From The United Irishman, June 17, 1899.
One of the distinguishing marks which the 19th century has imprinted on the course of universal history is the genesis and subsequent development of that aggressive polity of the nations which has come to be known by the name of imperialism. To trace this back to its original conception would be a task as arduous as it would be abstruse and abstract. Suffice it, that the first determined epoch, at which the policy of Imperialism (as we now commonly understand that term) became a factor in the world’s history, was ushered in by the memorable battle of Waterloo. The war of American Independence had barely bereft England of some of her most cherished and valuable colonies when the French Revolution brought those great wars, which beginning in the regime of the great Terror, lasted, with one brief pause, for nearly a quarter of a century, and culminated in a crowning victory for the much-vaunted mistress of the seas. The world during that time was deluged in blood, whilst England reaped a harvest of plunder and aggrandisement. Waterloo enabled her to have all her possessions, however attained, confirmed at the Peace of Paris. The nation which had lost the best part of her American possessions through tyranny and folly, beheld herself amply compensated by the spoil of two hemispheres.
But other nations were now in the van of progress. Russia pushed her encroachments to the very borders of China, and essayed those brilliant moves which swallowing up Turkestan, has brought her almost within telescope-range of the English frontier in India. Pushing her pretensions to the South, she even ambitioned the possession of Constantinople itself. England, unable to brook this trespass on her dominant power, induced France to co-operate in humbling the Muscovite. The wings of the Russian eagle were clipped in the Crimea. But how they have grown since! During the course of the century the other nations have become consolidated, and have advanced in industrial progress, so that the very supremacy, of which England boasts so much, is seriously threatened. France and Germany, both equally strengthened in their political and social tone by the war of 1870, are now amongst England’s chiefest competitors in the markets abroad. And industrial competition, in its infancy in the last century, is now the directing lever that influences the policy of nations, that brings war within measurable distance, that induces situations where peace trembles in the balance and commerce suffers a momentary paralysis. It is not then unnatural that as the interests of nations are more and more scattered over the world, the policy of the central government should be to take energetic steps to defend all its members and to secure the industrial and political cohesion of the whole. It becomes us then to well differentiate between the policy of Imperialism and the means by which it is carried out. Bad thought it may be, it has nevertheless been the ruling doctrine that the ethics of the body politic stand on another plane from those of the individual. The formula may have its evil; it is still more or less the ruling doctrine. The essence of Imperialism might, applied to the case of a private individual, be construed as common robbery or sheer swindling, but considered as the polity of a nation it is held by a large and important school just and honest. In a word, Imperialism is but militant Nationalism.
That it is the tendency of modern times for nations to form into larger combinations, provided that the difference of language and racial characteristics is reduced to a minimum, cannot be gainsaid. Under the conditions of national existence in these days, small nationalities have little chance of sustaining their organisation. It is better that this tendency should be cultivated with due regard to national aspirations in regulating the internal economy of the government. The relations between Ireland and England are, on that understanding, incapable of being anything but unsound, hollow, and insecure under the present constitution. On the other hand, the connection between Canada and England contains all the elements for the construction of such a combination. While Ireland is subservient to England under present conditions, and while her interests are blasted by the pernicious wind of English policy as at present exercised, it behoves Ireland to look out for another state of political existence, whether as an independent community or in such union with another nation as should ideally exist between this country and England.
What, then, is that union? It is hard for any man to show cause why England should enjoy the predominant partnership as at present she does. No justification can be found for it; no other defence or apologia than the logic of the bayonet and the bullet. If we are to be united with England, and if this United Kingdom is to be the centre-power of a great and widening system of Imperialism, how are we to obtain a voice in the direction or control of that system? If the Imperialist policy, which has steadily grown from the Napoleonic days to our day, when it is the avowed creed of Ministers of the Crown, if it is to be realised and executed to the full, does it mean that England goes forward, the Imperial mistress, while Ireland and the other kingdoms and nations fall into line as mere appanages? If this be Imperialism, it can only expect the fate of that similar policy of ancient Rome, whose frontiers and barriers were thrown down by nations and peoples scorning to become the mere tools and slaves of such a small political entity as the Senate and people of Rome. Imperialism as a broad policy may be defended; but the Imperialism which sets England on a throne of golden luxury while other nations are sweating with the task of propping it up, cannot surely commend itself to the great bulk of that loose and scattered organism called the British Empire.
Imperialism as a general policy is merely an exchangeable term for the advance of civilisation. It is the embodiment of human progress carried out and polished by the attritions of nations. But if it is to succeed and develop humanely and efficaciously it must not trespass on the real, unquestionable domain of nationhood. No nation ought to be yoked to the car of Imperialism that does not share in the common benefit. And every nation has a right and duty to compete with its fellows, and to secure the fullest influence in bearing the banner of progress beyond the present limits that bar the advance of civilisation.