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  • Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order by J. C. Sharman
  • David Ringrose
Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order. By J. C. Sharman (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2019) 216 pp. $27.95

In this book, Sharman attacks the view of Europe's early modern expansion that seeks to explain Europe's pre-1750 overseas empires as a result of improved European technology, naval abilities, and military tactics, systematically undermining the relevance of the European "military revolution," as articulated by Roberts and Parker.1 The central elements of their model include (1) linear infantry formation combined with volley fire and light artillery; (2) larger armies; (3) larger, more expensive, fortifications that could resist artillery sieges; (4) and larger, more expensive, ships with bigger guns and longer ranges of activity. According to this view, more expensive warfare favored more elaborate, centralized states with extensive tax bases. Sharman considers this model selectively Eurocentric, pointing out that the rest of the world adopted most of its elements at different times in various places.

Sharman points out that almost none of the elements in the military revolution came into play in early modern European expansion. Overseas military ventures were small affairs, depending on ad hoc local alliances and avoiding conflict with the larger, better integrated, non-European states. Asian and African states, oriented toward land-based empires, tolerated the assorted enclaves that Europeans created and took advantage of European maritime commerce. Meanwhile, the European enclaves scuffled with each other as much as with indigenous states. The battles that they fought against Asian polities were with small armies, old tactics, and the collaboration of indigenous allies. Most European enclaves survived because they collaborated with indigenous forces; few of Europe's early colonial wars were won or lost within the purview of a European military revolution. Rather than being the result of "modernized" conquest, Europe's early modern overseas empires existed by the sufferance of larger African [End Page 591] and Asian states, although Sharman does not tell us much about how these colonial enclaves actually functioned.

Sharman further questions the relevance of the military revolution as a way of explaining the warfare that took place in Europe's nineteenth-century imperialism. As in the earlier centuries, these conquests depended on relatively small European forces and on alliances with local factions. Finally, he challenges the usefulness of the military revolution as a model for analyzing military conflict in modern Europe. In practice, even when one country employed these new tactics to defeat another one, poor internal communication often led conservative military elites of defeated states to misunderstand what they had confronted and to reject new tactics and technology.

Sharman shows at length that the best example of the military revolution, so defined, in action actually involved the Ottoman Empire. The Turks regularly used large armies, modern muskets and artillery, and volley fire on the battlefield. They also had Europe's most effective centralized bureaucracy and revenue system. He ends with the observation that the current emergence of "asymmetrical warfare" has created another kind of military revolution. The wars of decolonization have led to a situation in which expensive, technologically advanced armies cannot defeat well-organized guerilla forces. Guerilla armies do not have to win; they just have to make enough trouble not to lose, a strategy that tends to confound modern governments.

David Ringrose
Maritime Museum of San Diego


1. Michael Roberts, The Military Revolution, 1560—1660: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the Queen's University of Belfast (Belfast, 1955); Geoffrey Parker, "The 'Military Revolution" 1560—1660—a Myth?" Journal of Modern History, XLVIII (1976), 195—214



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