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The Dynamics of Global Dominance

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

David B. Abernethy
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    The Dynamics of Global Dominance
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14388-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)

    • 1 Ceuta, Bojador, and Beyond: Europeans on the Move
      (pp. 3-17)

      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...

    • 2 Why Did the Overseas Empires Rise, Persist, and Fall?
      (pp. 18-42)

      This chapter provides conceptual tools to account for the rise and decline of European global dominance. Chapters 3–7 in part 2 are largely descriptive. They discuss changes in the territorial scope of European empires in each of five phases and identify distinctive features associated with each phase. Part 3 (chapters 8–11) advances a theory of why overseas empires were formed, part 4 (chapters 12–13) an account of why they persisted, and part 5 (chapters 14 and 15) a theory of their decline and fall.

      Chapter 16 identifies significant consequences of European colonialism. The final chapter addresses normative...


    • 3 Phase 1: Expansion, 1415–1773
      (pp. 45-63)

      The first of the five phases was by far the longest, lasting roughly three and a half centuries. This was a period of unprecedented growth in western Europe’s formal power and informal influence overseas. Expansion did not proceed evenly throughout phase 1 but rather in spurts, the most notable being the early sixteenth century in the Indian Ocean basin, 1520s through 1650s in the New World, and 1750s–1760s on the Indian subcontinent.

      As noted in chapter 1, the phase began with the Portuguese capture of Ceuta, followed two decades later by Gil Eannes’s voyage past Cape Bojador. An event...

    • 4 Phase 2: Contraction, 1775–1824
      (pp. 64-80)

      For three and a half centuries Europeans extended the bounds of their overseas possessions. In the half century that commenced in the 1770s the scope of imperial holdings shrank dramatically. Twenty countries recognized today as sovereign states gained independence as a direct or indirect result of political upheavals in phase 2.¹ Decolonization was confined to the Americas. Virtually unaffected by demands for independence were the islands and coastal enclaves Europeans had acquired throughout the Old World.

      Phase 2 began in British North America (bna) with the outbreak in 1775 of armed conflict between colonists and troops loyal to the British...

    • 5 Phase 3: Expansion, 1824–1912
      (pp. 81-103)

      The era of European losses in the Americas was followed by a significant expansion of holdings in Asia, Africa, and Oceania, most visibly and highly publicized from the 1870s onward, when a scramble for still-unclaimed territories took place. Between 1878 and 1913 European countries claimed 8.6 million square miles, roughly one-sixth of the earth’s land surface.¹ But it would be a mistake to ignore developments during the first half century of phase 3. Between 1824 and 1870 Europeans acquired roughly 5 million square miles, with notable advances in Africa’s southern, northern, and western extremities (South Africa, Algeria, Senegal), in India...

    • 6 Phase 4: Unstable Equilibrium, 1914–39
      (pp. 104-132)

      The fourth phase in the history of overseas empires encompassed two world wars and global economic depression. Western Europe was profoundly shaken by the unexpectedly long, bloody conflict of 1914–18, fought on its own soil, that terminated a century of relatively peaceful relations among its major states. Scarcely more than a decade after war’s end the region’s industrialized economies were battered by an unexpectedly severe fall in production, consumption, investment, and trade. Economic revival in the late 1930s was linked to preparations for another war.

      The colonies, by this time closely linked to their metropoles’ economies, could not avoid...

    • 7 Phase 5: Contraction, 1940–80
      (pp. 133-172)

      The end of empire came swiftly. Between 1940 and 1980, eighty-one colonies and four quasi-colonies gained independence from a European metropole and were recognized as sovereign states. The story of decolonization in phase 5 is immensely complex, not least because so many territories in so many parts of the world were involved. Each differed in some respects from all others in the path it took to independence and in the kind of state it became. Hence there are exceptions to many of the generalizations in this chapter’s survey of major trends.

      The sheer scope of imperial collapse and new-state formation...


    • 8 Western Europe as a Region: Shared Features
      (pp. 175-205)

      I now turn from describing and analyzing events to the more challenging task of interpreting and explaining them. Part 3 addresses expansion. The central question is why, from the fifteenth century onward, a few west European states governed so many lands and peoples in so many parts of the world. A secondary question concerns the timing and geography of initiatives. Why was the predominant pattern in phase 1 formal empire in the New World and informal influence in the Old, while phase 3 featured the reverse?

      The subject’s vast scope and complexity and the variety of forms expansion took in...

    • 9 Western Europe as a System of Competing States
      (pp. 206-224)

      Imperial expansion was driven not only by features widely shared throughout western Europe but also by the region’s deep divisions. Europe was fragmented into states, each of which felt insecure because it was embedded in a larger system of units much like itself.¹ Each state claimed sovereignty, the legal and moral authority to steer its own course. Yet the system guaranteed continual threats and limits to sovereignty. Not even the most powerful state was sufficiently dominant to be confident that it would not be invaded or blockaded by some combination of its neighbors. Alliances forged with other states in the...

    • 10 The Institutional Basis for the Triple Assault
      (pp. 225-253)

      A striking feature of European overseas initiatives is their multisectoral character. Governments, profit-oriented companies, and missionary bodies had their distinct reasons for reaching out. Each had the capacity to do so on its own. But a country’s sectoral institutions often found it convenient to work in tandem. When agents of the state collaborated with private entrepreneurs and missionaries, the result was a formidable and unusually flexible type of power.

      Initiatives by sectoral actors sometimes had a cumulative impact even when the actors did not deliberately collaborate. For example, merchants or missionaries working in an indigenous society could disrupt it in...

    • 11 Non-European Initiatives and Perceptions
      (pp. 254-274)

      When Europeans visited other lands they simultaneously encountered other peoples.¹ Claims to possess distant places were inseparable from claims to rule their inhabitants. The scope and effectiveness of European claims were greatly affected by what indigenous peoples did. As pointed out in chapter 2, power is relational. Imperialism involves one set of actors wresting power from another. A theory of imperialism must take into account the losers as well as winners of this struggle. What was it about people who became colonial subjects that limited their capacity or their will to resist subordination?

      Unfortunately, most theories of European imperialism focus...


    • 12 Sectoral Institutions and Techniques of Control
      (pp. 277-299)

      An overseas empire gained is not necessarily an empire retained. If anything, geographic and demographic realities would lead one to expect a brief life for such an improbable, manifestly contrived arrangement. In the vast majority of cases metropoles were separated from colonies by thousands of miles of ocean. In colonies of occupation Europeans were a tiny fraction of the population. Even where settler communities were present their numbers were usually modest compared to indigenous peoples or imported slaves, who lacked racial and cultural ties to the metropole and could hardly be expected to welcome subordination to an acquisitive, racially distinct...

    • 13 Sources of Colonial Weakness
      (pp. 300-322)

      Europeans did not deploy everywhere the full battery of institutions and techniques noted in chapter 12. Their goals varied according to the funds and technologies at their disposal and their estimates of how much economic and social change was needed to consolidate political power. But colonizers’ goals were also shaped by local circumstances beyond their control, such as a territory’s resource base, the religious orientation and cultural diversity of its population, and the presence or absence of indigenous institutions on which rulers could build.

      Even when goals were adjusted downward to take realities on the ground into account, a large...


    • 14 Colonialism as a Self-Defeating Enterprise
      (pp. 325-344)

      Part 5 proposes to account for the decline and fall of European empires. Given the obstacles to colonial autonomy noted in earlier chapters, it is not obvious why independence movements succeeded. Why were any new states formed, let alone more than a hundred?¹ A theory of decolonization should also explain why new-state formation was so heavily concentrated in two relatively brief time periods. What factors stimulated the large number of successful breakaway movements in phases 2 and 5? Other questions refer to differences between decolonization phases. Why was the initial round of independence movements led almost exclusively by settlers while...

    • 15 The International Dimension: War as the Catalyst for Independence
      (pp. 345-360)

      What turned precariously poised relationships into unsustainable ones were crises impacting several empires at the same time, crises whose course and outcome no one metropole could control. Since the mid–eighteenth century four wars were fought to determine which states would dominate world affairs: the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), the Napoleonic Wars (intermittently between 1799 and 1815), and World Wars I (1914–18) and II (1939–45). Each of these struggles became a catalyst for imperial decline, suddenly and dramatically reinforcing from outside the boundaries of empire trends that had quietly evolved within those boundaries. Wars altered power relations...


    • 16 Legacies
      (pp. 363-386)

      Identifying the legacies of European rule is fraught with conceptual and methodological perils. I construe colonialism narrowly as control of a territory’s public sector by a metropole. Instances in which informal influence was exercised apart from formal governance are not considered. I focus on what Europeans did in trying to carve out and consolidate dominant positions for themselves. If one broadened the definition of colonialism and equated it with westernization or modernization, its impact would be considerably greater than claimed here. But so many things would have been tossed into the causal side of the equation that sorting out which...

    • 17 The Moral Evaluation of Colonialism
      (pp. 387-408)

      Was European colonial rule good or bad? The subject matter invites normative judgments, for at issue are the lives and livelihoods, the well-being and worldviews of hundreds of millions of human beings. People do not need to know much about colonialism to hold strong opinions about its moral status.

      It is one thing to say that an ethical evaluation of colonialism is appropriate. It is quite another to decide how to carry out that evaluation in a thoughtful, sensitive, consistent, and thorough way. The good or bad question is deceptively simple. Even if one retains the narrow definition of colonialism...

    (pp. 409-416)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 417-462)
    (pp. 463-504)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 505-524)