Colonialism: Transimperial Cooperation and the European Idea (1880-1914)

Christian Methfessel and Florian Wagner


Transimperial cooperation was the norm, rather than the exception in colonial history between the 1880s and 1914. European powers who conquered the world during this period were certainly rivals, but ultimately cooperated to uphold colonial domination and colonial rule. More importantly, the colonised did not respect imperial borders, and in crossing them, provoked transimperial reactions and coalitions. Anti-colonial movements, in particular, transgressed imperial borders to organise resistance. At the same time, anti-colonialists blamed Europeans for working together in organizing colonial domination and exploitation. Long before postcolonial theory exposed the uniformity of Western colonialism, the colonised realised that colonial violence was indeed transimperial violence. Transimperial violence coincided with an epistemic violence in which “Europe” portrayed itself as a superior civilization and delegitimised any collective expression of emancipation on the part of the colonised (Kamissek/Kreienbaum 2016). This contribution aims to explore these developments with a focus on the years between 1880 and 1914, the time habitually referred to as the “age of imperialism”.

Transimperial Cooperation

As historians discovered transnational history (Conrad/Osterhammel 2004), the cooperation of Europeans across empires also received increased attention (Lindner 2011; Barth/Cvetkovski 2015). Scholars framed transimperial history as being at the intersection of transnational, international, imperial and colonial history (Bandeira Jéronimo/Monteiro 2017; Wagner forthcoming). While transimperial history gains ground, the fascination with cooperation among European empires often misled historians to repeat history and neglect the agency of the colonised (Stoler/Cooper 1997). In fact, Africans and Asians in the colonies were often at the origin of transimperial interaction and forced the imperial states to react, for example in cases of colonial wars or cross-border migration. More than that, the colonised were well aware of the cooperation among Europeans, in the same way they knew about their rivalries. Consequently, the inhabitants of the colonies positioned themselves with regard to cooperating and competing colonial powers. While some of them pledged allegiance to their respective metropoles, others sought the support of the international community, and an increasing number finally created transimperial alliances to fight colonialism as a whole (Manela 2007; Goebel 2015). Transimperial interaction helped the colonised and the colonisers alike in forming shifting alliances to increase their agency and impose their will.

While the period between the 1880s and 1914 has often been labelled an age of imperial rivalry, it is more adequate to call it an era of colonial consensus. Imperial powers in Europe arbitrated all colonial conflicts at international congresses, ranging from the partition of Africa at the Berlin Congress of 1884/5 via the Brussels conference of 1890 through the 1911 agreement on Morocco. This prewar diplomacy anticipated the institutionalization of transimperial cooperation in the League of Nations mandate system (1919) and the United Nations Trust Territories (Pedersen 2015). The International Colonial Institute (1893), a transnational learned society assembling over 100 colonial experts from twelve different countries, held up the ideal of cooperation (Lindner 2015; Wagner 2015). One French member of the Institute declared in 1907, during the Franco-German conflict over Morocco: “We, the friends of colonial expansion in Germany and in France, shall cherish one ideal that we found on the journeys we have made, at the remote places we have seen and during the strenuous and adventurous lives we have led […]. This ideal is certainly not more beautiful than the nationalist thought, but it complements it in the most useful and human way: it is the European ideal” (de Pouvourville 1907).While cherishing this ideal, the Institute’s members aimed at making colonial rule more efficient by exchanging techniques of domination and exploitation from which the colonised population suffered severely.

In other fields, such as colonial medicine, a transnational epistemic community emerged, for example to fight so-called tropical diseases in the colonies such as sleeping sickness and malaria (Neill 2012, 2017; Ehlers 2019). International medical congresses accompanied cooperation in the colonies, with the purpose of stabilizing colonial rule: “It is obvious that the respective governments have a joint interest in stamping out those diseases which endanger the economic development of their territories.” (Brode 1911: 134) In German East Africa, for example, the famous German bacteriologist Robert Koch joined forces with colleagues from British Uganda to combat malaria more effectively. On his recommendation, British and German authorities cut the bushes surrounding Lake Victoria, where the contagious tsetse flies had their breeding grounds. So-called “concentration camps” multiplied on both sides of the border to “segregate” suspect Africans and put them in quarantine (Brode 1911: 79-80; Eckart 1997). In this respect, the colonial border turned into a zone of German-British cooperation. Interestingly, while observers of the 1890s deemed cooperation among European doctors exceptional, Chinese and African medicine had spread across the entire world. Via the African diaspora, for example, African healing methods spread to the Caribbean and the Americas (Hokkanen/Kananoja 2019).

One important reason for the European medical campaigns was the need for workers who ran the colonial economy. Immunizing them against diseases was to prepare them to survive the strenuous manual work on plantations and construction sites. Because working conditions were appalling and the salaries low or inexistent, many refused to work for Europeans and fled the construction sites and plantations. Colonisers tried to compensate the loss through forced labour and recruitment from foreign colonies. Thus, colonizing powers agreed to recruit workers from other colonies. While labour migrants from Mozambique, for example, often voluntarily agreed to work in the South African mining industry (Harries 1994), Chinese coolies who worked on plantations in the Dutch Indies suffered from a system of enforced “indentured” labour (Stoler 2008). To organise and control this labour migration, colonial powers made agreements that brought them into mutual dependence.

So did railway lines that the labour migrants built and which stretched across different colonies. They were at the heart of a transimperial export economy, which organised the export of resources and cash crops, mainly for the benefit of Europeans. The colonial economy, in general, brought European colonial administrations closer to each other. They exchanged improved cash crops and planting techniques (Ross 2017; Wagner 2020). One of the most famous cases is the transfer of cotton and its planting techniques from the Americas to Africa. Afro-American cotton experts played an important role in this transfer, which was accompanied by the transfer of racial stereotypes and racist structures of exploitative plantation work (Zimmerman 2010; Beckert 2005). In sum, the most important result of transimperial cooperation was the dissemination of racist patterns of thinking, along with a racist organization of politics, society, and economy.

Imperial cooperation was deemed most necessary when resistance threatened European rule and expansion in Africa or Asia. For instance, from 1857 to 1860, France and Britain together fought China during the Second Opium War (Wong 1999). Even when relations between colonial powers were sour, common interests demanded a certain degree of cooperation. Thus, in times of increasing Anglo-German rivalries, the British Empire – at least partially – responded to German requests for assistance in the repression of uprisings in its African colonies from 1904 to 1908 (Kuß 2006: 237-239).

Back in Europe German politicians and media habitually accused Britain of insufficient support. And indeed, during the brutal suppression of the uprising in German South-West Africa, British authorities hesitated to cooperate with the German war effort. Considering the bad image German colonial methods had in the Cape Colony, the administration there was cautious to keep its distance from the German colonial state. Initially, fear that too openly taking Germany’s side would provoke the indigenous population in the British colony outweighed the solidarity with the colonial neighbour in Africa (Fröhlich 1990: 234-266).

This was for example the case when Jacobus Morenga, one of the leaders of the rebellion, crossed the border between German South-West Africa and the Cape Colony in May 1906. Much to the chagrin of the German colonial administration, Morenga’s German pursuers were stopped by British police forces after they had illegally crossed the border and Morenga was granted asylum in the Cape Colony. Once there, Morenga strived to further fuel Anglo-German antagonism. In an interview with a local newspaper, he stated that the remaining leaders of the rebellion would continue the war against Germany until their death but would surrender if the British Empire took over South-West Africa (Bühler 2003: 278-285). Notwithstanding Morenga’s skilful exploitation of Anglo-German conflicts, in the end the colonial consensus of the age proved to be stronger than the rivalries between the two colonial powers. When Morenga, against the conditions of his asylum, crossed the border to South-West Africa in August 1907 to continue his fight, the authorities in London and the Cape Colony agreed to joint military action with Germany. A British force, accompanied by the German officer Eberhard von Hagen, attacked Morenga’s troops and killed him. For von Hagen, the cooperation was a demonstration that the “white race” now stood solidly united against the African population (Lindner 2011: 270-274).

The last large-scale military cooperation of this kind was the Franco-British intervention during the Suez Crisis 1956, and its failure highlighted Europe’s diminishing power in world affairs (Dietl 2008). While in most cases, only two or three colonial states cooperated, during the Boxer War 1900/01, six European states, as well as Japan and the United States joined forces against China (Klein 2014).

Colonialism and the History of the European Idea

At the height of the war against China, when the European press falsely reported that the “Boxers” had killed all foreigners besieged in Beijing’s Legation Quarter, the Daily Mail commented on 16 July 1900: “All Europe is combined to punish the treacherous Government which has murdered her Ministers” (Murder Most Foul 1900). That the Daily Mail used the term “Europe” to refer to the allied imperial powers offers insights into another linkage between European and colonial history: despite all international rivalries, the imperial expansion significantly contributed to a feeling of European belonging. It shaped the ways Europeans perceived themselves and Europe’s place in the world, the ways Europeans defined what it meant to be European and their perception of the rest of the world.

Older research has rarely focused on this topic, although there are exceptions. As early as 1964, Heinz Gollwitzer (328-332) had discussed the importance of the imperial expansion for the history of the idea of Europe. Edward W. Said’s book Orientalism (1978) and Stuart Hall’s classic The West and the Rest (1992) are important contributions to the history of the European self-image. However, it was not until the early 2000s that such questions regularly and more prominently featured in studies on the history of the European idea (Frevert 2003: 78-100; Kaelble 2008: 69-71; Schmale 2008: 91-99; Bösch/Brill/Greiner 2012: 27-116; Dinkel/Greiner/Methfessel 2014). Furthermore, research on the impact of imperial expansion on the culture and science of colonizing states unveiled the racist stereotypes that became a crucial part of European representations of the self and the other in the age of colonialism (MacKenzie 1984, 1999; Honold/Scherpe 2004; Hall/Rose 2006; Singaravelou 2011).

Reflections on the difference between Europe and the rest of the world accompanied the global expansion of Europe from its beginnings (Hall 1992: 296-314; Schmale 2008: 91-94). However, from the late nineteenth century onwards, they became part of mass culture and everyday consumption habits. Advertisement used racist images and exoticism to sell goods (Ciarlo 2003); postcards displayed colonial images (Axster 2014); in England, performances in the music halls celebrated the Empire (Summerfield 1986); and the press regularly covered the events in the non-European world (Bösch 2008; Methfessel 2019). Admittedly, the degree to which colonialism was engrained in European mass culture and the popularity of the imperial expansion are contested among scholars (Porter 2004). Moreover, depictions of colonialism often celebrated the imperial expansion of the own nation-state, thereby contributing to ideas of Britishness or German nationalism and thus fuelling rivalries among the European nations. Yet depictions of colonised people usually worked with stereotypes of the non-European, thus not only contributing to nationalism, but also to an implicit or explicit idea of Europe. Moreover, as the example of the Boxer War demonstrates, time and again even nationalist voices deemed it necessary to appeal to European unity for the sake of imperial expansion (Methfessel 2009, 2017).

The representations in these media reproduced an idea of European superiority, i.e. the belief in the superiority of the “white race” or Europe’s duty to “civilise” the world and transform it based on its own model (Kaelble 2001: 27-31; Bart/Osterhammel 2005; Methfessel 2012b). In line with this, the press normally used the term “Europe” synonymously with terms like the “West” or “civilised world”, and the term “Europeans” was used interchangeably with “whites”. Accordingly, colonial representations of Europe were rarely drawn in opposition to the United States. After all, the United States was an imperial power, too; during the Boxer War, it fought on the side of the European countries to keep China under imperial influences. Only when Washington questioned Europe’s dominance over the rest of the world, an image of “Europe” in sharp distinction to the rising superpower emerged. In the late nineteenth century, this was only the case when the United States, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, opposed Europe’s expansion in South America (Methfessel 2012a). Things changed, however, in the age of decolonization, when for example during the Suez Crisis Washington did set limits to France and Britain’s imperialist action. The demonstration of the old colonial states’ fading power on the world stage motivated efforts among the adherents of European unity to accelerate the process of European integration (Hansen/Jonsson 2014: 157-167).

The case of the Suez Crisis shows the longevity of the connection between colonialism and ideas of European unity. During the interwar period, the press kept discussing common European interests in the colonies (Greiner 2014: 300-323). And early proponents of European integration, evoking an idea of “Eurafrica”, called for pan-European cooperation in the colonization of Africa (van Laak 2010; Hansen/Jonsson 2014: 25-69). And even though today’s perceptions of Europe’s role and influence differ substantially from those colonial visions, many features of the colonial representations of Europe survived. When right-wing movements, despite all their nationalism, paint a picture of a “white” Europe threatened by African and Asian immigration, they draw on ideas of Europe that were shaped by colonial contexts.

Long before World War I, scholars from the Global South exposed the fatal consequences of this racist understanding of Europe and the Eurocentric “internationalism” that went hand in hand with transimperial cooperation. As early as 1912, the Indian sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887-1949) skilfully analysed the ambiguous situation of European states between empire, nation, and international cooperation. Sarkar observed that the “constant interactions and intercourses of life and thought” shaped imperial Europe, and that “in fact, none of the various aspects of national life are absolutely dependent on the particular people concerned, all are the products and resultants of the mutual influences of all nations and national activities on one another” (Sarkar, 1912). Apart from realizing that European nationalism and internationalism were both imperialist, Sarkar cautioned not to forget the agency of the colonised. According to him, European history was made by “world-forces” and the activities of the “human race” as whole, including the inhabitants of the colonies.

Sarkar’s awareness of global interconnectedness and indigenous agency did not blind him to asymmetries established by transimperial Europe and the Eurocentric knowledge production that emerged from it. In 1922, he promoted a common “war against colonialism in politics and against ‘orientalisme’ in science”. In so doing, he not only appealed to anti-colonial solidarity against transimperial Europe but also criticised Europe’s monopoly on scientific knowledge production that produced „orientalist“ and racist aberrations. Instead of embracing a biased Eurocentric science, he pleaded for a true universal science that took the epistemology of non-Europeans into account (Goswami 2012: 1464). Since most anti-colonialists of the early twentieth century shared a common goal, Sarkar was in touch with Indian Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore and Afro-American activist W.E.B. Dubois, who saw in Pan-Asian and Pan-African solidarity a way to overcome colonialism and racism. For example, Dubois played a leading role at the first pan-African Congress in London in July 1900 which in its condemnation of exploitation and racism not only addressed individual colonial powers, but also appealed to “Europe” as a whole (Pan-African Association c. 1900: 13; Eckert 2006: 233). No doubt, the anti-colonial schemes loomed large in the transimperial history of the early twentieth century.


Cooperation among the colonial states was crucial for Europe’s violent conquest and rule over the rest of the world. In Europe itself, the imperial expansion contributed to a sense of common European belonging. The representations of the self and the other in the publications, press coverage and popular culture that accompanied the colonial project had a lasting impact on the self-portrayal of Europe. Historical research has increasingly paid attention to these developments within Europe and its empires. Seen from the colonised world, Europe played a more ambiguous role. It was a unified force of repression and domination, yet at the same time, it served as a model that could only be beaten at its own game (Cooper 2014). While anti-colonial movements tried to shake off the yoke of Europe’s material and epistemic violence, they shaped a postcolonial future that partly emulated European standards. Yet they adopted Eurocentric (e.g. Marxist and nationalist) narratives in a creative way to use them for their own purpose of liberation. What Sarkar and others anticipated in the early twentieth century resulted in calls to “Provincialize Europe” whose proponents bemoaned that Eurocentric concepts had infiltrated anti-colonial theory in the era of formal decolonization (Chakrabarty 2000). This epistemic expansion of transimperial Europe had also been contested through collective emancipative counter-ideologies. Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism, as well as the anti-colonial “spirit of Bandung” had shaped the early period of independence struggles. While the creation of independent nation-states of the European style dominated most of the twentieth century, new initiatives to decolonise European culture emerged in the 1980s in the framework of postcolonial theory. The project of decolonizing European thinking, language, culture, and also informal empires continues until today.

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Colonialism, Empire, Labour, Medicine, War, Media


Christian Methfessel, University of Erfurt,

Florian Wagner, University of Erfurt,