1873-1914 Empires and War

The entire period from about 1873 to the end of World War may be seen as a nearly continuous series of regional wars of European and American Empire expansion.  It came at great cost to indigenous populations and nations that were subjugated into the modern World System in this phase of empire building. Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the two European powers turned attention again to expanding their positions and holdings overseas, primarily in Africa and Asia where these two continental powers were seeking to carve out a position relative to the British Empire, the limited positions of the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.  Another period of nearly continuous international conflict, war and crisis may be seen between 1873 and 1919 (Wallerstein 2011). This period includes the subjugation of the American continent by the United States after the Civil War, and the division of Africa after the Congress of Berlin with resulting invasions and colonization of the African continent and violent battles and wars, the Zulu Wars and resistance to the British in 1875; the Mahdist State and revolt in the Sudan in 1885 up to its final defeat and dismantling after the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. These are only a partial list of these continental-wide conflicts.

Historians differ and spend a great deal of time on discussing the nuances of specific diplomatic incidents that precipitated the crisis that ultimately caused World War I.  If on one takes a longer and more comparative view of how competing empires create violent and invasive wars, then this period is better understood (Reinhard 2016).The American position during this period is one of reconsolidation of their continental system and of Reconstruction following the American Civil War.  The continental wars of expansion witness multiple incidents of atrocities against Native Americans in almost all of the Western territories and states.  The brief but poignant victory of the Plains Indians tribes against General George Armstrong Custer and the defeat of his 7th Cavalry forces at Little Big Horn in 1876.


Figure 1 Map of American-Indian Wars 1860-90. Source Wikipedia

The Battle of Little Big Horn was along with the Battle of Isandlwana in South Africa in 1875 against the British, among the few and last examples of successful indigenous military resistance against the industrialized armies of the modern European and American empire states.  Thereafter, it is no surprise that the white settler colonists and the military apparatus of empire racialize their wars and force removal and isolation of tribes into contained encamped and unproductive lands. An example of the overwhelming resort to industrialized weapons of destruction is the introduction of the Maxim Gun at the Battle of Omdurman which enabled the British to destroy the forces of the Mahdist State on the shores of the Nile in the Sudan.  The British in part chose to launch this attack to show their strength in the Sudan region after a small reconnaissance force of French troops had crossed Chad and entered the border desert region of Western Sudan at Fashoda, in the so-called Fashoda Incident.  But the main objective of the British in the Sudan was to expand their hold on African territory from Egypt to the Sudan and with the subsequent outbreak of the two Angl0-Boer Wars, 1880-81 and again in 1899-1902, of British extension of power down the East Coast of Africa.


Figure 2 Map of East Africa in 1898. Source Wikipedia

In the years immediately preceding World War I, the Spanish, French, Italians and Germans launched repeated attacks and wholesale invasions of African territories and states.  This included the nearly simultaneous seizure in 1911 of Morocco by France and of Libya by Italy.  The latter campaign took the Italians a full decade and resistance to their occupation was not put down until the 1920s and a deliberate campaign of concentration camps, deportation and starvation of the Libyan population (Ahmida 2008).  The 1911 French map of Africa shows the division of the entire continent in the aftermath of the recent takeover of Morocco and Italy.


Figure 3 French Map of Africa in 1911. Source:  Wikipedia

The period from 1898 to 1909 also witnessed military conflicts in the Eastern Pacific, where in 1898 the United States launched the Spanish-American War with its dual invasion of Cuba and the Philippines, taking two of Spain’s remaining colonial possessions.

Another major conflict was the Russo-Japan War of 1905, in which the defeat of Russian forces in coastal Manchuria and Korea signaled Japan’s entry as a major industrialized nation with a modern naval force capable of defeating European forces.  This war followed the earlier First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 in which Japanese forces defeated Chinese forces and forced their surrender of territory in Korea, in which both sides had vied for support and alliance with the Korean Joseon dynasty.

China and the division of its major seaports and of Peking itself into foreign occupied zones led to the complex coalition of indigenous resistance known as the Boxer Rebellion or the Yihequan Movement that waged armed struggle against the foreign powers occupation between 1898 and 1901.  The image below is a Chinese rendering of the combined attacks in June 1900 on the port of Tianjin of Boxer forces that included Muslim Chinese under the command of Dong Fuxiang.  The rebellion was put down by the military superiority of the Eight Nation Alliance of occupying forces and which were housed together in the Foreign Legation section in Peking.  These were the forces of occupying troops of Russia, Japan, the United States, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, France, Germany and Britain.  After the uprising was put down, thousands of Chinese rebels were executed, many be public beheadings as punishment ostensibly in retaliation for earlier attacks and massacres on the foreign populations, Christian missionaries and their followers.  The effect of the defeat led to the Chinese Revolution of 1911 (The Xinhia Revolution) that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China and a new form of nationalism in both political and cultural thought.


Figure 4 Attack on foreign naval forces at Tienjin in June 1900 by combined Chinese forces


Ahmida, Ali. 2008. “From Tribe to Class: The Origins and Politics of Resistance in Colonial Libya.” Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto italiano per l’Africae l’Oriente 63 (2): 297-310.

Reinhard, Wolfgang. 2016. Die Unterverfung der Welt: Globalgeschichte der Europäischen Expansion 1415-2015 (The Subjugation of the World: Global History of the European Expansion 1415-2015). Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2011. The Modern World System IV. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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