Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Power over Peoples

Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 416
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Power over Peoples
    Book Description:

    For six hundred years, the nations of Europe and North America have periodically attempted to coerce, invade, or conquer other societies. They have relied on their superior technology to do so, yet these technologies have not always guaranteed success.Power over Peoplesexamines Western imperialism's complex relationship with technology, from the first Portuguese ships that ventured down the coast of Africa in the 1430s to America's conflicts in the Middle East today.

    Why did the sailing vessels that gave the Portuguese a century-long advantage in the Indian Ocean fail to overcome Muslim galleys in the Red Sea? Why were the same weapons and methods that the Spanish used to conquer Mexico and Peru ineffective in Chile and Africa? Why didn't America's overwhelming air power assure success in Iraq and Afghanistan? InPower over Peoples, Daniel Headrick traces the evolution of Western technologies--from muskets and galleons to jet planes and smart bombs--and sheds light on the environmental and social factors that have brought victory in some cases and unforeseen defeat in others. He shows how superior technology translates into greater power over nature and sometimes even other peoples, yet how technological superiority is no guarantee of success in imperialist ventures--because the technology only delivers results in a specific environment, or because the society being attacked responds in unexpected ways.

    Breathtaking in scope,Power over Peoplesis a revealing history of technological innovation, its promise and limitations, and its central role in the rise and fall of empire.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3359-7
    Subjects: History, Technology, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Daniel Headrick
  4. Introduction Imperialism and Technology
    (pp. 1-10)

    For over five centuries, Europeans and their overseas descendants dominated the oceans of the world and much of its land and its peoples as well. This domination has been challenged many times, as it is once again in our times. Now that imperialism has returned to the forefront of world events, it is time to revisit its history and learn its lessons.

    Western imperialism is but the most recent example of a phenomenon going back to ancient times and culminating in the conquests of Genghis Khan. The first phase in the expansion of Europe, often called the Old Empires, began...

  5. Chapter 1 The Discovery of the Oceans, to 1779
    (pp. 11-58)

    On September 8, 1522, a small ship, theVictoria, berthed at the Spanish port of Seville. The next day, its eighteen weakened and bedraggled crew members walked barefoot, clad only in their shirts and carrying long candles, to the church of Santa Maria de la Victoria to give thanks for their safe return. Theirs was the first ship to sail around the world. Their arrival marked a milestone in the long struggle to master the seas and oceans of the world.

    For centuries, ambitious and adventurous Europeans had sought ways to escape the narrow confines of their subcontinent. Rumors of...

  6. Chapter 2 Eastern Ocean Empires, 1497–1700
    (pp. 59-94)

    Mastery of the environment was a necessary, but far from sufficient, step toward achieving dominion over the sea. On the world’s oceans, European mariners encountered other navigators. Some of them—Pacific islanders, Native Americans, and West Africans—sailed in open canoes; they were adept at navigating, some over long distances, but when hostilities erupted, they were no match for the larger European ships and their cannon. On the Indian Ocean and on the seas bordering East Asia, however, were ships as large as those of the Europeans and sometimes larger. Although piracy was common, naval warfare was almost unknown before...

  7. Chapter 3 Horses, Diseases, and the Conquest of the Americas, 1492–1849
    (pp. 95-138)

    Few events in history have had such profound consequences as the opening of contacts between the Eastern and Western hemispheres and the displacement of the Native American peoples by peoples of European and African origin. To some, this is a tale of triumph; to others, it is a tale of disaster. Yet nothing in history is ever straightforward. Looked at more closely and respecting the chronology of events, the story of the encounter is one of victories and defeats on both sides.

    The Spaniards who first arrived in the New World quickly conquered and occupied the larger Caribbean islands, much...

  8. Chapter 4 The Limits of the Old Imperialism: Africa and Asia to 1859
    (pp. 139-176)

    In the Americas, the conquistadors and later Europeans benefited not only from their temporarily superior technology but also from their greater resistance to the diseases that decimated the native populations. European eagerness to conquer was not limited to the New World, however. Monarchs, merchants, and missionaries were also attracted to Africa and India. Yet the history of the encounters between their inhabitants and the European interlopers contrasts sharply with that of the Americas. In India, European empire-builders were successful, but against increasing odds. In Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa, they failed. And in Algeria and the Caucasus, their success came at...

  9. Chapter 5 Steamboat Imperialism, 1807–1898
    (pp. 177-225)

    By the mid-nineteenth century, Western imperialism seemed to have reached its limits. Three centuries after Cortés, over half of the Americas were still Indian territory. In Asia, the British advance was stopped by the Afghans. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia were off-limits to Europeans. The French conquest of Algeria required as many years as Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, as did Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus.

    Then, starting in the 1830s, the old barriers began to crumble. Motives that had been dormant found a new energy. More important, advances in three areas of technology—steamboats, medicine, and weapons—...

  10. Chapter 6 Health, Medicine, and the New Imperialism, 1830–1914
    (pp. 226-256)

    We justly celebrate science for its conquest of infectious diseases in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But this achievement was not intended for all humans, for it took place in the context of empire-building. In some cases, the goals of Western medicine and public health were purely domestic and their consequences in the non-Western world were quite fortuitous. In many cases, however, advances in medicine and public health came in response to the needs or consequences of imperialism. Often, these advances made empire-building and colonialism easier and less costly in terms of human lives. In tropical Africa, it gave...

  11. Chapter 7 Weapons and Colonial Wars, 1830–1914
    (pp. 257-301)

    The nineteenth century was, after the sixteenth, the century that witnessed the most rapid and dramatic expansion of European power in the world. Yet it did not start out that way. During the first four decades, Africa (except for the Cape of Good Hope) was still off-limits to Europeans; European Americans occupied less than a quarter of North and South America; and Asia, with the exception of Java and half of India, was still under Asian rule. Attempts to expand beyond these limits were met with great difficulties, and sometimes failures, as we saw in chapter 4. Then, beginning in...

  12. Chapter 8 The Age of Air Control, 1911–1936
    (pp. 302-333)

    The tremendous advantage that modern infantry weapons had once given the industrial nations began to dissipate by the end of the nineteenth century, as some non-Western societies acquired similar weapons and adapted their tactics to them. This trend was first revealed in the Ethiopian victory over Italy in 1896 and in the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905. After World War I, the victorious powers encountered unexpected resistance in the Middle East and Asia fueled by a rising tide of nationalism and by the surplus military weapons that flooded the world.

    Just when theWestern powers began to face increasing challenges...

  13. Chapter 9 The Decline of Air Control, 1946–2007
    (pp. 334-369)

    World War II brought about a major leap forward in military aviation. By the end of the war, jet aircraft had made their appearance, as did fleets of huge bombers that could destroy entire cities. Progress in military aviation accelerated further after the war, fomented by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Less than half a century after the Wright brothers’ first flight, the great powers had aircraft capable of flying faster than the speed of sound and delivering bombs that could annihilate the entire planet.

    At the same time, the war radically transformed the relations...

  14. Conclusion Technology and Imperialism Redux
    (pp. 370-374)

    There are no laws in history. Nor is history merely a long string of factoids. By studying enough cases over a long enough span of time and in enough places, we see patterns emerge. What patterns can we discern in the history of Western imperialism over the past six hundred years? Clearly, technology matters. On several occasions, small groups were able to overcome the resistance of larger groups thanks to the weapons, the animals, and the equipment they used. The Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru in the sixteenth century, and various European countries...

    (pp. 375-380)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 381-400)