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