Dr. Georges Antoine Corm
The Tools Of Empire
Daniel R. Headrick
Empire building is an old theme of history; higher powers going out of their way to dominate the weak, and the weak having nothing except the resources to be exploited. Although the construction of the European societies mainly goes to the Industrial Revolution and their nationalism, it is the complete domination of the European’s hand over several continents in the world that has drastically changed the world during that era. In fact, imperialism did not start in the 19th century. It began by a period in the 16th century called the “Old Imperialism”, where relative cooperative trading activity ruled all political relations between Europeans and other nations. Their effect, regardless, was limited to a mere protection of European economic interests. Thus, driven by the need to obtain natural resources, wealth, and mainly power, in the 1870s, and with the combination of sea power, centralized governments, and industrialized economies, European nations set out to build empires all over the world.
The Industrial Revolution and European imperialism were therefore, without doubt, two of the most influential developments of the 19th century, which is what the Tools of Empire circles on. Published by Daniel R. Headrick in 1981, it focuses on the consequences they both had on the development of the world and emphasizes their relation. The aim of this book is basically to trace the connections between these two great events, since these two phenomena have always been described and analyzed separately as though they had little bearing on each other. However in reality, the connection between the two, according to Headrick, is history. The analysis must be undergone from both directions: either from history of technology, or from history of imperialism. Industrialization in combatting diseases, seas, weaponry and ensuring efficient communication in Africa and Asia is what he uses in the demonstration of why the West surpassed the East and how Britain proved itself to be the Imperial power of that time.
I believe this book serves as the perfect example in tracing the influence technological innovations and conquests may have on the economic development of one’s country, which is what will be highlighted in the analysis of my paper.
The search for the causes of 19th century imperialism has brought forth one of the liveliest debates in modern history. Historians have offered a wealth of explanations for this dramatic expansion of European power (political motives, instability of imperial frontiers, the diversion of popular attention from domestic problems, etc.) or more importantly economics motives such as the need for raw materials, secure markets, or investment opportunities. Yet, historians give technological factors very low priority among the causes of the new imperialism. It is ironic to think of the striking contrast between the role assigned to technology in the 10th century imperialism and the central one assigned in the Industrial Revolution in the histories of European societies and economies of the very same period. It does not follow to say that technology is inconsequential in terms of imperialism, since the more dramatic aspects of the Industrial Revolution had at the very least a marginal impact on imperial expansion as Headrick mentions in his book. First of all, the appearance of a new technology can trigger or reinforce a motive by making the desired end possible or acceptably inexpensive. And at the same time, a motive can form a search for appropriate means. If we accept the equal necessity of both motives and means, then one could say that the goal and actual result of the new imperialism is the creation of colonies politically submissive and economically profitable to their European metropoles. Nonetheless, Headrick divides the imperialism of Europe in Asia and Africa into three specific stages paving the way to the subjugation of the colonies: stage of penetration, stage of conquest, and lastly stage of consolidation.
With the stage of penetration at its head, first came the time when the first European travelers made their way into unexplored lands such as the ones in Africa and unconquered territories such as the ones controlled by far-east Asia; all made accessible only through the mere discoveries of several technological innovations of the century. In fact, one of the most important remarks that Headrick makes in the book is that “… technological innovation often had to sneak through the back door.” As he shows readers, discoveries often came slowly and at the price of people’s lives, and even then were not welcomed outright. One of the best examples of this sacrifice is during the British exploration of Africa while men were suffering from malaria outbreaks. Over a million died from 1837 to 1836, until the death rates were significantly declined from quinine prophylaxis administered to crews when mercury was given to patients as an experiment to see if it could reverse the effects of the malaria fever. Even then the cure to this devastating disease was not welcomed immediately up until the Pleiad’s expedition when the death rates were dropped tremendously. This Scientific Revolution was a climactic point for England because it allowed them to fully explore Africa. The imperialistic English did not pay the ultimate price — but the common soldier certainly did, which Headrick fails to mention. And if the English were willing to experiment with remedies upon their own people, then it should come as no surprise that they would take advantage of foreigners such as Indians and Africans. All things considered, it is because of this combination of quinine, cinchona, and steamers which allowed England to “destroy any towns that resisted British intrusion by 1870”; specifically in the example of the Opium Wars against China. Like an elephant and a whale, China and Britain evolved in two different habitats. At sea, Britain was invincible and could destroy any Chinese fleet; where on the other hand, China was a land empire where the Europeans were incapable of pushing their way inland. Until the discovery of the steamer; with its ability to navigate upriver and attack inland towns, this ended the long Anglo-Chinese stalemate with the first steamer to reach China in 1830 — the Forbes. In the end, Europeans were infiltrating and accumulating wealth through the use of their technology; the symbiotic relationship that Headrick mentions throughout the book between imperialism and industrialization.
Afterwards, began the stage of conquest where European forces were able to conquer large parts of Asia and Africa; empires of truly Napoleonic proportions at an astonishingly low cost. What made this possible was the crushing superiority of European firepower that resulted from the firearms revolution of the mid-century and the sizable disparity of firepower between the Europeans and their counterparts. Headrick makes this point best in his description of colonial weapons and how they surpassed Africa’s technology. As he writes, to fight the most efficiently, the French had “… to develop a gun as accurate as a rifle and as quick to load as a musket.” Once the breechloader was invented and used by the Prussians, the Europeans began to take this technology and develop it further, to a great benefit towards colonization in Asia and Africa. No period in history produced a more dramatic development of infantry weapons as did the 19th century, and its evolution was mainly due to the drop in the cost of crude steel at the time that made it possible to produce high-quality barrels cheaply enough for military use. The gun revolution that had begun in the 1860s was completed by the 1890s. Any European infantryman could now fire lying down, undetected, in any weather, fifteen rounds of ammunition in as many seconds at targets up to half a mile away. In fact, the colonial troops in Asia and Africa were among the first beneficiaries of the gun revolution, but at the same time kept it away from their conquered colonies. Europeans in Africa were worried about Africans obtaining these weapons and tried to prevent this from happening (schemes to register firearms, to restrict their sale, or even to disarm Africans entirely). By the 1880s the influx of breechloaders into Africa caused increasing anxiety among Europeans. To stem the flow of arms, the Brussels Treaty of the 1890 put a stop to the open importation of modern weapons before the advancing frontier of the rifle trade had reached the Central Sudanic states. This brings to our attention how fragile and under-grown the control of the Europeans on their colonies was at this stage, and if it was not, then they would not have prohibited the sale of breechloaders in certain areas in Africa.
The final stage Headrick explores is the stage in which all links, that tied the colonies of Europe and prompted their economic exploitation, were enforced. The new imperialism was a qualitatively different phenomena than its predecessor; for the first time in history, colonial metropoles acquired the means to communicate instantly with their colonies and to engage in extensive trade that could have never carried the trade costs in any previous empire. For example, new steamship lines were drawn almost as soon as steam proved itself a feasible means of transportation, the building of the Suez Canal under Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1859 shortened the route from Europe to South and East Asia, the network of railroads in colonies formed a new of life, and many more; all allowed Britain to do one thing — take advantage of its power. If their railroad companies failed in India, the taxpayers would have had to pay for their losses, and thus no negative repercussions would affect Britain; retaining their power and wealth with instantaneous communication as the top power in the European world of imperialism. Although, it is ironic to think that the technology that allowed Britain to become a great naval and industrial power was generally not welcomed with open arms at its initial invention. In reality, this is seen specifically with the iron steamship, which allowed businesses (not just the government) to transport goods overseas. After the invincibility of the Great Britain was proven, pig iron production skyrocketed by 5.3 million tons. This radical increase in production helped the British economy from the inside and allowed them to keep ahead of the United States and their cheap timber shipbuilding production. Headrick assists readers in understanding a major point — the inner workings of Britain were just as important as their efforts to conquer because it is what helped them stay ahead of other countries. Without a strong foundation, any imperialism is bound to fail eventually. As Headrick states in the beginning of the book, it is this combination of technological advancement and want of betterment that furthered the British in enabling them to conquer and remain for so long the number one power in the West.
By 1914, Great Britain controlled the largest number of colonies. The new imperialism changed both Western society and its colonies. Through it, Western countries established
the beginning of a global economy in which the transfer of goods, money, and technology needed to be regulated in an orderly way to ensure a continuous flow of natural resources and cheap labor for the industrialized world. As a matter of fact, Headrick points out that only industrialized countries could afford the process of imperialism, yet there is a simple explanation to this. Only those countries undergoing industrialization could generate the wealth sufficient to support serious imperial pretensions, for in the late nineteenth century the cost of military preparedness was rising rapidly. In fact, in Europe, the discovery of the Americas and the emergence of colonial projects, first in the Americas, and then, subsequently, in Asia and Africa, potentially helped trigger institutional and economic development, thus setting in motion some of the prerequisites for what was to become the Industrial Revolution. One would say then that the main economic development of the nineteenth century would be the growth of the industrializing core (Britain, France, Germany and the United States) on both sides of the North Atlantic; an industrializing center not dependent to any considerable extent upon the peripheral economies and was almost fully self-supporting. What happened there determined the growth process in itself and indirectly that of much of the rest of the world. However, in reality, imperialism had divergent effects on development within Europe; promoting it in places like Britain, but retarding it in Spain, and so also had very similar effects in the colonies. The outcomes were very different because of variation in initial conditions in the colonies. The fact that colonialism had positive consequences on development in some contexts does not mean that it did not have devastating aftermaths on indigenous populations and societies, and it did —which Headrick disregards utterly.
In conclusion, what Daniel R. Headrick does in this book is lead readers to their own conclusions by reporting the mere facts and intersections of technology and imperialism.
I believe that imperialism, with the help of technology, mattered for development because it shaped to a certain extent the institutions of different societies we now know today. But many other things could have influenced these too as well. Like in the case of China, Iran, Japan, and several other countries where there existed a great deal of variation in economic development outcomes, and not to mention the great variation even within Europe itself. Therefore, we can deduce that the subjugation of the underdeveloped regions of the world into this gear system, in other words their colonialism by the European forces, was itself only one aspect of the empire’s economic development, and a minor one at that. This raises the question of how important, quantitatively, European colonialism was, compared to other factors. And if so, an even more important question arises; one that questions whether this technology was worth it to those who suffered for it, especially now that we know imperialism represented a mere part of it, or if it was worth it for what it has gained for the West from the 1800’s until today. This seems to be the greatest danger of this technology—if countries are willing to go against their own people for the sake of development, what sort of risk might they pose to those who do not belong to their own concept of race?
Review of Barrie M. Ratgliffe
According to Ratgliffe, methodologically, the Tools of Empire leaves much to be desired. Technology is largely divorced from its scientific and economic context. To focus on and demonstrate the relation between technology and colonial expansion, Headrick chooses to concentrate on the short term and on a handful of instances. However, this brings Ratgliffe to ask whether such a demonstration is enough in analyzing all aspects of this colonial era. Which is why I chose this book; as a means of taking it as the essence and connecting it back to its economic context.