6.2B: State Expansion from 1750 to 1900

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Learning Objective 6B

Compare processes by which state power shifted in various parts of the world from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

Some states with existing colonies strengthened their control over those colonies and in some cases assumed direct control over colonies previously held by non-state entities.

Historical Development 2

Many European states used both warfare and diplomacy to expand their empires in Africa.

Historical Development 3

Europeans established settler colonies in some parts of their empires.


The first wave of western expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries primarily resulted in the colonization of the Americas and the establishment of trading post empires in Africa and Asia. Most African and Asian states were far too powerful to be taken over by Europeans before the 19th century. The Europeans also lacked the technology that would allow them to safely go into the interiors of the African and Asian continents. 

Technology gave industrial nations a new advantage:  Industrialization gave western nations the advantage. Industrialized nation-states possessed the most advanced steel gunpowder weapons and new methods of transportation and communication.

Europeans Increased Colonial Control Over Asia and Africa

After losing its colonies in the Americas, Europe shifted its focus from building and maintaining trading relations with African and Asian states to relationships of domination and outright colonial control. 

Before the late 18th century, many African and Asian states had maintained their independence from Europe. European power in those regions was primarily confined to coastal trading bases.

Major historical change: Europeans will now incorporate vast portions of Africa and Asia into their maritime empires as their coastal trading posts expand into the interiors of Africa and Asia. 

Trading post empires

European influence was largely coastal. Natives still dominated politically, economically, and socially  

Expanded colonial empires

European influence expanded deeper into continental interiors. Europeans dominated political, economic, and social institutions. 

Types of colonial control in expanded empires

This second wave of European expansion included direct and indirect colonial control.

  1. Direct colonial control: Foreign powers directly controlled and governed colonial territories and societies. Colonizers held the highest positions of political and economic power.

British India

The Belgian Congo

British Australia

  1. Indirect colonial control: Foreign powers exerted power over native governments and economies by forcing weaker governments to sign unequal treaties giving outside powers special political and economic privileges. While technically in control, foreign powers limited natives’ ability to make independent decisions.

Qing China

The Ottoman Empire


Types of indirect control
A country or colony with its own government subservient to a foreign power claiming its influence is necessary to protect the weaker power.
The American Philippines and Puerto Rico
Sphere of influence
A country or colony with its own government subservient to a foreign power claiming its influence is necessary to protect the weaker power.
China carved up into various European, Japanese, and Russian spheres of influence
A country’s economy is controlled by an outside power but is technically politically independent from the outside power.
Chiquita banana company in Guatemala

Methods of colonial expansion

European expansion in this period happened through a variety of methods. 



Power transfer from exploration companies to governments

New colonies obtained through warfare and diplomacy

The Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for Africa was not a single event but a series of events in the second half of the 19th century. European powers invaded, occupied, and colonized the majority of the African continent. By 1914 only Liberia and Ethiopia (Abyssinia) remained independent. European desire for raw materials and markets to sell industrial goods was a chief cause of Africa’s conquest. Power, prestige, and national glory were also essential components. 

The Berlin Conference: The Berlin Conference took place between 1884-1885 and represents the main event of the multi-decade Scramble for Africa. Major European powers met in Berlin, Germany, to negotiate and stake claim to portions of the African continent at the conference. African representatives and peoples were not consulted or invited to the meeting as Europeans drew new African borders and claimed African territory for European nations.

Africa and Europe’s relations pre/post-Berlin Conference


European relationships in Africa largely revolved around trade through European coastal trading posts. Europe signed agreements with African rulers and tribes for the right to engage in trade and commerce.


Nearly all of Africa was claimed by European powers and forced into mercantile economic relationships. Europe took control of African political and economic systems. European settlers moved into colonies in British South Africa and French North Africa. Native peoples lost social status to white colonizers, and Europeans forced many natives into forced labor systems.

New colonies obtained through warfare and diplomacy

French colonial expansion through warfare and diplomacy

In the 19th century, the French began building their 2nd empire across Asia and Africa.

French West Africa: Starting in the 1880s, the French began expanding from coastal areas into the interior of West Africa. France acquired much of the territory by signing treaties with African leaders that ceded territory to the French. In most cases, African leaders only ceded territory because of French threats of military force should they refuse. In other areas such as Algeria, military conquest forced French colonial control. The Algerian conquest began in 1832 and was completed by 1852. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Algerians were killed within the first three decades of the conquest due to war, massacres, disease, and famine.

French Indochina (mainland Southeast Asia):

The French also expanded into Southeast Asia. By 1890, France controlled all of what is today Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Below are the major steps France took in its expansion into the region. 

  1. The 1860s: France negotiated with the king of Thailand for France to control Cambodia. In exchange for Thailand’s support for French rule in Cambodia, the French supported the Thai king’s taking of two territories from the neighboring kingdom of Laos. Southern Vietnam was also invaded and taken by force.
  2. 1882-1885: France gained control of Northern Vietnam in the 1880s when it defeated the Chinese in the Sino-French War (1882-1885) 
  3. The 1880s: Thailand seeded Laos to the French in the late 1880s. 
British colonial expansion through warfare and diplomacy

Throughout the 19th century, the British used warfare and diplomacy to expand throughout Africa. 

British West Africa: In West Africa, the British controlled the modern countries of The Gambia, Sierra Leon, Ghana, and Nigeria. Initially, the British presence in these areas had been small trading posts. After the British outlawed slavery, they expanded into the interior of West Africa and created colonies. They justified their expansion by saying that if they did not expand their presence in the region, they would not have been able to stop the slave trade. In reality, the British were looking for new economic opportunities to replace lost revenue from abolishing the slave trade. 

British Egypt: The British conquered Egypt in 1882. The British invasion and victory in the Anglo-Egyptian War in 1882 resulted from Britain’s desire to control the Suez Canal that linked the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. This strategic waterway saves maritime vessels weeks as they transit between Asia and Europe.   

British South Africa: The British acquired South Africa during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). When the war started, the Dutch East India Company controlled South Africa. The British invaded and took control of South Africa to keep the French from controlling it. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch formally gave the British control of the colony in The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. 

European States Strengthened Control Over Existing Colonies

Before the 19th century, some European governments had authorized private individuals and companies to manage certain colonies. In the 19th century, these forms of indirect colonization ended.

British India

Controlled by the British East India Company

Control passed to the British government following the First Indian War for Independence 

Dutch Indonesia

Controlled by the Dutch East India Company

Control passed to the Dutch government following the collapse of the Dutch East India Company

The Congo

Controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium.  

After the brutality of Leopold’s rule, the colony was taken from King Leopold and ruled by the Belgian government. 

British India

Until the 19th century, Britain was just one of several trading powers competing for increased trade with the Mughals in India. The British East India Company had established trading relationships with the Mughal empire in the 17th century. However, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries,  the Mughal empire weakened. As the Mughals weakened, the British forced Mughal leaders to increase British access to trade in Mughal territories.

How did the British finally defeat the Mughals? 

In 1857, the last Mughal emperor was defeated by the British. However, the process that led to the defeat of the once-mighty Mughal dynasty was decades in the making. 

  1. First, they gained exclusive trading rights with the Mughal empire. 
  2. Later, the company acquired the right to collect taxes within the Mughal territories. 
  3. Unable to collect their own taxes and reliant upon the British military, by the mid 19th century, the Mughals were effectively under the power of the British East India Company.

The British East India company’s management in India: The British government allowed the British East India Company to manage the Indian colony. The company had all the rights of an actual government. 

  • The company maintained its own army, composed mainly of native Indian soldiers (Sepoys). 
  • The company managed the government of India. 
  • The company minted its own currency. 
  • The company controlled Indian trade. 

The First Indian War for Independence: The British East India Company ruled India until 1857, when a revolt by the Sepoy army almost cost the British control over India. The uprising began when a rumor spread that the British had greased the gun cartridges with pig and cow fat. The cow was holy to the Hindu sepoy, and the pig was unholy to the Muslim sepoy. The Hindu and Muslim Sepy refused to put two animal fats into their mouths to bite the cartridges before their use. The last Mughal Emperor reluctantly supported the revolt in a final attempt to reestablish Mughal control over India. 

The End of the East India Company: After initial successes, the revolt ultimately failed. After regaining control, the British government transferred control of India from the East India Company to the British government. 

Dutch Indonesia

The Dutch East India Company had a monopoly on Dutch trade with Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The company had immense power. Like in British India, the Dutch government had granted them the legal authority to wage war, build fortresses, and make treaties across Asia. 

From company to Dutch government control: Smuggling, the ongoing expense of war, corruption, and mismanagement led to the bankruptcy (failed and ran out of money) of the Dutch East India Company by the end of the 18th century. The Dutch government took over the direct colonial administration of the Dutch East India colony.

The Belgian Congo

The Congo Free State was Central Africa from 1885 to 1908. King Leopold II of Belgium privately owned it. The colony was not under the control of the Belgian state. It was the only European colony directly owned by an individual. Leopold managed to gain control over the region by convincing European governments at the Berlin Conference that he wanted to engage in humanitarian and philanthropic work (charity) in the Congo. Most importantly to other European governments, Leopold promised not to tax trade in the region. 

The Brutality of Leopold’s rule:  One of history’s greatest tragedies is what happened under Leopold’s leadership. Within two decades, millions of people died from disease, famine, overwork, and murder. The worst atrocities happened under the labor policies of the natural rubber collection industry in the Congo. This industry forced Congolese to collect rubber for export. Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by having one’s family taken hostage, hands and arms cut off, or execution.

New settler colonies were established

Between the 15th and 20th centuries, Europeans established both settler and non-settler colonies. 

Comparison of settler v. non-settler colonies
Settler colonies
Large numbers of foreign colonizers move into a colony and, over time, begin to make up a substantial portion of the population.
Australia, Canada, Hawaii, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Western United States
Non-settler colonies
Foreign colonizers go to the colony in fewer numbers, usually running the government or engaging in business and commerce.
Most of Europe’s African colonies (except South Africa and French Algeria), French Indochina (Vietnam, and Dutch Indonesia
The British in Australia and New Zealand

The economics of Australia and New Zealand: Like other colonies, Australia and New Zealand became engines of economic growth for Britain. Floods of people immigrated to Australia after miners discovered gold in the 1850s. Fifty thousand Chinese migrated during the Australian gold rush.  Both Australia and New Zealand exported large quantities of wool to British textile mills.

Impacts of indigenous peoples: The process of colonization in Australia and New Zealand completely replaced the political, economic, and social structures of native peoples. Just like in the Americas, the effects of colonization on native peoples in the South Pacific were catastrophic. 

  1. New diseases spread among natives resulting in large numbers of deaths.
  2. White settlers took most of the land from Aborigines
  3. White settlers placed most of Australia and New Zealand under the political and economic control of white settlers 

Important note: The native Maori in New Zealand lost 75% of their population due to disease and warfare with British settlers.

The French in Algeria

From roughly the last half of the 19th century until independence, the Pieds-Noirs accounted for approximately 10% of the Algerian population. Although a  minority, French Algerians were the prime political and economic beneficiaries of French occupation. 

Algeria becomes a part of France: Most French people and forces were in the coastal areas— Alger, Oran, and Constantine —  along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast south of France. The 1848 French constitution incorporated these areas into the country of France and were no longer considered colonies. White French Christians had full political rights, while Muslims did not. Native French placed on Muslims voting rights and their ability to work within the government. By 1915 only 50,000–out of millions- Muslims were eligible to vote in local elections.

The British in South Africa

The history of White settlement in South Africa started in 1652 with the Cape of Good Hope settlement by the Dutch East India Company. After South Africa was taken by the British in 1806, the British parliament decided to send farmers to cultivate land in South Africa. Like in other settler colonies, Europeans removed natives from their lands and started a system of white racial supremacy. By 1904 21.6% (1,116,805) of the South African population was white.