[World History] Imperialism and Colonialism: Meaning, Factors responsible

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Unacademy Plus Mrunal Economy for Prelims and Mains UPSC!
  1. Prologue
  2. What is imperialism?
  3. What is colonialism?
  4. What is Neocolonialism?
  5. What is New Imperialism?
  6. Conditions/factors that helped the rise of Imperialism
    1. Industrial Revolution and Capitalism
    2. Marxists: Capitalism = Imperialism
    3. Protectionism
    4. Mercantilism
    5. Supply of raw material
    6. Investment
    7. Infrastructure investment
    8. Why Political domination necessary?
    9. Slave trade
    10. Transport and communication
    11. Rise of extreme nationalism
    12. Mind diversion
    13. Fear and security
    14. Civilizing mission
    15. Christian Missionaries
    16. Adventurers and explorers
    17. Favorable conditions in Asia and Africa
  7. Mock Questions


New Syllabus: General studies Mains Paper I contains following topics on World History

History of the world will include events from 18th century such as industrial revolution, world wars, redrawal of national boundaries, colonization, decolonization, political philosophies like communism, capitalism, socialism etc.- their forms and effect on the society.

You already have Younger/New NCERTs, if not click on following:

  1. India and the Contemporary World I (Class 9)
  2. India and the Contemporary World II (Class 10)
  3. Themes in World History (class 11)

But in terms of depth / coverage /analysis of World History, the older NCERTs were better. Although for someone living in a small town / remote area, it’s impossible to find them. So, I’m uploading the summaries one by one for the benefit of such aspirants.

We start with Class 10 (Old NCERT), “Story of civilization volume II”, Chapter 9, “Imperialism and Colonialism.”

That chapter revolves around subtopics:

  1. Meaning of Imperialism
  2. Conditions that helped growth of Imperialism
  3. Conquest of Asia, Africa, Americas and the Pacific.
  4. Effects of Imperialism.

This first article deals with first two topics (Meaning and conditions). Future articles will cover the rest. Keep in mind,

  1. This is mere base / foundation / starting point to supplement your readings from IGNOU BA, MA etc.
  2. These are “summaries” (and not verbatim paragraphs). I’ve taken liberty to include external sources to elaborate the explanations.

What is imperialism?

  • The term imperialism means the practice of extending the power, control or rule by a country over the political and economic life of the areas outside its own borders.
  • Imperialism refers to the process of capitalist development, which leads the capitalist countries to conquer and dominate pre-capitalist countries of the world.
  • The imperialist country or Metropolis (literal meaning mother country), subordinates another country/ colony for its own economic and political interests.
  • This may be done through military or other means and particularly through colonialism.

What is colonialism?

  • Colonialism means the practice of acquiring colonies by conquest (or other means) and making them dependent.
  • The country which is subjugated by a metropolitan capitalist country is described as a colony, and what happens in a colony is colonialism.
  • In other words, Colonialism =the total system of imperialist domination of a pre-capitalist country.
  • Occupation / direct rule over a country by another country=not always an essential feature of imperialism
  • The essential feature= exploitation, with or without direct political control.
  • Until recent years, most countries of Asia Africa and other parts of the world, where under the control of one or another imperialist country.



Imperialism refers, more broadly, to control or influence that is exercised either formally or informally, directly or indirectly, politically or economically Colonialism usually implies formal political control, involving territorial annexation and loss of sovereignty.
Imperialism is a specifically European phenomenon colonialism is the system prevalent in the colonies.
When we study imperialism we examine the impact of empire on the metropolis (home country) Here we study impact of empire on the colony.

What is Neocolonialism?

  • In the present day world, almost all countries are politically independent, however the imperialist control has not come to an end.
  • Neocolonialism is the practice of (mainly economic) exploitation and domination of independent but economically backward countries, by the powerful countries.

What is New Imperialism?

During the initial period of Industrial Revolution, the pursuit of colonies had slowed down. Why?

  • because Between 1775 and 1875, Europeans lost more territory than they acquired in North America and Latin America, because of successful revolution.
  • Spanish colonial rule from Mexico to Argentina was overturned.
  • There was a widespread feeling in Europe that colonies were more trouble than they were worth and the sooner or later colonies would revolt and fight for independence.
  • Benjamin Disraeli said “These wretched colonies will all be independent in a few years and are millstones around our necks.”

However, the pursuits and rivalries re-emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century.

  • This new face of imperialism (1875-1914) is often described as the new imperialism.
  • New imperialism resulted because of the economic system that had developed as a result of Industrial Revolution.
  • During this phase a few industrialized capitalist countries established their Political and economic control and domination over the rest of the world.
  • The form of domination and control included direct colonial rule, sphere of influence and various types of commercial and economic agreements.

Players in New Imperialism:

  • New imperialist countries emerged viz. Germany, Italy, Belgium, USA and Japan. While,
  • Britain and France continued to be powerful and expand.
  • Power of Spain and Portugal declined.

ok so far we know the meaning of Imperialism. But why did it happen? What were the

Conditions/factors that helped the rise of Imperialism

Industrial Revolution and Capitalism

Industrial Revolution created the capitalist system of production. The capitalist entrepreneurs used two ways to make big profits:

Method to increase profit? => Consequences?
  1. minimum wages to workers
  • low wages = low purchasing power of the majority of the domestic population= low demand of products in home country.
  1. More and more production
  • the production of goods was far in excess of the demand at home

Result?=> Because of the “underconsumption” in domestic market, the capitalist nations had to find new markets and buyers to sell their products.

Marxists: Capitalism = Imperialism

Lenin argued that Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and it’d lead to the demise of Capitalism.

In Capitalist system, wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the possibility for investment at home is exhausted, and capitalists have no choice but to invest abroad, establish colonies, and exploit small, weak nations.

Problem with this explanation?

  1. It fails to explain pre-capitalist imperialism of Greece and Rome.
  2. It fails to explain the Communist imperialism of Soviet Union itself!


  • As started ^above, the capitalist countries, Western powers had to find new markets for selling their goods.
  • England was the first country where industries developed, therefore she gained almost complete control over the world markets.
  • Even when other European countries began to use machines, they could not compete with England’s low prices.
  • So, they tried to protect and stimulate its domestic industries by imposing heavy tariffs on imported items.
  • Result? = European powers could not sell their products to each other. They had to find totally new markets and customers in Asia, Africa and the two Americas.


It was the economic policy prevailing in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. This policy assumed following:

  • Volume of world wealth and trade was relatively static, so one country’s gain required another country/colony’s loss.
  • Wealth of a nation depended primarily on the possession of gold and silver.
  • A colonial possession should provide wealth to the country that controlled it.
  • Exports to foreign countries is preferable to imports or domestic trade, because exports brought more money into the country.
  • Governmental interference in the national economy is justified if it helps achieving the of above objectives.

So nations acted accordingly. They setup “trading posts” which would later become “forts”, arm twisted local rulers to gain exclusive market for their products and so on. All this was done and justified as the objectives of mercantilism were fulfilled.

Supply of raw material

As the industries grew in Europe, they needed more and more raw material. For example,

  1. Cotton= India and Egypt
  2. rubber= Congo and East Indies
  • They also needed =food grains, tea, coffee, Indigo, tobacco, sugar, coal, iron, tin, gold, copper and later oil.


  • Imperialists forced the colonies to cultivate only one or two crops which were needed as raw material for their own industries (e.g. indigo in India, Sugar in Cuba.)
  • Smuggling: sometimes, goods produced in one country were sold to another country to pay for the goods from that country. e.g. The English promoted cultivation of opium in India, then smuggled into China to pay for the goods they had bought from China.


Towards the end of 19th century, Western countries began to look upon Asia and Africa is good places to invest their capital. But Why?

  • Both Asia and Africa had abundant supply of raw material and cheap labour= good profit.
  • As we saw under “Demand” topic, low wages + excessive production= underconsumption. Therefore, if capital was invested in Europe, it would only fetch 3 to 4% profit, because of little purchasing power of local people.
  • But if the same amount was invested in Asia or Africa, you could earn as high as 20% profit.
  • Besides, Towards the end of 19th century, financial institutions such as banks expanded their influence and power, thus making FDI(!) easier than earlier.

Result?=>The export of capital for investment in other countries began to become more important in the export of goods.

Infrastructure investment

  • The Western powers invested in their colonies to promote industries that could produce goods for export e.g. mining and plantation.
  • They also invested to strengthen control over colony’s economy e.g. Railways, postal network.
  • Result?=> political domination became necessary.

Why Political domination necessary?

As the foreign powers invested more and more money in business and infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Americas, their risk increased:

  • what if the weak local prince, Nawab or tribes chief could not contain an uprising or rebellion?
  • What if there was a change in the government?

Such things could lead to reduction in profit or even loss of whole investment.

For the same reasons, French investors in Morocco (N.Africa), appealed to their home government in France, to annex it. Thus Morocco became “French Morocco”.

Slave trade

  • The Spanish rule in Americas had resulted large-scale extermination of original inhabitants/Native-Americans. Because
    • they were forced to work in gold/silver mines and were massacred, if resisted.
    • Foreigners brought new diseases, and Native Americans had no immunity against them.
  • Later, the Europeans introduced plantation system in North America, West Indies and Brazil.
  • for the cultivation of sugarcane, cotton and tobacco (to supply as raw material to home industries).
  • These plantations needed lot of laborers.
  • Hence it became necessary to establish trading posts in the coastal areas of Africa to keep steady supply of African slaves.
  • later, Britain and other powers used “abolition of slavery” as an excuse to wage war against African chiefs and kings, but their hidden aim was to expand territorial possession. (For timber, ivory, minerals and oil).

Transport and communication

  • The Industrial Revolution brought drastic changes in transport and communication.
  • Steamship could carry goods much faster than the old sailing vessels.
  • The imperialist countries built railroads and inland waterways in the conquered areas, with the help of cheap local labor.
  • Thus could get raw material out of the interiors and send their manufactured products, faster than ever before.
  • Thus every area of the world was brought within easy reach of the industrialized countries.

Rise of extreme nationalism

  • the later part of 19th century was a period of intense nationalism
  • Germany and Italy had just succeeded in becoming unified nations.
  • Nationalism in the late 19th century came to be associated with chauvinism.
  • Nationalist intellectuals in all European powers argued that national greatness meant seizing colonial territory.
  • Once the scramble for colonies began, failure to enter the race was perceived as a sign of weakness, totally unacceptable to an aspiring great power.
  • many nations developed myth of their superiority over other people
  • Each country felt that she too must have colonies to increase her own prestige and power
  • imperialism became the fashion of the age.
  • Writers and speakers in England, France and Germany promoted the idea of imperialism and took great pride in calling their territories as “empires”
  • Germany’s expansion under Hitler was also based on the belief that German national culture was inherently superior than others.
  • by the end of the 19th century colonialism like nationalism developed into a mass cult.
  • Colonies were symbols of national greatness and nationalists of every economic class were proud of them.
  • Soviet union’s policy to ‘liberate’ the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Third World, and USA’s “protecting Freedom” = also examples of imperialism driven by moral and ideological concerns.

Mind diversion

  • Colonies helped to ensure social peace and prevented socialist revolution at home by taking the minds of the working class off their misery.
  • He who would avoid civil war must be an imperialist. (Cecil Rhodes).

Fear and security

  • Initially, colonies were acquired to get cheap raw material and market to sell finished products.
  • But then Imperialist countries started acquiring places for their military or strategic importance also.
  • For example, England established naval bases and coaling stations at Port Said, Aden, Hong Kong, Singapore and Cyprus – not to protect England but to protect its conquered lands and trade routes to India from her rival nations.
  • The rival nations installed similar bases elsewhere to protect their colonies and trade routes from England.
  • Thus, if you acquired one colony, you had to acquire other colonies to protect the first colony => leading to a chain reaction and race for grabbing more and more colonies. (And ultimately first World war).

Civilizing mission

Many European writers and thinkers used to blatantly support and justify Imperilism and colonization.

Rudyard Kipling England Wrote a poem titled “White man’s burden”. It gives a rhetorical command to white men to colonize and rule people of other nations.
Jules Ferry France Superior races have the duty of civilizing the inferior races.
  • To many Europeans and Americans, the prospect of saving souls seemed as important as the prospect of expanding prestige and profit.
  • They considered it was their Christian and moral responsibility to educated ignorant peoples into higher culture and convert them to Christianity.
  • Hence for them, imperialism = a noble task, a way of bringing civilization to do backward people of the world.

Christian Missionaries

  • Usually they went alone into an unknown areas in a spirit of duty and religion.
  • But often they were followed by profiteering traders and soldiers.
  • Then wars took place to protect the missionaries.
  • All these seemed quite natural to most Western people, because they considered it their nation’s destiny to civilize and Christianize the people of Asia and Africa
  • US President McKinley himself justified the annexation of Philippines in following words:

We must help our little brown brothers….there was nothing left to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilise them as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”

Adventurers and explorers

  • They had prominent role in Europe’s taking over of Africa.
  • They first went into unknown or little-known territories and brought back the reports that often indicated opportunities for trade and development.
  • On the basis of such reports, a trading post would be first setup.
  • Gradually, the explorer’s home government would take over the protection of the entire area around the trading Post.
  • Then this imperial home government would proceed to claim the entire territory as her own colony.

Favorable conditions in Asia and Africa

Biggest factor was lack of industrialization.

Military strength

  • Asian and African state did not have the economic might of imperialist powers- to fight a long war.
  • They fought with axes, bows and outdated firearms (if any), while Europeans had new rifles and a “maxim-gun” (a fast firing machine gun) + the naval artillery to pound the coastal cities of their enemies. while Indian and Arab ships didn’t have guns.
  • The only exceptions, where Europeans could not succeed in war = Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Internal rivalries

  • Politically, Asian and African states were not united.
  • There were Conflicts between states and within states, the ruler vs. chiefs, warlords, merchants etc.
  • Hence they often sought the support of Europeans against their rivals.

No Empires

  • In the ancient and mediaeval times, powerful empires had existed in Asia and Africa.
  • But during 19th century their governments became very weak. They still followed the old ways of governing, even though they had outlived their usefulness.
  • The loyalty of people still rested in local princes or tribal chieftains. They didn’t have the strong feelings for “nation-state”, like the Europeans.

No Machines

  • The Westerners admired and desired the fine quality goods made by Asian and African craftsmen.
  • But these craftsmen relied entirely on handmade tools= small scale production, could not compete with factory made products.

Mock Questions

12 marks

  1. Explain imperialism and new-imperialism.
  2. Explain colonialism and neo-colonialism.
  3. Explain the role of capitalism and industrial revolution in the emergence of Imperialism.
  4. How did nationalism help to make imperialism popular in Europe?
  5. “The dominant directive motive behind imperialism was the demand for markets and for profitable investment.” Comment
  6. “All great nations in the fullness of their strength have desired to set their mark upon barbarian land and those who fail to participate in this rivalry will play a pitiable role in time to come.” Comment
  7. Write a note on the role of writers, missionaries and explorer in the spread of colonization.

25 marks

  1. Write a note on the economic angle of Imperialism.
  2. List the conditions that helped growth of Imperialism and colonialism.
  3. Why were Asian and African countries so easily dominated by Western Powers?
Indian History Freedom Struggle Pratik Nayak

124 Comments on “[World History] Imperialism and Colonialism: Meaning, Factors responsible”

  1. @baccha
    it varies from question 2 question. …as sometime UPSC itself mentioned a word limit for some question like 300 words for 25 in gs n so… but in most cases they don’t mention d word limit, in those cases better to follow a WORD LIMIT of marks x 10 words.

    BEST WAY TO ANSWER IS KEEPING TIME CONSTANT IN MIND..stick 2 it by allocating specific time 4 differents questions, so that you do not miss in attemping all question..ie
    marks/2 mins

    for instance
    Marks Time(mins)
    60. 30-32
    30. 15-17
    25. 12-14
    20. 10-12
    5. 2-3
    1 n 2. 2

    all d best

  2. @baccha
    it varies from question 2 question. …as sometime UPSC itself mentioned a word limit for some question like 300 words for 25 in gs n so… but in most cases they don’t mention d word limit, in those cases better to follow a WORD LIMIT of marks x 10 words.

    BEST WAY TO ANSWER IS KEEPING TIME CONSTANT IN MIND..stick 2 it by allocating specific time 4 different questions, so that you do not miss in attemping all question..ie
    marks/2 mins

    for instance
    Marks Time(mins)
    60. 30-32
    30. 15-17
    25. 12-14
    20. 10-12
    5. 2-3
    1 n 2. 2

    all d best

      1. Kindly update,Now total marks is 250, and time 60×3=180 min, so 250/180=1.4 (around) marks per min.Now we have to write more for less marks.Check word limit in each paper,as ranswitzer suggests.
        Good Luck

  3. Thanks a lot to guide about the topics. You are of great help to us.

  4. Mrunal Sir amazing work..thank you so much
    can someone tell me how to go about answering the sixth question(12 marker)

  5. please tell me the pattern of questions which will come in gs mains exams this year..as each paper include 250 marks,so what is the distribution of marks as 2 markers,10 markers etc..i mean how many questions will come with how many marks so that i can plan for strategy accordingly.

  6. I absolutely applaud the post because its kind if tricky to provide concise explanations of these topics.Talking about Neocolonialism,its is widely held that the financial aids doled out by the west to countries like ours are nothing but manifestation of neocolonialism.For ex:Structural Adjustments programs which were introduced in India in the wake of the economic reforms in early 1990s basically as a precondition for loan to bail out the economy increased the tentacles of foreign control on our economy.Removal of trade barriers and trade liberalization arguably lead to anti-poor policies.Seen in this light,the Bretton Woods Institutions like the WTO agents of neocolonialism.This is just to highlight the fact that not only powerful countries but also the so-called world organisations pawn in the hands of the powerful can also be put under the category of exploiters.
    To put world capitalist development in a time frame,it was feudalism which preceded Mercantilism.Next came capitalism and the marxists hold that even Globalisation is the newest stage in what they call the “expansion of capital”.
    The civilizing mission was the garb the west used to justify its not so moral activities in the East.Since it was done in the name of God,it provided a powerful angle of legitimacy to the exercise.
    In retrospective,what colonialism did was to integrate the feudal,agriculture based societies(like that of India in the period before the Portuegese and Britishers came)though in a highly distorted and to an extent convoluted manner.It introduced trade on a scale which hadn’t existed ever before.Following from this,we see why capitalism is essentially the quest for greater profits.Thus it was only a matter of time that the industrialized countries attacked the non-industrialized countries for resources,cheap labour and a amrket fro goods.

    1. I totally agree with ayushi on this. The explanation is very true which sights correct example of neo-colonialism.

  7. Thank you very much expecting more and more articles on world history.Thanks again.

  8. mrunal sir i didn’t understood Question no. 6

    1. “All great nations in the fullness of their strength have desired to set their mark upon barbarian land and those who fail to participate in this rivalry will play a pitiable role in time to come”

      All the Powerful Nations, they use their strength to capture precapitalistic or weak or backward nations or uncivilized lands with their Imperialistic Nature, as they look only extension of their markets. But in this Strong Vs Weak Game obviously weak gets defeated and will play a pitiable role in time to come.

      Note : This is juzz the meaning of a given question (Plzzz Correct me if am wrong) :-)

      1. @chester – u r missing the point.

        a comment below u, given by Ayushi, explains it correctly.

  9. Question 6)The statement in the above question tries to justify and glorify the false logic of colonialism.The “great nations” referred to here are the powerful colonial powers of the last century,such as Britain and France while in contrast the “barbarian land” implies the colonies in Africa and Asia.It is highly indicative of the colonial mindset which looks down upon the people of the colonies as uncivilized and savage,who need the assistance of the “torchbearers of civilization”(i.e the industrialized west)in order ti improve their lot.In short,anything which was in difference from the West,was less than human and it fell upon the west to set things right(the entire civilizing mission logic).
    Also the statement is striking for the way it projects colonialism as an absolute necessity and far from immoral.It tries ti impress upon the urgency to colonize in grandiose terms.It recognizes the fact that this “scramble for colonies” as the Marxists call it will lead to conflict of interest among the powerful nations .Still whoever doesn’t want to be left behind must try to gain as many colonies as possible.In essence t is a blatant acceptance of the fact that might and money rule.

  10. Why European imperialism could not succeed in Ethiopia and Afghanistan?

  11. Is there any easier way to download IGNOU study material. its tiresome to download every chapter with slow internet connection. Can anyone help

    1. Get a fast internet connection.

    2. go to internet cafe in early hours and download all materials

  12. expecting more and more articles on world history. thanks sir

  13. mrunal sir can u plz list out the mock questions based on the topics irrespective of your articles it will be helpful in practicing so we can experience pattern of questioning and its dimensions thanks in advance

  14. i liked the thumbnail of Jack Sparrow..:)

    1. Haha true that.It was such a fresh take on the thing.Innovative.

  15. murnal bhai, please me how to post the articles in your website?

    1. Hockey Stick Controversy:
      • The term hockey stick was coined by the climatologist Jerry Mahlman, to describe the pattern which envisaging a graph that is relatively flat to 1900 as forming an Ice hockey stick’s “shaft”, followed by a sharp increase corresponding to the “blade”. A version of this graph was featured prominently in the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment Report
      • It is a graphs showing reconstructions of the temperature record of the past 1000 years.
      • It have been publicized to explain the scientific findings of climatology, and in addition to scientific debate, the data and methods of these hockey stick graph reconstructions have been disputed by those opposed to action on global warming.
      • This issue is part of the global warming controversy and has been one focus of political responses to reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
      • History:
      In the 1960s, Hubert Lamb generalised from historical documents and temperature records of central England to propose a Medieval Warm Period from around 900 to 1300, followed by Little Ice Age. This was the basis of a “schematic diagram” featured in the IPCC First Assessment Report
      By the late 1990s a number of competing teams of climatologists found indications that recent warming was exceptional. Bradley & Jones 1993 introduced the “Composite Plus Scaling” (CPS) method used by most later large scale reconstructions. Their study was featured in the IPCC Second Assessment Report.
      In 1998 Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. Hughes developed new statistical techniques to produce Mann, Bradley & Hughes 1998 (MBH98), the first eigenvector-based climate field reconstruction (CFR). This showed global patterns of annual surface temperature, and included a graph of average hemispheric temperatures back to 1400 with shading emphasizing that uncertainties (to two standard error limits) were much greater in earlier centuries.

      1. Ye kya bta rahi ho madam aap??? kya kehna chahti ho?

  16. sir.
    how to download nios history material of sr. sec.level?

  17. anywhere i can get old NCERTs in MUmbai?

  18. dear sir, your guidance is extremely helpful for me. thanks a lot.

  19. Dear mrunal sir

    I am having Pub Ad as my optional subject. As i have not joined any coaching institute , therefore i am finding some problem in understanding the terms used in Public Administration.
    can you please write a note on these basic terms used in Pub ad and explain the terms in your words

    I am unable to understand the meaning of terms like Value Free science or value neutral science, Philosophy of Public administration.

    Please help me sir

  20. thanxx a lot sir for taking up mains topics……lukin forward to more of such(including topics in world geography) in the future………..thankss again……..

  21. Thank u so mch for posting this article.. m very garteful to u…

  22. Sir I hv Pub AD as my optional subject.. cn u pls guide for the same…

  23. cn u any1 gv me the link to download ignou books

  24. Mrunal Sir, I would like to thank for all your efforts and helping the aspirants.

    Can you let us know if these old NCERT books like

    1) The story of Civilization, Vol. 2 (NCERT) Arjun Dev

    2) Contemporary World History (NCERT) Arjun Dev & others

    are available online ? or All these available in any coaching centres?

    I tried to get them in Bangalore. But NCERT book store itself doesn’t have them . Any pointers will be very helpful in this regard

    Thanks brother.

  25. thanks Mrunal Sir,please post the interview of ias toppers having history as optional

  26. Hello Mrunal,
    Could you please suggest some books for world history

    1. Is neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism one and the same.

  27. could you please guide me, where can I get Story of civilization part 1&2. Awaiting reply. thanks in advance…

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