Book Review: Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order


by Jason Sharman

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 202. Notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN: 0691182795

Challenging the Idea of European Military Prowess in the Age of Expansion

In an insightful look at European expansion from about 1500 through about 1800, Prof. Sharman (Cambridge) makes a convincing argument that interpretations of these events have not only been very Eurocentric but have also been wrongly attributed to a supposed superiority in military prowess that resulted from the “Military Revolution”.

Sharman notes that in an era that saw the Ottomans, the Moghuls, the Safavids, the Chinese, and others build sprawling territorial empires, only in the Americas (where disease was more decisive than military superiority) did Portugal, Spain, Britain, and France create notable land empires. In Africa and Asia the European powers only managed to secure mostly small coastal lodgments, defeated by disease and the military and political prowess of the local peoples, who quite frequently inflicted serious military disasters upon the invaders. Curiously, Sharman fails to properly explain the success of the British in India, where they did establish a sprawling territorial empire during the eighteenth century.

This changed with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern medical science, which gave European powers dominion over the greater part of the globe. Sharman further argues that the near total domination of the globe by European powers during the nineteenth century, engendered by the industrial revolution, superior weaponry, and advances in medicine, lasted barely a century, and that the rapid industrialization and return to global status of various non-western powers such as China, India, and perhaps an Islamic polity, suggests a very different future.

Empires of the Weak is an important read for those interested in the era of European expansion, the “Military Revolution”, and non-western responses to western imperialism.


Note: Empires of the Weak is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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