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Book Review


Heather Streets-Salter and Trevor R. Getz, Empires and Colonies in the Modern World: A Global Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xvi + 574. Bibliography, Glossary, Maps and Index. $49.95 (paper).


     Understanding the globally integrated and interconnected nature of empires provides a deeper insight into the transformations of the world brought about by imperialism and colonialism. Take this short example of France, Portugal, and Brazil in the early nineteenth century (226–227). In 1807, as Napoleon's army was rapidly approaching, the Portuguese King Joao VI and his entire court fled their homeland to their Brazilian colony for protection. From the capital of Rio de Janeiro, for over a decade, Brazil was ruled as a kingdom equal in status to Portugal. This came with many benefits: schools, a military academy, and financial institutions cropped up in Brazil. By 1820 the Portuguese people demanded that king and court return to the rightful place in Lisbon. The King returned but left his son Pedro behind to rule Brazil and lead it to its independence in 1822. It can be seen that the actions of France had an impact on Portugal and subsequently Brazil, but more than that, we see how the global context of empire led to a series of shared experiences in different countries. We witness this not just in the nineteenth century but over the last 500 years, as Heather Streets-Salter and Trevor Getz show in their ambitious new offering, Empires and Colonies in the Modern World: A Global Perspective.

     Most countries' road to independence took longer and were bloodier and more difficult than Brazil's, but as we learn in this new book, it was always contingent on relationships and struggles in a connected world. This connected world, the authors argue, warrants that "while it is possible to study each empire separately, it is even more useful to see them as part of a global context in which the actions of and transformations within each society impacted others" (16). For students of world history, seeing these transformations presented side-by-side, within one work, allows for a more thorough understanding of imperialism than a collection of case studies.

     This global study of the world in the modern age makes three main arguments. First, it adopts empires, rather than nation-states, as the unit of analysis. The second argument is that it is not possible to analyze imperial processes without considering global contexts. The third argument of the book is that empires hold a central place in the making of the modern world and therefore the modern era is an appropriate period to study empire and imperial and colonial processes. As Streets-Salter and Getz explain, the dawn of the modern world refers "to the joint experience of a truly global world—one in which empires played a leading role" (18).

     The book is divided into six parts. Parts One and Two set the scene for the global story of empire and imperialism. Part One is about early modern empires between 1350 and 1650. This part deals with the major empires that formed and spread from Europe, mainly Spain, Portugal, Russia and the Habsburgs and the Ottoman, Ming and Mughal empires that spread from Asia. Part Two is about the further emergence of European empires in the Atlantic and as well as Asian empires. It is throughout these chapters that we begin to see the confluence of mercantilism and privateering as part of the empire building project. As well, we see the emergence and spread of non-European empires in this period.

     Part Three discusses the process which led to informal empires, focusing on the period from 1810 to 1880. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries there was a contraction in the land mass of major empires. While at first glance this period might appear as an imperial interlude, what Streets-Salter and Getz show through three very readable and exciting chapters is that there was a complexity of "imperial challenges and colonial tensions" (199). Part Three is well connected to Part Four on New Imperialism, 1870–1930. Indeed, these two parts argue that we cannot understand the latter era without first understanding the earlier informal period and the industrial build-up in Europe, which was tied to rapid economic change in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In the set of three chapters that make up Part Four what emerges is a more focused attempt to turn the lens on colonialism and to show that "empire was never simply unidirectional;" it involved "complex systems that were linked together physically, ideologically, socially, and culturally" (355). We can observe these complex global systems in the example of rubber in the Congo Free State, which at the time was controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium (358–363). In this period there was a major shift toward rubber plantations in other colonies held by British, Dutch, and French imperial interests, but before these plantations took hold there was much wild rubber in Congo that could be extracted. Leopold employed a brutal system of exploitation in Congo to make his subjects quickly extract as much wild rubber from the forests before the British plantations came into production. Many Congolese fled, died, or were mutilated in this extreme period of exploitation.

     Part Five (1890–1975) broadly sweeps through high imperialism, the "imperial" World Wars, and then, the unravelling of colonies in the twentieth century. In this period there was a "maturation of colonial practices that had been developed over centuries" (392). In many parts of the closing chapters problems in the metropole during the era of high imperialism are linked to similar periods in the past, whether it was the Mughals, the Habsburgs, the Spanish, or even the British in India. Chapter Fifteen, which concludes Part Five, is a fascinating study of the political and social consequences of decolonization, not only within countries but it also shows how "nation" building was globally connected through different thinkers. For example, many thinkers in Africa and India were in close contact through international conferences like the Congress of Oppressed Peoples (456–459). Part Six draws the Cold War era into the broad sweep of the book. Even in this section on the Cold War, one of the delightful parts of this book, despite its length, are the connections made across the broad narrative. Streets-Salter and Getz are certainly convincing in their argument that we must always consider the global context in any analysis of empire and colonial processes.

     This book is a revised and updated edition of the earlier volume Modern Imperialism and Colonialism: A Global Perspective (Pearson, 2010). Some chapter titles have been changed and extended analysis given to important emerging trends such as commodity flows and anti-colonial activism, as well as a provoking new chapter sixteen, "Cold War Empires". One unfortunate omission compared to the previous edition are the questions that appeared at the end of each chapter. Not only were these a valuable teaching tool, they also provided moments for reflection in a book of such length.

     The book could have been improved if it had looked at settler societies. While these societies are considered briefly in a subsection titled "Migration" in Chapter Twelve (364–369), more detail on this topic would have added to the global reach the book. For example, between 1853 and 1920 nearly ten million people left the British Isles for new settler nations and colonies (and this is not to mention the numbers of those that left France, Japan and Russia). Over four million of these British migrants went to the United States, and much of the remainder went to settler colonies: two million to Canada, two million to Australia and New Zealand, and over half a million to South Africa. While it is repeatedly said that this a "complex" world, not even a chapter is devoted to understanding these complex societies and migrations. If more space was given to this, it might also have led Streets-Salter and Getz to hold a closer microscope to the United States, an empire that throughout the book is often treated less critically than others. However, these issues could be addressed by teachers offering supplementary reading relevant to specific places where the book is being taught.

     This is a valuable book for teachers to consider, and I would suggest there are at least three possible paths for its use. First, the argument of the empire as a unit of analysis could be used as a theme to explore in a general class on world history. Second, , the book might be of greater value to colleagues teaching upper-level classes on imperialism or colonialism, as it offers a new methodology through which to approach the topic. Third, with many valuable chapters (particularly on Africa) it could be assigned in parts to address specific topics in a variety of courses. Overall, the scope and general inclusiveness of this book makes it a valuable work that will resonate with many readers and in many classrooms.

Luke Keogh is an environmental historian and a Visiting Fellow of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University,


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