Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Power over Peoples

Book Cover

Book Title

Power over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010


Headrick, Daniel R.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Headrick presents a broad survey essay aimed at the intelligent general reader. A student of William McNeill, Headrick continues the examination of the role and impact of technology, broadly defined, in the global expansion of Western societies, from the Renaissance to the Iraq War. Headrick defines Western as emanating from Western Europe, including the European ‘conquest’ of North America, and the subsequent rise to global power of the United States of America, as part of that story.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Headrick makes three main points. First, when we speak of the power of technology we really mean the ability of one group of people to exploit knowledge of how to manipulate the environment to pursue their agenda, often at the expense of others. Second, and therefore, the role and impact of technology has always been environment specific, and must be so contextualized in order to be understood. No ‘magic bullet’ has ever transformed the very nature of human history. Finally, technology, broadly understood, was always an important factor, and often a crucial factor, in shaping the expansion of Western power; but this expansion was neither linear nor irresistible, something that can also be explained by examining the role of technology in relative as well as absolute terms.

The ground will be familiar to established scholars, although Headrick presents a useful and lively narrative that brings it all together in one volume, ranging from Henry the Navigator to Donald Rumsfeld. The narrative rests on examining three factors: using technology to master particular environments, for example using medical advances to penetrate into the interior of Africa; technological innovations that enabled Western powers to conquer or coerce non-Western societies, for example the development of airpower; and the responses of Western societies, technological and otherwise, to Western expansion and pressure. Weaving them together, Headrick explains why Western expansion took place, but also why it was often stymied, or delayed, as well as why it sometimes swept all before it. The key point is the interrelationship between technology, broadly defined, and the environment, also broadly construed. Headrick does not present another tract of technological determinism, not just due to his redefinition of technology. The impact of such factors as the caravel and carrack and ocean navigation, the introduction of the horse, and the invention of the steam engine — these seminal developments, and others are all deeply and critically contextualized. Disease tipped the balance in favour of early Spanish expansion into Central America; the introduction of the horse enabled the Plains Indians to delay the expansion of European power into Central North America for generations. The steam engine played a crucial role in transforming the strategic situation in East Asia, underlined by the Opium Wars. The flow of firearms into the hands of Afghan and African peoples helped them contest, delay, and in some cases defeat European expansionism even during the age of ‘high imperialism.’ The point Headrick makes is that technology has always been an important but rarely a fundamentally transforming factor in shaping power relationships on a larger, indeed global, scale. This will not surprise scholars, but Headrick is aiming more squarely at a more general, especially American, readership that has become accustomed to arguments driven by technological determinism.

Annotated by Brian Farrell