Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Tools of Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. New York:: Oxford University Press, 1981


Headrick, Daniel R.


The book is divided into three parts, each discussing the different component of technology. These chapters are titled "Tools of Penetration", "Guns and Conquests" and "The Communications Revolution", thus touching upon the reasons as to how the colonial powers came to be, to a large extent, assisted by their dominance in their respective fields of technology.

Two events had changed the world: progress and power of industrial technology, and the domination and exploitation of Africa and much of Asia by Europeans. The author recognized a need to examine these two changes that impact world history together. In this way, one will be able to examine both the impact of technology on the subjugation of Asia and Africa to the domination of the European powers, as well as the ethos of European imperialism in the nineteenth century. The author concludes by making a bold argument that the real triumph of European civilization was that of technology, and not ideology.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The main issues explored is that of the explanation for how colonial powers were to a large extent assisted in their ability to establish control over their territories in Asia and Africa because they were the most advanced powers in terms of technology and scientific discoveries. In addition, the author aims to compare the two reasons for advancing European control over their territories, which was that of the 'superior' Western ideology and technology, so as to uncover the methods by which European powers were able to subjugate populations larger than their own country.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The connection between technology and imperialism must be approached from both sides: from the history of technology as well as from that of imperialism. Given a historical phenomenon like the new imperialism, it was imperative to the author that we examine how technological forces shaped the development of new imperialism?

For example, the author argued that as a result of advances in medicine and pharmacology, iron and steel and firearms, conquest in Africa was not only far cheaper than it had ever been in the past: it was infinitely consuming far less lives and money than equivalent operations ever had been.

Headrick cautions readers on the use of the concept of causality. If one views imperialism as the result of many causes; their interpretations differ in the weights they attach to each cause. As such, Headrick argued that every cause and justifications for imperialism ought to be considered to provide a more wholesome discussion on empire. In this way, even if the more dramatic aspects of the Industrial Revolution had only a marginal impact on imperial expansion, it does not follow that technology in general was inconsequential. Thus, Headrick proposes that the new imperialism was not the result of mere technological superiority, but that the attitude of European powers had been altered; particularly since they were more willing to unleash overwhelming force when minimal costs could be attained. Technological changes affected the timing and location of the European conquests. They in turn configured the economic relations of colonialism.

Annotated by Michelle Djong