3 Jun 2010

Monopoly Imperialism: How Empires Can Be Bought and Leased

by Dominic Alessio

Given that empire remains a wide-ranging and hugely influential phenomenon it is surprising how little academic attention has been directed towards it. Those few texts that do examine the processes by which empires gain power tend to focus upon the most obvious method, conquest. Yet there remain a surprising number of alternative strategies for expanding, including: marriage, voluntary associations, invitation, awards by outside bodies, and indirect control. These examples all presuppose, however, that empires are state-led. Yet states are not the only empire-builders – religious organisations and trading companies all established empires of their own. But there is one other method by which imperial states could expand and which has been overlooked: they could purchase or lease land.

This is particularly true of the history of the United States. In fact, the method of empire by purchase rather than war could explain why that nation is not often considered to be an imperial power. Thus, the United States invasion of Florida is still referred to as ‘The Florida Purchase’! Similarly, following the invasion of Mexico and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which $15 million was awarded to Mexico for its lost lands (a territory encompassing twenty times the area of land taken from Germany after Versailles), the Whig Intelligencer, a leading paper, commented, ‘we take nothing by conquest.’

In spite of these overt acts of violence followed by purchase, there are instances also of the United States expanding through purchase alone. Examples include the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, and the obtainment of Alaska in 1867. Nor was the US the sole power to expand in this manner. In 1870, just after Confederation, the newly evolved Canada took control of the former Rupert’s Land for £300,000. This was an immense portion of territory encompassing 1.5 million square miles that had belonged to the Hudson Bay Company.

Similarly, empires can lease territory, although the extent of this land is usually small. However, size isn’t everything, as evident in the role that Hong Kong played in British expansion. A comparably important history of leasing territory occurred with Portugal’s involvement in Macau. And although both Hong Kong and Macau have returned to Chinese control, this practise of imperial rental has not come to an end. Today Diego Garcia and Guantanamo continue, albeit controversially, to be leased.

Empire by purchase or rental, like the acquisition of property in a Monopoly board game, remains, therefore, a neglected but highly successful strategy for a state to extend its political sovereignty. In terms of North American history, this process of expansion remains significant for three reasons. Firstly, the combined land purchases made by the United States and Canada dwarf the Pax Romana. Secondly, these North American territories remain intact. And thirdly, so successful were these transactions in becoming faits accomplis that they have been overlooked as imperial strategies in western historical memory.

Yet there is one further reason to draw attention to this process of expansion: variations are still occurring. Multinational corporations (MNCs) are copying the precedents initiated by early modern business organisations such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. They are buying swathes of property for long-term profit in land-rich countries. Benetton has become one of the largest landowners in Argentina, and Daewoo was negotiating a ninety-nine year lease on over a million hectares in Madagascar. Political states are becoming involved with this new global ‘scramble’ too. The President of the United Arab Emirates is considering the procurement of land in Kazakhstan, whilst Libya has secured some 250,000 hectares in the Ukraine.

While the buying and letting of land by MNCs or states might result in less bloodshed than the more conventional techniques of imperial invasion, there are long-term considerations that need to be considered. Monopoly Imperialism is, as a result, a colonial process that while seeming to have disappeared under the historical radar remains one of the most powerful determiners of the modern world’s political landscape. Consequently, imperial history has implications not only for understanding the past but also for communities of peoples across the globe engaging with the present.

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