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Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order

Author(s):Sharman, J. C.
Reviewer(s):Lambert, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. C. Sharman. Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. xiv + 216 pp. $17.95 (paperback), ISBN 976-0-691-21007-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Lambert, King’s College London.


This book offers a sparkling critique of the much debated ‘Military Revolution’ thesis of European expansion. Sharman picks up insightful asides from Geoffrey Parker and Jeremy Black, who recognised gaps in the argument, and integrates the work of scholars examining warfare outside the European world, to open a new line of argument. The resulting demolition of long-standing myths of European military superiority over Asian and Africa empires and states is compelling.

Before the 1750s European powers did not use ‘Military Revolution’ methods, or large forces in Africa, Asia, or America. In Asia Europeans were supplicants at Mughal and Ming Courts, anxious to trade, because they were unable to conquer. Portugal’s hard-won Asian empire was effectively restricted to taxing maritime trade at sea and controlling a few key ports. The Iberian powers consistently used extra-European profits to fund wars in Europe and North Africa, with strikingly limited results. In North Africa, centuries of large-scale effort produced little more than a few fortified enclaves that cost far more to defend than they could generate in trade. These were costly vanity projects, not empire building.

More ambitious campaigns ended in disaster. The demolition of an invading Portuguese army, far larger than any force sent to Asia, by Moroccan forces at Alcazer el Kebir in 1578 exposed the core aims of Portugal’s Avis dynasty, crusading and expanding the resource base of a small state. This massive gamble, funded by the profits from African and Asian trade, ended the Avis dynasty, and handed the Kingdom to Spain. The Moroccans used captured Portuguese and mercenary prisoners to expand their empire across the Sahara, to control the gold trade. The Moroccans matched the Portuguese in guns and cannon, while local knowledge, effective leadership and superior cavalry secured victory. Elsewhere the Ottoman Empire dominated eastern Europe long into the 18th century, a system undone by legal and economic changes in land ownership, rather than a ‘Military Revolution’.

The Revolution that handed an edge to the West was the Industrial Revolution, while the collapse of the great Asian Empires, the Mughals and Manchu China, was primarily driven by internal challenges. Europeans came to dominate Africa and Asia long after the ‘Military Revolution’ had passed, recasting the trifling impact of their precursors, and reinforcing contemporary notions of ‘superiority’. Sharman uses the end of these European empires to highlight the relativism of old assumptions. This raises an obvious question: what was the purpose of these European empires? In the case of pre-Revolutionary France prestige and ‘grandeur’ were more important than trade, while Dutch and English/British empire-building efforts were left to chartered companies. In the nineteenth century several ‘new’ empires, notably that of Imperial Germany, were driven by status anxiety.

Critically Sharman establishes that the ‘Military Revolution’ explanation of western imperialism, created in the last era of western empires, has been applied retrospectively to the period between 1500 and 1800 when it was clearly not relevant. European powers consistently prioritised conflict on or immediately adjacent to their own continent over the creation of distant maritime empires. These were primarily treated as a source of funds for European expansion. Walter Raleigh’s imperial vision was unusual only in the clarity with which he made the case that American gold could enable England to defeat Habsburg Spain in Europe. The extraction of funds from the wider world to expend in Europe remained the dominant objective of European activity until the late eighteenth century, with western military superiority emerging neatly coincident with the ’Great Divergence’.

The book concludes by examining how the Europeans finally achieved military dominance, only to lose their empires in the mid 20th century. This assessment tends to underestimate the impact of two global conflicts and United States opposition to European imperialism. That continental military empires including China and Russia have persisted into the twenty-first century, and are still be contested, reflects the dominant Roman paradigm of a land empire homogenised by conquest culture and language. These empires seek security against invasion through terrestrial expansion and close the markets of conquered territories to external trade.

This is a critical text for historians of empires and armies, western and otherwise, not least because it is perfectly pitched to engage and encourage students in history and international relations, especially in institutions places that engage in the study of war and imperialism across the academic disciplines. It should be noted that Sharman, a Professor of International Relations, takes his peers to task for following the flawed assumptions of system-building historians.


Andrew Lambert is a Fellow of King’s College London and Laughton Professor of Naval History. He is the author of The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy (Yale, 2021) and Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (Yale, 2018), winner of the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Book Prize in Military History.

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Subject(s):Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII