Book revu Empire of the Weak

Princeton University Press, 196 pages, $27.95

In the ongoing story of civilizations, is the rise of the West from 1500 onward a bug or a feature? Over the past two decades, many influential books have attempted to soothsay this question with broad transdisciplinary brushstrokes. Among them is Jared Diamond’s much-feted 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which made the case that lucky timing, fortuitous geography, and acquired resistance to disease powered Europe’s rise, rather than any superiority of intellect or political organization.

Along comes Cambridge historian J.C. Sharman with Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order, which was released in February. A sort of bird’s-eye view of the past 500 years, it argues that the expansion of European political power across the planet was a fleeting thing. The notion that celebrated the reach of Spanish and British as global, in fact, was often more of an optical illusion than a consolidated political dominion.

His argument works something like this: European expeditions in the Americas were tiny and relied largely on the support of local indigenous allies to overthrow Incan and Aztec rulers. The early Spanish and Portuguese conquered the Americas, not with the massive garrisons that drove warfare in Europe, but with small, medieval ventures: 900 conquistadores took down Tenochtitlan; 170 sufficed in Pizarro’s conquest of Peru. Gunpowder and firearms technology played only the tiniest of roles: Political alliances and the subsequent arrival of fatal European microbes were the clear factors in victory.

It was only in the Americas that this strategy proved successful for European countries. Elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, European victories were chimeric, confined to conquest of maritime ports and island possessions such as Macau and Hong Kong. Even the rule of large land-based colonies such as British India and French Indochina were marked by frequent, ongoing rebellions. Sharman argues that much of the European colonial presence was sea-based, protecting maritime trade routes while deferring to land-based rulers in China, India, and elsewhere.

Forgiving the slight scholarly bent, Empires of the Weak is written for a general audience and assumes little prior knowledge about colonialism or Europe. It is not a comprehensive history, but a provocation to see the West’s conquests as less the winning of a war than a temporal battlefield victory. “Can we explain European expansion without explaining European contraction also? Outside of the settler countries of America and Oceania, European dominance fell even more suddenly than it had been established,” Sharman writes.

As a reader, I still long to understand the personal inspiration for this book. One of the reasons Guns, Germs and Steel was so impactful was the author’s beginning discussion with a New Guinea politician, who sought to understand European dominance of his country, even as neither figure believed in European superiority of intellect or culture. In contrast, Sharman’s academic output prior to Empires of the Weak was largely concerned with the problems of money laundering, corruption, and criminal finance in the global economy.

Sharman exhorts readers to abandon their blinders and view Europe and the West not as failed conquerors, but as political actors, who even in their short century of triumph, had to defer to the strength and enduring persistence of Asian great powers. In short, our current moment, in which the United States and Europe must compete with Asian military and technology prowess, is simply a return to business as it has largely been conducted over the past three millennia.

Whether we choose to accept this is a test of whether we appreciate history more than we love the illusion of Europe as an enduring conqueror. Sharman warns, “Ignoring a couple centuries of a continent’s history because it doesn’t fit the traditional story of European triumphalism is to abandon a proper appreciation of the past, and to let conclusions dictate the evidence considered, rather than the other way around. Examining victories while ignoring defeats means that it may well be impossible to understand the causes of either outcome.”