Imperialism is a system where a powerful nation controls and exploits one or more colonies. In most cases the imperialist nation establishes control over this new territory through coercion – for example, through infiltration and annexation, political pressure, war and military conquest. Once conquered, this territory is claimed as a colony of the imperialist nation (sometimes benignly referred to as the ‘mother country’). Colonial governments are operated by the imperial nation or a subordinate puppet regime. A military presence is often stationed in the colony, to control native inhabitants, to deal with uprisings and to deter imperial rivals. The main advantages of imperialism, however, are economic. Colonies exist to profit and enrich the imperial power. In most cases this involves the supply of precious metals or other resources, such as timber, rubber, rice or other foodstuffs. Colonies can also be invaluable sources of cheap labour, agricultural land and trading ports.
Prior to World War I, Britain was the world’s dominant imperial power. The British Empire famously occupied one quarter of the globe (“the sun never sets on Britain” was a famous slogan of the mid 19th century). British colonial possessions in the late 1800s included Canada, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, several Pacific and Caribbean Islands, South Africa, Rhodesia, Egypt and other parts of Africa. Many of these colonies were acquired with little difficulty; others took more time, effort and bloodshed. Britain’s acquisition of South Africa, for example, was won after costly wars against native tribes like the Zulus, then two wars against South African Boers (white farmer-settlers of Dutch extraction). British imperialism was driven chiefly by trade, the importation of raw materials and the sale of manufactured goods. Britain’s imperial power was reinforced by her powerful navy, the world’s largest, and a fleet of mercantile (commercial) vessels.