home | history

Overseas Empire at the Beginning of the 20th Century

In August 1900, William Jennings Bryan read his big campaign speech complaining about people having the right to govern themselves, about freedom from foreign rule being in the "hearts of men" and it not being "necessary to own people in order to trade with them." In November he lost the presidential election (his second of three) and whatever influence went with that office.

The US was beginning its rule in the Philippines. There were US Marines in China, in response to what would be called the Boxer Rebellion and the Chinese would call the "invasion of the Allied Armies.

The Qing Dynasty's Dowager Empress, Cixi, surrendered in September 1901, and she signed an agreement that imposed an heavy indemnity on her government, an agreement that allowed the stationing of foreign troops in Beijing, demanded the execution of several high officials who had supported the Boxers as had the Empress. And she returned to her palace in Beijing in January 1902.

Germans in Africa

The Germans were declaring China's Shandong peninsula as within their sphere of influence. There two German missionaries had been killed in 1897, and China had been forced to agree to a 99-year lease of the area to Germany.

The Germans in Southwest Africa were hoping to create a German-owned cattle industry. By 1903 around 4,700 German civilians were there. They were driving the local pastoral Herero and Nama people from their tribal lands, and in 1904 there was rebellion. German troops killed local chieftains and one-third of the Nama nation. Five thousand Germans died in the war, thousands of Hereros were driven into exile, and only one-third of the Herero people remained in Southwest Africa after the war. It was to be known as the Herero and Namaqua genocide

In Tanganyika, on the east coast, the Germans tried to create a plantation agriculture, introducing a rubber industry and the growing of tea and cinchona. In 1905, the German administration in Tanganyika ordered local people to give up their traditional pursuits and raise cotton on communal plots. The distressed people turned to their tribal priests, who gave them water medicine (maji) said to be powerful enough to protect them from the bullets of white men. In July 1905 an uprising began against the Germans, and within a few weeks the Germans broke the main thrust of the revolt. Order would be restored in 1907, and the war, famine and disease would be said to have killed an estimated 75,000 Africans.

Belgium Congo

In what was called the Belgian Congo, a Belgian company, Union Miniere, was extracting minerals, while other companies were extracting rubber and ivory. These companies were forcing local people to work for them, with gang bosses using whips and incentivized to increase production. When villages failed to produce their assigned quota of rubber, they might be attacked by soldiers recruited by the Belgians from among Africans. Or the errant villages might be attacked by company guards. Village chiefs and women were taken as hostages against deliveries of the required production of rubber. Men were assigned to control local villages, and they established themselves as despots, using women as they pleased, taking what food supplies they wished. In an effort to control their supply of workers, the Belgians resorted to mutilation – cutting off a hand, arm or some other extremity. In May 1903, members of Britain's House of Commons began complaining about the Belgian treatment of people in the Congo, and in August that year Britain sent a note of protest to Belgium. King Leopold of Belgium responded by rejecting what he called British interference in his colonial affairs.

Britain's government commissioned one of its diplomats, the Irishman Roger Casement, to write a report. Copies of the report were sent by the British government to the Belgian government as well as to nations who were signatories to the Berlin Agreement in 1885, under which much of Africa had been partitioned. The British Parliament demanded a meeting of the fourteen signatory powers to review the 1885 Berlin Agreement. Belgium's Parliament was pushed by its socialist leader Emile Vandervelde and other critics and it forced Belgium's reluctant monarch, Leopold II, to set up an independent commission of inquiry. Its findings confirmed Casement's report in every detail. This led to the arrest and punishment of officials who had been responsible for murders in the year 1903. His penalty for the deaths of 122 Congolese: a five-year sentence.

The French

The French were less racial in their attitude toward Africans than were the British. The French believed they could remake Africans and other colonized people into French persons. But they were taking agricultural land from Africans. In French controlled Western Africa, forty French companies held half the land, and backed by French troops these companies operated in ways they would not dare in France, such as using forced labor. Entire communities were regularly drafting to labor on public works. French overseers were often simple men who were poor at communicating other than with the threat of brute force. Occasionally people were worked to death. The patience of Africans had its limits, and revolts occurred that the French crushed them with considerable violence.

The average person in France was unaware of conditions in their African colonies. And the same can be said concerning French rule in Vietnam, where the French were equally oppressive. In the late nineteenth century, the French overthrew a feudal monarchy and fought extended military campaigns against resistance to their rule. Many of Vietnam's educated elite opposed French rule and would not work for the French, but the French found a few opportunistic Vietnamese who would.

In Vietnam, and elsewhere in Indochina, Frenchmen grabbed lands and built plantations that produced rubber and other forest products. In the first decade of the twentieth century, France's colonial administration in Vietnam encouraged French commercial enterprises. They built railways, roads and hydraulic works to serve these enterprises. Peasants continued to suffer from the usual droughts and floods while projects that would have served Vietnamese farmers were ignored. Under the French, per capita rice consumption declined, and what had been Vietnam's handicraft industry was destroyed.

A new class of Vietnamese had come into being: people who labored for the French as servants, or who labored in French-owned mines, on French-owned plantations, at French construction sites or in French-owned factories. The French paid them as little as they could – hardly enough for survival, and sometimes not enough. As in Africa, the French were taxing the Vietnamese and drafting them to labor on public works. On one such project, the Hanoi-Yunnan Phu railway, killed 25,000 Vietnamese.

The French in Vietnam established a monopoly in the production of salt and opium. They taxed consumption of these. They encouraged Vietnamese to buy their opium, the money gained an important part of the colonial administration's income. A French company, Fontaine, held a monopoly in making and selling alcoholic beverages, and all other distilling was banned and severely punished with imprisonment and confiscation of property. In 1902 the colonial administration made buying alcoholic beverages compulsory, each Vietnamese village having to consume a definite quantity in proportion to its population – more of the behavior that French commerce and government dared not perpetrate on people in France.

In 1908, Vietnamese farmers responded to a rise in taxes by marching to the French administration headquarters in Hue. For weeks, thousands of peasants picketed the governor's office and made passionate speeches, not only against taxes but forced labor. The protest spread, and the French countered with ferocity. Demonstrators were gunned down. Whole villages were razed to the ground. Thousands were arrested, and two Vietnamese scholars who had spoken against French policies were executed.

Meanwhile, French taxpayers were subsidizing their nation's colonies. French commercial operations were benefiting privately owned French companies, but it was the average taxpayer who was paying the cost of their colony's maintenance and administration.


CONTINUE READING: The Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.