- Possessing the World: Taking the Measurements of Colonisation from the 18th to the 20th Century
In Possessing the World, Bouda Etemad, a professor of history at the universities of Geneva and Lausanne, asserts that European colonialism ranks with the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions as “one of the major changes of direction in mankind’s history” (p. 1). While such an assertion can be neither proved nor disproved (doesn’t every historian think his or her field is the key to history?), it will certainly please historians of imperialism and many other world historians as well. Given the vastness of this field, however, what can one short book contribute?
Quite a lot, it turns out, for Etemad takes up a challenge that other historians have so far avoided: presenting a statistical portrait of European imperialism in only 207 pages of text. He has assembled all the known statistical data on the size and population of colonial possessions from the early eighteenth to the late twentieth century. Needless to say, much of this data is quite unreliable, and Etemad is very conscious of its defects. Yet, he assumes that unreliable data is better than none and states (p. 107) that “It is well known that for aggregates, errors cancel each other out.” This may shock statisticians, but historians will be grateful for the hard work that Etemad has done.
What interests Etemad most are the demographic costs of empire building. Here we find data on the numbers of Europeans in the tropics (chapter 1), the number of indigenous troops used in colonial conquests (chapter 3), and the European and indigenous losses during the [End Page 247] conquests (chapters 4 and 5). He also presents data on the area of colonies and of colonial empires and on their populations (chapter 6). In analyzing these statistics, Etemad comes to an interesting conclusion, namely that most of the European overseas conquests took place before the introduction of the “tools of empire” that a previous generation of historians (read: this reviewer) claimed to have made the late nineteenth-century “new imperialism” possible.
Of all the tools of empire, Etemad discusses only the use of quinine. Based on Philip Curtin’s important studies of European mortality in the tropics, he shows (in chapter 2) that it was not as widely used nor as significant in its effects as previously believed. Instead, he attributes the success of the Europeans to their lavish use of indigenous (or at least non-European) troops in their colonial campaigns and to such empirical practices as providing clean water and planning campaigns for the dry season. In those few instances where European troops outnumbered non-Europeans—as in Algeria in the 1830s and 1840s and in Madagascar and Ethiopia in the 1890s—the mortality rates were indeed very high, and mainly from diseases. In contrast to the mortality of European troops in the half-century before World War I, which he estimates at 280,000 to 300,000, the death toll among the conquered peoples was enormous, on the order of fifty to sixty million, of whom 90 percent were civilians. The drastic decline in population during the first phase of colonization, however, was followed by an even more astonishing population boom soon thereafter, leaving the colonies more populated at the end of the colonial period than at the beginning.
Etemad ignores the economic aspects of imperialism and colonialism, perhaps because there is such a vast and contentious literature on the subject. But he does analyze the financial cost of particular campaigns and shows that the conquest of colonial empires between the mid nineteenth century and 1913 consumed a mere 0.2 to 0.3 percent of the GNP of the colonizing countries. Furthermore, much of that cost was passed on to the empires’ colonial subjects, especially the poor Indian taxpayers who paid not only for their own colonization, but for the rest of the British Empire as well.
One of the problems involved in presenting...