In this article we will discuss about the the penetration of the West Europe in Asia and Africa during 19th Century.

i. Russia’s Eastward Expansion:

European nations and Japan at the end of the 19th century spread their influence and control throughout the continent of Asia. Russia, because of its geographic position, was the only occupying power whose Asian conquests were overland. In that respect there is some similarity between Russia and the United States in the forcible outward push of their continental frontiers.

But there is a significant difference: the United States advance displaced the indigenous population, with the remaining Indians becoming wards of the state. On the other hand, the Russian march across Asia resulted in the incorporation of alien cultures and societies as virtual colonies of the Russian Empire, while providing room for the absorption of Russian settlers.


Although the conquest of Siberia and the drive to the Pacific had been periodically absorbing Russia’s military energies since the 16th century, the acquisition of additional Asian territory and the economic integration of previously acquired territory took a new turn in the 19th century.

Previously, Russian influence in its occupied territory was quite limited, without marked alteration of the social and economic structure of the conquered peoples. Aside from looting and exacting tribute from subject tribes, the major objects of interest were the fur trade, increased commerce with China and in the Pacific, and land. But changes in 19th-century Russian society, especially those coming after the Crimean War (1853-1856), signaled a new departure.

First, Russia’s resounding defeat in that war temporarily frustrated its aspirations in the Balkans and the Near East; but, because its dynastic and military ambitions were in no way diminished, its expansionist energies turned with increased vigour to its Asian frontiers.

Second, the emancipation of the serfs (1861), which eased the feudal restrictions on the landless peasants, led to large waves of migration by Russians and Ukrainians first to Siberia and later to Central Asia.


Third, the surge of industrialization, foreign trade, and railway building in the post-Crimean War decades paved the way for the integration of Russian Asia, which formerly, for all practical purposes, had been composed of separate dependencies, and for a new type of subjugation for many of these areas, especially in Central Asia, in which the conquered societies were ‘colonized’ to suit the political and economic needs of the conqueror.

This process of acquisition and consolidation in Asia spread out in four directions: Siberia, the Far East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This pursuit of tsarist ambitions for empire and for warm-water ports involved numerous clashes and conflicts along the way. Russian expansion was ultimately limited not by the fierce opposition of the native population, which was at times a stumbling block, but by the counter pressure of competitive empire builders, such as Great Britain and Japan.

Great Britain and Russia were mutually alarmed as the distances between the expanding frontiers of Russia and India shortened. One point of conflict was finally resolved when both powers agreed on the delimitation of the northern border of Afghanistan. A second major area of conflict in Central Asia was settled by an Anglo-Russian treaty (1907) to divide Persia into two separate spheres of influence, leaving a nominally independent Persian nation.

ii. Partitioning of China:


The evolution of the penetration of Asia was naturally influenced by a multiplicity of factors- economic and political conditions in the expanding nations, the strategy of the military officials of the latter nations, the problems facing colonial rulers in each locality, pressures arising from white settlers and businessmen in the colonies, as well as the constraints imposed by the always limited economic and military resources of the imperialist powers.

All these elements were present to a greater or lesser extent at each stage of the forward push of the colonial frontiers by the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), and the British in Malaya, Burma, and Borneo.

Yet, despite the variety of influences at work, three general types of penetration stand out. One of these is expansion designed to overcome resistance to foreign rule. Resistance, which assumed many forms ranging from outright rebellion to sabotage of colonial political and economic domination, was often strongest in the border areas farthest removed from the centres of colonial power.

The consequent extension of military control to the border regions tended to arouse the fears and opposition of neighbouring states or tribal societies and thus led to the further extension of control. Hence, attempts to achieve military security prompted the addition of border areas and neighbouring nations to the original colony.

As in the case of Afghanistan and Persia, penetration of Chinese territory produced clashes with both the native government and other imperialist powers. At times China’s preoccupation with its struggle against other invading powers eased the way for Russia’s penetration.

Thus, in 1860, when Anglo- French soldiers had entered Peking, Russia was able to wrest from China the Amur Province and special privileges in Manchuria (Northeast Provinces) south of the Amur River. With this as a stepping-stone, Russia took over the seacoast north of Korea and founded the town of Vladivostok.

But, because the Vladivostok harbour is icebound for some four months of the year, the Russians began to pay more attention to getting control of the Korean coastline, where many good year-round harbours could be found.

Attempts to acquire a share of Korea, as well as all of Manchuria, met with the resistance of Britain and Japan. Further thrusts into China beyond the Amur and Maritime Provinces were finally thwarted by defeat in 1905 in the Russo- Japanese War.

A second type of expansion was a response to the economic opportunities offered by exploitation of the colonial interiors. Traditional trade and the free play of market forces in Asia did not produce huge supplies of raw materials and food or the enlarged export markets sought by the industrializing colonial powers.

For this, entrepreneurs and capital from abroad were needed, mines and plantations had to be organized, labour supplies mobilized, and money economies created. All these alien intrusions functioned best under the firm security of an accommodating alien law and order.

The third type of expansion was the result of rivalry among colonial powers. When possible, new territory was acquired or old possessions extended in order either to preclude occupation by rivals or to serve as buffers for military security against the expansions of nearby colonial powers.

Where the crosscurrents of these rivalries prevented any one power from obtaining exclusive control, various substitute arrangements were arrived at- parts of a country were chipped off and occupied by one or more of the powers; spheres of influence were partitioned; unequal commercial treaties were imposed while the countries subjected to such treatment remained nominally independent.

The penetration of China is the outstanding example of this type of expansion. In the early 19th century the middle part of eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, and China), containing about half the Asian population, was still little affected by Western penetration.

By the end of the century, Korea was on the way to becoming annexed by Japan, which had itself become a leading imperialist power. China remained independent politically, though it was already extensively dominated by outside powers.

Undoubtedly, the intense rivalry of the foreign powers helped save China from being taken over outright (as India had been). China was pressed on all sides by competing powers anxious for its trade and territory: Russia from the north, Great Britain (via India and Burma) from the south and west, France (via Indochina) from the south, and Japan and the United States (in part, via the Philippines) from the east.

iii. Opium Wars:

The first phase of the forceful penetration of China by Western Europe came in the two Opium Wars. Great Britain had been buying increasing quantities of tea from China, but it had few products that China was interested in buying by way of exchange. A resulting steady drain of British silver to pay for the tea was eventually stopped by Great Britain’s ascendancy in India.

With British merchants in control of India’s foreign trade and .with the financing of this trade centred in London, a three-way exchange developed-the tea Britain bought in China was paid for by India’s exports of opium and cotton to China. And because of a rapidly increasing demand for tea in England, British merchants actively fostered the profitable exports of opium and cotton from India.

An increasing Chinese addiction to opium fed a boom in imports of the drug and led to an unfavourable trade balance paid for by a steady loss of China’s silver reserves. In light of the economic effect of the opium trade plus the physical and mental deterioration of opium users, Chinese authorities banned the opium trade.

At first this posed few obstacles to British merchants, who resorted to smuggling. But enforcement of the ban became stringent toward the end of the 1830s; stores of opium were confiscated, and warehouses were closed down. British merchants had an additional and longstanding grievance because the Chinese limited all trade by foreigners to the port of Canton.

iv. The Open Door Policy:

Toward the end of the 19th century, under the impact of the new imperialism, the spread of foreign penetration accelerated. Germany entered a vigorous bid for its sphere of influence; Japan and Russia pushed forward their territorial claims; and U.S. commercial and financial penetration of the Pacific, with naval vessels patrolling Chinese rivers, was growing rapidly.

But at the same time this mounting foreign interest also inhibited the outright partition of China. Any step by one of the powers toward outright partition or sizable enlargement of its sphere of influence met with strong opposition from other powers. This led eventually to the open door policy, advocated by the United States, which limited or restricted exclusive privileges of any one power vis-a-vis the others.

It became generally accepted after the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1900) in China. With the foreign armies that had been brought in to suppress the rebellion now stationed in North China, the danger to the continued existence of the Chinese government and the danger of war among the imperialist powers for their share of the country seemed greater than ever.

Agreement on the open door policy helped to retain both a compliant native government and equal opportunity for commerce, finance, and investment by the more advanced nations.

In June 1840 the British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Canton River to begin the Opium War. The Chinese capitulated in 1842 after the fleet reached the Yangtze, Shanghai fell, and Nanking was under British guns.

The resulting Treaty of Nanking-the first in a series of commercial treaties China was forced to sign over the years-provided for:

(1) Cession of Hong Kong to the British crown;

(2) The opening of five treaty ports, where the British would have residence and trade rights;

(3) The right of British nationals in China who were accused of criminal acts to be tried in British courts; and

(4) The limitation of duties on imports and exports to a modest rate. Other countries soon took advantage of this forcible opening of China; in a few years similar treaties were signed by China with the United States, France, and Russia.

The Chinese, however, tried to retain some independence by preventing foreigners from entering the interior of China. With the country’s economic and social institutions still intact, markets for Western goods, such as cotton textiles and machinery, remained disappointing: the self-sufficient communities of China were not disrupted as those in India had been under direct British rule, and opium smuggling by British merchants continued as a major component of China’s foreign trade.

Western merchants sought further concessions to improve markets. But meanwhile China’s weakness, along with the stresses induced by foreign intervention, was further intensified by an upsurge of peasant rebellions, especially the massive 14-year Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).

The Western powers took advantage of the increasing difficulties by pressing for even more favourable trade treaties, culminating in a second war against China (1856-1860), this time by France and England. Characteristically, the Western powers invading China played a double role: in addition to forcing a new trade treaty, they also helped to sustain the Chinese ruling establishment by participating in the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion; they believed that a Taiping victory would result in a reformed and centralized China, more resistant to Western penetration.

China’s defeat in the second war with the West produced a series of treaties, signed at Tientsin with Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, which brought the Western world deeper into China’s affairs.

The Tientsin treaties provided, among other things, for the right of foreign nationals to travel in the interior, the right of foreign ships to trade and patrol on the Yangtze River, the opening up of more treaty ports, and additional exclusive legal jurisdiction by foreign powers over their nationals residing in China.

v. Foreign Privileges in China:

Treaties of this general nature were extended over the years to grant further privileges to foreigners. Furthermore, more and more Western nations-including Germany, Italy, Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, and Austria-Hungary took advantage of the new opportunities by signing such treaties.

By the beginning of the 20th century, some 90 Chinese ports had been opened to foreign control. While the Chinese government retained nominal sovereignty in these ports, de facto rule was exercised by one or more of the powers: in Shanghai, for example, Great Britain and the United States are coalesced their interests to form the Shanghai International Settlement.

In most of the treaty ports, China leased substantial areas of land at low rates to foreign governments. The consulates in these concessions exercised legal jurisdiction over their nationals, who thereby escaped China’s laws and tax collections. The foreign settlements had their own police forces and tax systems and ran their own affairs independently of nominally sovereign China.

These settlements were not the only intrusion on China’s sovereignty. In addition, the opium trade was finally legalized, customs duties were forced downward to facilitate competition of imported Western goods, foreign gunboats patrolled China’s rivers, and aliens were placed on customs-collection staffs to ensure that China would pay the indemnities imposed by various treaties.

In response to these indignities and amid growing anti-foreign sentiment, the Chinese government attempted reforms to modernize and develop sufficient strength to resist foreign intrusions.

Steps were taken to master Western science and technology, erect shipyards and arsenals, and build a more effective Army and Navy. The reforms, however, did not get very far- they did not tackle the roots of China’s vulnerability, its social and political structure; and they were undertaken quite late, after foreign nations had already established a strong foothold.

Also, it is likely that the reforms were not wholehearted because two opposing tendencies were at play: on the one hand, a wish to seek independence and, on the other hand, a basic reliance on foreign support by a weak Manchu government beset with rebellion and internal opposition.

vi. Japan’s Rise as a Colonial Power:

Japan was the only Asian country to escape colonization from the West. European nations and the United States tried to ‘open the door,’ and to some extent they succeeded; but Japan was able to shake off the kind of subjugation, informal or formal, to which the rest of Asia succumbed.

Even more important, it moved onto the same road of industrialization as did Europe and the United States. And instead of being colonized it became one of the colonial powers.

Japan had traditionally sought to avoid foreign intrusion. For many years, only the Dutch and the Chinese were allowed trading depots. Each was having access to only one port. No other foreigners were permitted to land in Japan, though Russia, France, and England tried, but with little success.

The first significant crack in Japan’s trade and travel barriers was forced by the United States in an effort to guarantee and strengthen its shipping interests in the Far East. Japan’s guns and ships were no match for those of commodore Perry in his two U.S. naval expeditions to Japan (1853, 1854).

Many attempts have been made to explain why a weak Japan was not taken over as a colony or, at least, did not follow in China’s footsteps. Despite the absence of a commonly accepted theory, two factors were undoubtedly crucial.

On the one hand, the Western nations did not pursue their attempts to control Japan as aggressively as they did elsewhere. In Asia the interests of the more aggressively expanding powers had centred on India, China, and the immediately surrounding areas.

The Japanese, well aware of the implications of foreign penetration through observing what was happening to China, tried to limit Western trade to two ports. In 1858, however, Japan agreed to a full commercial treaty with the United States, followed by similar treaties with the Low Countries, Russia, France, and Britain.

The treaty pattern was familiar: more ports were opened; resident foreigners were granted extraterritorial rights, as in China; import and export duties were predetermined, thus removing control that Japan might otherwise exercise over its foreign trade.

When greater interest developed in a possible breakthrough in Japan in the 1850s and 1860s, the leading powers were occupied with other pressing affairs, such as the 1857 Indian mutiny, the Taiping Rebellion, the Crimean War, French intervention in Mexico, and the U.S. Civil War. International jealousy may also have played a role in deterring any one power from trying to gain exclusive control over the country.

On the other hand, in Japan itself, the danger of foreign military intervention, a crisis in its traditional feudal society, the rise of commerce, and a disaffected peasantry led to an intense internal power struggle and finally to a revolutionary change in the country’s society and a thoroughgoing modernization program, one that brought Japan the economic and military strength to resist foreign nations.

The opposing forces in Japan’s civil war were lined up between the supporters of the ruling Tokugawa family, which headed a rigid hierarchical feudal society, and the supporters of the emperor Meiji, whose court had been isolated from any significant government role. The civil war culminated in 1868 in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government and the restoration of the rule of the Emperor.

The Meiji Restoration also brought new interest groups to the centre of political power and instigated a radical redirection of Japan’s economic development. The nub of the changeover was the destruction of the traditional feudal social system and the building of a political, social, and economic framework conducive to capitalist industrialization.

The new state actively participated in the turnabout by various forms of grants and guarantees to enterprising industrialists and by direct investment in basic industries such as railways, shipbuilding, communications, and machinery.

The concentration of resources in the industrial sector was matched by social reforms that eliminated feudal restrictions, accelerated mass education, and encouraged acquisition of skills in the use of Western technology. The ensuing industrialized economy provided the means for Japan to hold its own in modern warfare and to withstand foreign economic competition.

Soon Japan not only followed the Western path of internal industrialization, but it also began an outward aggression resembling that of the European nations. Then first came the acquisition and colonization of neighbouring islands- Ryukyu Islands (including Okinawa), the Kuril Islands, Bonin Islands, and Hokkaido.

Next in Japan’s expansion program was Korea, but the opposition of other powers postponed the transformation of Korea into a Japanese colony. The pursuit of influence in Korea involved Japan in war with China (1894-1895), at the end of which China recognized Japan’s interest in Korea and ceded to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores, and southern Manchuria.

At this point rival powers interceded to force Japan to forgo taking over the southern Manchuria peninsula. While France, Britain, and Germany were involved in seeking to frustrate Japan’s imperial ambitions, the most direct clash was with Russia over Korea and Manchuria. Japan’s defeat of Russia in the war of 1904-1905 procured for Japan the lease of the Liaotung Peninsula, the southern part of the island of Sakhalin, and recognition of its ‘paramount interest’ in Korea.

Still, pressure by Britain and the United States kept Japan from fulfillment of its plan to possess Manchuria outright. By the early 20th century, however, Japan had, by means of economic and political penetration, attained a privileged position in that part of China, as well as colonies in Korea and Taiwan and neighbouring islands.