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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  Carlo Cipolla, Guns, Sails and Empires.  Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion 1400-1700.  Pantheon Books, 1965.

Guns, Sails and Empires is that rarity among works of history: a short book with a simple, powerful thesis that the entire book is devoted to proving.  Carlo Cipolla begins with the question, "Why, after the end of the fifteenth century were the Europeans able not only to force their way through to the distant Spice Islands but also to gain control of all the major sea-routes and to establish overseas empires?" (19)  He quickly dismisses motive as a causal factor: motive to circumvent the "Moslem blockade" had existed in earlier centuries as well, but motive without means is empty.  Cipolla identifies two developments that provided the means for Europeans to finally succeed beyond their wildest dreams: ships seaworthy enough to reach distant seas; and powerful cannon that could be carried by these ships.

Cipolla neither claims too much for his thesis nor oversimplifies the cause and effect involved.  His central task was to show that European ships and guns were crucial to the initial phase of overseas expansion, and he did this very well.  Europeans had both superior cannon as well as superior techniques of employing them at sea, and as soon as they arrived in Eastern waters they quickly drove all rival fleets from the sea.  But Cipolla makes clear that this advantage only applied to the sea.  Europeans were still unable to make any significant land conquests beyond small coastal enclaves that could be dominated by naval artillery.  Indeed, the Turks continued to drive back European armies at the same time that Europeans were expanding overseas, a paradox that Cipolla uses to good effect in showing the limited scope of European military superiority in this period.

To his credit, Cipolla generally refrains from delving into the driving forces behind the technological advantage the Europeans attained and kept for several centuries.  This keeps the book of manageable length and keeps the reader focused on his thesis.  He does offer some plausible speculation on the reason that non-European powers were unsuccessful in adopting European technology.  He points out that technological innovation is the end-product of an entire cultural outlook; simply acquiring the technical "recipe" from European gunfounders was not enough for China, for instance, to effectively make and use cannon in the European manner over the long term.  Cipolla argues that "in order to fight against the West they have to absorb Western ways of thinking and doing," (147) something most non-European peoples were unwilling or unable to do.  Guns, Sails and Empires  thus laid the groundwork and pointed the way for subsequent investigation into the rise of the European overseas empires.

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