The Age of Empire: 1875-1914
by E.J. Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 404 pp., $22.95
In May 1898 the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in a powerful and somber speech to the annual meeting of the Conservative Primrose League, divided the nations of the world into the living and the dying: “On the one hand you have great countries of enormous power growing in power every year, growing in wealth, growing in dominion, growing in the perfection of their organization.” In the dying nations, on the other hand, “disorganization and decay are advancing almost as fast as concentration and increasing power are advancing in the living nations that stand beside them.” And he went on to draw the conclusion:
For one reason or another—from the necessities of politics or under the pretence of philanthropy—the living nations will gradually encroach on the territory of the dying, and the seeds and causes of conflict among civilized nations will speedily appear.
Salisbury had in mind particularly the Chinese and Ottoman empires; and indeed the European Great Powers were already making plans for the partition of these dilapidated structures. But even more attractive to governments wanting to show the virility expected of “living” nations was Africa—the unknown continent, widely believed to offer rich rewards in raw materials, new fields of investment, and new markets, and waiting only for the benefits of European rule brought by imperialists convinced of their “civilizing mission” to make its contributions to the prosperity of the developed world. The period from 1875 to 1914, which is the subject of the latest volume in Eric Hobsbawm’s nineteenth-century trilogy—one of the great achievements of historical writing in recent decades—saw the proportion of the world under European rule increase by more than 80 percent. It was an age when, to a greater extent than ever before, Europe was the center of a world on which it left an indelible imprint.
It is this dominance that justifies Professor Hobsbawm’s concentration on Europe and those parts of the world that followed the European pattern. Colonial rivalries were drawing a new map of Africa, but the boundaries were established to suit the administrative, economic, and strategic interests of the colonizing powers, and it was these boundaries that were to become the frontiers of independent states in the mid-twentieth century, even if they did not correspond to the historic or ethnic divisions of precolonial times. As yet the European ideas that inspired the nationalist leaders who were to create the new independent states were confined to a small elite, while European technology, except when it provided the military means for maintaining European rule, was only just beginning to impinge on the native inhabitants of most of the colonies.
“The great mass of the colonial populations,” Hobsbawm writes, “hardly changed their ways of life if they could help it.” One sometimes feels, indeed, that for Professor Hobsbawm the inarticulate have no history, or at least not one that is relevant to his analysis. As he writes of women in the European countryside, “They were not …