For most of recorded history, the glorious empires and fantastic kingdoms existed outside of Europe. China, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, and Persia, cradles of civilization as it were, dominated the known world. The myths and legends of their riches and produce inspired many Europeans, from Alexander the Great and Marco Polo to the 21st century tourist, to visit these lands. However, most of these once splendid lands are today the bulk of the Third World. Why? What propelled Europe to the forefront and caused these former powers to recede? This is not a new question – it has troubled historians for a long time. Even during the height of imperialism, especially during the height of imperialism, much was written about what made Europe supreme. While this is too vast a topic to engage in with any detail on a blog, it would nonetheless be a fruitful venture to look at some recent scholarship on the topic and discuss some of the theories.
Daniel Headrick, author of The Tools of Empire, asserts what may probably be the most visible reason for Europe’s rise to power. He argues that empire required not just motives, but also the means to do so. Earlier, European conquests of non-Europe were at best temporary and haphazard. Local rulers soon displaced their European masters (e.g. Alexander) and Europe’s hegemonic grip was lost. Later, by the nineteenth century, European superiority in technologies of war gave European armies a decisive advantage over their local counterparts, usually at great cost to native armies in terms of lives. An example the author gives is of how English armies at the end of the eighteenth century, during the Mysore Wars with Tipu Sultan, could easily face armies six to seven times their size. By the time of the Maratha wars, however, that had reduced to twice their size, and by the Sikh wars in the middle of the nineteenth century, the armies were more or less equal. Indigenous people had absorbed European organizational skills and technology, and were rapidly catching up with European armies. At this point, however, Europe gained a decisive advantage not to be lost again, with the advent of picric acid, machine guns, and dumdum bullets. Headrick’s argument is that technology allowed non-Europeans to achieve parity with Europeans for a short time before they fell behind again. This should clearly demonstrate the role of technology over anything else. Ideology (e.g. Christianity), as in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and to a certain extent, the seventeenth centuries, were unable to achieve the same spectacular success of later years.
Headrick divides the “tools of empire” into three categories: the first is the steamship, which allowed the Europeans to explore greater parts of the globe and penetrate the coasts of Asia, Africa, and South America beyond the scant few miles they had been able to do so for a long time on foot. The second category is that of military technology: better guns, explosives, and organizational/topographical skills allowed Europeans to muster firepower where and when they wanted it in concentrated bursts to produce decisive victories. Europeans knew not only how to make faster loading rifles, machine guns, and stronger steel, but also understood the applications of cartography to war-making. The third category Headrick discusses is communications. As communications improved, with the laying of underwater cables, railways, and steamships, news traveled faster around the world, and with their advanced transportation, gave the British the ability to respond in weeks when it would have taken years. However, Headrick does not take into account entirely that all that he has mentioned falls into one larger category, namely, tools of conquest. Empire was far greater an exercise than the defeat of a few native armies. The ability to hold territory without constant use of force was also required. When even a relatively small mutiny (as in the case of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857) occurred, it broke the British East India Company and the Crown had to step in. Thus, knowledge, if not ideology, served a critical role to keep locals under control. Admittedly, the author admits that as means were made available, motives changed. However, perhaps the converse can also be argued – as motives changed, there was a greater impetus to make means available.
In Machines as the Measure of Men, Michael Adas furthers this idea that technology had a larger role to play in imperialism than it is usually given credit for. Unlike Headrick, Adas accepts that ideology may have been a motive for early European expeditions, to bring the “lost peoples of the world” into the fold of Christianity. However, this changes with time, and European discourse about themselves and their relation to the conquered peoples begins to focus on technology rather than ideology. Countering the argument by some scholars that race was also a crucial element in imperialist ideology, Adas explains that racism was not a factor in imperialism, but may have grown out of technological dominance. Adas cites thinkers like J.S. Mill and F.W. Farrar who argued that technological marvels were proof of British superiority and extrapolates from this that non-European inferiority was not necessarily seen as inherent. Here, Adas makes a masterful distinction between science and technology – Europeans could not explain the evidence for high science in ancient India, nor could they account for maritime charts the Indians and Chinese possessed that were initially superior to European charts. Thus, Europeans argued that rather than science, its useful application to serve human needs is evidence of superiority, for knowledge can be gained by patient observation but not everyone possessed the creative spark to harness that knowledge into something useful for humankind. In the application of knowledge, non-Europeans were obviously lacking. Furthermore, the acceptance by local elites that there was a need for their culture to “modernise” would seem to vindicate European views. Unfortunately, Adas does not take into account the new trends in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century that brought race into vogue. With Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Europe became more and more fascinated with race and purity. It is unlikely that this did not bleed into their thoughts on imperial thinking. Indeed, as other scholars have shown, most notably Thomas Trautmann in Aryans and British India, Europeans wove intricate myths of race that dominated their thinking. The best known example is the Aryan Invasion Theory, that of a master, Aryan race that was prevalent in India (and hence the sophistication on ancient Indian civilisation), whose purity was destroyed by mixing with the local Dravidians (and hence the decline). As Ann Stoler has convincingly argued in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power, race became the yardstick by which imperial booty was distributed – as more and more natives learned European tongues, mastered Western technology, and converted to Christianity, it became harder for Europeans to justify their rule over their conquered subjects. Race proved to be the ultimate divider between East and West.
Another school of thought has looked at the implications of science and technology in other fields, primarily economics. It has been argued that European monetary systems and free trade were the motors of European domination. Simply put, Europe became richer, and hence could afford greater armies and spend more on research. Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History, discusses the impact of capitalism on imperialism. First of all, he makes a much-needed distinction between a capitalist world market and a capitalist mode of production – a capitalist world market, if taken to mean commodity exchange, could have been said to exist from the times of cavemen perhaps. The capitalist mode of production, however, was the essence of capitalism as we know it. Surplus extraction and homogenised and quantified labour (labour as commodity) were uniquely European, he argues, which propelled Europe to the forefront. This should not, the author makes clear, ignore the many non-European actors in the world market. Workers from all parts of the globe – forced labourers, independent merchants, entrepreneurs, mercenaries – all participated in world economy. The mercantile activity that was forced upon various regions expanded the scale of markets in size, consumption, productivity, and profit, but this disrupted traditional social relations in many parts of the world and brought together disparate social groups into the capitalist trade network. What is not focussed on entirely is how unequal relations between European traders and their local counterparts impacted imperialism – did this cause resistance, or were the locals co-opted into imperial discourse? In a way, the author argues that imperialism is therefore inherent in capitalism not a final stage of it as was argued by Lenin.
Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, a remarkable success even in the non-academic community, puts forward another argument about the economic underpinning of Great Power status. He attempts to show a distinct link between economics and strategy, and in the process, his argument begins to look like a mixture of modernisation theory and economic determinism. His main point, however, is that it is relative power that matters, not absolute. This would then open the door for an argument that the East did not necessarily decline, but the West rose faster than the empires of Asia and Africa. Furthermore, Kennedy argues that a fine balance is required in expending resources on economic development and building up a military. The West was better at achieving this than India or China, and hence, although vast riches were found in India, the Indian princely states were relatively easy to coax out of their wealth. The weight of the argument here for Europe’s rise is obviously carried by a realist, economic-military materialism that does not take into account the tremendous impact of the organisational abilities of the nation-state or the seduction of ideology.
In perhaps the latest trend in the historiography of the question of Europe’s rise, Kenneth Pomerantz’s The Great Divergence offers a radically different view from the above authors. With more information on the East, particularly China, Pomerantz attacks the notion that the East, by the 16th century, had stagnated economically or socially. Pomerantz strongly asserts that in fact, in many areas, Asia was ahead of Europe. China for example, produced more iron that England did at the height of the industrial revolution. In many other criteria for “advanced” civilisation such as birth-rates, infant mortality, variety of goods in the market, and calorie intake, Pomerantz demonstrates that Asia was equal to if not ahead of Europe. In perhaps the greatest divergence from historiography, Pomerantz plays down the role of coal in Europe’s rise to hegemony. The traditional argument has been that land was scarce in England, and trade and colonies in the New World, ghost acreage, alleviated some of the pressures on land use. Pomerantz counters this, by arguing that land was not at all scarce in China, and therefore, China had access to resources without the need for colonies.
Pomerantz’s greatest failure is that in his obsession to show economic parity, he has ignored political and social institutions such as the nation-state, universities, and multi-national money-lending institutions. He is content to argue that it was serendipity that Europe discovered the New World and the resources acquired from there propelled Europe ahead of Asia. Due to China’s sudden decision to use silver as currency instead of paper, large sums of money were wasted in monetisation of the Chinese market when they could have been used on other value-added commodities. Unfortunately, Pomerantz ignores the multiplying effects of these events, and in turn, his argument is unaware of the slow progress of European technology until the 1800s when Europe suddenly seems to spurt ahead.
The question of Europe’s rise to world domination is truly complicated, and it is unfair to be overly harsh on any of the above excellent authors. Imperialism in itself is a difficult concept to precisely define, let alone the relative rise and fall of imperialism in different parts of the globe. Additionally, it is silly to try and explain an event as complicated as Europe’s rise, an event that has taken place over centuries, monocausally. Thus, all these authors have their place in historiography. However, it seems that although technology played a large part in creating empire (it is difficult to separate Europe’s rise and imperialism given the numerous and strong connections between them), it had less to do with retaining it. Ideology has much to do with imperial control, ambitions, and demise, as nationalism has proven over the last century. The impact of using technology as an ideology (the discourse of technology rather than actual technology) has perhaps had a greater effect on natives than the threat of bigger guns. Discourses of lack, decay, and failure continue to have effect long after the scars of the millions of deaths due to famine, epidemics, and bloodshed caused by imperialism have healed.
As Dipesh Chakrabarty states in Provincializing Europe, it is exceedingly difficult to talk outside of a European framework in studying non-European history. Europe is a hyperreal entity that dominates our discussions, and it is hard to not fall into the trap of thinking, “first in Europe, then elsewhere.” This is the lasting legacy of Europe’s rise – its ability to dominate discourse long after its military power has waned. Europe’s rise owes much, to be Gramscian, to its ability to control the site around which conflict rages, thereby giving it hegemony. This is the reason ideology seems to be the cement that holds technology and economics together.