese peninsula (1862-1885).

Except for a few buffer states, like Siam, Afghanistan, and Tibet, Asia was colonized or semi-colonized, like China and even Persia, while after 1878, the Ottoman Empire, insolvent, only survived because Great Britain did not want to have Russia occupying the straits.

Only Japan escaped the “white peril” at a time when the “yellow peril” was being raised as a threat. When in 1853, Americans and Europeans were demanding that Japan open its ports, Emperor Meiji (1866-1912), supported by two samurai clans, overturned the Tokugawa shogunate (1868) and decided to Europeanize Japan to help it resist against foreign dominion. This included modernizing the army, which allowed Japan to defeat China in 1895.
To Asians’ amazement, the war between Russia and Japan over Manchuria was won by Japan (1904-1905), and on top of that Japan won a battle against the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait (1905). Korea soon became a Japanese colony (1910).

This victory of an Asian country that had forced itself to learn from the European school had important repercussions in Asia, although no other nation seemed able at the time to follow the Japanese example.

The conquest of Africa and the role of Islam

The fate of Africa was sealed in 1884 at the Berlin Conference.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the hinterlands of which had been recently explored by Barth, Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke, Faidherbe, and others, was divided up among the European powers.

Except for Morocco and Libya, North Africa had already been overrun.4 Algeria and Tunisia by France, Egypt by Great Britain (1882).5 Muhammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt and an exceptional modernizer, had gained control of Syria and the holy places of Islam. While he was hoping to take power in Constantinople, he was summoned by the Europeans, with England at their head, to give up his ambitions or be evicted from Egypt. The Suez Canal became the shortest road to the Indies.

What is important to point out is that by that time Islam had been present for a long time in sub-Saharan Africa through conquests (Morocco) and trade (Tombouctou, Agadez, Ghadamis), not only in a very large part of the west, but also in the east of Africa, from the coasts of the Horn of Africa to Zanzibar and beyond, as far as Kilwa (present-day Tanzania). Swahili (close to Arabic) was, and still is the vernacular language of eastern Africa.

Besides, at the end of the eighteenth century, that is, a century before the European colonial period in Africa, Islam was on the move. There was the dynamic influence of Qadiriyya Sufism (born in Baghdad in the twelfth century) brought over from Egypt, predominant among the Fula of Sokoto (present-day Nigeria), and of the more populist Sufi order Tijaniyyah (founded in the nineteenth century), not to mention Wahhabi rigorism, also among the Fula and disseminated all over the African west: in Futa Djallon, Massina, Futa Tooro and in Hausa country, as well as among the Toucouleur people, and others.

At the margins of trade, which played a very important part in the Indian Ocean with Zanzibar as its epicenter (role of the Oman Sultanate and the Muslim Indian tradesmen), it should also be recalled that resistance to European penetration was very often led by Muslim movements.6  It was Samori Ture who for a large part of the African west took on the title of Almami, commander of the believers, and attacked African “infidels” such as the Mandinka.7 It was Usman dan Fodio, a Fula, who established the Sokoto Sultanate, in the west of present-day Nigeria, not far from the border of Niger, and proclaimed a Jihad in 1804, before proclaiming himself Caliph (1810). The area that he dominated was larger than seven hundred fifty miles from east to west and included part of German Cameroon. Today, Boko Haram claims it as a model.

There was also, of course, resistance from the animists, who were millenarian movements in southern Africa (the Ndebele against the Shona, 1896-1897), and there were revolts, like that of the Herero people in the southwest of Africa, which were very fiercely repressed by the Germans (1904-1907). Overall, however, most resistance movements were Islamic, like that of the Maji Maji (1905-1906) in German Tanganyika and more particularly the Mahdist movements in Sudan, initially directed against the Egyptian Khedive and the Ulama before rising against the English in Darfur. The Mahdists were decimated at the Battle of Omdurman (in 1898, by General Sir Herbert Kitchener). The “Mad Mullah,” as the British called him, then took up the torch in Somalia, where the revolt lasted a quarter of a century.

The last major armed migration

Between the sixteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, colonial wars were the vector of the last major armed migration known to the world since the Mongolians’ blitz expansions of the thirteenth century and that of Arab Islam from the Atlantic Ocean to the stairways to India and Turkestan. This European expansion, achieved with relatively few forces, would endure on the American continent and take Europe all the way to Vladivostok, while the British were also taking over Australia and New Zealand. Between the end of the eighteenth century and World War I, the whole of Asia was colonized or semi-colonized, and Africa, with a few rare exceptions, was entirely occupied.

The colonizing troops’ weapons superiority was an important factor of success, but as previously mentioned, this is not enough to explain the Europeans’ (or US) victories. There was also troop discipline and cohesion, and their officers’ knowledge. Above all, there was the fact that the adversaries, after the industrial revolution and its consequences, had very poor knowledge of their attackers (only the Boers in South Africa knew their British adversary well).

At the turn of the twentieth century, Great Britain ruled over five hundred million subjects, or thirty percent of the planet’s population, and about one-fourth of the globe’s surface area. Russia controlled about ten million square miles. The whole of Africa and Asia, except for Japan, was under direct or indirect European domination.

During the nineteenth century, the share of Europeans in the world population doubled with nearly sixty million Europeans having emigrated, mostly to the American continent. In 1900, Europe, with its population of four hundred thirty million, was responsible for sixty percent of world production (the United States for thirty percent). With the increase in industrial production and the development of communications, the tonnage of merchant marines, with steam having replaced sails, had doubled just before 1914 while worldwide, the railway network had quintupled. The Trans-Siberian Railway reached Vladivostok in 1902.

A new form of globalization was in action. Europe (Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy) was the matrix of scientific innovation. Ideas born in Europe were disseminated, including that of modern nationalism (the nation state was born in France in 1792), carrying with them the seeds of the death of territorial empires. Fire power became greater during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and in Europe with the Battles of Sadowa (1866) and Sedan (1870), making mass warfare particularly deadly, as would be brutally discovered in 1914. Meanwhile, the machine gun, invented in the second half of the nineteenth century, became the major instrument of colonial conquests.

Great Britain had imposed itself as the colonial power par excellence, followed by France and Russia. The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and somewhat later Italy also become colonial powers, albeit more modest ones. This avalanche of success in the second part of the nineteenth century brought about the coining of the term “social Darwinism,” or survival of the fittest, apparently the “whites,” whose civilization was considered superior. Actually, the modernity expressed through the consequences of the industrial revolution was not the exclusive prerogative of the “white race,” as shown at the time by the example of Japan.

For a long time voluntarily isolated, the United States, once their hinterland was conquered, wished to push Europe out of the Western hemisphere (opposition to the French in Mexico under Napoleon III). In 1898, the United States evicted Spain from the Caribbean and even from the Philippines, which would be their only colony until 1945. The Panama Canal (1903) belonged only to the United States, while Alaska had been purchased from Russia (1867). In fact, the Western hemisphere was under US hegemony. Whatever their economic and financial power, the United States, whose population bordered on eighty million, had taken only a marginal part in Europe’s encroachments all over the world (China, intervention in Beijing in 1900).

The whole of Africa was occupied except for Liberia, where former African American slaves had set themselves up as masters. Colonialism and semi-colonialism reigned both in Asia and in Africa. It was a golden age for the rich, while the many revolts were being crushed.

  1. “Lettre à Nicolas de Cues,” in Gérard Chaliand and Sylvie Mousset (2002), L’Héritage occidental, foreword by Le Goff, Jacques, Odile Jacob, Paris.
  2. The medieval concept of Christendom faded into the background to make room for the interests of dynastic states. To counter the Habsburgs, King Francis I of France formed an alliance with the Ottoman Empire.
  3. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and especially, the Treaty of Zaragoza (1529).
  4. The Senussi brotherhood of Libya (Cyrenaica) spread its rigorous piety to Lake Chad.
  5. The fact that the mosque of Algiers was turned into a cathedral was experienced as a sacrilege (1832).
  6. El Hadj Umar Tall, Seku Amadu of Massina, Usman dan Fodio (Sokoto), Rabah in Bornu in Ubangi-Shari.
  7. Person, Yves (1968), Samori. Une révolution dyula, IFAN, Dakar.