Doyle on Streets-Salter and Getz, 'Empires and Colonies in the Modern World: A Global Perspective'

Heather Streets-Salter, Trevor R. Getz
Mark Doyle

Heather Streets-Salter, Trevor R. Getz. Empires and Colonies in the Modern World: A Global Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Maps. 592 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-021637-5.

Reviewed by Mark Doyle (Middle Tennessee State University) Published on H-Empire (September, 2017) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Printable Version:

In Empires and Colonies in the Modern World, Heather Streets-Salter and Trevor Getz perform the impressive feat of making the latest scholarship in imperial history accessible to an undergraduate audience. A truly global history, covering nearly all of the major empires from 1350 to the present, the book manages to distill a vast range of topics--from imperial China to post-9/11 US foreign policy, and everything between--into a fairly concise 524 pages, plus accoutrements like a timeline, full-color maps, a glossary, and a bibliography. This is an updated edition of a volume published in 2010 under the title Modern Imperialism and Colonialism: A Global Perspective. What is new here, according to the authors, is the incorporation of recent scholarship emphasizing the complexity of the imperial experience, a greater focus on interactions among different empires, and an expanded time frame that brings the story into the present. As an introductory overview of modern imperialism (and by extension global history generally) the book is largely successful. However, as I will explain below, the authors’ insistence on the complexity of the imperial experience, and their consequent skepticism of broad generalizations and cross-colonial comparisons, may frustrate readers looking for a unifying thematic or narrative thread.

For the most part, the book is calibrated to the level of the advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate student. Assuming very little prior knowledge on the part of their readers, the authors take the time to define terms (e.g., “early modern period,” “invention of tradition,” and “free trade”) that professional historians use so frequently that they tend to forget there once was a time when they had to learn what they meant. The authors also manage to make the language of cultural history--arguably the dominant trend in imperial historiography over the last few decades, with its talk of “negotiations,” “hybridity,” “mutually constituted identities,” and the like--meaningful to the uninitiated. Legions of history majors and graduate students will owe them a debt of gratitude for this service.

The book is organized into six parts. Part 1 explores early-modern empires in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas from 1350 to 1650. As they do throughout the book, the authors stress the interconnectedness of these empires, arguing that each must be seen within a global context that included multiple important interactions with other empires. So, for instance, the “gunpowder empires” of China, the Ottomans, and the Mughals should be understood as outgrowths of global patterns of trade and technological exchange that extended beyond the empires’ borders. Partly because of these global connections, most early-modern imperial states shared key characteristics, such as a preoccupation with centralization, rationalization, and expansion. They also each sought to forge “sectoral alliances” among the different groups within their respective societies and enlisted intellectual and religious leaders to help legitimize their rule. Within such broad frameworks, the authors argue, each empire developed according to its own unique set of circumstances. The key variable that gave each empire its distinctive character was the dynamic interaction between center and periphery, or, to use the authors’ preferred formulation, between metropolitan and local forces. Here the authors are deploying the key concept animating imperial historiography in the last decade or two--that is, the notion that the history of empire must be seen as a set of complex (uneven, contingent, subtle, ever-changing) interactions between colonizers and the colonized (and their subsets), rather than a simplistic morality tale of top-down “oppression” or bottom-up “resistance.”

Two factors made the early modern empires distinct from those that came later, the authors claim: the inability of central governments to control what happened in their farthest-flung possessions (they discuss Portugal’s trading empire as perhaps the clearest example), and the frequently haphazard way that central states sought to incorporate, placate, form alliances with, or otherwise subdue local populations. Once technology made greater integration possible, however, empires began to take on more political and cultural coherence. They could also be much larger than before. These trends are evident in part 2, which explores Atlantic and Asian empires between 1600 and 1830. Even more than in the earlier period, this was an age of intense imperial competition and imitation, especially among Europeans, and, as in the previous section, the authors argue that each empire’s development must be understood within the context of its global interactions. Economic competition was an especially powerful motivating force at this time, leading to the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade, American plantation societies, and European commercial outposts in Asia. Particularly in the latter case, the authors are at pains to emphasize the limitations of European power abroad: although disease gave them a clear advantage in the Americas, European technological advantages were not so great that they could always dictate terms to local powers in Asia or Africa.

Indeed, chapter 6, on Asian land empires (in Russia, China, India, and Eurasia), explicitly argues that we must not see this period as one of simple Western “expansion” at the expense of non-European powers. India and China, in particular, remained powerful political and economic forces until the nineteenth century. Moreover, the “decline” of these empires relative to Europe should be understood not as a failure to “keep up” with Europe but as a consequence of changing power dynamics within these societies. As merchants, governors, tributary states, and other “peripheral” groups profited from the expanding global economy, they often became rivals of their own imperial rulers. The result, especially in the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, was the fragmenting of power as the central state failed to check the ambitions of regional upstarts. This fragmentation, in turn, created opportunities for European powers (usually in the form of chartered companies) to establish footholds by building local alliances, exploiting local rivalries, and stepping in to fill power vacuums.

Even in the Americas, the authors show, European power was not absolute. Europeans did not simply transfer their own preconceived social and political models wholesale. Rather, imperial expansion and governance entailed endless processes of negotiation, accommodation, and adaptation on the part of both the colonizers and the colonized. These processes become especially clear in chapter 5’s discussion of colonial identities in the Americas, which begins with an explanation of “identity” as a concept (one of those terms that students do not always understand as clearly as their professors think they do) before discussing the complex array of identities that arose out of the colonial situation.

Part 3, on the period 1810-80, examines an era that scholars formerly regarded as a sort of imperial “interlude” between the demise of European empires in the Americas and the the “new imperialism” of the late nineteenth century. The authors challenge this notion by showing how formal imperialism continued to profoundly reshape societies in this period--and, indeed, how many formal empires continued to expand. They also explore the concept of “informal” imperialism, which hinged on certain European technological innovations (e.g., the steamship, the telegraph, and the breech-loading rifle) that allowed European powers to wring “concessions” from formally independent states like China. Partly as a result of these overseas developments, which were both products and drivers of the industrial revolution, European nations (especially Britain) developed a “culture of imperialism” that motivated and justified further expansion. Also included in this section is a chapter on the age of revolutions in the Americas, which, the authors persuasively demonstrate, only became possible thanks to the imperial rivalries of the major European powers; ideological differences between the rulers and ruled, they argue, were less important to the outbreak of these revolutions than a favorable international context.

Part 4 examines the phenomenon of “new imperialism,” which the authors locate roughly between 1870 and 1914. What distinguished this period from that which preceded it was primarily “an expanded capacity and will to acquire formal colonies as well as spheres of influence” (p. 305). The authors briskly lay out the historiographical debate about why the new imperialism occurred, concluding that it was the product of a global convergence of three factors: great-power rivalries, volatile conditions at the peripheries of many empires, and technological and cultural shifts in the metropoles. Most of this section is concerned with explaining the processes by which imperial powers conquered, annexed, and settled new territories, rather than explaining imperial ideologies or governing methods as such (these are covered in part 5). Through a variety of case studies encompassing Burma, the Upper Nile, Haiti, Vietnam, and the Gold Coast, the authors highlight the “complex, messy process” by which imperial states came to assert and maintain sovereignty (p. 330). Particularly valuable here is their problematizing of the concepts of “resistance” and “collaboration,” highly charged terms which, they rightly insist, do more to obscure than to explain the myriad strategies by which individuals responded to imperial expansion. This section also explores the “sinews” that bound empires together--commodities, migration, missions, military forces, and ideologies of gender/sexuality/race--which constituted intricate networks of exchange that transformed metropoles and colonies alike.

Part 5 covers the period 1890 to 1975, which the authors characterize as the era of “high imperialism.” It begins by exploring the evolution of metropolitan imperial ideologies away from a liberal belief in the possibility of “improving” colonized peoples toward the rigid categories and hierarchies of social Darwinism, an evolution with profound (albeit uneven and contested) consequences for the colonized. Next comes one of the highlights of the book, chapter 14’s discussion of the imperial dimensions of the two world wars: the centrality of imperial manpower and resources to the conduct of the wars; the role of imperial ideologies in shaping war aims; the ideological debt owed by Nazism to British, American, and French imperialism; and the impact of all this upon colonial populations. By contrast, chapter 15, on decolonization, feels somewhat thin, perhaps because, short of delving into the particularities of each and every colony, the authors can offer only fairly broad observations about an extremely dense period encompassing everything from the partition of India in 1947 to Angola’s independence in 1975 (although brief case studies of Kenya and Algeria do illuminate some of the period’s more violent, if not exactly representative, episodes). After so much insistence on the complex reasons for the emergence and spread of modern empires, it feels somewhat abrupt to bring them to an end in a mere twenty-three pages. Perhaps future editions of the book might include a separate chapter on the evolution of colonial nationalisms as a way to isolate and explain at least one of the forces that brought about this seismic global transformation.

Part 6 brings the story up to the present, examining the “Cold War empires” of the United States and Soviet Union as well as other manifestations of imperialism in the contemporary world. As they do in some earlier sections of the book, the authors spend considerable time pondering whether “empire” and “imperialism” are appropriate labels for phenomena that do not explicitly identify themselves as such. They have a definition of empire--“an agglomeration of multiple polities and diverse populations bound together in an uneven relationship in which one polity exercises significant control over the others and, in many cases, claims sole sovereignty over all of the polities” (p. 7)--that is certainly adequate to describe formal empires, but do the rival camps of the Cold War fit this definition? Does the international economic system dominated by bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank qualify as imperial? The authors ably address the relevant arguments here and arrive at judicious conclusions, but the undergraduate reader might reasonably wonder what is really at stake here. By this point the reader will have followed the authors through several such terminological discussions--about whether the states of early modern Africa and Europe should be called empires, about the applicability of the term to the informal imperialism of the nineteenth century, and so forth--and, while these are indeed legitimate historiographical questions, the authors might do more to explain why they matter. I see at least two reasons to care about whether the “empire” label is used appropriately. First, the term carries a negative charge (especially among Americans), denoting a system of exploitation and injustice, and it must therefore be applied with caution. Second, in a comparative study of this sort we have to be certain that we are comparing like with like. We need a robust set of common denominators to justify placing, say, the Habsburg Empire and the World Bank within the same analytical framework. Both of these considerations are implicit in the book, but they will not necessarily be evident to most readers.

Overall, the authors demonstrate a firm grasp of the vast expanse of time and space that they cover, but there are, perhaps inevitably, occasional errors. For instance, Britain had not abandoned the Corn Laws by 1840, as the authors claim in chapter 8 (p. 241), but by 1846--a minor matter, one might think, except that it is hugely significant that this happened in the midst of the Great Irish Famine that began in 1845. Similarly, Victoria did not become Empress of India in 1858 (p. 174) but in 1877, at a moment corresponding with (and in some ways exemplifying) the era of “new imperialism” that the authors discuss at such length. I hesitate to pick such nits, but, since this book is likely to be used as a reference text by undergraduate and graduate students, it is important that it gets the details right.

I do have more substantial reservations about the book. One concerns the images. While there are fine, full-color glossy maps at the front of the book, the grayscale images placed within the chapters are often dark and ill-defined, making what could have been an asset into a source of frustration (this, in all likelihood, is the fault not of the authors but of the press). Another matter that some readers might find problematic is the prominence of Britain in the sections on nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires. This is perfectly understandable given Britain’s global preeminence in this period, but scholars of the French Empire, in particular, might feel somewhat elbowed aside. My biggest reservation, however, concerns the inherent contradiction at the heart of this project. On the one hand, the purpose of the book is to offer a global analysis of modern imperialism, an undertaking that requires a certain degree of abstraction and generalization. On the other hand, the authors are drawing on a body of recent scholarship whose defining characteristic is its insistence on the complexity, messiness, and local peculiarities of the imperial experience. Such scholarship is uneasy with the level of generalization that a book of this sort requires for its own internal coherence, and the result is a book that is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Each section of the book, and most of its chapters, have identifiable arguments--most of which I have summarized above--but any argument that spans the book as a whole tends toward the methodological rather than the historical. That is, the book’s overarching arguments are not so much about what happened in the past but about how we should approach what happened. Thus, the reader is repeatedly enjoined to understand the uneven, contested, negotiated, and contingent nature of the imperial encounter; to appreciate that events like the American Revolution or World War Two must be understood within a global context; and to see some international power relations as almost, but not quite, truly imperial. But beyond this the authors are unwilling to go. Indeed, much of their analysis is so hedged with qualifiers (“usually,” “often,” “not always,” “nevertheless,” “however,” etc.) that the reader is left struggling for purchase. To be sure, the authors do occasionally provide a bold and interesting argument about a particular aspect of imperial history--their contention that the Holocaust should be seen as a “colonial event” is a fine example of this--but the overall picture is beset by a sort of fog. It is almost as if the authors are writing the sort of book that recent historiography, with its insistence on the uniqueness of each imperial encounter, militates against--and they do not always do enough to speak up for the value of a comparative, generalizing study of modern imperialism as a whole.

What I am discussing here may be an unresolvable tension: I am certainly not suggesting that the authors should have abandoned their scholarly caution and embraced the sort of sweeping (and Eurocentric) narrative methods of an earlier era. It may be a shortcoming of the specialist historiography on which they draw, rather than a reflection on the authors themselves, that there is little in the way of overarching argument in the text. But I do worry that students will find the absence of a unifying narrative or argumentative hook disorienting. Perhaps the best way to use this book in the classroom, then, is to treat it as a framing text to be supplemented with narrative and argumentative texts about specific imperial episodes. Students can then allow the questions raised, but not always answered, in Empires and Colonies in the Modern World to help them develop their own responses to our world’s imperial past and present.


Citation: Mark Doyle. Review of Streets-Salter, Heather; Getz, Trevor R., Empires and Colonies in the Modern World: A Global Perspective. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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