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Book Review


Bonnie G. Smith, Modern Empires: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xviii + 365. Maps, Bibliography, and Index. $29.95 (paper).


     Bonnie Smith's collection of primary documents on the processes and consequences of empire building will be a useful tool for students in high school and college history courses. Her choice of documents is original, and this work contains many sources one might not expect but which represent voices which need to be heard. Modern Empires will be of great use to instructors who want to provide multiple perspectives and a non-Eurocentric outlook on the history of imperialism.

     The collection opens with a series of historical maps of a variety of empires from the 16th through the 20th centuries. It includes maps on global trade, 20th century decolonization, and migrations. These are a strong addition to the work and can help students see a variety of dimensions of the question of empire.

     Overall, Modern Empires gets stronger as it gets closer to the modern day. The collection is divided into chronologically organized chapters which open with short introductory essays about the time periods. The introduction to the chapters on the 19th century are particularly strong. In Chapter Six, which covers the period 1815–1870, for example, she weaves with great efficiency comments about the end of slavery and serfdom in Europe, the United States, and Russia and the role that abolition played in fostering an ideology of imperialism as a civilizing mission. She further explains how Europeans deployed legions of spies, cartographers, and geologists to gather intelligence on behalf of imperial planners. The links between abolition, imperialism, and the natural sciences will likely be new to students, and this introduction will be quite useful. The chapter offers documents that will be instructionally valuable for lessons on the Tanzimat reforms, the opium wars, the demand for new sources of labor in the Caribbean, and Russian efforts to subdue Islamic clerical authority in Central Asia.

     The following chapter contains a number of documents from non-European perspectives which are not easy to find in typical classroom readers. These includes testimony from an East African elite who participated in empire construction, a document from a late 19th century south Asian feminist, and a statement from Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last monarch.

     Chapters Eight and Nine do an exceptionally good job of summarizing the extent to which late 19th and early 20th century empire-building led to intense violence. Empires used warfare as a means of inter-imperial competition and reacted viciously to those who resisted imperial subjugation. The documents collected in Chapter Eight provide a wide range of non-European statements of the varieties of responses to colonialism. Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani's "Plan for Islamic Unity" (1884) could spark an interesting class discussion as to whether the author was a nationalist. His call is for religious, not national, unity but he relies heavily on the language of 19th century nationalism. The chapter also includes two anti-imperial perspectives authored by westerners – David Starr Jordan's admonition against US imperialism and Roger Casement's critique of Belgian policies in the Congo. Three document choices in the chapter are particularly interesting and should make for productive class discussion. The "Zitakal-sa" essay which offers a critical Sioux perspective on "civilization" from an author who was sent to a missionary school. "The Petition of Native and Coloured Women of the Province of the Orange Free State" (1912) highlights the central role that women played in the struggle against South Africa's Pass Law. And Qiu Jiu's "An Address to Two Hundred Million Fellow Countrywomen" is a powerful feminist indictment of the Confucian tradition and foot-binding. Chapter Nine also contains useful primary sources highlighting both the impacts of World War I on colonial peoples and the different ways in which they responded. Chapter Ten extends the discussion into the interwar years and incorporates questions of gender both in the introductory passage and the choice of documents.

     Chapters Nine and Ten would have benefited from a clearer articulation of Soviet Communist advocacy of the right of nations to self-determination. Smith explains well that the Russian Revolution inspired millions around the world with its promise of a socialist future. However, the Communist International's explicit call for national self-determination attracted independence fighters to the Soviet cause, even those not fully committed to communism. Had this been spelled out more clearly, and perhaps had a Communist document on this topic been included, instructors would have an easier time evaluating the extent to which early Soviet efforts to maintain a Communist state within formerly imperial borders conflicted with the Communist doctrine of self-determination.

     Chapters Eleven and Twelve continue to offer a complex collection of documents. Smith provides independence calls from both Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Ghandi. An interesting inclusion is the court verdict from the 1950 Czech show trial condemning Milada Horáková, a feminist and democratic activist, to death. This document should allow for a comparative discussion of post-WWII Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe and Western colonialism. Smith also provocatively asks students to situate US "business imperialism" within the larger story of empire. The concluding document, from Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican Zapatista Front for National Liberation (1995) offers a stirring indictment of neoliberalism as the modern equivalent of colonialism.

     While I highly recommend this collection and look forward to using it myself, some of the documents in the earlier chapters would have benefited from more detailed introductions of the authors. For example, the work includes the report of Nestor-Iskander on the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It asks readers to consider the point of view of the author without telling us that he was a Russian who had been captured by the Ottomans and later fled. The introductory notes to a few of the documents in Chapter One suffer a similar deficiency, but Smith does a better job contextualizing the primary sources throughout the subsequent chapters.

     Overall, the strength of this collection far outweighs the weaknesses. Modern Empires will prove to be a valuable teaching tool at both the university and high school level. It provides descriptions of imperial policies and their consequences from a variety of perspectives and highlights non-European and female voices.

Kit Adam Wainer teaches Social Studies at Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn, New York. He is a Table Leader for the AP World History exam and a College Board Workshop Consultant. He can be reached at


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