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Shipping, Technology, and Imperialism: Papers Presented to the Third British-Dutch Maritime History Conference (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 39, Number 4, October 1998
pp. 799-801 | 10.1353/tech.1998.0077

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Technology and Culture 39.4 (1998) 799-801

Book Review

Shipping, Technology, and Imperialism: Papers Presented to the Third British-Dutch Maritime History Conference *

Shipping, Technology, and Imperialism: Papers Presented to the Third British-Dutch Maritime History Conference. Edited by Gordon Jackson and David M. Williams. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996. Pp. xiv+284; illustrations, maps, figures, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $76.95.

Although not all twelve papers in this volume deal with all three themes of the title, the general focus is as advertised. For this achievement the editors are to be commended. As coeditor of two volumes, I am sympathetic to such a (usually thankless) enterprise. Not all conference volumes hang together as well as this, and several papers make significant contributions. The substantial introduction, by Gordon Jackson, is helpful to the more general reader. The basic themes that I find useful in the volume are these (in the order of their originality and with the contributing authors in parentheses): (a) that late-nineteenth-century imperialism was as strongly driven by the needs of shipowners to find work for their ships as it was by the more usual suspects of the search for markets and raw materials (Peter Davies, Joseph à Campo); (b) that the application of steam to the navy's supply logistics and to "offensive coastal warfare" in the 1850s wrought a strategic revolution in the British navy before the ironclad era represented by Warrior (Andrew Lambert); (c) that the workings of international capitalism in the early twentieth century could seriously deflect more nationalist imperial impulses (Frank Broeze); (d) that technology diffusion accelerated within the British and Dutch shipbuilding industries after the onset of steam power (Jan Dirkzwager); and (e) that historians have neglected to study the social conditions under which various actors in the navies and merchant marines actually labored (Conrad Dixon, Peter Schuman).

Davies and à Campo address all three themes in the title. Davies concludes that in the case of British imperialism in West Africa "the shipowners and merchants led the way and that the flag followed their lead" and that "in areas of the globe which lacked a strategic or other incentive then market forces could well have played a decisive role" (p. 61). The agents of imperialism are, however, shipowners who, having invested in the new steamships, had to find themselves cargoes or go under. The usual crew of miners, farmers, bureaucrats, and the like, on whom historians usually blame imperialism, are not the agents of this policy. Joseph à Campo reaches a similar conclusion for the Dutch steam packet services in colonial Indonesia. He further concludes that Daniel Headrick's argument in The Tools of Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) leaves technology playing far too passive a role. Headrick suggests that we look at technologies as part of active sociotechnical systems (p. 94).

Lambert's paper, "The British Naval Strategic Revolution, 1815-1854," is a fine contribution to naval history, although it contains little about imperialism per se. Lambert rehabilitates William Symonds, surveyor of the navy from 1832 to 1847, who built a fleet fast enough to force an enemy to decisive combat for the first time. Under Symonds, the navy also developed specialized coastal assault forces and proved itself capable of defeating coastal fortresses, forcing all other navies on the defensive. But Lambert's main theme is how logistics changed with the advent of screw-driven ships. The "strategic overseas invasion" was now possible, as exemplified in the British and French ability to maintain two hundred thousand men three thousand miles from home in the Crimea (p. 155).

Broeze gives an able account of the "complex international shipping crisis on the North Atlantic" of the first decade of this century. With this crisis came the formation of the Morgan Trust and its combination with Albert Ballin's Hamburg-America Line and North German Lloyd (p. 103). The Morgan Trust's control of the White Star Line gave this group a strong presence in Britain as well as America and Germany. Controlling the Dutch trade, even at a time of rising nationalism, reduced the ability of the Rhine ports to compete with the German North Sea and Baltic ports...


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