How Colonialism Works

The Second Wave of European Colonialism
Troops from India (then under British rule) do manual labor during the British occupation of Cyprus in the early 1900s. De Agostini/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images

In the 1800s and early 1900s, colonial empires grew even more, and European countries made vast fortunes from them.

In British-controlled India, for example, where about 20,000 troops and colonial officials ruled over a native population of 300 million, that country became a captive market for 20 percent of British industrial exports. India also provided a cheap supply of cotton and the tea that the British habitually drank. Even with the money that the British invested on things like irrigation, railroads and starting a coal mining industry, Great Britain still ended up taking about 1 percent of India's wealth each year, and most ordinary Indians remained impoverished [source: UK National Archives].

So how were a relatively small group of Brits able to control such a large population of Indians? In the 1700s, India was not one united country, and the British made treaties with princes in many of these individual states. As the UK National Archives puts it, "The British were very effective at infiltrating these states and gradually taking control. They often left the local princes in charge of the various parts of India. These local princes were effective at maintaining British rule and gained much from being loyal to the British."

France established a similarly exploitive dominance over Vietnam and other nations in southeast Asia, which it called French Indochina. In Vietnam, the French seized vast tracts of land from small farmers and made them into massive rice and rubber plantations, which sometimes were cultivated by workers recruited at gunpoint. The French also profited from Vietnam's coal, tin and zinc, most of which they sold for export. The population had to pay heavy taxes to the colonial rulers, and could only buy certain products such as wine and salt from the French at inflated prices [source: Llewellyn et al.].

In Africa, European colonial powers were eager to seize control, in an era that became known as the "scramble for Africa." At the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, which ostensibly was convened to stamp out African slavery, 13 European countries basically carved up Africa among themselves. (There was a certain bitter irony to this excuse, since the Europeans once had eagerly bought African slaves to labor in their colonial empires.) In drawing borders, they didn't bother to pay any attention to the existing African cultures or ethnic groups, so that people from the same tribe ended up in different colonies. By 1900, the Europeans ruled 90 percent of the African continent — up from just 10 percent in 1870 [source: David].

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