Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The False Dawn

Book Cover

Book Title

The False Dawn: European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Series: Europe and the World in the Age of Expansion Vol. 4). Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press , 1975


Betts, Raymond F.


The book provides an introductory study that briefly spans the history of modern French empire and is meant to concentrate on the important problems with regard to French imperialism and their aims in garnering colonies. Betts set the context by referring to the period where a shift in locus of French interest occurred from the New World to older worlds, those of Africa and Asia. The colonial system was seen as hypothetical since even at the end of the nineteenth century there were still no effective colonial administration, and the reality of imperialism was in the singular person of the Frenchman who "happened to be there".

Betts espouses that the French empire was created without a nation-wide inspiration, for it was the military who largely acted as agents of imperialism and the then-existent French colonial world remained crudely defined by the military. Imperialism was thus the end-products of the passion of a small number of dedicated nationalists, ambitious soldiers and as the nineteenth century came to a close, a few ministers of state. The French perspective influenced largely their forms of colonial practice, for the 'assimilation' process was largely driven by the French colonizers, who saw the people they ruled over as the children that they have to control and 'nurture', for only the French was equipped with the know-how to guide and educate the 'natives'. In this framework, decolonization became defined as modification, rather than total abolition of the colonial system.

Ultimately, the focus remains largely on the theories of the French empire, how it came about and who drove it forward. This provides a good introduction book for the empire-reader.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

As a history of nineteenth-century European imperialist activity, this book begins with a cursory review of colonial affairs since the Treaty of Paris of 1763 and ends with a final glance toward the Western Front in August 1914. This volume focuses largely on the internal development of empire-building in Europe. Theories of economic imperialism, disjunction of theories and practice of colonialism, the structure and organization of empire as well as native policy and protest sheds light on the various issues faced in the establishment and maintenance of a colonial territory.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

In exploring the idea of European empires, the editor claims that since the contours of the historical problems of empire are enormous, no single theory will provide a meaningful explanation for the myriad of forms that imperialist activity took; no single model will allow for an integral reconstruction of its history.

Like the steam engine, the most obvious modern artifact of the age, technology and the spirit that informed it provided the dynamic thrust that temporarily created an Eurocentric world and propelled the significant vehicle of global domination - modern imperialism. Overseas expansion was thus a constant factor in nineteenth-century European history.

The atmosphere during the era of the empires bear the influence of geographers such as Halford J. Mackinder. He asserted that the European phase of history was passing away as the Mediterranean had done before it, implying that the European state as a culture and political unit was diminishing with the rapid expansion of the political world. The reality of the fear, as expressed in imperialistic rhetoric, was also evidently seen in the production and population statistics. However, the extent of it was conditioned by the ideologies that enshrined the ideas of competition and conflict.

Imperialists linked expansion to those issues that appealed to the public as questions of "national interest". There was, however, a constant gap between local activity overseas and national policy at home. Issues of "national interest" were made so by the man-on-the-scene, who was fulfilling his personal aspirations by making them suitable to fit national dimensions. Advocators of imperialism saw the impending internal crisis as caused by the effects of industrialization, which was impossible to control and an ever-expanding phenomenon; requiring more raw materials and markets. Thus, only by expanding abroad could they avert such a crisis. Settlement colonies were deemed able to absorb increasing populations, with tropical dependencies to provide raw materials and which might become brisk markets.

In summary, the faces of imperialism were numerous. The imperialism of prestige over which the flag majestically waved was joined by the imperialism of geopolitics in which strategy figured colorfully on large-scaled wall maps. This was enjoined with the imperialism of trade which manipulated and added up statistics to justify colonies as outlets; and by social imperialism through which domestic social problems would be alleviated or diverted by popular glance and a national thrust overseas. Hence, imperialism was like the mohair settee - a convenience of the age.

Annotated by Michelle Djong