To attempt a revisionist history of Western imperialism in just over 150 pages is, to say the least, ambitious. It has largely been an article of faith that the West “won” history. Even those whom the West presumably defeated didn’t usually take much issue with the conclusion. Seeking to turn conventional wisdom about Western global expansion on its head, Sharman argues in Empires of the Weak not only that the reasons normally given for it don’t hold up, but that this “victory” was largely illusory.
His primary target is the “military revolution thesis”, which runs, in essence, that because Europeans were so busy fighting each other, they became good at it, yielding “superior military power: better weapons, and better organizations for using them.” Yet until well into the 18th century, with the major exception of the Americas, Europeans made nary a dent in the places they expanded to, at best holding some coastal ports and often only with sufferance of the suzerain. The Americas, having been decimated by European diseases in the decades between “discovery” and conquest, are a special case, but even then, actual control took decades if not centuries after the initial few victories.
Sharman ticks off the other fallacies: that in fact, until the 18th century, Europe was more threatened by Asia—in the form of the Ottomans—than threatening and had no real technological advantage over Asia (which already had guns). Finally, despite the purported benefits of whatever military resources and tactics were pursued in Europe—large armies backed by the state—that was not the strategy used to expand. Overseas expansion was instead undertaken by relatively small bands of semi-private adventurers. The exceptions tend to prove the rule: North Africa, where Portuguese and Hapsburgs did commit huge amounts of men and money, proved a black hole for both. Portuguese Mombasa, which sported European-style fortifications, was taken by the Omanis in 1698.
Despite the later significant technological (and economic) advantages delivered by the Industrial Revolution, the large-scale imperial control recognizable as “empire” developed relatively late, didn’t last very long and was not in fact particularly beneficial:
Nineteenth-century empires were often essentially prestige projects that did little to advance the military or economic power of the European nations in question.
Europeans didn’t win in the end: their empires fell, and their military capacity shriveled. Even the United States has experienced more defeats than victories against non-Western forces over the last half-century.
Sharman compellingly connects a great many dots.
Little of the history is particularly new, of course, but Sharman compellingly connects a great many dots.
This needn’t however have taken even the relatively small number of pages Sharman has dedicated to it. Many of these pages are spent dismantling, writer by writer, scholar by scholar, the “military revolution thesis”, but he might just have noted that it is all a combination of eurocentric post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning combined with the projection of the features of one period onto previous ones, as he himself summarizes:
A tendency to string together Western victories from Cortes and da Gama to Plassey in 1757 to the nineteenth century to produce a false story of four centuries of Western dominance.
This perspective has bearing on several contemporary questions, including the by now common one as to whether the “rise” of Asia in general and China is particular is a new development or merely the return to a status quo ante, “a return to the situation that obtained around 1700”. A more recent question, or perhaps an old one redux, is the renewed strategic attention to “Eurasia”.
In such a short book, it is of course impossible to look at all the cases. The “settler countries”, as Sharman calls of them, “of the Americas and Oceania” had a different trajectory. It’s unclear whether he includes Latin America in that group, but Spain’s expansion played out differently than that of Britain or France. Decolonization (or revolution) in the Americas (North and South) was generally a question of political rights for criollos, local whites, rather than for the pre-colonial indigenous population. India is Indian in a way that Peru is not Incan.The South American section could have done with a bit more attention: “Pizarro”, for example, is missing the second “r”. Nor does the Philippines, where Spain managed profounder territorial control earlier than did other European states elsewhere in Asia, quite fit the Asian pattern (perhaps due to the establishment of the Manila galleon).
Empires of the Weak can also be read as a companion volume to Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, or perhaps vice versa. A key element of what Immerwahr calls America’s contemporary empire are its global collection of bases and control of the sea lanes and trade routes—something that perhaps more resembles 16th-century Portugal or 17th-century Holland than imperial Britain.
Most intriguing, perhaps, is what Sharman’s formulation may indicate about China’s persistent claims that its “rise” is unthreatening.
If the Western example of military prowess leading to overseas imperial adventures is not just anomalous but counterproductive and irrational, then perhaps Chinese statements about lacking expansionary inclinations are not as disingenuous as Western commentators and policy-makers have assumed. Sharman draws a distinction between the contiguous land-based empires of the Qing, Mughals and Ottomans—which lasted centuries—and the European empires held together by maritime connections, whose lifespans, especially as state-directed enterprises, were measured in decades. China looking to history might be of little comfort to those bordering countries traditionally in China’s orbit, but those separated by an ocean might breathe easier.
“Moving away from the conventional story of Western hegemony puts our current circumstances in a new light,” concludes Sharman:
The questions we ask, and fail to ask, about history change our views not only of where we have come from, but also where we are, and where we are going.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books, and co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815 (Penguin, 2017).
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|1.||↩||The South American section could have done with a bit more attention: “Pizarro”, for example, is missing the second “r”.|