The Tools of Empire by Daniel R. Headrick is yet another piece of literature written to help explain the convoluted subject of imperialism in nineteenth-century Europe. Its difference from the majority of other pieces is that it does not wish to offer an argument against the work of others, but instead offer an alternative ‘fresh thinking’ view. (pg. 12) This alternative is the emphasis on the role of technology in the conquest and consolidation of European empires, specifically in India and Africa. Headrick structures his work into three stages, each of which argue the importance of different technological developments as tools in establishing empire.

Headrick identifies the first stage as the phase of exploration and penetration. He emphasizes the critical part played by the drug quinine, which was developed from the 1820s onwards and utilised in Africa in order to treat malaria. Headrick states that this treatment prevented the loss of man power of European empires and that without it colonialism in Africa would not have thrived. (pg. 74) Penetration was also done using vehicles as the author explains it was the development of steamers on the Ganges that led to the creation of the gunboat. These were then utilised during the Opium War with China and played a pivotal role in determining its outcome. In the Middle East, Headrick discusses that steamers were to be used along the Euphrates river to shorten the British route to India and its Eastern colonies.

In his second stage, Headrick pulls the reader’s attention to nineteenth-century weaponry, European conquest and the establishment of governance. He opens with the statement that ‘technology is power over people’ and this resonates throughout this part of the book. (pg. 21) Those who control the key technologies are those who have power and Headrick shows this with examples of Egypt with irrigation and medieval Europe with castles and armour. The same is shown for the nineteenth century and Headrick uses this stage to explain this. Vast advances in weaponry including rifles, gunpowder and the development of the machine gun revolutionised European fire power. His work argues that it was these advances that led to the triumph of Europeans in the scramble for African colonies. Evolution of fighting power was also evident in India where British soldiers were able to overcome native armies nearly six times their own size in the late 1700s. This ratio slowly decreased over time going into the mid nineteenth century but gave Europeans a huge amount of time to use their power to expand their empires.

The author’s final stage predominantly focuses on the evolution of communication. Again, emphasizing the advancement in steam boats, Headrick discusses their increased usage in the transportation of commercial goods and supplies. Their importance did not stop there as they were also used to transport troops quickly and efficiently to establish a firmer grasp on European colonies. The utilisation of the Suez Canal was another part of the communications revolution as it allowed a passage into the Indian Ocean rather than having to make the extensive journey around Africa to reach colonies. By the late nineteenth century Europeans began to look at consolidating their power in the secured colonies. The introduction of railroads and canals played a vital part in establishing communications in Africa and India. Headrick argues this boost to infrastructure was essential in expanding European influence and allowing for them to strengthen their grip over their empires.

When further analysing Headrick’s work it is critical that we understand what the author wished the reader to take away from it. This objective is one that is regularly explained throughout the book and the limits are clear as to what the author is offering. As mentioned Headrick explains that his work is not aimed at displacing the work of other academics but instead is aimed to provide additional information that he believes the majority have missed. I believe the book as a whole achieves this objective, however by providing this information it must be assumed that the author expects some sort of reassessment of historiography so that it may fit his findings. G.N. von Tunzelmann addresses this point also however fails to mention its significance.[1] I believe the objective should have stated what the author wanted the book to provide, that it did wish to incorporate these findings into the general assumptions of this particular field of study.

In addition to this The Tools of Empire provides a comprehensive explanation of the impact of technology in nineteenth century imperialism. Splitting the book into three distinct stages allows for a chronological understanding of what was happening at the time. It also allows the reader to see where and when each technology played its role and what significance it had in establishing empire. Headrick’s attention to detail in regards to transport, weaponry and medicine is another strength of the book as it provides credible material that other historians forget to mention. This is added to by Lewis Pyenson who states that it’s this detail that explains how Great Britain had such success in Africa and Asia.[2]

Headrick’s work however is not perfect and there are areas of the book which must be scrutinised. Arguably the main issue with the book is that it tries to go beyond its title. Although explaining his objective clearly Headrick tries to explain technology as a cause of empire. But as both D.K. Fieldhouse and the title agree it is better explained as a tool for a number of reasons.[3] One reason is that it is too easy to assume that just because the technology had been developed doesn’t necessarily mean that it has an effect on motive for the expansion of empire. Another area disregarded is that of other empires including the German, Japanese and Russian. Each had significant empires and it would have been a credit to his argument had he shown their developments. Although scrutinised by some, overall Headrick’s book provides a clear guide on the technological factors of colonialism that many historians fail, and may regret, to have mentioned.



[1] G.N. von Tunzelmann, ‘The Tools of Empire’, The Business History Review, 55:4 (1981), 559-601.

[2] L. Pyenson, ‘The Tools of Empire’, Isis, 73:3 (1982), 462-463.

[3] D.K. Fieldhouse, ‘The Tools of Empire’, The English Historical Review, 99:390 (1984), 207-208.