US poster

This essay is published in the summer issue of New Humanist.

The nations of the world, claimed Lord Salisbury in a speech to the Primrose League at the Albert Hall in 1898, were divided into the ‘living’ and the ‘dying’. The ‘living’ were the ‘white’ nations – the European powers, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The ‘dying’ comprised the rest of the world. ‘The living nations’, Salisbury claimed, ‘will gradually encroach on the territory of the dying’ and from this ‘the seeds and causes of conflict among civilized nations will speedily appear’. The partition of the globe ‘may introduce causes of fatal difference between the great nations whose mighty armies stand opposed threatening each other’.

Less than twenty years after Salisbury gave his speech, the mighty armies of the great nations did indeed stand opposed threatening each other, and bringing calamity upon a generation. Virtually from the moment that the ‘lamps went out all over Europe’, in Sir Edward Grey’s evocative phrase, there has been much debate – too much debate – about why they did so and who snuffed them out, not least in this, the centenary year of the First World War.

Yet in the midst of the often fractious claim and counter-claim, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the issue raised by Salisbury – how the encroachment of the ‘living nations’ upon ‘the territory of the dying’ created ‘the seeds and causes of conflict’. There has been, particularly this year, much discussion about the role of German militarism. Many who want to make a case for the First World War as a good, or at least as a necessary, conflict, have argued for the importance of Britain having stood up to German aggression. Germany’s expansionist tendencies and virulent racism only make sense, however, against the background of late nineteenth century imperialism, of the carving up of the globe between the Great Powers, as the ‘living nations’ encroached unremittingly upon ‘the territory of the dying’. Imperialist expansion and Great Power rivalry were, as Salisbury understood, intimately linked. Rivalries helped promote imperialist expansion, while imperialist expansion helped foster rivalries.

At the heart of the global imperialist network stood not Germany but Britain. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain had become the dominant world power, already with an unmatched empire, a powerhouse of an economy, unparalleled naval power and unsurpassed political influence. Britain’s pre-eminence in all these areas was, however, also being challenged in an unprecedented fashion, by the old powers, such as France, Belgium and Russia, by the new power of the USA, and, most ominously, by the newest power of all in Germany.

The rivalries first manifested themselves outside Europe, as the newer powers tried to create their own empires and Britain sought to maintain its supremacy. There was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, from Africa to the Pacific, a frenzy of land-grabbing. ‘Towards the end of the nineteenth century’, the historian Ronald Hyam observes in his book Britain’s Imperial Century 1815-1914, ‘European politicians felt themselves living in an era of world delimitation, “a partition of the world” as Rosebery called it, from which, as Elgin (when viceroy of India) agreed, Britain could not stand aside because of her “mission as pioneers of civilization”’.

Between 1874 and 1902, Britain alone added 4,750,000 square miles and 90 million people to her Empire, ranging from numerous little Pacific Islands to Baluchistan, from Upper Burma to vast swathes of Africa. Britain, the Times declared, must continue expanding her empire because she could not afford ‘to allow any section even of the Dark Continent to believe that our imperial prestige is on the wane’.

types of mankind

Behind imperialist expansion lay venomous racism. ‘What signify these dark races to us?’, asked Robert Knox, Britain’s leading racial scientist, in his 1850 book The Races of Men. ‘Destined by the nature of their race to run, like all other animals, a certain limited course of existence, it matters little how their extinction is brought about.’ Half a century later, the future American president Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his four-volume tome The Winning of the West that all must appreciate the ‘race importance’ of the struggle between whites and the ‘scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of wild beasts’. The elimination of the inferior races would, he insisted, be ‘for the benefit of civilization and in the interests of mankind’, adding that it was ‘idle to apply to savages the rules of international morality that apply between stable and cultured communities’. Here was the grim, genocidal reality of Salisbury’s distinction between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ nations and the true meaning of the ‘encroachment’ of the one upon the other.

If racial ideology justified imperialist expansion and, indeed, genocide, the very fact of empire seemed to confirm the reality of race. ‘What is Empire but the preponderance of race’, as the Liberal imperialist and Prime Minister Lord Roseberry asked. Even the anti-imperialist Gilbert Murray accepted that ‘There is in this world a hierarchy of races’, those that will ‘direct and rule the world’ and the ‘lower breeds of men’ who will have to perform ‘the lower work of the world’. ‘The brown, black and yellow races of the world’, the Times insisted in 1910, ‘had to accept that ‘inequality is inevitable’ because of ‘the facts of race’.

Many politicians and intellectuals feared that the very existence of the ‘dead’ nations created the conditions for conflict between the ‘living’. ‘Experience has already shown’, the distinguished Victorian historian WEH Lecky worried in his 1899 book Democracy and Liberty, ‘how easily these vague and ill-defined boundaries may become a new cause of European quarrels, and how often, in remote African jungles or forests, negroes armed with European guns may inflict defeats on European soldiers which will become the cause of costly and difficult wars.’ Unless the world was carved up and parceled out by the ‘white’ nations, then the very weakness of the rest of the world would create a power vacuum that could, many feared, lead to conflicts between Great Powers.

Here were expressed the complex fears that emerged in the collision between racism and Great Power rivalry. (The US army recruitment poster at the top expresses even more clearly the entanglement of racism and imperialist fears.) In reality, while racial ideology provided the grounding for imperialist expansion, the real driver was economic and political necessity. For a burgeoning power, overseas colonies helped provide raw materials, cheap labour and new markets. They also helped impose political and military control. Britain, for instance, worried that French and German expansion in East Africa would undermine its sea routes to southern Africa and to India. ‘Its annexation by France or Germany and a seizure of a port would be ruinous’ to Britain, wrote the Foreign secretary Lord Granville in 1884. ‘The proceedings of the French in Madagascar’, he added, ‘make it all the more necessary to guard… our sea route to India.’ What particularly worried British policy makers was the fear that the Suez Canal – so central to maintaining Britain’s trade routes and naval prowess across the globe – may be closed down in the event of war. It is ‘of supreme importance’, observed the colonial administrator Lord Lugard, who was to be Governor General of Nigeria during the First World War, ‘that we should retain complete command of the only alternative and only feasible route in case of war.’ Similar fears were expressed about German activity in southern Africa. ‘It seems that wherever there is a dark corner in South African politics’, Gladstone sardonically observed in 1884, ‘there is a German spectre to be the tenant of it’.

from cairo to the cape

As the dominant global power, and as the nation with the largest empire, Britain was anxious to defend the status quo. Germany, as the rising power, and with only tattered shreds of an empire, was desperate to challenge the existing state of affairs. At the mid-point of the nineteenth century, Britain’s navy was as large as all the other navies put together. That exceptional power allowed Britain to control the world’s oceans and sea lanes to establish ‘Pax Britannica’. By the end of the century, that supremacy was under threat as America and Germany, in particular, built up their naval prowess. In the half-century leading up the First World War British naval spending doubled. Germany’s quadrupled, as it sought to play catch-up.

In attempting to displace British power and influence, and to create its own empire, Germany often adopted the more aggressive posture. In reality, however, Britain was no less militaristic or aggressive. Indeed, there was widespread concern within the political elite around the turn of the century that Britain was insufficiently militaristic to meet the new challenges. War, declared General Worsley, commander in chief of the army, in 1897, was a necessary remedy for social decadence; it was ‘the greatest purifier to the race or nation that has reached the verge of over-refinement’, an ‘invigorating antidote against that luxury and effeminacy which destroys nations as well as individuals.’

Britain had achieved its position of prominence only through deploying the kind of aggressive militarism the prevention of which many today insist makes the First World War a just conflict.  Consider for instance the Opium Wars. In June 1840 a British expeditionary force sailed into China’s Pearl River and unleashed a barrage of cannon fire on coastal defences that barely existed. The battle lasted six hours. So began the First Opium War, a series of unequal military encounters lasting until 1842. A second Opium War culminated in 1860 with the looting and burning of the imperial pleasure grounds, the Yuan Ming Yuan, in the northwest suburbs of Beijing by British and French troops.

The Opium Wars were the nadir of British nineteenth century gunboat diplomacy. Britain had built up a huge trade deficit with China, largely because of its insatiable thirst for tea. The East India Company began to fill that deficit by supplying opium grown in British Bengal. Opium had been consumed in China since the eighth century. But it was banned. In 1839 the Emperor cracked down on the trade, seizing the opium stock of British traders, and ordering them to bring no more into China. Four months later, the gunboats arrived. Britain launched a war in effect to enforce its right to be China’s pusher of choice.

carving up china

The treaties that ended the wars were as scandalous than the war itself. China lost the right set protective tariffs or to collect custom duties on trade goods. Five ‘treaty ports’ were established, in each of which parts of the city were set aside for foreigners to live and trade. Britain insisted on the right of extraterritoriality for all Western nations: each could run its own police force and court system, enforce its own laws and deal with any crimes committed on Chinese soil by its nationals under its laws, rather than those of China. Foreigners won the right to travel anywhere they wished to in China and to set up Christian missions without restrictions. Western navies won the right to sail at will on any Chinese waterway. Foreigners could import and sell opium. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. And Britain extracted from the Emperor a large indemnity for all trouble that he had caused by standing up for his rights in the first place.

Today the Opium Wars are barely remembered in Britain. And when they are, they are seen only as an embarrassment, an exception to the true nature of Pax Britannica. In fact it was the kind of gunboat diplomacy that underpinned British imperialism throughout the nineteenth century.

Without understanding the background of nineteenth century imperialism, it is difficult to make sense either of German militarism or the First World War itself. Equally, understanding this background shows why there is little sense in treating the war in black and white terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ participants, or as a war against militarism or aggression. As historian Christopher Clark put it at the end of Sleepwalkers, his outstanding study of How Europe Went to War, ‘The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.’

None of the European powers wanted war. All had, over the previous half century, struggled immensely hard to prevent conflict, particularly in Europe. This was one of the reasons that war, when it did arrive, came as such a shock.

The Hun At Home

Equally, however, all recognized, with Salisbury, that the ‘seeds of conflict among civilized nations’ had already been sown. The growing discord over the partitioning of the world led to the forging of new alliances between the Great Powers. At the time that Salisbury gave his speech, there was in place a multipolar system in which the Great Powers’ interests and rivalries were in precarious balance but which allowed for a large degree of give and take. By the eve of war, this had transformed into a bipolar system as Europe cleaved into two blocs. Britain established alliances with its traditional foes, France and Russia. Germany created the Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy. The new system was both more rigid and more unstable than the previous framework of informal checks and balances.

At the same time, the slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and the resulting scramble to assert influence in the Balkans over which the Ottomans had lost control, brought imperialist frictions into the heart of Europe. Russia and Austria both looked upon the Balkans as its own sphere of influence. In the background stood Britain and Germany, neither of whom wanted the other to profit from any Balkan fallout. The kind of tensions that had previous rent southern Africa or the Middle East now expressed themselves within Europe itself.

Traditionally historians have divided between those who regarded the First World War as the inevitable outcome of long-term structural factors, such imperialist rivalries, the growth of nationalism, and the ossified system of alliances, and those who viewed it as the result of immediate or contingent causes, and of individual mendacity or foolishness. More recently, there has been a recognition that both long-term and contingent factors played a role in fomenting war.

But however we understand the causes of the war, the fact remains that aggressive militarism was not confined to one side. Certainly, Germany had expansionist aims and a toxically racist culture. Britain, however, was not much different. We can only rewrite the conflict as a just war against German militarism by airbrushing out the reality of nineteenth and early-twentieth century imperialism.


The images are, from top down, a US army recruitment poster from the First World War; an illustration from Josiah Clark Nott and George Robbins Gliddon’s Types of Mankind, a classic work of scientific racism from 1854; ‘From the Cape to Cairo’, a cartoon in Puck, 1902; ‘En Chine
Le gâteau des Rois et… des Empereurs’, a satirical cartoon in the French magazine Le Petit Journal about the carving up of China, 1898; a British First World War propaganda poster.


  1. michaelfugate

    Looking at this from the present day, I can’t imagine that so many would willingly go off to die as they did in WW1. The war was such a wholesale slaughter and what was gained?

  2. Roger Clague

    Kenan Malik says

    “In reality, while racial ideology provided the grounding for imperialist expansion, the real driver was economic and political necessity.”

    Imperialists knew their advantage was in their books not in their ancestry.
    General Worsley said “War: purifier of the race.” That is experience and learnt behaviour improves the race, not breeding.

    If racism is grounding politics, it cannot at the same time collide with politics.
    The choice of the poster shows Malik’s confusion about race and Imperialism. The beast is wearing a German hat. Germans are not brown,black or yellow.

    You have forgotten the ” civilizing mission” of Imperialists (and neo-Imperialists like myself ).Or do you consider it a form of racism?
    Biological racism was an unnecessary and so a small part of Imperialism, cultural superiority was a bigger part

    Robert Knox was not “Britain’s leading racial scientist”.

  3. Katherine Woo

    This essay is weakened by over-emphasis on racial issues. I think it is impossible to analyze European imperialism without careful attention to the failed imperialist programs of China and the Ottomans that run in parallel, and the nascent, soon to be ‘successful,’ imperialism of Japan. It is easy to oversell the racism angle given the guilty conscience of post-1960’s liberal thought. This can unfairly imply there was something uniquely pernicious about European colonial expansion, which in turn discourages self-criticism among non-Europeans who are inevitably influences by the Euro-centric leanings (not meant as a pejorative, but as a measure of output) of international scholarship. As an ethnic Korean, the almost brazen lack of contrition in Japanese culture for its historical crimes in East Asia makes me wary of too much emphasis on white racism or white colonialism. The Ottoman’s, who are white too, just not the sort of “white” meant in modern liberal discourse, seem to escape censure in particular, a trend no doubt linked to paternalism about Islam among many Western thinkers. The fact China and the Turks failed to capitalize on their centuries of brutal imperialism seems to wash away their sins. European colonialism for all its ills created the modern, globalized world of which non-white immigrants to the West can be major beneficiaries. Since you have critiques some of the very trends in Western liberal thought I note above, I was surprised you did not take up a chance to weave them into this otherwise very interesting analysis.

    • Isla, can we keep the discussion polite please. I like robust views, but throwing insults doesn’t help debate.

      Katherine, This was not an essay about imperialism. It was merely challenging the received wisdom of the difference between German and British imperialism. The relationship between racism and nineteenth century imperalism is not the product of the ‘guilty conscience of post-1960′s liberal thought’. It happens to be a fact. ‘White’, incidentally, is not a label that I would use to describe European imperialism; it was, however, how European imperialists saw themselves

      True, colonialism is not confined to nineteenth century European expansion. But neither are all empires of the same form. The Ottoman Empire was in essence a premodern empire that survived into twentieth century, but which was fundamentally distinct from the kind of global empire built by Britain and other European powers in the nineteenth century. That was why it was so weak, and crumbling from the nineteenth century onwards. As for Japan, it was, it was from mid-nineteenth century onwards, transforming itself into a modern, industrialized nation. And as part of that transformation it acquired an empire through brutal means. That, however, is a different story to the one I am telling here.

  4. Hello Kenan, I was delighted to find your excellent blog and having just read the above piece on the causes, background and contexts of WWI, a subject of great interest to me, (among many others) found it highly engaging. The arguments mean I’m right now revisiting and re-assessing some of my own ideas (and writings) on the balance of blame of WWI, in light of your piece above.
    A few points:
    I’ve long been aware of the obscenity of the Opium War, and of the vile, imposed settlement that followed. Notwithstanding that, and while acknowledging also that British Imperialism generally across the 19th C was driven predominantly if not entirely by economic self-interest. perhaps i did (naively?) see the opium war as a blemish on a Generally more benign (British) form of imperialism and British behavior generally, which i contrasted with German conduct, both in German-occupied Europe 1914-18, (burning libraries, and the well-attested shooting of civilians in Belgium etc) or especially, with the only slightly earlier, violent and brutal racism of Imperial Germany, vis a vis genocide in German occupied SW Africa. current Namibia, (c1904-10, wasn’t it?.)
    You make it clear you recognize no such distinctions. You quote Salisbury, Roseberry and that unnamed editorial writer from the Times in 1910 to make the point that the British could be every bit as racist. I’m not entirely convinced yet, but the quoted views undoubtedly give one pause for thought.
    (In an American context, i was (naively again) shocked to hear the repellent views of “Teddy” Roosevelt)
    Perhaps i’ve been too generous in my assessments of British colonialism, I’ve even used such distinctions, (real or perceived) between British v German conduct, to argue, quite recently, that the British were essentially correct to stand up to German aggression, compete in the pre-WWI naval arms race etc. In other words, as regards WWI, I’ve been in the “necessary war” or even the ” a Just War” camp.
    I was also separately, interested in your emphasis on race generally. I did find one or two points confusing, just in case you wished to comment or clarify. For example I’m at a loss to see how “The US army recruitment poster at the top expresses even more clearly the entanglement of racism and imperialist fears” when that army poster was aimed by the US (one “white” nation, at another: Germany.
    I agree with some caveats, “while racial ideology provided the grounding for imperialist expansion, the real driver was economic and political necessity”. Indeed I’d go further and argue that early colonial projects (eg: the British East India Company, a private firm of course, albeit with the power & resources of some states) was driven purely by monetary reasons, without even the necessity for a racist “civilizing narrative .
    In my understanding, it’s only with the later more “evolved” global imperialism that racism, certainly institutionalized and pseudo-scientific racism, evolves, and then primarily as self-legitimizing and self-justification mechanism.
    To give a more concrete example or illustration of this, it was very common for early (say 18th C) British, Irish, Scots merchants in India, to have Indian wives, something almost unheard of a hundred years later, as racism was promoted to, as i say, justify de facto conquest and control. In other words, i wouldn’t exactly agree that “racial ideology provided the grounding for imperialist expansion”, I’d argue the imperial expansion definitely came first. the racial ideology only came later, as “intellectual or moral cover” for that expansion.
    In other words, even more bluntly, the 19th century was far more racist than the preceding 18th, as that imperative (for self-justification) evolved.
    (that is obviously speaking of places outside slave economies, like the American South, the Caribbean, Brazil) etc, but that sadly, rather goes without saying.
    Nonetheless, it’s a superb bit of analysis you have put together, and very thought-provoking on many points. I certainly learned a few things, and it helped m refine my understanding of the area, not something one can always claim after reading a blog post, so as i say I’m really delighted, to find and to follow your distinguished blog.
    my thanks and very best regards Kenan.
    -Arran (Henderson)

    • Arran, many thanks for this. On your point about racism in the nineteenth century: You say that you are ‘at a loss to see how “The US army recruitment poster at the top expresses even more clearly the entanglement of racism and imperialist fears” when that army poster was aimed by the US, one “white” nation at another: Germany’.

      The reason it appears confusing is that the contemporary notion of ‘race’ is very different to that of Victorians. Today, race is seen primarily as a matter of skin colour. That is not how it was seen in the nineteenth century. Then race was a way of explaining social differences of all kinds: social differences within Europe as well as between Europe and Africa and Asia, class as much as colour. The working class and the rural poor were as racially distinct, to Victorian eyes, as Africans or Native Americans, and often more so. So were other European nations. It was the coming of mass democracy and the expansion of imperialism at the end of nineteenth century that transformed perceptions of race.

      David Cannadine’s book Ornamentalism is a good account of how the complex interplay of race, class and nation expressed itself in attitudes towards Empire. Nineteenth century thinkers possessed a vision of a single, interconnected, hierarchical world that led to a complex, even contradictory, view of the Empire and its subjects. On the one hand, the fact that Britain (and a handful of other largely ‘white’ nations) ruled the globe appeared to confirm a sense of inherent racial superiority. On the other hand, hierarchy, as Cannadine puts it, ‘homogenised the world’. British rulers were often amused that lower class white settlers were unable to comprehend that aristocratic breeding cut across differences of colour. Cannadine tells the story of Lady Gordon, wife of Arthur Hamilton Gordon, the governor of Fiji, who thought the native, high-ranking Fijians ‘such an undoubted aristocracy’. ‘Their manners’, she wrote in her diary, ‘are so perfectly easy and well bred… Nurse can’t understand it at all, she looks down on them as an inferior race. I don’t like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!’

      It is this complex interplay of race, class and nation that we need to understand. I deal with it at length in chapters 4 – 7 my book Strange Fruit. I tell of aspects of this history in my post ‘The making of the idea of race’ and in point 1 of ‘Three myths of immigration’.

      Finally, I am not suggesting that racial ideology was the cause of imperial expansion, merely that it provided a means or rationalising, and justifying, the horrors of Empire.

  5. Kenan, thanks for taking the time to time reply in such detail and depth, it’s greatly appreciated. Yes, those clarifications and the points you underline all make a great sense. It’s quite true, as you point out, that people used to speak of “the English race” and so on. So in that light your point about the Ant-German (American) recruitment poster does indeed make sense, although I suspect (for the very reasons you allude to) that I’m not the first reader to find that specific point a little confusing. Again, thanks for the clarification.
    As regards David Cannadine’s book Ornamentalism, it looks and sounds very interesting, I gather its a sort of counter to Edward Said’s influential Orientalism, (which I’ve read sections of , but at university, now so long ago) No doubt I need to investigate the first tome and revisit the second. But if Cannadine basically argues that the British were more interested in rank and status than in skin colour, then my instinct would be to agree with him to a large extent, with the caveat, (as you also agree, and have indicated above) that that specific element of prejudice shifted in relative importance, as through the history of (western) Empires progressed.
    I did guiltily enjoy your illuminating vignette about Lady Gordon, wife of the Fiji governor. (why do we enjoy other peoples snobbery and complacency, (or is it just me?) Although I don’t know which is more wince-making: Lady Gordon’s extraordinary social condescension towards her British nurse, or the evident racism of the nurse! Oh well.
    I look forward to reading the two posts you mention in future, and indeed the book also at some stage, it is all most interesting. As i said earlier, I’m delighted to find your blog.
    Many thanks,
    and best regards-

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