Western imperialism in Asia

Western imperialism in Asia involves the influence of people from Western Europe and associated states (such as Russia, Japan and the United States) in Asian territories and waters. Much of this process stemmed from the 15th-century search for trade routes to China that led directly to the Age of Discovery, and the introduction of early modern warfare into what Europeans first called the East Indies and later the Far East. By the early 16th century, the Age of Sail greatly expanded Western European influence and development of the spice trade under colonialism. European-style colonial empires and imperialism operated in Asia throughout six centuries of colonialism, formally ending with the independence of the Portuguese Empire's last colony East Timor in 2002. The empires introduced Western concepts of nation and the multinational state.

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  • The Commercial Revolution of Columbus’ time cleared the routes and prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. Discoverers refound old lands, opened up new ports, and brought to the ancient cultures the novel products and ideas of the West. Early in the sixteenth century the adventurous Portuguese, having established themselves in India, captured Malacca, sailed around the Malay Peninsula, and arrived with their picturesque ships and terrible guns at Canton (1517). “Truculent and lawless, regarding all Eastern peoples as legitimate prey, they were little if any better than . . . pirates”; and the natives treated them as such. Their representatives were imprisoned, their demands for free trade were refused, and their settlements were periodically cleansed with massacres by the frightened and infuriated Chinese.
  • In reality, however, it was a 'white peril' that menaced Asia - and indeed the rest of the world. In all history, there had never been a mass movement of peoples to compare with the exodus from Europe between 1850 and 1914… However, a rising proportion of European emigrants were now heading eastward. Scotsmen and Irishmen in particular were flocking to Australia and New Zealand; by the eve of the First World War, nearly one in five British emigrants was bound for Australasia; by the middle of the century it would be one in two. Settlers from Britain, Holland and France were also busily establishing themselves as planters in Malaya, the East Indies and Indo-China. Meanwhile, a growing number of Central and East European Jews, inspired by Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl, were moving to Palestine in the hope of establishing a Jewish state there. Finally, as we shall see, a very large number of Russians were also heading east, to Central Asia, Siberia and beyond. All this movement was in large measure voluntary, unlike the enforced shipment of millions of Africans to American and Caribbean plantations that had taken place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, comparable numbers of indentured labourers from India and China were also on the move in 1900, their condition only marginally better than slavery, to work in plantations and mines owned and managed by Europeans. Asians would have preferred to migrate in larger numbers to America and Australasia, but were prevented from doing so by restrictions imposed on Japanese and Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 45-46
  • Truculent and lawless, regarding all Eastern peoples as legitimate prey, they were little if any better than . . . pirates.
  • The history of European colonialism covers many centuries and takes diverse forms, but whereas the European explorers and conquerors of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania usually took it for granted that the local inhabitants could be enslaved or butchered or driven into the hinterland at the whim of the invaders, the literate nations of Asia were initially treated as peoples toward whom the courtesies of European diplomacy should be applied. At the end of the day these Asian civilizations were likewise mostly subdued by force of arms, but such conquest needed some kind of moral justification, a mythical charter. The Rig Veda as interpreted by Max Müller and his contemporaries provided just such a myth.
    • Sir Edmund Leach. Aryan invasions over four millennia. In Culture through Time, Anthropological Approaches, edited by E. Ohnuki-Tierney, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1990
  • The treaty clauses, in fact, wrote the ultimate doom of Christian activity in China. To have believed that a religion which grew up under the protection of foreign powers, especially under humiliating conditions, following defeat, would be tolerated when the nation recovered its authority, showed extreme shortsightedness. The fact is that the missionaries, like other Europeans, felt convinced in the nineteenth century that their political supremacy was permanent, and they never imagined that China would regain a position when the history of the past might be brought up against them and their converts. `The Church', as Latourette has pointed out, `had become a partner in Western imperialism.' When that imperialism was finally destroyed, the Church could not escape the fate of its patron and ally.
    • KM Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance: a survey of the Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history, 1498–1945
  • Till the end of European domination the fact that rights existed for Asians against Europeans was conceded only with considerable mental reservation. In countries under direct British occupation, like India, Burma and Ceylon, there were equal rights established by law, but that as against Europeans the law was not enforced very rigorously was known and recognized. In China, under extra‑territorial jurisdiction, Europeans were protected against the operation of Chinese laws. In fact, except in Japan this doctrine of different rights persisted to the very end and was a prime cause of Europe’s ultimate failure in Asia.
    • KM Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance: a survey of the Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history, 1498–1945

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