JOIN EHA

DONATE

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)

David B. Abernethy, The Dynamic of Global Dominance: European Overseas

Empires, 1415-1980. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. 524

pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-07304-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by K. N. Chaudhuri.

The rise and fall of European empires has long been a topic of discussion and

study among European intellectuals since the time of Adam Smith down to the

Bolshevik interpretation of imperialism by Lenin. In fact, the historiography

of European expansion in general can be extended much further back to the

early Portuguese and Spanish chroniclers most of whom were more than just

aware of the difference between the previous world expansions by other

conquerors and the process that was being initiated by the Iberians. The

present work attempts to provide an interpretation and a description of the

entire history of Western expansion and the decolonization that took place

between the years 1415 to 1980. It is a substantial volume extending over some

524 pages arranged into seventeen chapters. The work is divided into six

sections. The first section starts off, as it must, with a brief description

of King John’s famous expedition to Morocco, which led to the conquest of

Ceuta and then looks at the general problematic of European expansion. The

second section outlines the historical development and the analysis of the

chronology follows a familiar system of classification into consecutive phases

of cyclical expansion and contraction. Part three questions why and how Europe

was able to establish, maintain, and sustain successive imperial hegemonies

in different parts of the world in different time periods with a chapter on

non-European initiatives and perceptions. Part four returns to the same set of

problems with a different perspective and scale, looks more closely at the

institutional and technical aspects of colonial rule and examines some of the

sources of apparent weakness within the imperial systems. The last two

sections deal with the causality of decolonization and the consequences of

European overseas rule.

The author is a political scientist and not an historian. This is all too

evident from the ease with which he is able to generalize on complex issues

and provide a prescriptive answer to questions that historians find difficult

to resolve. But then it must be said that during the last half a century or so

while historians with their intense preoccupation with archival sources and

inherent specialization on small topics have been reluctant to engage in

general historical debate, it is the social scientists from Max Weber onwards

who have attempted to tackle the issue of world history. For historians the

failure of Arnold Toynbee’s efforts to theorize about history in general was

sufficient to discourage any further adventure in that direction and the

recondite nature of Oswald Spengler’s work put off all but the bravest

researcher from reading The Decline of the West. As a result of this

reaction, the writing of history today is poorer. The present work raises

questions that should and must be discussed whether one is a social scientist

or an historian. That is not the issue: rather the issue is how one sets about

to validate the description of European expansion and provide an explanation

which is not open to an immediate revision. For a detailed knowledge of

primary sources and the difficulty of interpreting that material makes a

professional historian naturally cautious about his capacity to draw general

conclusions on the subject of historical causality. The author is clearly

aware of the methodological problems, for on page 25 he attempts to discuss

the difference between theory, explanation, and description. But unlike

natural scientists who must necessarily deal with a causal chain in which

every description is also an explanation which in turn, given a sufficient

number of cases, becomes a theory, David Abernethy goes on to build a causal

explanation of what he calls historical trends on a logic of necessary and

sufficient conditions and a conjectural ensemble of conducive conditions. This

methodology might explain why a colony cannot be created without a metropole,

it does not help to understand why Portugal, Spain, Britain, and the Dutch

Republic, for example, needed colonies in the first place, while Mughal India

or Ming China were interested only in territorial conquests.

Some of the general explanations the author offers for European success in

empire building might also seem idiosyncratic. The following is an example:

“At the moment of contact non-Europeans were able to resist Europeans but were

frequently unwilling to do so because they did not believe newcomers posed a

serious threat. When at a later point non-Europeans did have the will to

resist they lacked the capacity to expel or exterminate outsiders who by then

had become entrenched. In both situations non-Europeans lacked power, though

for opposite reasons” (p. 39). The first statement will surprise historians,

for neither the Inca Empire in America nor the city-states of the Indian Ocean

were able to resist respectively the Spanish and Portuguese military and naval

attacks against their power bases in the early sixteenth century and the

Chinese authorities resolutely refused the Portuguese entry into the internal

commercial system of the celestial empire during the same period. The

Mandarins were fully conscious of the need to resist the Portuguese naval

power. As for the following statement, surely the Japanese succeeded first in

destroying the Russian naval fleet in a brief war and then went on to sink the

American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941, followed up by capturing

Singapore, an island fortress defended by 16-inch naval guns. If one were to

look for a single event that sign-posted the fall of the British Empire and

the eventual withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 that set the

whole process of decolonization in real motion, it must be the fall of

Singapore and the decision to parade a defeated professional army in the

streets of the British colony by the Japanese general staff. Japan admittedly

was not colonized by any European power, though Commander Perry used the

language of imperial power to force the Japanese to open their ports to

foreigners. But one might argue that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers did have

the power just as coercive as any direct use of force to undermine the British

will to hang on to the imperial jewel in the British Crown. There are many

other similar instances of generalizations one could cite which leave an

historian wondering whether language is meant to be something other than what

it says.

This book contains many valuable insights on the mechanics of European

imperial expansion and the descriptive parts should be useful to

undergraduates studying the subject. It would have been a better text if the

author had resisted the temptation to explain and concentrated on just

description using the language of literature and imagination.

K. N. Chaudhuri was formerly Vasco da Gama Professor of European Expansion,

European University Institute, Florence (1991-99), and Professor of the

Economic History of Asia, University of London (1981-1991). His is a fellow of

the British Academy and member of the Academia Europaea.