Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Guns, Sails and Empires

Book Cover

Book Title

Guns, Sails and Empires. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966


Cipolla, Carlo M.


The book deals with the questions of why Renaissance Europe succeeded where the Europeans of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries failed and why, after the end of the fifteenth century, the Europeans were able not only to force their way through to the distant Spice Islands but had also gained control of all the major sea-routes and established overseas empires.

This book is a useful reference for students and researchers studying the technological advances that had made European ventures into the Asiatic continent possible. Cipolla makes connections between economic problems and its technological implications. In addition, in comparing the technology possessed by different European explorers, one is able to compare the progress made by different sailing parties and the outcome of their technological advancements.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers essentially the time period of 1400-1700, since the focus would be on the development of technology that had changed the course of history for the Europeans. Particularly, the revolutionary changes that had affected the relationship between European traders and the indigenous merchants, rulers and producers were important consequences. The constant comparison among European powers engages the question of the different extent of dominance the different European countries had on the territories and trading networks where they had established commercial ventures.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book is structured into three different parts: "The European Scene", "Guns and Sails Overseas" and the "Epilogue". While the last part briefly summarizes the reasons for Europeans entering into trade relations in Asia, and therefore may not give readers an in-depth analysis for the origins of European dominance in Asia and the context as seen from the perspective of the indigenous population, it serves a more general purpose in indicating the possible reasons for European ventures into Asia.

However, the first two parts shed light on the vital developments in technology and explores the economic dimensions of the costs on the part of Europeans, and could serve a useful tool to compare the extent of power each European power had, particularly in the comparison of naval power amongst the Europeans. Cipolla also states that the relative advantage of the Europeans was on the seas, since on land they remained for a long time highly vulnerable. Thus, no serious attempt was ever made to make an inroad into Asia and extend territorial conquest. Until the eighteenth century, European possessions the world over consisted mostly of naval bases and coastal strongholds.

However, the advent of the Industrial Revolution changed the context in which the Europeans were operating. The development of technology during the Industrial Revolution was assisted by overseas trade agreements and this in turn facilitated the Europeans' ability to subjugate non-industrial economies through the policy of 'free trade' and the subtle mechanism of 'dual economies'.

Thus, the period of European conquests in Asia that began in the eighteenth century was deemed to be largely connected to the early maritime expansion and subsequent dominance.

Annotated by Michelle Djong