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Reviewed by:
  • Geographies of Empire: European Empires and Colonies c. 1880–1960
  • William Kelleher Storey
Geographies of Empire: European Empires and Colonies c. 1880–1960. By Robin A. Butlin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 692 pp. $125.00 (cloth); $54.00 (paper).

The title suggests that this book will cover geographical aspects of European imperialism from 1880 to 1960, although in fact it covers most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bulk of the text is devoted to British and French colonization in Africa and Asia, although the author makes efforts to include the Americas and the Pacific, while also mentioning Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and U.S. efforts at colonization. The author, Robin Butlin, achieves global coverage while also introducing readers to the purpose of historical geography, which is to show the ways in which people have experienced, understood, and represented their physical environments.

For this reason the book will interest modern world historians who specialize in environment and technology, although colleagues outside of these subfields will be able to use this book as a readable and up-to-date introduction to the historical geography of imperialism.

Most chapters follow one or more threads of geographic history such as theories of imperialism, migration, land alienation, exploration, scientific societies, cartography, missions, transportation and communication technologies, cities, agriculture, and mining. Each of these chapters, in turn, is divided into sections and subsections that cover the different colonial powers, productive enterprises, and particular regions. Each subsection surveys its subtopic in clear, well-documented prose. For example, chapter 10, “The Arteries of Empire: Transport and Communications,” reviews imperialism and roads, rivers, oceans, vessels, canals, railways, and telegraphs. Each of those sections, in turn, addresses specific subtopics, such as the Indian railways or the Suez Canal. Each section relies on between one and half a dozen sources, each of them representing leading examples of monographs or journal articles. The bibliography is excellent, providing ample suggestions for further reading. I found that when the author was addressing topics in my own areas of specialization, the descriptions of the history and historiography were accurate and current. When I read about topics that were somewhat unfamiliar, I felt that Butlin’s summary and bibliography gave me a good basis for further exploration.

Geographies of Empire is encyclopedic but not bland. In the chapter about exploration and geographical knowledge, we learn that in 1889, when H. M. Stanley returned from his Emin Pasha expedition, he was welcomed by 6,200 people at the Royal Albert Hall, where he was presented with a medal cast in Welsh gold. The surviving African [End Page 399] porters were given replicas in bronze (pp. 261–262). In the chapter about the spread of industrialization, we learn that the Indian steel industry began thanks to the persistence of J. M. Tata, who was denied assistance by the Raj but then studied steel manufacturing overseas. And he himself depended on the initiative of P. N. Bose, a geologist who, after leaving the British Geological Survey of India, tipped Tata about the location of large iron ore deposits in Orissa (p. 574). Detailed examples of interaction between colonized and colonizing people are presented on nearly every page.

The book is a readable and effective reference, yet for all its coverage it lacks an argument. Butlin reviews much scholarly literature without articulating a real position. This becomes clear almost immediately in the first chapter, where the author surveys the historiography of imperialism. Butlin presents the familiar theories of Hobson, Lenin, and Schumpeter while reviewing the more recent corrective works by P. J. Cain, Antony Hopkins, James Blaut, and many others, as well as the contingent and local explanations that were suggested by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher in the 1960s and taken up by the authors of shelves of monographs from the 1970s to the present. Taking all these views into account, Butlin states that the “motives for imperialism varied through time” (p. 29). Butlin is throwing up his hands, but at least he thinks he is in good company. On the same page he quotes from Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World: 1780–1914 (2004), which, according to Bayly...


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pp. 399-400
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