The History of Imperialism

Lesson Plans by John Gillis

Find these Common Core aligned lesson plans and more like them in our World History Category!

History of Imperialism Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Imperialism Include:

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, European powers set out to develop global empires. They were largely successful. European nations carved up large chunks of Asia and almost all of Africa. The colonies these nations set up persisted until the second half of the 20th century. Imperialism reorganized international politics and had a major impact on the development of the global south.

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Imperialism Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Scramble for Africa

Scramble for Africa
Scramble for Africa


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Understanding the struggles of modern Africa requires an in-depth knowledge of the era known as the Scramble for Africa. The impact that Europeans had on the development of African regions they colonized was far-reaching and damaging. Students should create a 5-7 cell timeline that explains how European nations came to dominate Africa by 1914.

The timeline should address issues and subjects like:

  • David Livingstone
  • The Belgian Congo
  • European advantages
  • African resistance movements, especially in Ethiopia
  • The Berlin Conference

Imperialism in Africa Timeline Example


David Livingstone

After Dr. David Livingstone disappeared into the Congo for several years, an American reporter, Henry Stanley, went to track him down. The story sparked widespread interest in Africa.

The Belgian Congo

King Leopold II hired Stanley to help him acquire lands in the Congo. The colony, the Belgian Congo, brutally exploited locals as labor to collect rubber sap.

European Advantages

European imperialists had a number of advantages that allowed them to penetrate into Africa and create colonies.

Berlin Conference

In order to prevent conflict over African colonies, European leaders met in Berlin to decide where and how colonies should be established. No Africans were invited.

Ethiopian Resistance

Ethiopia defeated an invading Italian force at the Battle of Adwa. By 1914, only two nations remained independent: Liberia and Ethiopia.


Students could create an additional timeline that describes the independence movements in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. A specific focus on the Congo and Patrice Lumumba would provide a good bookend to the story of Imperialism in Africa.

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Imperialism in India

Inclusion of India to the British Empire
Inclusion of India to the British Empire


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The story of imperialism in India is often associated with Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent protest. However, it is important to understand the process India went through in going from a sovereign kingdom to a part of the British Empire. In this activity, students will create a spider map that answers the question, "How did India become part of the British Empire?”

Questions that should be addressed in this chart include:

  1. What role did the British East India Company play?
  2. What was the Sepoy Rebellion?
  3. Why was India considered the “Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire”?

British East India Company

In the early 17th century, the British East India Company established themselves in India. They soon became the most powerful political force in India.

Collapse of the Mughal Empire

The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb caused instability in India. He created oppressive policies against Hindus. The result was a weakened, divided India that Britain could exploit.

Sepoy Rebellion

The British hired local Indians as soldiers called "Sepoys". Poor treatment by British commanders led to a Sepoy Revolt. The result was a bloody confrontation that prompted Britain to ramp up their control .

Struggles with Westernization

Reformers like Ram Mohan Roy tried to convince Indians that some of their older customs needed to be reformed. These ideas were very difficult to accept.

The British Crown Takes Over

After the Sepoy Rebellion, the British government decided to take more direct control over India. The government feared losing control over the "Jewel in the Crown" of their empire.


Students could create a second spider chart that shows how India was able to gain independence. Students could also take a closer look at the causes of the Sepoy rebellion, as an example of cultural miscommunication.

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Motivations for European Imperialism

Motivations for European Imperialism
Motivations for European Imperialism


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In this activity, students will research some of the main motivations for European Imperialism in the 18th and 19th century. In a 5-7 cell spider map, students should describe some of the motivations for European imperialism.

Consider including the following:

  • Religion
  • Economics
  • Technology
  • Humanitarianism
  • Social Darwinism
  • Competition in Europe
  • Industrial Revolution

Motivations for European Imperialism

Industrial Revolution

Booming industry in Western Europe created the need for raw materials and markets to sell goods. Creating an empire helped to satisfy those needs.

European Nationalism

Nineteenth century Europe was a highly competitive, densely situated group of nations. Creating an overseas empire was an expression of pride in the nation.

Missionary Activity

The desire to convert local populations to Christianity was powerful. Europeans set up missions in most colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence.

Financial Gain

Many Europeans saw empires as a way to enrich themselves quickly. They exploited local labor to extract resources.

Humanitarian Needs

Some Europeans wanted to bring Western medicine, legal systems, and technology to improve the lives of indigenous people.

Social Darwinism

Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest" was not meant to be applied to human beings. Nevertheless, many Europeans took the theory to justify their racist views of superiority. This made empire-building feel like the natural thing to do.


Students could select one of their motivating factors and describe why it is the most important factor. Students could also put their factors in order from least to most important.

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Imperialists vs. Indigenous: Contrasting Points of View

Contrasting POV: Imperialist vs. Indigenous
Contrasting POV: Imperialist vs. Indigenous


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The era of imperialism was, at its core, a great, ironic contradiction. The allegedly enlightened Europeans were behaving in barbaric fashion, while the supposed “barbarians” of China, Africa, and India were protesting in a very enlightened fashion. Students should create a grid that compares points of view between imperialist Europeans and the inhabitants of the lands they wished to colonize.

This activity should be focused on discovering and using primary source documents within the storyboard. The grid should include POV statements from China, Africa, and India.


European Imperialist View

Kipling's poem encouraged the feeling that imperialism in places like Africa was a noble duty.

“Take up the White Man's burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.”

Rudyard Kipling

Indigenous View

This famous quote from Chief Machemba of the Yao tribe is a good example of the enlightened intellect of many African leaders. Machemba is addressing a German military commander.

“ I have listened to your words but can find no reason why I should obey you—I would rather die first. If it should be friendship that you desire, then I am ready for it, today and always; but to be your subject, that I cannot be. I do not fall at your feet, for you are God's creature just as I am.”

Chief Machemba


European Imperialist View

The idea that Britain had the right to export opium to China - a drug that was illegal in their own nation - is justified in this quote by British Prime Minister William Melbourne.

“Opium [is] probably less harmful than gin, and anyway it [is] the Chinese who insist[ed] on smoking it…”

William Melbourne

Indigenous View

In this letter to Queen Victoria, Government official Lin Zexu points out the hypocrisy of the British opium trade. The letter was ignored, and the British launched a military campaign.

“Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden in your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood.”

Commissioner Lin Zexu


European Imperialist View

The overt racism in Kitchener's view of India was common. This assumption of superiority guided policy-making in British India.

“It is this consciousness of the inherent superiority of the European which has won for us India. However well educated and clever a native may be, and however brave he may prove himself, I believe that no rank we can bestow upon him would cause him to be considered an equal of the British officer.”

Herbert Kitchener

Indigenous View

Ram Mohun Roy despised the British as a young man. Eventually he decided that some of the cultural practices in India like Sati and arranged child marriages were inferior to the British.

“The British Occupation is not ideal, but certainly some of the ideas of Europe are preferable to our antiquated ways.”

Ram Mohun Roy


An easy extension of this activity would be to ask students to use their research to write a one-page response paper or traditional storyboard that addresses the following question:

“What does the development of imperialism say about how deeply the Enlightenment actually had an impact on European policy making?”

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Imperialism in China

Imperialism in China
Imperialism in China


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The story of European and Chinese relations in the 18th and 19th century is important to understand. The struggles of China at the hands of a very ambitious Europe set the groundwork for modern relations between these regions. In this activity, students will use the timeline layout to describe how China became a victim of European Empire-building.

The timeline should address the following questions:

  1. What role did opium play?
  2. What were the Taiping Uprising and the Boxer Rebellion?
  3. What is a “sphere of influence”?

Imperialism in China Timeline Example


Britain Imports Opium into China

Britain began importing opium into China in the late 1700s. By the mid 1830s, over 11 million Chinese were addicted.

Opium War

Chinese officials began to seize and destroy large quantities of opium. Claiming a violation of free trade rights, Britain responded with military force. In the resulting war, China was devastated.

Taiping Rebellion

Chinese peasants grew increasingly frustrated with their leaders. A massive peasant army formed and struggled for over a decade for control of China. Twenty million Chinese died in this uprising.

Spheres of Influence

Seeing a weakened, vulnerable China, other nations began to move in and carve the nation into spheres of influence.

Boxer Rebellion

A secret group, the Righteous Harmonious Fists, formed with the goal of expelling all foreigners. These "Boxers" were defeated, but a new Chinese nationalism was born.


This activity can be extended by asking students to connect China’s eventual adoption of a communist political ideology with the events of this timeline.

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Age of Imperialism

After the discovery of the New World, many countries sent colonialists and traders to the Americas for economic ventures. Many profited from the new resources available and sought to find new ways to bring wealth and glory to themselves or to their country. As transportation technology improves, global exploration opened up new lands and new possibilities.

The Age of Imperialism was an era when several European countries attempted to expand their reach through the conquering and annexation of other lands or nations, primarily in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The expansion of territory usually increased access to resources, labor, and goods, which meant more money and power for the central imperial state. With more advanced weaponry, these industrialized nations, such as Britain and France, were able to subdue other countries who had not yet been exposed to rifles, cannons, or eventually, machine guns. Increased communication capabilities, including railroad travel and telegraphs, allowed the seats of empires to connect with their colonies.

These five activities focus on different aspects of European imperialism in China, Africa, and India, and on both the motivations for and reactions to imperialism. All of these activities will require students to create storyboards or parts of storyboards. They are designed so students can demonstrate an in-depth understanding of European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Questions for the History of Imperialism

  1. What were the motivations for imperialism? How did imperialism meet the needs of 19th-century Europeans?
  2. How did Europeans justify their desire to construct global empires?
  3. How did local people in China, Africa, and India respond to imperialism?
  4. What role did opium play in China’s relationship with Britain?
  5. How did India become vulnerable enough to become part of the British Empire?
  6. How were Europeans able to dominate large portions of Africa in such a short period of time?

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•   (English) The History of Imperialism   •   (Español) La Historia del Imperialismo   •   (Français) L'histoire de L'impérialisme   •   (Deutsch) Die Geschichte des Imperialismus   •   (Italiana) La Storia Dell'imperialismo   •   (Nederlands) De Geschiedenis van het Imperialisme   •   (Português) A História do Imperialismo   •   (עברית) ההיסטוריה של האימפריאליזם   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) تاريخ الإمبريالية   •   (हिन्दी) साम्राज्यवाद का इतिहास   •   (ру́сский язы́к) История Империализм   •   (Dansk) Historien om Imperialismen   •   (Svenska) Historien om Imperialism   •   (Suomi) Historia Imperialism   •   (Norsk) Historien om Imperialismen   •   (Türkçe) Emperyalizm Tarihi   •   (Polski) Historia Imperializmu   •   (Româna) Istoria Imperialismul   •   (Ceština) Historie Imperialismu   •   (Slovenský) História Imperializmu   •   (Magyar) Az Imperializmus Történetét   •   (Hrvatski) Povijest Imperijalizma   •   (български) Историята на Империализма   •   (Lietuvos) Imperializmo Istorija   •   (Slovenščina) Zgodovina Imperializem   •   (Latvijas) Vēsture Imperiālisms   •   (eesti) Ajalugu Imperialismi