The colossal European attempt at global dominance through imperialism has been studied piecemeal, but overall evaluations have remained few. Abernethy has now produced the most comprehensive account since Michael Doyle's Empires, focusing on how European empires reshaped the economies, social institutions, cultural patterns, and values of their subjects. He describes imperialism as the result of a triple assault -- from strong-willed states, profit-seeking individuals and companies, and churches and missionaries -- that only western Europe could launch. Interstate rivalries and international forces, however, also played a central role in imperial conquest.
Abernethy's systematic and balanced assessment highlights both the benefits and the evils of colonial rule. He presents a theory based on an empirical examination of empires and their five phases: expansion, contraction, expansion again after 1824, unstable equilibrium from 1914 to 1939, and final contraction. In his view, expansion resulted from developments in Europe, contraction from developments in the colonies. Abernethy also neatly analyzes the institutions and techniques of imperial control as well as the weaknesses of the colonized countries, such as collaboration and the "psychology of self-abasement" that played into European hands and stymied local nationalism. Among the forces that led to independence was war between the European powers, which fostered colonial protest movements and weakened their imperial masters. In fact, "victory in war often precipitated imperial decline," the author writes, as the colonizers' attempts to assert their authority and turn back the clock fostered resistance and rebellion. Abernethy tops off his work by listing the European political and economic legacies that shaped the fate of the newly liberated colonies. An eminently readable, masterly, and sensible book.