Book Summary: “Power over Peoples” by Daniel Headrick


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

Title: Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments and Western Imperialism, 1400 to Present
Author: Daniel R. Headrick
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Headrick looks that the role of technology in enabling European Imperialism from 1779 to the present.

Key Take-aways

  • Technology, geography and the responses of non-Western societies were three key factors in enabling European Imperialism.
  • The sailing ship, horses, steamboats, railroads, quinine, breech-loading rifles and airplanes were all key technologies in enabling European Imperialism.
  • These technologies lowered the cost of military conquest and rule.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

“Technology is now widely recognized as a necessary, if not sufficient, explanation for the New Imperialism in Africa and Asia. Yet our study of the relations between technology and imperialism is not complete without considering two other factors. One is the environments in which the imperial expeditions took place…  (p2-5)

“We must take into account three factors. One is the use of technology to master particular environments, in other words, its power over nature. The second is the technological innovations that permitted the Western powers to conquer or coerce non-Western societies. And the third is the responses of non-Western societies” (p6)

During these centuries, five great maritime traditions evolved:

  • Polynesians (double-hulled dugout canoes).
    • Their star-based navigation was limited to the tropics.
    • They also relied heavily on Pacific trade winds.
    • Boats were too small for substantial cargo
  • Indian Ocean (dhows; dominated by Muslims)
    • Construction type did not support large ships
    • Lateen sails made sailing against wind dangerous.
    • Relied on North Star for navigation
    • They relied heavily on Indian trade winds.
  • China (junks)
    • Bigger and stronger than dhows.
    • After 1127 Chinese turned to long-distance trade
    • Throughout period China had by far largest navy and merchant marine in world.
    • Grand Canal was completed in 1411, making ocean voyages unnecessary
  • Mediterranean (galleys)
  • Western Europe

The caravel was the first naval technology that allowed exploration of the oceans, particularly the Atlantic.

Compass, astrolabe, clock, table of declination and navigation charts also enabled oceanic navigation.

Portuguese had huge advantage over Asian in Indian ocean, but within Red Sea (with rocky shores, reefs and erratic winds) Ottoman galleys had the advantage.

Dutch had huge advantage over Chinese in Pacific ocean, but near coastal waters the Chinese junks had the advantage.

“Sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, Algeria and the Caucuses, in contrast to India, show the limitations of European power. In the one case, diseases, in the other the mountainous terrain and the tactics of the inhabitants were obstacles to the ambitions of European imperialists.” (p169)

“The Europeans were successful in conquering highly structured and organized societies like those of the Incas, and the Mughals and their successors. They had difficulty, however, in their attempt to conquer more loosely organized and widely dispersed peoples, whether the nomadic societies of North and South America or the peoples of Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Algeria and the Caucuses… Such societies… were less vulnerable to setbacks and reverses. More of their men were used to hunting and fishing, they knew the terrain, and they had more time to acquire weapons and adopt hit-and-run tactics. In the face of guerrilla warfare, European imperial ventures reached diminishing returns.” (p170)

“In the mid-nineteenth century, Western imperialism seemed to have reached its limits… Then, starting in the 1830s, the old barriers began to crumble… advances in three areas of technology – steamboats, medicine and weapons – gave Western nations new powers over nature.” (p177)

With the introduction of the steamboat to the Ohio-Mississippi rivers, “the United States was transformed from an Atlantic into a continental nation.” (p182)

“The nineteenth century saw more innovations in firearms than any period before or since.” (p257)

“technologies are always environment-specific. While they provide their owner with power over nature, that power is limited to specific parts of nature.” (p370)

Also important is the degree to which new technology lowers the cost of imperial expansion.

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