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Imperialism Essay, Research Paper

Imperialism is the practice by which powerful nations or peoples seek to extend and maintain control or influence over weaker nations (Freeman 2). Some people associate imperialism solely with the economic expansion of capitalist states, others reserve the term for European expansion after 1870. Imperialism and colonialism are similar in meaning and are often used interchangeably. However, there are distinctions between the two (Freeman 3).

Colonialism usually implies formal political control including territorial annexation and loss of sovereignty (Jones 34). A sovereign state is one that is independent of all others. Imperialism refers more broadly to control or influence that is exercised either formally or informally, directly or indirectly, politically or economically (Jones 34). Throughout history imperialism has taken many forms. In the ancient world, imperialism manifested itself in a series of great empires that arose when one people, usually representing a particular civilization and religion attempted to dominate all others. Examples of this are the Empire of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire (Lernoux 12).

Historically, the motivation of imperialism has a variety of reasons. These may be classified broadly as economic, political, exploratory, religious and ideological (Scammel 14). Economic explanations of imperialism are the most common. States are motivated to dominate others by the need to expand and control foreign trade, to acquire raw materials and additional sources of labor, to find outlets for surplus capitol and markets for surplus goods and to export industrial technology and transportation methods (Scammel 14).

Alternatively, some stress the political determinants of imperialism. In this view, states are motivated to expand primarily by the desire to gain power, security, and diplomatic advantages from other states. They are also motivated to expand control, to exercise military force and compete with other European countries. (Lernoux 16).

A third set of explanations focuses on ideological or moral motives. According to this perspective, political, cultural or religious beliefs force states into imperialism as a missionary activity (Scammel 41). These are based on values such as the belief that the white race was ?superior,? other cultures were ?primitive,? and the Europeans should civilize people in other parts of the world. This belief, that one group is superior to every other, is called ethnocentrism.

Next, exploratory motives are based on the desire to explore unknown or uncharted territory and discover differing cultures. They are also based on the desire to conduct scientific research, and conduct medical searches for the causes and treatment of diseases (Searly 6).

Furthermore, the religious motives of imperialism include the desire to spread Christianity. Religion is an important aspect of society. When cultures possess strong beliefs the people often think that their beliefs are superior and want to enlighten other cultures because their beliefs are correct. The Europeans also wanted to protect their missionaries in other lands, and to spread their values and moral beliefs (Searly 6).

Finally, some explanations of imperialism focus not on the motives of powerful states but rather on the political circumstances in weaker nations (Lernoux 17). The argument holds that powerful states may not intend to expand, but may be forced to by instability (Lernoux 17).

Early European imperialism took the form of overseas colonial expansion. The new European nations of the 1400?s and 1500?s acquired colonial possessions as they spread Christianity and searched for markets and new materials (Lernoux 12). In the mid-nineteenth century another form of imperialism appeared: the imperialism of free trade. European power and influence were extended informally mainly through diplomatic and economic means, rather than through direct colonial rule (Lernoux 13). This form was short lived and lasted only until the end of the 19th century. The late 1800?s are often called the age of imperialism. During this time, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, and Spain divided up nearly all of Africa (Jones 63).

Beginning with the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Europeans sailing from Spain and Portugal reached, conquered, and colonized vast areas of the New World. The Spaniards expanded into Central America, Mexico, and Peru overthrew the indigenous peoples living there (Fagg 45). By the end of the sixteenth century, they had occupied large areas of South and Central America as far as the present southern border of the United States (Fagg 45).

The conquerors brought with them Roman concepts of law, administration, and justice, as they developed a highly bureaucratic system. They imposed their language, culture, and institutions on the native peoples (Fagg 22). The great organization became the Roman Catholic Church. The clergy converted the Native Americans to Hispanic Christian culture, became the principle educators in the colonies, and built hospitals and other charitable institutions (Fagg 23). The church was also an important economic producer. Aside from the royal governments, it was the largest landholder in the colonies (Fagg 23).

Columbus was at first convinced that the so-called Indians were a gentle unspoiled people who were eager to accept Christianity and serve the monarch. Isabel and the pope endorsed this view and immediately wanted the Indians to become as Europeanized as possible (Fagg 27). Most of the Spaniards who came in contact with the Indians developed extremely unfavorable attitudes toward them. They saw these people as not even human (Fagg 27). Furthermore, since they needed these people as a labor force, it was easy to rationalize that such disgusting people had no feelings and it was natural for them to serve the white men (Fagg 27).

Francisco Pizarro was sure that a fabulous culture richer or comparable to the Aztec awaited conquest in the central Andes (Searly 7). When Pizarro reached Peru, he decided to take the boldest possible course: to take the small force he had deep into Peru and capture the Inca leader, Altahualpa. Crossing the desert, the mountains, the valleys and chasms, the march required several weeks. Pizarro had sent word that he wished only to pay respects to this triumphant Altahualpa (Searly 7). He did, in fact, achieve this goal and eventually he took Altahualpa and many Incas prisoner. The Inca realm was suffered grief and bewilderment. Spaniards roamed about the country, abusing the Indians and taking whatever they wished (Searly 7).

What occurred in the Sixteenth century was not so much a discovery of a new world as a meeting of two branches of humanity which had previously been unknown to each other. The European invasions brought much that was radically new in the realm of ideas and values. For instance in agricultural methods including new crops and animals, in technology, the introduction of the wheel, iron, guns, ships, tools, and in the economy where the use of money, profit making and trade were far more developed than in Indian societies (Fagg 99).

In both the European and Latin American states the religious establishment was closely involved with the business of government (Fagg 123). Both kinds of society were seigniorial, relating to a noble or lord: Indian nobles, like their European counterparts, owned large estates worked by peasants (Fagg 123). These two worlds, Europe and Indian America, met and clashed in the sixteenth century. The consequences of this encounter were diverse and destructive for large numbers and people in South America.

There were two major determinants of the conquest and exploration of the new world. These were the conquistadors? desire for precious metals, their need for supply of labor and to achieve noble status by acquiring wealth, land and lordship over men (Freeman 67). The areas of Spanish settlement in the sixteenth century coincided with the boundaries of former Aztec and Inca empires. Outside the Inca spheres of influence there was little colonization (Freeman 73).

Partly because of their small numbers, but also for military and political reasons, Spaniards tended to concentrate their settlements within regions densely populated (Freeman 73). There remained vast areas in which there was scarcely any Spanish presence. In South America virtually the whole interior remained unsettled for over four centuries (Freeman 73).

Social and economic aspirations provided incentive for constant Spanish expansion in the New World (Snyder 188). Most conquistadors were laborers, artisans, traders, soldiers and sailors. Colonization tended to attract commoners because they wanted material gain and exploration of the New World promised this (Snyder 188).

The world in South America before it was colonized was characterized by its diversity. Even in the areas inhabited by Aztec and Inca people there were an immense number of ethnic kingdoms and tribal groupings (Fagg 244). It would therefore be mistaken to assume that political or cultural unity existed in the Indian world. All of these Indian societies, however, were affected by the Spanish conquest, though not all in the same manner. Some were utterly destroyed, some chose to ally themselves with the conquerors, some found the conquest a welcome liberation from Aztec and Inca oppression (Fagg 245).

The Spaniards, like any other conquerors, did intervene in native societies to extract resources for their own profit, but the conquest did not result in the whole ruin of native cultures (Fagg 129). In the course of the Spanish conquest and the decades following the structures of the Aztecs and the Incas were destroyed, their royal families and nobility deprived of their power (Fagg 129). Once the Spaniards gained control, the Indian people faced the choice of either collaborating with their conquerors or organizing rebellion to recover their former power. Even after the Spanish conquest had been completed, numerous tribes and kingdoms decided to collaborate with the new masters in order to seek advantage against rivals or regain lost territory (Fagg 129).

Within these Indian communities, traditional life went on much as before, and having to accept their new masters, it also seemed sensible to accept their new religion. Even so, the relations with the Spaniards were unstable. If a community or tribe came to believe that the Spaniards were not treating them in an acceptable manner, it might attempt to resist or rebel (Snyder 82).

Even though the basic structures of Indian life remained unchanged by the conquest, many villages, crops and individual lives were destroyed (Chrisp 21). Large numbers of Indians suffered torture and rape at the hands of the conquistadors. Many Spaniards were not interested in settling down but simply wanted to obtain as much wealth as possible from here as possible before returning to Spain (Fagg 35).

The worst effects of the conquest were the disease epidemics. These were plagues of smallpox, measles, typhus, and other unidentified diseases (Glubok 16). It has been estimated that over the century following the conquest the population in Mexico fell by ninety percent. The decline in Peru was less drastic, but still about forty percent (Glubok 17). These epidemics were apparently profitable for the Spaniards. This was not only because they claimed so many lives, but because they disrupted native powers and demoralized the Indians (Fagg 244).

The transformation of the Spanish colonies into independent nations was a very complex process that took centuries to mature (Fagg 255). The process of building new nations was not automatic but full of political, ideological, and cultural battles splitting up the former empire into many smaller nations. The independence of Spanish America and the formation of new nation states was not inevitable, nor did the majority of Latin America desire it (Fagg 255). It was a revolution led by those who felt that their traditional privileges and property were being threatened by the absolutism of Spain (Fagg 255). A small minority of the population carried out most of the revolution movements. Among the most well known and successful leaders of the revolution were Simon Bolivar and Jose De San Martin. Others of importance were Artigas, Belgrano, Hidralgo y Morelos, and Sucre (Fagg 255). Independence produced new and difficult challenges. Although they varied in the extent of the damage created, the wars of independence in Latin America destroyed local economies and divided society (Fagg 255).

The Spanish divided South America into three main sections called Viceroyalties, and then further created smaller audiencias (a governing area with a high court) (Fagg 257). It was in the boundaries of the former audiencias that most of the new governments eventually formed. The governing areas chosen by the Spanish were largely based on the former native kingdoms of the Inca, Maya, and Aztec (Fagg 257). Traditional Spanish America was divided into several classes based on race and birthplace. These classes ranked from highest to lowest in proportion with the amount of rights they held in society (Fagg 257).


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