Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review 388: The Tools of Empire

THE TOOLS OF EMPIRE: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, by Daniel R. Headrick. 221 pages. Oxford paperback

Professor Daniel Headrick contends that historians of imperialism have ignored or even denied the impact of technology on the success of 19th century imperialisms. If so, the imperialists themselves were in no doubt.

The American imperialist novelist and journalist Richard Harding Davis often used the phrase “Civilize ‘em with a Krag” in his books, meaning the Krag-Jorgensen rifle that the U.S. Army used to slaughter Filipinos.

Although Headrick’s premise is at least dubious, his little book (after subtracting notes, it is scarcely 175 pages long) is a lively rehearsal of the major innovations that made imperialism easy. And he supplies a number of provocative conclusions.

One is that the distance between European technique and local skills was never exceeded at any time or anyplace in history, and the greatest distance was attained in the final quarter of the century during the scramble for Africa. At times, intruders encountered people who had never heard of a firearm or a white man.

Second, though, is that the distance was narrowing quickly. By 1896, the Abyssinians had firearms as good as the invading Italians (obtained from the Italians, thus confirming one of Lenin’s most famous aphorisms before he even made it). So the Italians were defeated and humiliated by the Africans.

It was a lesson that the Americans should have studied. The 19th century was only a golden interlude for imperial technology, and by the 1950s brown people throughout the world were learning to counter firepower and fast transportation with concealment and guerrilla tactics. The United States has lost every war it has participated in since, with one exception.

Even before Adowa, Headrick says, the cost advantage of technology was narrowing rapidly. Britain was able to take over India on the cheap, but just a short time later the French had to pay a high price to do the same in Algeria.

Firearms are not the only, or even the primary, example of decisive imperial technology. In fact, Headrick identifies 19th century imperialism as an early example of an information society, and claims that information (and organization) rather than machines comprised the decisive technological advantage.

His list of key advances includes iron steamships, breechloading repeating rifles and machines guns, flat-bottomed river gunboats, submarine telegraph cables, quinine, the Suez Canal and railroads. He gives just two words to canned food, although in at least one case, canning is credited with conquest. An African economic historian says Uganda was taken over by “British herring.”

Generally, colonial needs did not drive technological advances, although occasionally they did. The first boat made with a steel hull was used by David Livingstone, and the first one of aluminum was used by the French to help penetrate Sudan.

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