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Daily RC Article 82

Beyond Battles: Unravelling the Dynamics of Imperialism


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The focus on Western military effectiveness distracts attention from an issue that is frequently overlooked if a military approach to imperialism is taken, but one that is nevertheless important when considering all empires. This is the issue of the extent to which the role of the outside, apparently conquering, power has to be understood in terms of the power-plays of local interests, especially allies, so that the conqueror is used and, indeed, becomes effective only insofar as it takes part in such relationships. This reciprocal, patron-client relationship was critical to British control of India, while in southern Africa, Britain benefited from native opposition to the Zulus, whose expansion, like that of the Asantes and of Samory Toure´ in West Africa, had left much discontent.

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The French also had some success with non-military efforts at pacification and assimilation, particularly in Senegal, Madagascar, and Morocco. The problems of pacifying large areas of often-difficult terrain ensured that cooperation was important. Thus, in Burma, where King Thebaw was defeated in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 and then surrendered, opposition continued, with a widespread rebellion in 1886–90. In confronting the situation there, the British benefited from the use of Indian military resources and also from some local support. Difficulties in pacification could also lead to a harshness that can be seen as an aspect of total war. For example, aside from refusing to take prisoners and killing the wounded—both seen in British operations against the Zulus—there was also the use of destruction, such as the burning down of the Asante capital Kumasi in 1874, and the devastation of Maori villages in New Zealand, in order to end resistance via humiliation and a statement of power.

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Such methods, as well as the ability to win local support, can be seen as particularly important if the distinction between battle and war is grasped. The range of factors that led to Western victory in battle – including, as the nineteenth century drew toward its close, more deadly weapons, such as machine guns and effective cannon – did not necessarily ensure success in war or pacification. Instead, relatively small Western forces sought in their own apparent interest to direct states and peoples, which often meant claiming formal sovereignty, but found that the means available for doing so were limited. As a consequence, they took part in local power-plays, particularly recruiting local military support, which was used with considerable success by all imperial powers.

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Native military support continued to be the pattern for Western imperialism in the twentieth century, whether on the offensive or on the defensive. In December 1934, an Italian force, composed largely of Somali irregulars, played the key role in a border clash at Walwal, which was used by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to justify the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935–36. In this conquest, the Italians benefited not only from Eritrean auxiliaries, but also from native allies such as the Oromo, whom they armed. An emphasis on the role of local power-plays risks demilitarising military history, but this perspective is important: battle was an enabler of war, and war of the extension of control, but neither exhausts the subject, nor provides a sufficient explanation of success.

The essay highlights how focusing solely on Western military prowess overlooks the intricate dynamics of imperialism. It emphasises the significance of local alliances and power struggles in enabling imperial control. Western forces often relied on native support and engaged in patron-client relationships to assert dominance, showcasing that victory in battles didn't always ensure overall success in pacification or control. The essay draws attention to instances where non-military efforts and local collaborations played pivotal roles in imperial conquests, urging a broader perspective beyond just military conquests to understand the complexities of imperialism.
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