Empire in Asia

A New Global History

European Colonial Rule, 1880-1940

Book Cover

Book Title

European Colonial Rule, 1880-1940: The Impact of the West on India, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982


Albertini, Rudolf von. with Albert Wiz (translated by John G. Williamson)


Albertini aims to shatter the traditional Euro-centric historiography and confront students of empires with the problems of a Euro-centric history on non-European lands by studying their history from within. The book studies colonial influences on pre-colonial societies by placing in the foreground their confrontations with the European civilization. By expanding the premise of non-European encounters with the European empires beyond the narrow bipolar framework of dependency and exploitation, Albertini wrote in favor of the argument that the colonial period was a period of modernization for the colonized. Thus, the book covers such topics of economic development, such as the example of a tariff protected economy that was developing in India during the interwar period, which had largely displaced British products.

Albertini's book analyzes anew the relationship between the imperial powers and territories under their control, espousing that colonial rule represented a reconstruction of collaboration by means of patronage, grants of honors, and economic privileges. He explores how the resistance to colonial rule came not from the old elites but the new elites, particularly those living in towns and cities. Old elites are seen as attempting to assimilate the practices and values of colonial powers but were compelled to confront the issues with their own racial origin, religion and value systems. While European colonization was a pivotal phenomenon, Europe's rule over a major portion of the globe fits into the context of world history - a larger framework of migrations, conquests, colonization and empire building familiar to us from the histories of other cultures and peoples.

Filling the gap between Mommsen's Imperialismus and Ansprenger's Auflosung der Kolonialreiche, each chapter serves as an introductory account of the establishment of colonial rule, focusing specifically on the creation of the administrative structure, the development of economy and the growth of the national liberation movement in the colonies. Colonial economics do not comprise of only concepts such as plunder economics and exploitation but of modernization.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book provides a concise account of European colonialism from the onset of European rule until 1940. From the viewpoint of the indigenous elites rather than the repressed masses, who possess their own values, beliefs and most importantly, a different system of governance, Albertini explores the topics of colonial economy, modernization and relationship between imperial powers and their territories from an internal perspective.

The focus of the book remains largely on the colonial administration as Albertini saw this structure as the centre and physical representation of the empire. Its primary task was to make this rule effective, assuring longetivity and ending or neutralizing opposition.

The book is categorized according to the territories that were colonized and India is guaranteed expanded coverage, for it was both the beginning of the British colonial world and the center of it. The book spans over the beginning of European rule, ending at the onset of WWII in 1940, for the latter date signaled the beginning of the end of colonialism for South and Southeast Asia.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Albertini places the study of colonial history against the larger framework of European imperialism and the context of Third World underdevelopment. He defined colonialism as "rule", beginning his study by analyzing how this rule was established and maintained i.e. what the colonial apparatus looked like, and what impact it had on the structures of authority in the colonized society. By posing questions such as how the colony was opened up economically, and how it was integrated into a world economic system "dynamized by industrialization and centered on Europe", Albertini's work exposes not just the socio-economic influence of colonial rule but reflects a determination to prove that the colonial relationship was more than simply dependency and exploitation.

He begins by accepting the 'colonial condition' theory - in which the rule of a foreign minority against causes a repressed majority to react and Albertini sees the behavior of both rulers and ruled as determined by this colonial context. While acknowledging that modernity is at present judged with reference to catching up with the west, he argues that there exists no better methods, particularly when concepts of development; in the sense of deliberate attempts to overcome poverty, raise living standards and increase social equality, dates from the Enlightenment in the West.

In addition, Albertini argues that the dependency theory does not reveal much about colonial societies - only relations between independent states. He deals with specific aspects of the colonial economy to clarify the mentioned ambivalence between growth and development. Thus, he puts forth a broad evaluation of the patterns of colonialism. Among his significant propositions is the idea that no matter how direct the rule, native chiefs or village elders cannot be dispensed. Yet, even under indirect rule such authorities became executive agents for the colonial bureaucracy.

He criticized the tendency of scholars to use modern values and see indirect rule as the instrument which preserved 'feudal' structures. Rather, the colonial administration was a liberal and progressive policy since European colonialism did not tear down old social structures but gave the local officials new tasks in the changed administration. However, a caveat here is that to ensure stability, the colonial regime attempted to introduce innovations within a relatively unchanging social setting. Hence, central administrations tended to become muscle-bound, hampering the transmission of impulses toward modernization to the local levels and increasing the tendency toward bureaucratization of the capitals.

The individualization process during the colonial period was deemed to have loosened traditional obligations of obedience and loyalty, leading to open or covert conflicts between traditional rulers and the western educated younger generation. Particularly, in rural areas, modernization was seen as imposed from above. This resulted in discrepancies between central and local administrations, which hampered efforts of the new local power elite to integrate the masses of their peoples into the process of modernization.

Finally, Albertini argues that expanding foreign trade was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for diversified economic development. While recognizing that the capitalist system had led to disintegration of traditional society, there were two basically divergent systems which coexisted within the colony, reflecting the insufficient integration.

Annotated by Michelle Djong