Book Summary: “The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism..” by Daniel Headrick


Title: Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century
Author: Daniel Headrick
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Headrick explains how innovation of key technologies enabled European imperialism to triumph in the 19th Century.

If you would like to learn more about technology in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • The vast majority of theories about European imperialism in the 19th Century focus on why Europe wanted to conquer empires. They neglect why they were able to do so.
  • European imperialism in the 19th Century was enabled by a number of technological innovations:
    • Steamships
    • Quinine
    • Breach-loading rifles
    • Machine guns
    • Canals (Suez and Panama)
    • Submarine telegraph cables
    • Railroads
  • All of these technologies radically lowered the cost of imperial conquest. Once the rest of the world adopted those technologies, the costs of empire increased, so the Europeans rapidly withdrew.

Important Quotes from Book

Among the many important events of the nineteenth century, two were of momentous consequence for the entire world. One was the progress and power of industrial technology; the other was the domination and exploitation of Africa and much of Asia by Europeans.

The European imperialism of the nineteenth century-sometimes called the “new” imperialism-differed from its precursors in two respects: its extent and its legacy.

The real triumph of ,European civilization has been that of vaccines and napalm, of ships and aircraft, of electricity and radio, of plastics and printing presses; in short, it has been a triumph of technology, not ideology. Western industrial technology has transformed the world more than any leader, religion, revolution, or war.

The search for the causes of nineteenth-century imperialism has spawned one of the liveliest debates in modern history. Historians have offered a wealth of explanations for this dramatic expansion of European power.

What made nineteenth-century politicians, explorers, traders, missionaries, and soldiers want to extend the influence of Europe to hitherto untouched lands? Behind” this question lies the tacit assumption that once Europeans wanted to spread their influence, they could readily do so, for they had, the means close at hand.

The majority of current works on imperialism concede the jmportance of the technological factor, paying it lip service before hurrying on to something else.

The conclusion is inescapable; at the present stage of the debate, historians give technological factors very low priority among the causes of the new imperialism.

This dilemma is much relieved if we divide causes into motives and means. A complex process, like imperialism results from both appropriate motives and adequate means.

The goal and result of imperialism-9ne which was in fact achieved in most territories before decolonization-was the creation of colonies politically submissive; and economically profitable to their European metropoles.

The steamboat, with its power to travel speedily upriver as well as down, carried Europeans deep into Africa and Asia. Few inventions of the nineteenth century were as important in the history of imperialism.

The Opium War was the first event whose outcome was determined by specially built gunboats.

Like an elephant and a whale, China and Britain evolved in “two different habitats. At sea, Britain was invincible and could destroy any Chinese fleet or coastal fort. China, on the other hand, was a land empire with few interests beyond her shores ·and few cities along her coasts. As long as the Europeans were incapable of pushing their way inland, I the Celestial Empire was invulnerable.

The steamer, with its ability to navigate upriver and attack inland towns, ended the long Anglo-Chinese stalemate.

The gunboat had become not just the instrument, but the very symbol of Western power along the coasts and up the navigable rivers of Asia.

By the time Columbus first sighted the Americas, the Portuguese were well acquainted with the west coast of Africa, for they had been exploring it for sixty years. Yet, during the next three and a half centuries, Africa remained in the eyes of Europeans the “dark continent,” its interior a blank on their maps, as they chose instead to explore, conquer, and settle parts of the Americas, Asia, and Australia.

How can we explain this paradox? For one thing, there was little motivation for Europeans to penetrate Africa before the nineteenth century.

It was disease that kept Europeans out of the interior of Africa… decades. Before Europeans·could break into the African interior successfully, they required another technological advance, a triumph over disease.

Though dysentery, yellow fever, typhoid, and other ills contributed to the high death rates, the principal killer of Europeans in Africa was malaria. Throughout history malaria has probably caused more human deaths than any other disease.

The dawn of a breakthrough in treating malaria dates from the year 1820, when two French chemists, Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaime Caventou, succeeded in extracting the alkaloid of quinine from cinchona bark. Commercial production of quinine began in 1827, and by 1830 the drug was being manufactured in large enough, quantities for general use.

As the prophylactic use of quinine spread, and as purgings and bleedings vanished, the death rates fell significantly.

On the whole, the first-year death rates among Europeans in West, Africa dropped from 25<>-750 per 1,000 to 50- 100 per 1,000. To be sure, this was still five to ten times higher than the death rates for people in the same age bracket in’ Europe. Africa remained hostile to the health of Europeans. Yet psychologically the improvement was significant.

Scientific cinchona production was an imperial technology par excellence. Without it European colonialism would have been almost impossible in Africa, and much costlier elsewhere in the tropics. At the same time, the development of this technology, combining the scientific expertise of several botanical gardens, the encouragement of the British and Dutch colonial governments, and the land and labor of the peoples of India and Indonesia, was clearly a consequence as well as a cause of the new imperialism.

River steamers had overcome the ob,5tacle of poor transportation, and quinine that of malaria. Together, they opened much of Africa to colonialism, that is1 to the systematic intercourse with Europe on European terms.

Technology is power. It is the power wielded over the natural world… But technology is also power over people.

Indigenous armies were often much larger than the invading ‘forces, and knowledge of the terrain favored the local warriors. Furthermore, European colonial armies were limited by economy- minded governments reluctant to commit troops or spend money for military operations that did not noticeably enhance the security of the motherland. Nonetheless, European forces were able to conquer large parts of Asia and Africa-empires of truly Napoleonic proportions-at an astonishingly low cost. What made this possible was the crushing superiority of European firepower that resulted from the firearms revolution of the mid-century.

No period in history produced so dramatic a development of infantry weapons as did the nineteenth .century. In terms of effective firepower the disparity between the rifle of World War One and the Napoleonic musket was greater than between the .musket and the bow and arrow. The development of the modern gun was the product of a complex series of minor advances from many different sources, some of them centuries old. Two stages are of particular importance in this evolutionary process. In the first stage, percussion caps, rifling, oblong bullets, and paper cartridges brought the muzzle-loader to its peak of perfection. The second stage began with the breechloading Prussian needle-gun and culminated in the Maxim gun. The shift from muzzle-loaders to breechloaders in the 1860s was no ordinary technical achievement. It dramatically widened the power-gap between Europeans and non-Western peoples and led directly to the outburst of imperialism at the end of the century.

The overwhelming firepower of European colonial armies resulted from another innovation: breechloading.

‘During the war of 1866 between Prussia and Austria over the mastery of the German states, Prussian soldiers, kneeling or lying down, could fire their Dreyses seven times in the span it took the Austrians to load and fire once, standing up. The war, which was brief, culminated in a Prussian victory at Sadowa. This battle not only assured Prussia’s supremacy in Germany but revolutionized the art of warfare. Before that-battle, armies saw no need to uniformly adopt new equipment; instead they gradually acquired new weapons as their old ones wore out. After Sadowa, however, all the great powers of Europe scrambled to switch to breechloaders. An arms race had begun.

In 1869 the British army abandoned the idea of converting its Enfields and instead adopted a brand-new model, the Martini-Henry. This was the first really satisfactory rifle of the new generation: fast, accurate, tough, impervious to the weather, a weapon that made every other gun obsolete.

No sooner had the great powers adopted .the latest breechloaders than they had to rearm again, this time with repeating rifles.

The fact that European armies could obtain millions of complex new rifles on short order is of course- an astonishing phenomenon in itself. Contributing to this feat was the revolution in the making of guns brought on by industrialization. To describe the evolution of the gun industry would take us too far afield. Suffice it to say that its two main components were the “American system” and steel.

The gun revolution that had ,begun in the 1860s was completed by the 1890s. Any European infantryman could now fire lying down, undetected, in any weather, fifteen rounds of ammunition in as many seconds at targets up to half a mile away. Machine gunners had even greater power.

The machine gun was to prove as decisive in the colonial wars of the turn of the century as the breechloader had been in the seventies and eighties.

Confrontations between Europeans and Africans after 1870 rank among the most lopsided in history. For Africans these encounters brought bewilderment and hopeless struggles, while for Europeans they resembled hunting more than war. Breechloaders broke down African resistance as decisively as quinine prophylaxis had overcome the barrier of malaria.

The method of fighting that Europeans most frequently encountered, from the Sudan to South Africa and from West Africa to China, was the frontal assault, or rush, by large numbers of fighting men. These warrior~ often displayed superior courage, and their tactics and discipline, were appropriate to the kinds of warfare they were accustomed to. But against modern rifles these methods were obsolete.

Only in the 1830s did steam-powered ocean crossings prove technologically possible, and it was not until the 1850s that such ventures could justify themselves financially.

The disadvantages of early steamers relegated them to those tasks where their virtues outweighed the prohibitive cost factor. For lbng-distance transport this occurred along two corridors. One was between Britain and the United States, where traffic was intense and the wealthy were- prepared to pay almost any price to get across the ocean quickly. The other was between England and India.

The steamships of the 1820s and 1830~ were so unprofitable to operate that their use was limited to governments, and then only when there was a pressing political need, such as communicatjons with India. Ordinary freight and passengers continued for many years to depend on sailing ships.

Before the seagoing steamship could become an object of unsubsidized private enterprise, economically competitive with sailing ships on long voyages in eastern seas, several improvements had to transform it into a wholly different machine. These were the iron hull, the propeller, and the high-pressure engine.

The culmination of these new technologies was Brunel’s Great Britain, launched in 1843. This vessel combined all the latest ideas in shipbuilding. She was the largest ship ever built, she was made of iron, and had a propeller. Luxuriously fitted out, she was one of the first true ocean liners.

Sometime around 1850, the iron steamer ceased being a novelty and became accepted as the. standard ship.

No event of the nineteenth century was awaited with such fervent expectation, or celebrated with such drama and enthusiasm, as the opening of the Suez Canal.

The Suez Canal drastically cut the distance between Europe and the East. Compared to the Cape Route, the voyage from London to Bombay was shortened by fifty-one percent, to Calcutta by thirty-two percent, and to Singapore by twenty-nine percent. Its most important impacts were upon the East-West trade and shipbuilding. The first decade of the canal’s operation was difficult, for sailing ships could not use it, and there were as yet few steamers equipped for the long voyage east. By 1882, ‘however, the canal was operating at capacity. The introduction of electric headlights on ships after 1887 allowed night travel, cutting the transit time in half.

Cables were an essential part of the new imperialism…Cables served to tie the European empires together. In times of peace they were the lifelines of the ever-increasing business communications that bound imperialist nations to their colonies around the world. In times of crisis, they were valuable tools of diplomacy.

While the Suez Canal and the cables marked dramatic turning points, the world communications network also benefited from the more gradual evolution of shipbuilding and shipping. On the engineering side, the main improvements were the introduction of steel hulls and triple-expansion engines. The economics of shipping, meanwhile, led to ever larger and more specialized vessels, to improvements’ in harbors and other navigational infrastructures, and to organizations designed to make the most efficient use of these means.

The triple-expansion engine was to be (along with a few quadruple-expansion engines) the last and most perfect expression of the Newcomen-Watt reciprocating steam engine that had so revolutionized the world of the nineteenth century. By World War One, however, two newcomers, the steam-turbine and the diesel engine, had begun to replace it. Such was the pace of maritime progress.

In the maritime world, the spirit of scheduling was embodied in the institution of the shipping line. In 1875 a steamship kept on a regular schedule was the equivalent, in annual carrying capacity of three sailing, ships of comparable tonnage. By 1900 the ratio had risen to four-to-one.

In the Indian Ocean the introduction of unsubsidized shipping lines coincides with the three technological advances mentioned earlier: the compound engine, the Suez Canal, and the submarine cable. The cable was as important as the other two developments, for it allowed the headquarters of shipping companies to maintain contact with their ships, and shippers to coordinate their shipments with current schedules and the needs of their customers… Whole fleets of ships were now controlled from headquarters, half a world away.

The 1840s were a time of railroad fever in the Western world, and most of all in Britain. Railroad enthusiasts dreamed of covering the whole earth with their iron rails and puffing clattering trains. And few parts of the world seemed so desperately in need of the new invention as Britain’s prized colony. Building the railroad system of India became the most monumental project of the colonial era; it involved the largest international capital flow of the nineteenth century, and produced the fourth longest rail network on earth, behind only those of the United States, Canada and Russia. Today’s India, too poor to afford automobiles or air travel for, the masses, is probably the world’s most railroad-dependent nation’.

By 1902, British India (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma) had 25,936 miles of railroads, more than the rest of Asia put together, over three times as much as Africa, and more both in total and per capita than Japan.

What the breechloader, the machine gun, the steamboat and steamship, and quinine and other innovations did was to lower the cost, in both financial and human terms, of penetq1ting, conquering, and exploiting new territories. So cost-effective did they make imperialism that not only national governments but lesser groups as well could now play a part in it… It is because the flow of new technologies in the nineteenth century made imperialism so cheap that it reached the threshold of acceptance among the peoples and governments of Europe, and led nations to become empires.

European empires of the nineteenth century were economy empires, cheaply obtained by taking advantage of new technologies, and, when the cost of keeping then rose a century later, quickly discarded. In the process, they unbalanced world relations, overturned ancient ways of life, and opened the way for a new global civilization.

If you would like to learn more about technology in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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