American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

Empires and Colonialism in the 19th Century


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So wrote Charles Dickens (1812-1870) about the French Revolution (1789-1799), but he was also aptly describing the sweeping political and social changes of the 19th century. The turmoil of European political expansion and overseas colonialism led to numerous questions regarding social inequity and social justice—particularly concerning slavery. Ferocious debate regarding slavery in Britain led to its abolition by Act of Parliament in 1833. However, Britain still possessed an overseas empire in which there was significant inequity, particularly in India. The United States practiced slavery until the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) declared slaves free.

Colonialism and liberation were forces at work in all parts of the world during the 19th century. In South America, many of the former European colonies became free. With Latin America increasingly inhospitable to European powers, France, England and Germany pursued colonial interests in western and southern Africa.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1799-1815) took control of France in 1799 and, in the early 19th century, embarked on conquests that resembled those of Alexander the Great. Britain experienced the Industrial Revolution, enjoyed the Victorian Age, and built an international empire so vast that "the sun never set" upon it. At the close of the period the expansionist policies of ambitious rulers like Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) of Germany and Emperor Franz Josef (1848-1916) of Austria set in motion the events that would lead to World War I (1914-1918).