Have the Weak Colonized the Earth?

Empires of the Weak by J.C.Sharman

The Americas, Far East, southern Asia, and Africa were colonized by European nations from about 1400 to 1940. An often-cited cause for this domination is the European nation’s advances in weapons, technology, and organizational development honed during brutal wars between nations in Europe.

This book - which almost reads like a thesis - provides evidence arguing that the more fruitful cause is European’s willingness to submit to “weak” local political powers on land in return for developing maritime trading routes: all were in it for the money and in a sense “weakness” on land was a colonizer’s strength. Sharman notes that most early colonization was not done by nations, but by very small civilian groups with very limited military capacity (think Plymouth Colony or Columbus’ expedition). Also, far larger local populations quickly adopted new technology or successfully adapted to neutralize it - thus eliminating that European advantage. As colonies became successful they became more nationalized, land-based, and brutal with huge administrative costs (think French and Indian Wars). As costs increased, “profit” decreased and decolonization began: local populations took control from about 1800 (consider Louisiana Purchase) to the 1960s (nations formed in Africa). In an ironic reversal, consider recent European wars - Napoleonic wars and World Wars - as reversing the process: “weak” colonials (India, Hong Kong?) took over from “strong” European empires.

Perspective and time frame seem to alter the power of these theories of cause.

This title is available to check out at the Millicent Library as well as on Hoopla.

From the publisher: "What accounts for the rise of the state, the creation of the first global system, and the dominance of the West? The conventional answer asserts that superior technology, tactics, and institutions forged by Darwinian military competition gave Europeans a decisive advantage in war over other civilizations from 1500 onward. In contrast, Empires of the Weak argues that Europeans actually had no general military superiority in the early modern era. J.C. Sharman shows instead that European expansion from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries is better explained by deference to strong Asian and African polities, disease in the Americas, and maritime supremacy earned by default because local land-oriented polities were largely indifferent to war and trade at sea. Europeans were overawed by the mighty Eastern empires of the day, which pioneered key military innovations and were the greatest early modern conquerors. Against the view that the Europeans won for all time, Sharman contends that the imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a relatively transient and anomalous development in world politics that concluded with Western losses in various insurgencies. If the twenty-first century is to be dominated by non-Western powers like China, this represents a return to the norm for the modern era. Bringing a revisionist perspective to the idea that Europe ruled the world due to military dominance, Empires of the Weak demonstrates that the rise of the West was an exception in the prevailing world order." --

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