Reading Notes on Hoffman (2014): Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

Philip Hoffman (2014): Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

From the best review of the book: Dietz Vollrath (2015): Dumb Luck in Historical Development:

Philip Hoffman’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World? [is]… on its face, is another entry in a long line of… Western European… dominance… due to a rather specific characteristic: disease tolerance, or cows, or a knobbly coastline…. But Hoffman’s work is different… a model of learning-by-doing in gunpowder technology… only… if you actually fight…. Europe[‘s]… lead was not due to some unique European characteristic, but rather was luck of the draw…. Hoffman… saw a correlation between European states and higher firepower, but… was willing to accept that this correlation — while meaningful in giving Europe an advantage — did not necessarily imply some kind of deep structural advantage for Europe… historical-development/

Six Orienting Questions for the Book as a Whole:

  1. This book is a “key link” argument: what is the key link here?
  2. This book is a “key link” argument: does anybody have any business such an argument at book length?
  3. As of 1550, the three most effective gunpowder empires at mustering the resources of societal power were all in the Islamic ekumene: The Ottoman, the Safavid, and the Gurkhani (Mughal) Empires. Plus there was Ming China. Would any of Hoffman’s retrospective argument have been visible in 1550?
  4. In Hoffman’s view, was the dominant power bound to be Britain — or were the differences between it and other European powers in the degree to which its fiscal- military state could mobilize resources small?
  5. What is Hoffman’s guess as to why it was only Western Europe that welded together commercial, military, imperial, and tax-based resource extraction interests to such an extraordinary degree? Gunpowder and practice in using it, yes, but what else?
  6. Not modes of production, or modes of domination, but rather modes of interstate politico-military competition are at the core of Hoffman’s argument. What do we think of this unusual division into “superstructure” and “base”?

Going Through the Book…

  1. Introduction: Are “disease” and “gunpowder” really the only “standard” answers to the question of why Europe was so able to project power from 1490–1945? And was the European political-military cockpit from 1350 on really a winner-take-all tournament?
  2. The Tournament in Early Modern Europe Made Conquest Possible: Why was the negative glory of losing a war not a major status insult to European monarchs. The 1998 movie about 16th-century English monarch Elizabeth I Tudor has her saying: “I do not like wars. They have uncertain outcomes…” That was what she believed. Why did so few of her peers think like she did? In Hoffman’s view, all of relentless and expensive fighting focused around gunpowder technologies easily copied were necessary for the tournament’s logic to roll forward. Focus, however, on the “easily copied” part. Shouldn’t that alone have robbed Europe of its technological edge?
  3. Why the Rest of Eurasia Fell Behind: For which Eurasian powers — Ming and Qing China, pre-Tokugawa and Tokugawa Japan, the Osmanli Sultanate, the Gurkhani (Moghul) Empire, and the Rurik-Romanovs — does Hoffman’s argument work best? For which does it work less well?
  4. Ultimate Causes: Is there a reason for the absence of a European politico-military hegemon in the early modern period? Why the fragmentation of Western Europe — and stable fragmentation at that?
  5. Gunpowder and Private Expeditions: Private initiative in conquest is found not just in the conquistadores and their Dutch, French, and British imitators, but among ghazis, crusaders, and vikings as well: is there a distinction here that Hoffman can maintain? Note Hoffman’s survival-of-the-southern- Song counterfactual…
  6. Technology and Armed Peace in 19th Century Europe: The biggest Western European edge emerges after 1815 — after they stop fighting each other. Why doesn’t Hoffman think that this is a decisive point against his theory?
  7. Conclusion: The Price of Progress: This chapter seems mostly a digression, focused on what Hoffman calls the Allen, Findlay, O’Rourke, and O’Brien argument. What does Hoffman say this argument is? (We will get to it several weeks from now, when we get to Allen on the British Industrial Revolution.)

What research questions does Hoffman’s book raise? How could we go about answering — or making progress — on them?


  1. Introduction
  2. The Tournament in Early Modern Europe Made Conquest Possible
  3. Why the Rest of Eurasia Fell Behind
  4. Ultimate Causes
  5. Gunpowder and Private Expeditions
  6. Technology and Armed Peace in 19th Century Europe
  7. Conclusion: The Price of Progress

Plus appendices: model of war and learning by doing; prices and military-sector productivity, political learning, data, model of armed peace and research


And concluding with Philip Hoffman’s article-length shorter version of the argument: Philip Hoffman (2012): Why Was It Europeans Who Conquered the World?:

By the eighteenth century, Europeans dominated the military technology of gunpowder weapons, which had enormous advantages for fighting war at a distance and conquering other parts of the world. Their dominance, however, was surprising, because the technology had originated in China and been used with expertise in Asia and the Middle East. To account for their prowess with gunpowder weapons, historians have often invoked competition, but it cannot explain why they pushed this technology further than anyone else. The answer lies in the peculiar form that military competition took in western Europe: it was a winner take all tournament, and a simple model of the tournament shows why it led European rulers to spend heavily on the gunpowder technology, why the technology was advanced as a result, and why political incentives and military conditions made the rest of Eurasia fall behind.