The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980

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For centuries Europeans ruled vast portions of the world, as inhabitants of west European countries sailed to distant continents and took possession of territories whose societies and economies they set out to change. How and why did these farflung empires form, persist, and finally fall? David Abernethy addresses these questions in this magisterial survey of the rise and decline of European overseas empires.

Abernethy identifies broad patterns across time and space, interweaving them with fascinating details of cross-cultural encounters. He argues that relatively autonomous profit-making, religious, and governmental institutions enabled west European countries to launch triple assaults on other societies. Indigenous people also played a role in their eventual subjugation by inviting Europeans to intervene in their power struggles. Abernethy finds that imperial decline was often the unanticipated result of wars among major powers. Postwar crises over colonies' unmet expectations empowered movements that eventually took territories as diverse as the thirteen British North American colonies, Spain's South American possessions, India, the Dutch East Indies, Vietnam, and the Gold Coast to independence.

In advancing a theory of imperialism that includes European and non-European actors, and in analyzing economic, social, and cultural as well as political dimensions of empire, Abernethy helps account for Europe's long occupation of global center stage. He also sheds light on key features of today's postcolonial world and the legacies of empire, concluding with an insightful approach to the moral evaluation of colonialism.

About the Author:
David B. Abernethy is professor of political science at Stanford University.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Stanford political scientist Abernethy explains the rise, nature and collapse of European imperialism during a period of more than 500 years. How is it, he asks, that eight European nations, covering 1.4% of the earth's surface, came to control literally most of the rest of the world? Abernethy's analysis of this odd and momentous occurrence combines rich, detailed history with a keen ability to bring meaning to this history. Briefly, he finds that these European nations developed a unique set of institutions--a strong state, expansionist economies and proselytizing religion--that could be put to the work of imperial expansion. Together, these institutions would launch assaults not only on indigenous governing elites but also on the economies, cultures and values of the vanquished peoples. No empires before had so thoroughly penetrated the territories they conquered, writes Abernethy. Yet interstate rivalries and, ironically, the growth of Western-influenced nationalism within the colonies would finally bring the European colonial era to an end. The legacy of this era remains, however, and Abernethy spends a great deal of time delineating it as well as pondering the the important question of the morality of European colonialism. Although the text is at times rough going, and Abernethy does not avoid the penchant of social scientists to define terms in the most minute detail, attentive readers with an interest in world history and international affairs will learn much here. As globalization proceeds apace and developed and developing nations both cooperate and collide, an understanding of the origins of this modern global arena is an invaluable lesson, one Abernethy ably provides in a volume that, despite its dry title, will appeal to students of European and world history. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300093148
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

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Chapter One

Ceuta, Bojador, and Beyond:
Europeans on the Move

On a summer day in the year 1415 a fleet of Portuguese ships set off from Lisbon. On board were the king, John I, his three sons, and soldiers of noble birth from England and France, as well as Portugal. The flotilla was the largest in the country's history and among the most impressive assembled by Europeans to that date. The fleet's departure was accompanied by considerable public fanfare. Yet the event must also have been marked by confusion and uncertainty. King John had studiously avoided revealing the destination or mission of his ships. He had publicly quarreled with a ruler in the area now known as Holland, so it seemed likely that the fleet would head north. But the dispute was an elaborate ruse. The fleet took a southward course. Rounding Portugal's southwestern extremity, Cape St. Vincent, it sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, controlled on both shores by Muslims known to Europeans as Moors. The ships dropped anchor upon reaching Ceuta, a North African port and trading center located directly across the strait from the Rock of Gibraltar. The Portuguese positioned themselves on both sides of the narrow promontory on which the town was built.

    The next day they fulfilled King John's hidden objective by launching an assault on Ceuta. The town and its citadel were captured after a pitched battle. Victory was celebrated a few days later in the local mosque, hastily converted by exorcism—with salt and water—into a Christian church. Following High Mass the king knighted hissons,who, according to the royal chronicler of these events, had distinguished themselves in battle. The royal party then returned home, leaving behind twenty-seven hundred men to defend Portugal's new acquisition against expected counterattacks by the Moors.

    In many respects the capture of Ceuta was typical of other such episodes in the Middle Ages. The most enthusiastic advocates of the expedition were the king's sons, eager to win knighthood in battle, and attacking the Muslims carried on the tradition of the Crusades. Ceuta was, furthermore, part of the Mediterranean world, with a history linking the town back to the empires of antiquity. Previous successful invaders included Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Visigoths, and—early in the eighth century—Arabs.

    In other important respects, however, the Portuguese expedition and victory marked a new phase in world history, the advent of a modern era of European-centered empires that was to extend around the globe. For seven centuries prior to 1415, Muslims descended from Arabs or North African Berbers held territory in western Europe. Muslim armies advanced through the Iberian Peninsula into central France before being defeated in 732 at the Battle of Tours. Territory controlled by the Moors was much reduced by the early fifteenth century. But not until 1492, when the ruler of Granada, in southern Spain, was defeated would they lose their last west European foothold. With the capture of Ceuta, Europeans took the offensive to gain a foothold of their own in another continent.

    This was not their first such foothold. Rome's troops had subdued Carthage and incorporated swaths of North Africa into the Roman empire. By the tenth century, Norse sailors founded settlements along the "New World's" northeastern reaches. Crusaders at times held portions of the Holy Land, and Venetians established trading centers along the North African coast, in the Levant, and on the shores of the Black Sea well before 1415. But Ceuta became the first site since Roman times to be held by Europeans on a sustained basis and effectively administered from the capital of a European polity. The soldiers King John left behind were able to sustain Portugal's claims in the face of sieges and attacks by the Moors. In fact, Ceuta remained a Portuguese possession until 1580, when control passed to Spain, which still administers it. The little North African town whose capture marks the start of a long history of modern European imperialism is, ironically, one of the last relics of overseas empire today.

    Portugal's victory at Ceuta represents a turning point in world history in other respects. The outcome was due in large measure to King John's ability to mobilize the material wealth and human energies of the first European nation-state. The domestic resources of a centralized and ethnically homogeneous polity were used to project the state's power overseas. Other west European countries would follow suit as their monarchs and bureaucrats gained strength relative to the regional nobles below and Roman Catholic Church above them. Imperial expansion in turn aided European state building by placing externally generated resources at the disposal of central government authorities.

    Widely held conceptions of military and political power began to shift with the Portuguese victory. The ease with which ships transported soldiers from Lisbon to North Africa showed that control of the oceans could lead to conquest of lands and peoples far from imperial capitals. A precedent was set for expansion to wherever the Europeans' ships might take them. A state's capacity to command the high seas became an important indicator of power in its own right. Naval power could also be the means to become a great land power, for it permitted inclusion within imperial boundaries of territories on other continents.

    The capture of Ceuta had the significant effect of stimulating Portuguese efforts at exploration, trade, and conquest along Africa's Atlantic coast. The youngest of King John's sons on the expedition was Prince Henry, known to English-speaking posterity as Henry the Navigator. The prince's participation in this event evidently reinforced an already strong personal interest in Africa. Ceuta was a northern terminus of trade routes bringing gold, ivory, and slaves across the Sahara. Henry knew that if Portugal could access these valuable resources at the point of origin, its gains would exceed those from controlling Ceuta.

    Direct access across vast territories held by Moors was out of the question. A sea voyage was required. But before 1415 no Portuguese vessels had ventured south of Cape Bojador, a desolate headland some 850 miles southwest of the Strait of Gibraltar. Prince Henry doubtless hoped that people living beyond the cape could supply the desired commodities. He also hoped and quite possibly expected that these people would be Christians. Persistent rumors circulating in Europe told of Prester John, a Christian monarch living somewhere south of the Muslim-controlled lands. If Prester John could be found, prospects for gainful trade and for a grand alliance of Christian forces to defeat Islam would be greatly enhanced.

    Enticed by such possibilities and encouraged by the success of the Ceuta expedition, Prince Henry was instrumental in recruiting, outfitting, financing, and motivating the men who eventually sailed beyond Cape Bojador. Not long after returning from Ceuta he established a command post of sorts at Sagres, on Cape St. Vincent. There he sought to link the basic science of astronomy with the more applied sciences of ship construction, navigational equipment design, and cartography. For many years expeditions sent out under his semiofficial aegis proved unwilling or unable to pass south of Cape Bojador. This landmark became known as the Cape of Fear, a sign that it was a psychological as well as a physical barrier to sailors. To pass beyond it a ship had to veer far out to sea to avoid mists and tricky currents near the coast. South of it lay unknown perils at sea. The cape itself offered no evidence that favorable trading prospects lay ahead, for its hinterland was a virtually uninhabited desert. Perhaps most troublesome was the challenge of returning home. Winds and currents prevented sailors from retracing the route close to the coast that took them to the cape.

    At last, in 1434, Henry's squire Gil Eannes broke the barrier, rounding Cape Bojador in a small barcha. Eannes resolved the return-voyage problem by heading seaward in a northwesterly direction toward the nearby Canary Islands, then taking the westerly winds from those islands back to Portugal. The precedent was set for a series of voyages that took Portuguese sailors as far south as Sierra Leone by the time of Henry's death in 1460. Explorers found little gold as they pushed steadily away from home base. But they did capture some of the people living along the coast, selling them for handsome profits in Portugal as slaves. No fabled Christian kingdom was found. But most inhabitants of the more verdant coastal lands south of the desert whom the sailors encountered were not Muslims. This doubtless stimulated Portuguese hopes that the Africans they met might readily be converted.

    Portuguese sailors set out upon the Atlantic in 1415 to enter the Mediterranean, a miniature ocean whose outlines had been known for centuries. As its name indicates, the Mediterranean occupies the center of a multicultural zone, facilitating economic and cultural exchange among the peoples of southern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. Perhaps the most lasting effect of capturing a Mediterranean port was, ironically, to increase interest in the ocean lapping Portugal's own shores. The size and contours of this immense body of water were unknown. Yet after 1434 there was good reason to believe that ignorance of these matters would some day be dispelled. Once Gil Eannes showed that Cape Bojador need no longer be the Cape of Fear, sailors from Portugal and other west European states could set out on the Atlantic for distant lands whose inhabitants were far more culturally and physically diverse than the Mediterranean's peoples. Beyond Bojador lay the coastlines of the rest of the world.


In the half millennium following Ceuta's capture, the rulers of eight countries that together account for a mere 1.6 percent of the land surface of the earth—Portugal, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Italy—claimed vast territories and asserted sovereign rights over hundreds of millions of human beings. It is highly unlikely that people from any part of the world should have made such audacious claims, let alone backed up their words with effective actions. Yet this is the implausible scenario that unfolded.

    What occurred in the course of Europe's expansion had a profound impact on the modern history of all continents. Since the fifteenth century west Europeans have sent forth their inhabitants, their several versions of the Christian faith, their attitudes toward nature, their languages, intellectual and political controversies, consumer goods, diseases, death-dealing and life-enhancing technologies, commercial institutions, government bureaucracies, and values. Entire regions were directly incorporated, in a kind of global enclosure movement, into overseas empires.

    Europeans were not, of course, the only expansionist actors in the centuries following Ceuta's capture. Western Europe itself, invaded from North Africa in the eighth century and briefly threatened by Mongol forces in the thirteenth, confronted a new round of external challenges in the fifteenth. These came from the Ottoman Turks, who in 1453 captured Constantinople, the Byzantine capital and center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Ottoman rulers transformed the city into a center of Islamic arts and letters, went on to conquer large portions of the Balkans, and advanced as far as the outskirts of Vienna in 1529. The greatest Ottoman ruler, Suleiman I (r. 1520-66), was influential in the turbulent affairs of early-Reformation Europe.

    Along the eastern edge of continental Europe, Muscovy expanded in several directions after breaking free of the Mongols in 1480. By the seventeenth century Russian czars had extended their claims thousands of miles eastward to the Pacific. During the next two centuries their immense empire was further enlarged along its southern flanks by incorporation of a number of Islamic polities. Russian trading settlements were established along the northwestern coast of North America in the late eighteenth century, providing the basis for claims to Alaska.

    Elsewhere in Eurasia the Mughal dynasty, initially under the leadership of Babur (1483-1530), extended its sway over northern and central India. This empire reached its height around 1700. In China, the Ming imperial court sponsored a series of trading and diplomatic expeditions by sea at the same time as the Portuguese were commencing exploration along the African coast. Fleets of huge, heavily laden ships under the direction of Adm. Cheng Ho sailed as far west as the Red Sea and the East African coast before this ambitious initiative to reach out to other societies was halted in the 1430s. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Chinese state under the Qing (Manchu) dynasty greatly enlarged its boundaries with campaigns of conquest in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a rapidly industrializing Japan under Meiji Restoration leadership took control of portions of the Asian mainland—most notably Korea—as well as Taiwan and numerous smaller islands in the Pacific.

    In Africa the Songhai Empire, centered in the Niger River valley, reached its height by the early sixteenth century. The powerful Zulu empire created by Shaka rose during the early nineteenth and had an enormous impact on neighboring southern African societies. In what Europeans termed the New World, the Aztec and Inca empires grew greatly in power and size in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Numerous other examples could be cited.

    The formation of large-scale, relatively centralized polities, commanding obedience and extracting resources from physically and culturally disparate populations, is a recurring theme in human history. West Europeans were not the only peoples with expansionist agendas in the centuries following Portugal's capture of Ceuta, to say nothing of the years preceding it.

    Nonetheless, the overseas empires west Europeans constructed in the past five centuries have certain distinctive and in many respects unique features. Their formation was closely associated with the most systematic, extensive exploration of the globe ever undertaken. European explorers obviously did not discover lands already inhabited by other human beings. But they did discover the seas, in that their voyages familiarized them with the huge portion of the earth's surface—some 70 percent—covered by water. Their findings enabled European cartographers to produce the first reasonably accurate images of the size, shape, and interconnectedness of the world's oceans. Whether maritime explorers had imperialist designs or not, the knowledge they accumulated was essential for founding "saltwater" empires.

    Because territories Europeans claimed were linked to the governing country, or metropole, by ships designed for lengthy sea voyages, colonies could be geographically dispersed in a way quite different from the empires just noted. Except for Russia (in Alaska) and Japan, the others advanced along land frontiers. The results were contiguous units, not multiple territorial fragments? The first modern European empire, constructed by Portugal, is a classic illustration of dispersed power. In the century following their Ceuta expedition the Portuguese set up trading and settler enclaves along the coasts of Brazil, West Africa, East Africa, southwestern India (Malabar), China, and in the Spice Islands. They controlled two strategic ports: Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and Malacca, overseeing Indian Ocean-China Sea traffic in the narrow strait between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. The sun set only briefly on the early Portuguese empire—and not at all on the greatest one, governed by the British.

    Dispersal of holdings across latitude and longitude lines gave rise to the idea that each colony should specialize in certain commodities based on its comparative economic advantage. A territory might be valued because it possessed minerals or tropical agricultural products unavailable in Europe. The tendency for metropole and colony to specialize in disparate yet complementary activities, and pressures on colonized peoples to produce designated commodities for export, were much greater when imperial possessions were distant and overseas than when polities expanded along land frontiers.

    Geographic dispersal made for enormous diversity in the peoples assembled under one political authority. The differences, not only between colonizers and colonized but also among the colonized, were striking. Each European empire was the arena for an extraordinarily high level of interaction across territorial, racial, linguistic, and religious lines.

    The physical space separating a metropole from its colonies meant that rulers and ruled grew up in distinct disease environments. Initial encounters between the two groups could therefore have profound demographic consequences. In the New World and parts of Oceania, where indigenous peoples had little or no contact with humans from other continents prior to the arrival of Europeans, exposure to the invaders' diseases produced precipitous population declines. This was not the case with the non-European empires mentioned, in which newly subject populations were genetically primed, so to speak, to fight off the diseases of conquerors who were also neighbors.

    The expansion of Europe is distinctive in that not one but several empires were constructed at about the same time and administered in parallel. In many respects it makes sense to consider western Europe a single category, analyzing the cumulative impact on other peoples of what is appropriately termed European imperialism. In other ways, however, it is imperative to disaggregate western Europe into its numerous states, several of them busily expanding and administering their own overseas possessions. The polities of western Europe belonged to an interstate system in which each unit was intensely aware of other units and in continual competition—sometimes peaceful, often violent—with them. The rulers of each European state lived with a pervasive sense of insecurity: the fear that neighbors would challenge the state's power and threaten its existence. Competition among these polities assumed a global dimension once the precedent for establishing overseas colonies was set and once knowledge of the possibilities for empire building was dispersed throughout the system. As I argue in part 3, a key to understanding the expansionist dynamic of western Europe is precisely the dual character of the region. In cultural, economic, and geographic terms it has long been relatively unified. In political terms it has been fragmented, with recurring outbreaks of bitter internecine warfare. The imperialism of western Europe is also the multiple imperialisms of the region's autonomous components.

    European imperialism was marked by its capacity to undermine the power and legitimacy of other expanding political systems. To take several of the post-1415 examples cited earlier, the Ottoman Turks were unable to sustain their claims to North African territory in the face of European military, diplomatic, and economic offensives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The final collapse of Ottoman authority in the aftermath of World War I enabled the victorious British and French to become League of Nations mandatory powers, governing Arab populations in portions of the Near East formerly under Ottoman rule. In India, the century from the Battle of Plassey (1757) to the Great Mutiny (1857-58) saw gradual but steady erosion in Mughal power and a corresponding increase in British economic penetration and political influence. The mutiny in turn spurred the British Crown to assume more direct control of large portions of the old Mughal Empire than in the days of informal rule by British East India Company officials. The Qing dynasty, which extended China's territorial authority into the Central Asian interior during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was humiliated in the nineteenth by European "barbarians" attacking from the sea. China lost Hong Kong to Britain in the Opium War of 1839-42, witnessed the destruction of the imperial summer palace in 1860 by a British-French punitive expedition to Beijing, and was forced to cede sovereign rights in key port cities to British, French, German (and Japanese) officials. The so-called treaty ports were foreign colonial enclaves that the Chinese were not able to reclaim until after World War I.

    By the time European soldiers entered the savanna interior of West Africa the Songhai Empire had fallen. Songhai's smaller successor states, despite putting up often fierce resistance, were subdued by technically superior weaponry within two decades of the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, which set guidelines for Europe's scramble for Africa. Further south, Zulu warriors were decisively defeated by white Afrikaner (Boer) forces in the Battle of Blood River (1838). Although inflicting heavy losses on British forces at the Battle of Isandhlwana in 1879, the Zulus subsequently lost at Ulundi and could not stave off invasion of their territory by both the Afrikaners and the British. Military resistance collapsed after a brief uprising in 1906 was crushed. In the New World, the powerful Aztec and Inca empires were defeated by the cunning, tenacity, ruthlessness—and infectious diseases—of the Spanish conquistadors within a matter of months following the invaders' arrival.

    The arrogant attitude Europeans displayed toward other people was due in large measure to their success at directly challenging the power and prerogatives of non-European rulers. The principal exceptions to this pattern—Japan, Thailand, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia (Ethiopia)—are interesting because the ability of these polities to remain independent in the face of external challenge was so exceptional.

    A distinctive feature of the empires I will discuss was the persistent effort of Europeans to undermine and reshape the modes of production, social institutions, cultural patterns, and value systems of indigenous peoples. This transformation agenda, which in many instances proved remarkably successful, was the outward projection of tumultuous changes in the way Europeans themselves lived during the half millennium of their global dominance. At issue here is not whether Europeans were particularly cruel to other peoples in the course of subduing them. The grim truth is that all expanding polities cause loss of life and societal disruption when incorporating others into their domains. Acts of pillage, rape, and mass murder have been committed by advancing armies in diverse times and places throughout history. The crucial difference lay rather in the rulers' actions following conquest. The mechanisms non-European empires devised to extract surplus from newly conquered groups typically did little to alter what these groups already produced. Neither was there substantial change in how commodities sought by new rulers were mined, grown, or fashioned by human labor. In contrast, Europeans often revolutionized production in their colonies. New methods permitted extraction of minerals and metals not accessible to local people. In numerous instances animals and plants were introduced. Horses and pigs, for instance, accompanied early Spanish settlers to the New World. Settlers were responsible for "population explosions of burros in ... the Canaries, rats in Virginia ... and rabbits in Australia." Some plants, like citrus fruits and sugarcane, were grown in the Mediterranean region and were familiar to those who transplanted them. But many others—like cassava, cocoa, coffee, groundnuts, maize, quinine, rubber, and tobacco—were not accessible until Europeans reached other world regions. These crops were transferred from one non-European continent to another, frequently through officially sponsored botanical gardens expressly established for this purpose.

    Having transferred commercially valuable crops, Europeans employed novel methods of mass producing them for export to the metropole. Colonial plantations may be seen as outdoor factories applying principles of industrial organization and production to tropical and semitropical agriculture well before they were applied to the indoor factories of Europe. In this respect the Industrial Revolution was given a colonial trial run. Both types of factories required large amounts of rigidly controlled human labor. In plantation colonies this typically entailed importing of slaves or indentured servants, whose presence altered a territory's racial composition and social structure as well as economic activities. Novel technologies were deployed to transport mass-produced commodities long distances over land and sea. The structure of precolonial economic life, including the largely self-reliant character of local communities, was changed after contact with a persistently intrusive western Europe.

    Non-European empires did not reserve large tracts of land for conquerors who had come to settle. And the number of such settlers was not substantial compared to the subjugated population. In sharp contrast, land alienation on behalf of European settlers and their descendants—with its accompanying dislocation of indigenous ways of life—was a recurring feature in many overseas possessions. Colonies in the New World and the temperate zones of Africa and Oceania offered opportunities for millions of Europeans to migrate. These lands served as vents for expanding home-country populations in a way without parallel in the history of other empires.

    The ruling elites of non-European empires did not invariably consider themselves culturally superior to their subjects. In instances in which a group with a pastoral and nomadic tradition imposed itself upon an agricultural and urbanized population, rulers were more likely to assimilate to the culture of the ruled than the reverse. Such was the case when the Mongol Yuan dynasty ruled China (1268-1379); when the Mughals descended to the Indian plains from the mountains of Afghanistan; when the Turks progressed from Central Asia to Anatolia; and when the Aztecs migrated south to the Valley of Mexico in the twelfth century. Quite different were European empire builders, nomads traveling by sea, who with few exceptions showed little or no interest in adjusting to the cultures of their subjects. Their challenge was rather to persuade or coerce indigenous leaders, if not the populace as a whole, to adopt what Europeans believed to be their own clearly superior religion, moral code, language, literature, artistic tradition, legal system, and technology. Adaptation was essentially a one-way process. Upon the shoulders of the colonized was placed the burden of making necessary adjustments.

    Europeans were by no means the only rulers with a superiority complex vis-à-vis their subjects. But they displayed this complex in an exceptionally systematic, self-conscious way and in an unusually wide range of symbolic settings. They were ingenious in devising methods to humiliate non-Europeans and unusually skilled at encouraging those they ruled to internalize an inferiority complex. The results were often devastating for the individual and collective self-confidence of subordinate populations.

    A major theme of this book is that Europeans were distinctive in mounting a triple assault on other societies: on indigenous institutions of governance, on longstanding patterns of generating and distributing economic assets, and on ideas and values that gave meaning to life. When all these aspects of the old order came under direct and at times simultaneous attack, non-European societies found their ways of life imperiled as never before.

    Within the genus of imperialism in human history, the west European version from the fifteenth century onward thus qualifies as a distinctive species, one deserving of study in its own right. It should be neither equated with the larger genus nor too readily broken down into the specific empires—Portuguese, Spanish, British, Dutch, and so forth—comprising its several subspecies. The history of each metropole's empire has been exhaustively recounted. This book examines broader patterns of the rise, fall, character, and impact of the empires considered collectively.


The overseas empires deserve careful study, first, because their spatial and temporal dimensions are quite extraordinary. Two-thirds of the United Nations' member states as of January 2000—125 of 188—consisted of territories outside of Europe which at one time were governed by Europeans. Three-fifths of the world's population live in countries whose entire territory has at one time been claimed by a European state. If one includes states portions of whose current territory were under the legal jurisdiction of Europeans—notably China, with its treaty ports—then in excess of 80 percent of human beings now living inhabit states that experienced some version of formal European rule. That rule lasted for more than 250 years in 37 U.N. member states and for more than a century in 60.

    Second, the study of European empires raises pivotal intellectual issues. The sheer improbability of one tiny part of the world dominating so many areas for so long cries out for explanation. How and why were Europe's empires formed? How much causal weight should be placed on characteristics of the empire builders, how much on characteristics of peoples who became imperial subjects? What characteristics, whether of colonizers or colonized, are most significant? How can we account for the durability of systems of rule in which ultimate authority over a territory was lodged in a metropolitan capital thousands of miles away?

    The overseas empires eventually fell, as colonial dependencies became independent, legally sovereign states. It is easier to understand why improbable political arrangements ended than why they were formed or why they lasted. But imperial collapse poses its own intriguing puzzles. Why did colonies attain independence when they did? Why was decolonization violent in some territories and relatively peaceful in others? Considering that so many colonial boundaries were artificial and externally imposed, why were new states so frequently territorial replicas of their predecessors rather than reincarnations of precolonial polities? To what extent was colonial nationalism a rejection, to what extent an affirmation, of what the imperialists accomplished?

    Studying the dynamics of European global dominance enables one to pose even broader questions. What does it mean—and what would it take—to explain such large-scale phenomena as the rise and fall of empires? How does one move from describing and classifying major events and trends in this dramatic story to a theory accounting for what happened? What does the history of European empires tell us about the nature of power? about transfers of power from one group to another? about relationships across the divides of race, ethnicity, and culture? about the persistence of continuity amidst societal change and the workings of change agents amidst apparently stable societal settings? Such questions are worth asking even if the answers are more speculative and contestable than the investigator might like.

    The study of European empires raises questions about the usefulness of categories used to analyze worldwide trends in the twentieth century. Social scientists have often drawn a distinction between tradition and modernity. The distinction is then harnessed to the claim that so-called Third World countries were once traditional but are now moving toward modernity, as expressed in the institutions, ideas, and living standards of advanced capitalist First World countries. Even if one sets aside problems in defining and measuring tradition and modernity, the prevalence of colonial situations in which "modern" Europeans ruled "traditional" non-Europeans through imported institutions makes the dichotomy especially problematic. Were the institutions transplanted from metropoles to colonies modern? What about the Roman Catholic Church, whose origins are deeply rooted in a world conventionally termed ancient? Was plantation slavery, introduced centuries ago to satisfy European consumer demands, traditional or modern? How should one classify current social and economic patterns inherited from plantation slavery? Are people whose racial heritage is mixed or whose culture reflects complex combinations of non-European and European practices agents of tradition or of modernity? The very existence of empires whose boundaries transgressed the line separating societies envisaged as modern and traditional and whose activities deeply implicated each type of society in the life of the other renders the distinction confusing and misleading rather than helpful. The new states emerged not from some vague traditional status, after all, but from lengthy, extensive interaction with some of the world's most economically and technologically advanced countries.

    During the Cold War scholars of international relations focused on properties of the bipolar system then in place. The usual starting point for analyses of U.S.-Soviet rivalry was events in the twentieth century, notably the start of the First World War and the end of the Second. But the study of international relations in the modern world more appropriately begins in 1415 than in 1914 or 1945. European imperialism was an outward projection of the power of states. Its ultimate result was the global diffusion of the ideals and institutions of the state. Because the territorially bounded, bureaucratic state is the key unit in the study of international relations, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the process by which such a unit became globalized. The end of the Cold War offers an opportunity to make up for this oversight. By focusing more on European imperialism, colonialism, and anticolonial nationalism, scholars can give the study of international relations the broad temporal scope it needs and deserves.

    A recent attempt to shift attention from states to civilizations as essential units of identity and conflict in the post-Cold War world understates the significance of European global dominance. Had the cultural categories in Samuel Huntington's widely cited work The Clash of Civilizations been confined to specific regions over the past several centuries, one could plausibly imagine them functioning today as coherent expressions of radically divergent worldviews. But that is not the story of modern world history. The sustained triple assault of one of these civilizations upon others, and incorporation of the colonizers' institutions and norms into the nationalist movements that brought over a hundred colonies to independence—these realities long ago blurred civilizational boundaries. Many of the world's current conflicts are due not to fundamentally antagonistic values but to competing demands for material goods and cultural experiences whose status as good things is almost universally acknowledged. European imperialism and anti-imperial nationalism, taken together, were the driving forces in the global diffusion of ways of thinking and acting that transcend civilizational cleavage lines.

    Globalization is another theme in discussions of the post-Cold War world. Analysts emphasize massive, rapid flows of finance capital, technology, and labor across political boundaries, pointing out that these movements may weaken the power of governments to set and implement policy. An implication is that globalization is a historically unique phenomenon. But this is misleading. Many areas of the world were globalized long ago in the course of being incorporated into European empires. A legacy of colonial rule in many currently independent states is a high level of vulnerability to externally generated economic and technological changes. What may be different today is that the strongest, most historically insulated economies are experiencing levels of vulnerability once reserved for the world's most marginalized economies. In this situation strong, wealthy countries can learn from the more experienced weak, poor ones about the destabilizing consequences of globalization.

    Implicit in these observations is a third reason for studying the rise and fall of European empires. Although the era of formal colonial rule has passed, its legacies live on, profoundly influencing the postcolonial world in ways both obvious and subtle. Chapter 16 discusses these legacies at some length. Here I want to mention a few in passing. As just noted, institutions and ideals associated with the state were passed from European metropoles to their colonies, then to successors appropriately designated new states. In the economic arena, production patterns introduced in the colonial era and early transport routes linking local commodities to imperially defined trade networks have in many instances shaped development options long after independence. Despite Cuba's revolutionary break with past political and diplomatic practice, its economy remains largely based on exports of sugar, an Old World crop transplanted centuries ago to the New. The economy of independent Senegal remains heavily dependent on peanuts, a New World crop transplanted long ago to Africa and developed by the French as an export commodity. Many other examples could be cited of path-dependent economic development in which the initial path was laid down at the behest of colonial rulers and for their benefit.

    In the cultural arena, Christianity is in fact as well as aspiration a world religion. Its spread to many parts of the world can be traced to the initiatives of European missionaries, who aided and abetted the imperial project even when they had nonpolitical goals primarily in mind. Striking illustrations of the cultural legacy can be found in linguistics. Of 112 formerly colonized countries for which information is available, 88 (with a combined population of 2.3 billion) list a west European tongue as an official language. An estimated 700 million people living outside Europe speak English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish in the home.

    A revealing indicator of colonialism's global impact is the names Europeans bestowed on territories they claimed. The list is especially long in what is conventionally called the New World or the Americas. (The very terms, of course, make the point. The hemisphere Columbus reached was new from the perspective of European explorers and settlers. The Americas were named in all likelihood after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci.) The New World is littered with countries, provinces, and cities named after

1. European political entities from countries to cities, for example, Hispaniola, New Spain (Mexico), New Granada (Colombia), Cartagena, New England, New Amsterdam (later New York), New Rochelle, Harlem, New Orleans, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, New Hampshire, Valencia, Venezuela ("little Venice"), Guadalajara;
2. European royalty and rulers: Kingston, Montreal, Port au Prince, Louisiana, Louisbourg, Annapolis, Carolina, Georgia, Georgetown, Williamsburg, Charleston;
3. Signs, symbols, and saints of the Christian faith Europeans brought with them: Santo Domingo, Vera Cruz, Santiago, Trinidad, El Salvador, Asunción, Corpus Christi, Madre de Dios, Santa Fe, Magdalena, San Juan, San Jose, São Paulo, San Francisco, St. Louis, St. Augustine, St. Johns, and numerous Caribbean islands named for saints;
4. Prominent figures in exploration, conquest, settlement, and colonial administration: Colombia, British Columbia, De Soto, Pennsylvania, Cadillac, Hudson River and Bay, Baffin Island, Raleigh, Straits of Magellan, Delaware, Drake's Bay, James Bay, Marquette, Champlain, Humboldt Current, Grijalva River, Albuquerque, Vancouver.
Similar illustrations, though far less numerous, could be taken from Africa,
Asia, and Oceania. In the same categories as above, examples include the following:
1. Nova Lisboa (now Huambo), Batavia, New Holland, New South Wales, Perth, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Ile de France, East London;
2. Mauritius, Leopoldville, Philippine Islands; a lake, falls, and towns and provinces throughout the British Empire named for Queen Victoria;
3. Natal, St. Louis, São Tomé, San Salvador;
4. Southern and Northern Rhodesia, Luderitz Bay, Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Stanleyville, Brazzaville, Tasmania (earlier called Van Diemen's Land), Livingstone, Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Cook Bay, Pretoria, Wallis Islands, Fernando Po, Fort Lamy.

    Many territories were named for a commodity highly valued by European commercial interests: Cape Cod, Minas Gerais, Argentina, Río de Oro, Walvis Bay, Gold Coast, and Côte d'Ivoire. In other cases a name bestowed by Europeans describes certain features of a territory. Nigeria, Niger, and the River Niger are derived from the Latin word for black; Cameroon is derived from the Portuguese reference to a river rich in prawns (rio dos camarões). As for the human beings Europeans encountered, it is ironic that because of Christopher Columbus's monumental miscalculation of the earth's circumference the New World's indigenous peoples were named after the inhabitants of the distant Indian subcontinent. The collective appellation lives on, centuries after the error was acknowledged.

    Not all the names listed above were retained after colonies became independent. The two Rhodesias, for instance, became Zambia and Zimbabwe; Leopoldville and Stanleyville became Kinshasa and Kisangani. But the fact that most of the names were retained is an enduring colonial legacy, generally unnoticed because place-names are so often taken for granted.

    The historian Raymond Betts sums up the legacies of colonial rule in a striking image: "The landscape of the post-colonial world resembles a beach after the tide has receded; it is still strewn with much of what the Europeans had earlier floated in."

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Part I Western Europe and the World
1. Ceuta, Bojador, and Beyond: Europeans on the Move 3
2. Why Did the Overseas Empires Rise, Persist, and Fall? 18
Part II Phases of Imperial Expansion and Contraction
3. Phase 1: Expansion, 1415-1773 45
4. Phase 2: Contraction, 1775-1824 64
5. Phase 3: Expansion, 1824-1912 81
6. Phase 4: Unstable Equilibrium, 1914-39 104
7. Phase 5: Contraction, 1940-80 133
Part III Accounting for Imperial Expansion
8. Western Europe as a Region: Shared Features 175
9. Western Europe as a System of Competing States 206
10. The Institutional Basis for the Triple Assault 225
11. Non-European Initiatives and Perceptions 254
Part IV Consolidating Power
12. Sectoral Institutions and Techniques of Control 277
13. Sources of Colonial Weakness 300
Part V Accounting for Imperial Contraction
14. Colonialism as a Self-Defeating Enterprise 325
15. The International Dimension: War as the Catalyst for Independence 345
Part VI Consequences of European Overseas Rule
16. Legacies 363
17. The Moral Evaluation of Colonialism 387
Appendix Spatial and Temporal Dimensions of the Overseas Empires 409
Notes 417
Bibliography 463
Index 505
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