Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Power and Plenty

Book Cover

Book Title

Power and Plenty: Trade, War and the World Economy in the Second Millenium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007


Findlay, Ronald and Kevin H. O’Rourke.


Findlay and O’Rourke attempt to give an overview of world trade in the second millennium. The book is angled to be of interest not only to historians, but also to scholars of various other social science fields, such as economists and anthropologists. Roughly chronologically organized around three selected world historical events—the Black Death, the discovery of the New World, and the Industrial Revolution—it traces the origins of today’s international economy, examining how trade gradually assumed its globalized, heavily integrated nature. While their discussions are not about empires per se, their analysis of economic interactions in Eurasia and with sub-Saharan Africa is inextricably intertwined with the building of commercial empires, and they invest in a detailed examination of the imperial practices of Iberian, Dutch and British Empires. The book therefore focuses on trade and economy against a detailed backdrop of various imperial endeavors.

As the book nears the 21st century, however, attention is drawn away from empires to focus instead on contemporary geopolitics and the modern debate on the pros and cons of accelerated globalization. The later chapters are thus less relevant to those looking to understand the economist aspects of “empires” in the conservative sense.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Findlay and O’Rourke focus on the Eurasian landmass, dividing them into seven regions based not only on geographical realities but also on social, political and cultural lines. They examine trade interactions between these regions and sub-Saharan Africa, but decline to study the latter as an eighth region. The Americas is similarly excluded from such attention because it was not engaged in world trade before the European voyages. Findlay and O’Rourke adopt this intercontinental model of world trade because continents are immutable, whereas nation-states are not. While the result is an admittedly “Eurasia-centric”, their discussion accounts for almost 90% of the world population at the beginning of the second millennium.

In its discussion of 1000 years of economic activity, Findlay and O’Rourke identify the Black Death, the integration of the New World with the Old, and the Industrial Revolution as pivotal events that determined, both directly and indirectly, the course of future international trade. The Industrial Revolution in particular is treated as a crucial fulcrum point, and Findlay and O’Rourke temporarily digress from their chronological commentary on trade to examine the relationship between trade and the Industrial Revolution—with reference to, of course, consequences of empire such as slavery and New World trade. Ending in modern times, the book considers the economic standing of each of the seven regions today, drawing comparisons between them. It also discusses very recent developments on the fronts of globalization and trade liberalization in a broad geopolitical context, factoring in the effects of pertinent trends such as environmental concerns, growing demands for oil, and conflicts with rogue nuclear-armed states like Iran and North Korea.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book’s ultimately economic focus means detailed descriptions of the operations of important commercial centers such as Manila, as well as the use of quantitative data. Findlay and O’Rourke assume a rudimentary understanding of economic and financial terminology on the part of the reader.

Findlay and O’Rourke consistently remind the reader that economic activity and violence have always been intimately related. The capacity for conflict and hostility has always been a crucial arm of profit-centered trade. Thus, in setting up the necessary contexts, the book constantly makes references to intra- and interregional wars which simultaneously affect both patterns of trade and the expansion or destruction of commercial empires.

Because empires are not the focus of this book, they are given attention only insofar as they provide the necessary contexts for Findlay and O’Rourke’s economic analyses. This is not to say that they warrant only sporadic mention; in fact, imperial endeavors are quite prominent as factors of the centuries-long development of the international economy. For instance, Findlay and O’Rourke argue that the Industrial Revolution, which determined the fate of the world economy, was the culmination of converging historical trends, one of which was overseas colonial expansion, particularly in the New World—which itself had historical antecedents in the form of the Crusades or the Mongolian Empire. In the historical chain of cause and effect, empires are often presented as a key link. However, Findlay and O’Rourke sometimes divest from empires altogether, either to detail intra-European commercial relations and trade policies, or to make general comments on the world economy, often from a heavily European perspective.

Where empires do figure in their discussion, Findlay and O’Rourke consider the relationship between trade and economy, and imperial endeavors to be two-way. European voyages and conquests, intense imperial rivalries, and decolonization all drastically affected trade patterns and priorities, while demand and supply for, say, gold and spices also determined the fate of certain colonies. Where the creation of European commercial empires in Asia and the New World are important from an economic perspective, some chapters focus on the debate over the details of these relationships.

In discussing the interaction between European imperial powers and the indigenous peoples of Asia and the Middle East, Findlay and O’Rourke make it clear that the latter had already set up elaborate political and trading systems prior to European arrival; the Japanese and Chinese were empires in their own right. It is evident in the book’s analysis that, where there was strong political organization, the Europeans could only seek indigenous consent to insert themselves into existing trading structures and compete with indigenous merchants on a fairly level playing field. In the Americas, however, where native peoples lacked cohesion on such a level, the colonizers were free to use brutal, unmitigated force to achieve their economic ends. Findlay and O’Rourke also point out that intra-regional trade still formed the economic foundations of motherlands, thereby warning the reader not to overestimate the contributions of interregional trade, or trade with colonies, to European powers from the 16th century onward. The significance attributed to empires in this book is therefore measured and carefully qualified.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip