The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

12
British Expansion, Empire, and Technological
Change

ROBERT KUBICEK

Technological changes, whatever their origins, have often been turned to imperial purposes. The chariot and stirrup were important empire-building tools in antiquity, as were the sail and gun in the early modern period. Military innovations in weapons and organization were instrumental in expansion before 1800.1 Thereafter, however, tools crucial to achieving economic advantage and political domination rapidly proliferated. The advent of steam and electrical power, and developments in metallurgy and chemistry provided new means for coercion and movement. Moreover, the tools underwent significant if unco-ordinated development. Soldiers used the musket (a smooth-bore, single-shot muzzle- loader with powder ignited by exposed flintlock) at the beginning of the century, the rifle (a breech-loading repeater accepting metal cartridges activated by internal hammer) at its end. Transport reduced travelling times (see Tables 12.1-6) and carried bulky cargo to distant markets. Communication devices exchanged information in days, then hours.

Nevertheless, while general trends may be clear, there are difficulties in pinpointing when a version of a tool had become sufficiently diffused and effective to institute change in behaviour and relationships. It is hard to decide, for example, when cost-effective, metal-hulled, propeller-driven, ocean-going vessels become sufficiently numerous to make a difference to the connection between technology and empire. Even more elusive are the prevailing norms and values which shaped the use of such inventions, especially since they may themselves have been altered by technology.

Contemporaries were not unaware of the new power sources suddenly available to them. Karl Marx was sufficiently sensitive to their force to be considered by some as a technological determinist. The imperial historian, J. R. Seeley, thought that steam had given the 'political organism' a 'new circulation', that electricity had

____________________
1
Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, 2nd edn. ( Cambridge, 1990).

-247-

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