Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Economics and Empire 1830-1914

Book Cover

Book Title

Economics and Empire 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973


Fieldhouse, D.K.


The book examines why the second expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had taken place on such a large scale. However, the more important question was deemed to be more complex; how the character of the empires developed after about 1850 had differed substantially from those created in the period of the first expansion of Europe. The older colonies which had been for most part 'settlement' colonies in which quasi-European societies were created by emigrants: the new phase consisted of colonies of 'occupation' in which a small minority of European 'sojourners' exercised some degree of political control but which remained essentially non-European in race and culture.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The topics include the different policies that had been practiced by the European powers during both phases of expansion. Chapters 6-12 examine a number of territories of obvious importance, and these were used as case studies to assess the importance of economic and other forces making for annexation. In Chapter 13, the evidence provided by case studies will be used to assess the general importance of economic factors within Europe or elsewhere in the imperialistic process.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Fieldhouse uses a method which has two special features: he examines the half-century before 1880 to place the 'classical' period of imperialism in historical perspective and he deals with countries or regions individually, rather than as a part of a single global story. He acted on the hypothesis that imperialism may have been a composite, and possibly contradictory phenomenon rather than a unitary one.

In addition, Fieldhouse attempts to reinstate the economic factor in the critique of modern imperialism, though as only one factor among a number of forces. These factors tended to create a disequilibrium between a 'modernized' European and an unreconstructed outer world.

There were valid grounds for regarding the 1870s as a watershed - much of the colonial expansion was occurring in regions of Africa, Asia or the Pacific; mostly unknown to Europeans. Also, the intervention of European countries such as Germany, Belgium and Italy, with no colonial possessions or tradition, suggested that the aims of colonization were changing, since these continental states suddenly undertook forms of overseas activity which had been previously the preserve of the maritime powers.

This book consists of explanatory theories broadly classified into two categories, based on where they look for an explanation of why European expansion occurred in the late nineteenth century and why there was an apparent discontinuity with the mid-Victorian past. The first category is the Eurocentric perspective. In a book concerned with economic history, the two interpretations of imperialism are factored into the examination. The first being 'imperialism of trade': a product of the changing character of European economies and expanding industrialization and secondly the 'imperialism of capital investment', where new colonies which might constitute fields for profitable investment of capital.

However, other than the Eurocentric approach, one could approach the same question from outside Europe, which is the 'peripheral' approach, based on an initial assumption that it may not be necessary to find any all-embracing cause of European expansion either in Europe or elsewhere, but that colonial annexation commonly sprang from relatively localized issues. Their common denominator was that some difficulty existed in areas outside formal European possessions in which Europeans were involved, making it difficult or inconvenient to maintain the status quo.

Annotated by Michelle Djong