Imperialism: A Study

Hobson, John A.
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First Pub. Date
New York: James Pott and Co.
Pub. Date
1st edition.

Part I, Chapter III

Imperialism as an Outlet for Population


There is a widely prevalent belief that imperial expansion is desirable, or even necessary, in order to absorb and utilise the surplus of our ever-growing population. "The reproductive powers of nature," runs the argument, "brook no restraint: the most dominant force in history is the tendency of population to overflow its ancient banks, seeking fuller and easier subsistence. Great Britain is one of the most congested areas in the world; her growing population cannot find enough remunerative occupation within these islands; professional and working-classes alike find it more and more difficult to earn a decent and secure living, every labour market is overstocked, emigration is a prime economic necessity. Now; those who under such pressure leave our shores consist largely of the strongest and most energetic stuff the nation contains. Many of these people, whose permanent alienation would be a heavy loss, have been saved to the Empire by the policy of imperial expansion: they have settled either in vacant places of the earth which they have seized and kept under British rule, or in places where they have set up a definitely British supremacy over lower races of existing inhabitants. It is our most urgent national interest that this surplus emigrant population shall settle in lands which are under the British flag, and we must therefore maintain a constant policy of extending the political control of Great Britain so as to cover the new homes to which these people betake themselves in pursuit of employment." This motive is closely linked with other economic motives relating to trade and investments. The establishment of British trade, and especially of British capital, in foreign lands naturally attracts a certain British population; traders, engineers, overseers, and mechanics are needed as entrepreneurs and managers. So wherever a new area is opened up to our trade and capital the nucleus of an outlander population is formed. Hence, of necessity, springs up a crop of political issues, an outlander problem: the British outlanders not satisfied with the foreign rule demand the intervention of their home Government. Thus the duty of protecting British subjects in a foreign country is identified with the duty of protecting British property, not merely the personal property of the outlanders, often a trivial matter, but the far larger stakes of the home investors. But apart from these cases of special interest, wherever any considerable number of British subjects settles in a savage or semi-civilised country they have a "right" to British protection, and since that protection can seldom be made effective without the exercise of direct British authority, the imperial ægis of Great Britain must be spread over all such areas, when a convenient occasion for such expansion presents itself.


Such is the accepted theory and practice. What validity does it possess as an argument for recent imperial expansion? Let me first ask: Is England over-populated now, and is the prospect of further increase such as to compel us to "peg out claims for posterity" in other parts of the world? The facts are these. Great Britain is not so thickly populated as certain prosperous industrial areas in Germany, the Netherlands, and China: along with every recent growth of population has come a far greater growth of wealth and of the power to purchase food and other subsistence. The modern specialisation of industry has caused a congestion of population upon certain spots which may be injurious in some ways to the well-being of the nation, but it cannot be regarded as over-population in the sense of a people outgrowing the means of subsistence. Nor have we reason to fear such over-population in the future. It is true that our manufactures and commerce may not continue to grow as rapidly as in the past, though we have no clear warrant from industrial statistics for this judgment: but if this be so, neither is our population likely to increase so fast. Of this we have clear statistical evidence: the diminution of the rate of growth of our population, as disclosed by the two latest censuses, is such as to justify the conclusion that, if the same forces continue to operate, the population of Great Britain will be stationary by the middle of the century.


There exists, then, no general necessity for a policy of expansion in order to provide for over-population, present or prospective. But supposing it were necessary for an increasing surplus of our population to emigrate, is it necessary for us to spend so large a part of our national resources, and to incur such heavy risks, in seizing new territory for them to settle upon?


The total emigration of Britons represents no large proportion of the population; that proportion during the recent years of imperial expansion has perceptibly diminished: of the emigrants a small proportion settles in British possessions, and an infinitesimally small fraction settles in the countries acquired under the new Imperialism. These most instructive facts are established by the following official table, giving the statistics of emigration from 1884, the year from which the full tide of imperial expansion is to be dated:—

Number of Outward-Bound Passengers of British and Irish Origin, from the United Kingdom to Countries of Europe

Year. Passengers to
United States. British North America. Australia and New Zealand. Cape of Good Hope and Natal. Other Places

1884 155,280 31,134 44,255 ... 11,510 242,179
1885 137,687 19,828 39,395 ... 10,724 207,644
1886 152,710 24,745 43,076 3,897 8,472 232,900
1887 201,526 32,025 34,183 4,909 8,844 281,487
1888 195,986 34,853 31,127 6,466 11,496 279,928
1889 168,771 28,269 28,294 13,884 14,577 253,795
1890 152,413 22,520 21,179 10,321 11,683 218,116
1891 156,395 21,578 19,547 9,090 11,897 218,507
1892 150,039 23,254 15,950 9,891 10,908 210,042
1893 148,949 24,732 11,203 13,097 10,833 208,814
1894 104,001 17,459 10,917 13,177 10,476 156,030
1895 126,502 16,622 10,567 20,234 11,256 185,181
1896 98,921 15,267 10,354 24,594 12,789 161,925
1897 85,324 15,571 12,061 21,109 12,395 146,460
1898 80,494 17,640 10,693 19,756 12,061 140,644
1899 92,482 16,410 11,467 14,432 11,571 146,362
1900 102,797 18,443 14,922 20,815 11,848 168,825


Regarded as a measure of the outflow of "surplus" population, even these figures are excessive in two ways. In the first place, they include considerable numbers of travellers and casual visitors who are not real emigrants. Secondly, to measure aright the net emigration, we must set against these figures the immigration figures. The net reduction of our population by emigration is thus reduced to an average, during the last five years, of 87,224 per annum.


Considering that the term "other places" includes the entire non-European world, outside Canada, Australasia, and South Africa, it is clear that the rest of our Empire absorbs at most a very few thousands, while the number of industrial settlers in our new tropical dominions must be a mere handful. A certain quantity of military and official employment is afforded by the new Imperialism to the influential upper classes, a few engineers, missionaries, prospectors, and overseers of trading and industrial undertakings get temporary posts, but as a contribution towards the general field of employment the new Imperialism is an utterly insignificant factor.


No substantial settlement of Britons is taking place upon any of the areas of the Empire acquired since 1870, excepting the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, nor is it likely that any such settlement will take place. The tropical character of most lands acquired under the new Imperialism renders genuine colonisation impossible: there is no true British settlement in these places; a small number of men spend a short broken period in precarious occupations as traders, engineers, missionaries, overseers. The new Empire is even more barren for settlement than for profitable trade.

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