In Wikipedia, there is an article about New Imperialism, which refers to the territorial or colonial expansion during 19th-20th century. The article also says that the qualifier "New" is to contrast with earlier imperialism (particularly, European colonization in 15th to early 19th century).

Did the "new" imperialism differ in nature from 15th-19th century imperialism/colonialism, other than the difference in time frame? How was it different?

  • 2
    Wikipedia is your friend, e.g. on these specific circumstances.
    – Drux
    Apr 28, 2013 at 5:43

4 Answers 4


I hope to come back and expand this but very briefly for now...

The nature and extent of European domination was fundamentally changed as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In the the 16th century, Europeans famously had guns, germs and steel which allowed them to rapidly dominate the New World, but otherwise they were barely able to make inroads into Africa or Asia. It was only towards the nineteenth century that Europe gained vast technological and economic advantages that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world.

Technologies like the railroad, steamship and telegraph were absolutely critical to this later stage of imperialism. Cheap textiles and other consumer goods also meant Europe had an economic weapon to subjugate colonies, not just brute force. Ideologically, scientific racism developed which was quite distinct from the religious chauvinism that characterized earlier colonization.

  • Britain started gaining control of the Indian subcontinent around 1750, though of course it was a long, drawn-out process. (India before the British was not a single entity, but independent states.) The Dutch had similar interests in the East Indies. The change in domination patterns had IMHO much less to do with technology, that with the fact that these areas were 1) already densely populated; and 2) had climates that Europeans mostly found unsalubrious. Those who wanted to settle could go to America, or the much nicer Australia & New Zealand.
    – jamesqf
    May 23, 2019 at 3:00
  • British territorial conquests in India (beyond coastal trading outposts) and the settlement of Australia were roughly simultaneous with the earliest stage of its industrial revolution. But in comparison the Scramble for Africa after about 1880, for example, shows that more advanced industrialization allowed multiple European countries to dominate relatively large populations to an unprecedented extent--even in the tropics.
    – Brian Z
    May 23, 2019 at 16:21

The early imperialism, from the 16th to the 18th century, was characterized by European "settlers." Europeans would go to the Americas (North and South) or Australia. They would then "push aside" the natives, while living there the rest of their lives. Thus, the European colonies (at least the "settled" parts) would consist mostly of European descendants in North America and Australia, or "mixed" European and native people (with a European upper class) in South America.

In the later imperialism, Europeans went to Asia and Africa to "colonize" or rule, rather than "push aside" native peoples. They would spend their "careers" in the colonies, but their goal was to "retire rich" in their HOME (European) country. As such, they were what the Americans would call "carpetbaggers." These European colonies' populations would consist mostly of "natives."

India represented a transition from one kind of imperialism to the other. It was colonized by the British in the mid-18th century, at the end of the first (settler) imperialism, and ahead of the second (colonial) imperialism, but it was more like the second, than the first type of imperialism.

  • British India and Dutch East India (Indonesia) were colonized during "old imperialism" era, but the population were mostly local.
    – Louis Rhys
    Apr 28, 2013 at 15:19

Whatever anyone says, someone here will call it a rant. =)

Basically there is no right answer to the question. it is just a label given to a mindset. so to answer the question.. no it is the same thing..

There was no particular point in history where the people of the time said.. hey now it is time to do new imperialism! No one said Imperialism needed a version upgrade.

And I would agree with Tom Au, the term "Early imperialism" describes the taking of the lower hanging fruits against substantially less developed civilizations (in Africa, North America, Central America, South America, and Australia).

"New Imperialism" is just the same thing, the same mentality, but a term coined to describe the taking of more established and more advanced civilizations, such as those in the middle east, south Asia, indochina, and east asia. (which was clearly enabled by the widening technology gap)

But ultimately it really is the same thing.

Eventually, we had Total Imperialism. A period that no children of the imperialists have gotten around to naming (still too raw).

This was a period where the imperialists ran out of fruits to pick and decided to play for all the marbles among themselves, resulting in WWI and then WWII. It is the exact same concept. But they ran out of outsiders to conquer. So they looked to each other.

And tens and tens of millions of deaths later... We ended up with 2 super power... then 1....

The original imperialists lost it all.

This should be the ultimate cautionary tale. But, for the average person, history stops at the GLORIOUS mankind triumph over the evil that was the 3rd Reich.

That was of course a great story, but evil exists in many forms. Hitler only happened because of imperialism...

And with a cultural mindset of Win-Lose, of domination, this will never stop happening.

  • I wouldn't say that the old imperialists lost it all - at least one of them still has a lot of its ill-gotten gains ! UK is one (Northern Ireland and Wales) and the US is one (Hawaii for example, probably the whole continental US.) Feb 1, 2020 at 11:33


To best answer this question, I feel like a direct comparison between these two events is necessary.

OLD IMPERIALISM (c. 1450 - 1750)

Old Imperialism is a term used to describe the imperialistic events of the Europeans towards the indigenous tribes of America. It all started when Christopher Columbus sailed across the waters to America.

1. Motives

The motives for this wave of imperialism could be summed up in three words: gold, God, and glory. You may of heard these before.

  • Gold. Europeans wanted a lot of gold since their supply back home was running out. Constant wars with neighboring countries and frequent peasant revolts didn't come cheap.

  • God. Europe also wanted to spread the word of God. Lots of missionaries and activists traveled about, jumping at every opportunity to convert people.

  • Glory. Europe's heavy view of ethnocentrism acted as a catalyst to conquering lesser advanced civilizations. They thrived to make a mark everywhere they go, and wanted it to stay.

And just a side note, gold was an active reason, while God and glory were passive.

2. Contact

When Europeans encountered the indigenous tribes for the first time, it did not end well. They killed thousands, decimated their homes, and took their lands.

They forcefully converted almost the entire population to Christianity through ways like Residential schools. They also enslaved many people.

NEW IMPERIALISM (c. 1881 - 1914)

Before I get started, I would like to point out that the information presented in the following lines are specifically from African imperialism. I'm not exactly an expert as to what happened to other places during the era of New Imperialism, but the ideology should be somewhat similar.

1. Motives

This time around, the motives were way better. Of course, they weren't great, but at least they were better than the old views of gold, God, and glory - kill everyone, take their land, and here, have my smallpox. Europeans actually wanted to help the people of Africa. This was because of their new views like the White Man's Burden. But of course, they were also still greedy for territory.

2. Contact

European colonialism brought many forms of sports to Africa, connecting it to the rest of the world like the African Cup of Nations (soccer tournament). The previous form of government, like the Isalmic rule, was also way worse to the society than the European rule. Europe even abolished some forms of slavery! European imperialism also brought over education, and the basis of which is still being used today. Europe brought over new cures and treatments for diseases, helping millions of people in Africa to live cleaner lives.

There! Hope this helps.

  • Then we have particularities like Belgian Kongo... including colonial officials which wager on if they can hit a fisherman (the too many sqirmishes with local groups and chiefs - quarrel with the locals = every local is fair game.) Feb 1, 2020 at 11:28
  • @StefanSkoglund Oh yeah. There were of course some exceptions
    – user41226
    Feb 1, 2020 at 19:32

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