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UNIT 20: Imperial Designs



After 1500, empires became one of the most common forms of economic and political organization around the world. But the period between 1815 and 1914 stands out as the "Imperial Century," because during this time nearly three-quarters of the earth came to be dominated by a handful of empires.

This unit explores the complexities of imperial history as seen from a world historical perspective. Viewed from such a perspective, imperial history is the story of the introduction-usually by force-of new peoples, technologies, products, languages, plants, animals, values, and religions to many parts of the world.

Imperialism depended on the physical occupation and administration of overseas dominions to utilize and exploit labor, resources, and raw materials for the benefit of the nation state. By the nineteenth century, imperialism was more aggressive than in any previous era.

Nineteenth-century imperialism was largely a European phenomenon, although the United States and Japan participated as well. As colonizers gained control of diverse territories, they tended to justify their actions in terms of "civilizing missions" to the "backward" peoples of the world. In addition, colonizers came to share common beliefs about the racial inferiority of the peoples they colonized.

The meaning and experience of imperialism varied widely from place to place. In some places, it meant little more than staking a claim to territory on a map. In others, it meant forced labor or genocide. In still others, it meant the restructuring of social classes, gender relations, and political realities.

Wherever imperialism occurred, however, it was usually accomplished by violence and oppression. Moreover, the unequal relationships caused by imperialism sparked resistance all over the world; the movements such resistance inspired led to nationalist movements that eventually destroyed all of the once-great empires.

The legacies of imperialism have affected the world in profound ways. In most parts of the world, imperialism organized economic life to feed into the international economy of exchange-usually by the production of raw materials or resources for the global market. These changes significantly altered human relationships to natural resources, and usually resulted in damage to local environments.

Political life was altered as well, as new elites were created and old loyalties were disrupted. It is safe to say that nineteenth-century imperialism permanently changed economic, social, and political traditions around the world, and created the context for all subsequent global development.


Time Period: 1600-1914

The period 1600 to 1914 witnessed the expansion of many powerful states. Europeans established colonies and settlements in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and eventually created massive global empires. The Qing Empire in China also vastly expanded its territories in this period to include what is now western China and Tibet. The Islamic empires first expanded and then contracted in this period, as European powers became strong enough to dominate some or all of the Islamic territories. The United States expanded dramatically after its independence from Britain in 1783. While it is not often treated as an empire, the United States acquired territories through imperial methods of conquest, settlement, and political and economic assimilation. By 1853, the United States stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts after having both purchased and forcibly acquired millions of acres of territory.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economics and politics by focusing on the ways that some societies expanded through trade and war to establish colonies and empires.
  • Explores change and continuity because imperial expansion nearly always meant great social, political, and economic change for indigenous communities.
  • Discusses technology, demography, and environment because imperial expansion frequently changed the composition of local populations, resulted in increased exploitation of the natural environment, and depended on technological innovations to dominate indigenous populations.


  • Question 1: What were some of the social, economic, and environmental consequences of imperialism?
  • Question 2: How did industrial capitalism shape the development of European imperialism in the nineteenth century?
  • Question 3: How did imperial designs-in the forms of political structure, economic organization, vision, and ideology-change between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries?
  • Question 4: In what ways could the experience of imperialism shape the identities of both colonizers and colonized peoples?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, most of the world's population came to live under the shadow of imperialism. Imperial systems, in turn, integrated distant peoples via complex economic, political, and social relationships.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Imperialism magnified global inequalities, because imperial states used their power to exploit the resources of colonies for their own benefit. In addition, imperialism was often justified in terms of difference-especially racial difference.

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