The word "imperialism" first originated as a negative term used to criticize European colonization of other lands and peoples. Imperialism today continues to have negative connotations, though many scholars have tried to highlight the positive aspects of empire. Nevertheless, if we use the British empire, which historically was the largest the world had seen, we can see that imperialism has significant negative effects, ranging from economic exploitation to racism to world war.

Economic Exploitation

At its core, imperialism is an economically motivated enterprise. Countries will colonize regions of the world, whether formally or informally, in order to gain access to some precious resource or to secure some important trade route, all in order to bring prosperity to the home country. The British, for example, were interested in colonizing parts of South Africa both for natural resources like gold, and to establish trade routes to connect their worldwide empire.

Lenin and Hobson

Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader of Russia, and J.A. Hobson, the British economist, each criticized this economic exploitation by arguing that it benefited only a small class of wealthy merchants. Lenin argued that colonization of overseas territories allowed merchants and investors to grow wealthy at the expense of indigenous populations. Hobson specifically targeted Cecil Rhodes, the mining magnate of South Africa, as an example of this phenomenon of exploitation.

The Boer War

Rhodes was responsible for the outbreak of the Boer War, a regional conflict between the British and the Boers, who were Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers in South Africa. Rhodes sought to expand his mining company into Boer territories after gold was discovered there, and the British government backed his attempts with military force. While the British successfully defeated the Boers, the war led to increased tensions between the British and the Germans, who had supported the Boers. These tensions eventually boiled over into World War I.


The deadliest consequence of imperialism may not have been World War I, but rather the more insidious spread of racist beliefs. Imperialism, though initially economically motivated, was justified on the basis of race. The British believed that white men had a duty to civilize the "barbaric" populations of the world, an idea exemplified in Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, "The White Man's Burden." The white man's burden led to institutionalized racism, as in South Africa, and to violent race-based conflict throughout the British empire.