World History 2 136 - 9.2.3 The Means of Imperialism

Before either the economic or the cultural goals of the imperialists could be achieved, the desired regions had first to be conquered. One of the first hurdles was the physical difficulty of penetrating the interiors of Africa and Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa was a hot and humid home to microbes unknown to Europeans that sickened both them and their draft animals. Malaria laid low many Europeans who attempted to explore the continent’s interior.

Malaria was also a significant problem in Britain’s colony of India. It was exacerbated by schemes to dig irrigation canals and clear land for railroads, creating more areas for water to collect in breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carried the disease. Quinine, which comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, had been used to treat malaria for years, and in the 1840s the British discovered that taking it before exposure could prevent people from ever contracting the disease. Cinchona trees grew only in the Andes, however, and there were not enough to meet the European demand. Attempts to plant cinchona trees elsewhere often failed, but by the 1870s the Dutch were successfully growing them in their colony of Indonesia and producing additional quinine, a development that assisted Europeans in their exploitation of the African interior.

Besides disease, difficult terrain and dense brush also made European exploratory and military missions difficult. Following rivers inland was the easiest means of travel. However, most rivers were too shallow for sailing ships, so exploration beyond the coast depended on the development of steamboats. In the 1810s, American explorers began to use steamboats to venture into the interior of North America, exploring the upper reaches of the Mississippi River in 1825, for example, and the British sent steamboats up the Irrawaddy River to conquer Burma (also currently known as Myanmar).

Steamboats were also of great use in Africa. The interior of the continent is a high plateau from which rivers pour down and rush to the seacoast. All have waterfalls, making it impossible for large sailing ships to follow them for their full length. By the second half of the nineteenth century, however, Europeans were regularly plying African waters in steamships much improved over the earliest ones. Besides sturdy iron hulls, the boats had propellers instead of the paddle wheels the original boats had and steel boilers that were less likely to burst than iron ones. When the boats reached a waterfall, they were disassembled, carried around the falls by African porters, and reassembled to continue down the river (Figure 9.15).

A photograph shows a large two-tiered ship in the water. The bottom floor shows many people standing on the outside of the ship while the top floor shows wounded soldiers laying on cots stacked atop each other. On top of the ship is a covered long platform with a large circle in the middle and three men standing in front of the circle. A white flag with a red cross flies at the front and a large tall smokestack is shown behind the platform. A cityscape is shown in the background. At the bottom of the photograph are the words “Hospital ship No. 1, bearing sic and wounded from Kut, coming alongside the bank of the Tigris at the British lines at Falahiyah.”
Figure 9.15 Steamships carried people and supplies up the rivers of Africa and Asia, opening these continents to explorers, missionaries, and soldiers. The hospital ship in this early photograph traveled the Tigris River in Iraq. (credit: “British hospital ship on the Tigris river carrying wounded in 1916” by E. E. Jones/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Steamships carried not only soldiers, explorers, and traders into the interiors of continents but also guns. Weapons had improved rapidly in the industrialized world in the nineteenth century, and guns were another type of technology that gave Europeans a significant advantage. European and U.S. soldiers were armed with breech-loading, repeating rifles and handguns that could be loaded quickly and fired with greater accuracy. Smokeless powder increased the velocity of bullets—and thus the severity of gunshot wounds—and bullets had been rendered more lethal. Dum dum bullets (named for Dumdum, the arsenal town in India where they were first used) were flat or hollow bullets that expanded upon impact, increasing the size of the holes they made. Machine guns were also used extensively in colonial warfare. The Gatling gun from the United States could fire three thousand bullets per minute. Another U.S. invention, the Maxim gun, was a single-barreled weapon (unlike the Gatling gun) that could fire eleven bullets per second.

Such weapons could be produced in large numbers only in industrialized nations. Thus the only way the people of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific could acquire guns was to purchase them, and they were inordinately expensive. A native of the Sudan who wanted to purchase a European- or U.S.-made rifle at the end of the nineteenth century would have to pay at least five camels or, if a European were willing to make the trade, thirty-six enslaved people. Firearms were less common in Central and South Africa, and people fought with swords and spears into the nineteenth century.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax