Imperialism and Imagining the Racial ‘Other’
Imperialism in the 19th century was not simply the physical act of political, economic, and military domination of the European powers upon the colonized nations. Imperialism was an intellectual act of aggression as well, presuming the inferiority of the ‘race’ that was colonized. In the words of the transcribed lecture, “Empire, Visual Representation, and Punch Magazine 1853-1899” Peers calls the process of “essentializing” or “reducing peoples or nations to a couple of essential aspects,” to establish the imperialist sense of racial superiority as mainly manifested in creating dichotomies. Some of the ideas of civilization, economics, and political systems that polarized the white, colonial powers vs. The individuals whom they wished to colonize involved: “science vs. superstition, reason vs. unreason, progress vs. tradition,” and even, although colonials were all of all ages and genders, “male vs. female,” and adult vs. child,” as Christian whites were seen as in need of educating the racial ‘other’ whose civilization was backward and childlike, passive and subservient to false traditions and myths. (Peers, 2001)
Thus imperialism became a tool to implant many Western institutions such as religion, education, and ideas about race in a population deemed different, living in a more primitive and passive state of existence, like a distant species of human. This is why imperialism is connected with the process of racial “othering.” While European powers were aggressively pursuing their empires, ideas of racial difference and race as a problem for the dominant group were becoming exacerbated by the rising middle classes due to industrialization, and also Darwinism, which threatened Christian institutional beliefs about human centrality, but also justified the “survival of the fittest.” Of course, imperialism has existed since the days of the Roman empire — but the Victorian stress upon morality in a morally confused and volatile England, the dominant colonial power of the era, brought an added dimension to the military domination and exploitation of the 19th century era. (Greenberger, 2004)
This is not to deny imperialism’s economic and military components. Industrialized nations have often produce more manufactured goods than their people need or can afford to buy and colonies have long served as markets for these unsold products and military strategy is another important motive for imperialistic activity, as colonies provide important buffer zones in creating military spheres of influence. Both industrial production and militarism had experienced a tremendous expansion in the 19th century. But also, during the late 1800’s, a strong feeling of nationalism had swept most European countries beyond pure economic and military motives. Many people genuinely “believed their nation’s greatness depended on the size of its territory. They encouraged expansion and the planting of their nation’s flag on foreign soil.” The lack of industrial development in the colonized lands reinforced the pre-existing prejudices regarding racial inferiority, because the colonial objects were not ‘civilized’ i.e. industrialized (Greenberger, 2004)
The appearance of uncivilized territories convinced many expansionists they had a God-given mission to take new territory and to spread Christianity and the benefits of European culture. The colonial powers did provide some benefits, one might say, as a result of this assumption. The powers “built new communications and transportation systems, established universities, and introduced modern medical practices.” By making the colonized look, dress, behave, and hopefully believe like Europeans, these racial ‘others’ could be civilized, with proper aid from the Mother country. However, because ‘the other’ could never be perfectly like ‘us,’ that is like the face of the colonizer, “many nations took advantage of their colonies by exporting natural resources without providing economic return for most of the people. Many colonial administrations were insensitive to local customs and destroyed old ways of life.” (Greenberger, 2004) “Every claim to cultural dominance on behalf of the colonizer was also an assertion of cultural lack of the colonized, in the “justifying discourse” of colonialism. (Strongman, 1996)
Many examples of this justifying discourse can be found Punch, a popular magazine that generated support for the colonies in England, in the heart of the common “John Bull Englishman.” “One cartoon from September 3, 1853 was entitled ‘The Great Barbarian Dragon.'” it showed free trade and capitalism as a moral force against Chinese economic and cultural insularity, giving a lesson to “John Chinaman.”
Punch’s tendency to personify other nations, from the “unspeakable” infidel Muslim “Turk” to the easy-living Jamaican, created stereotypes that alas, exist in even the American cultural discourse to this day. (Peers, 2001)
The intellectual legacy of imperialism thus lives on, and even as the nations that were its victims have attempted to define themselves in the world as autonomous, they must still come to grips with the economic and political legacy of imperialism, and also the affliction of racial othering that impacted not simply the West, but also has profound psychological resonance in the minds of those characterized as inferior. Imperialism’s estrangement of the colonial nations from their traditional modes of life have forced the colonized to measure themselves up against Western economies, and they often fall short in the process. Traditional tribal affiliations were redrawn as the result of imperialism, stimulating old conflicts between victimized peoples. The ‘othering’ of the colonial victims ultimately created a differentiation that was only of profit to those drawing the political and economic barriers and lines.
Greenberger, Allen J. “Imperialism.” World Book Online Reference Center. 2004. World Book, Inc. 16 Nov. 2004. http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wb/Article?id=ar273460.
Strongman, Luke. “Post-Colonialism or Post-Imperialism?”
Deep South v.2 n.3 (Spring, 1996)
Peers. “Historical Studies 205-L02/Dr. Peers – Lecture Notes – April 12, 2001 “Empire, Visual Representation, and Punch Magazine 1853-1899.” 2004. 16 Nov. 2004. http://hist.ucalgary.ca/courses/W2001/205L02LN6.htm
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