What was the human toll?

On the whole, whatever the specific defeats or prolonged resistances, an idea of which is provided by reading the catalog of British colonial conflicts during the Victorian era (see table on this page), the colonial wars produced, for considerable results, few human losses on the European side.

China itself was not able to resist, not in 1840-1842, nor in 1860, nor in 1900. France triumphed in Algeria and in Tonkin, as it did against Samori Touré in the African west. The Russians won in Daghestan despite the fierce resistance of Shamil’s mountain people. After hard combat, the British succeeded in overcoming the Maoris in New Zealand and the Zulus in South Africa. Significant loss of lives occurred only in the war against the Boers, where the British declared more than twenty thousand dead (including many from injuries and/or disease).

Throughout the entire colonial period, Europeans played on ethnic, tribal, or religious divisions and used local back-up troops. The British Indian Army was exemplary in this respect.

The US Army, during its only colonial experience overseas, in the Philippines, regrouped the rural populations (1899-1902) before practicing the techniques they had used in their recent conflicts with native American Indians (1870-1890).

Colonial campaigns were waged, except in very few cases, with great brutality, and there was very little concern over the losses inflicted among the adversaries. The Germans were particularly heavy-handed in their repression in Tanganyika of the (Muslim) Maji Maji rebellion (1905-1906) as they had already been when they nearly exterminated the Hereros (1904-1907) in the southwest of Africa. By 1907, little more than fifteen thousand out of eighty thousand Hereros had survived. General Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the genocide, was summoned back to Berlin.

This brief reminder of the nature and conditions of colonial wars helps to measure just how much, in the past decades, conceptions and perceptions in the West have changed. And, it should be added, only in the West. Gone are extreme repressions, massive massacres in good conscience, and Western public opinion’s relative indifference of what might happen to populations of “color,” or “savages.” The last events of this kind that did not raise widely shared indignation go back, for France, to Sétif (1945) and the repression in Madagascar (1947).


Great figures
of the colonization era

The great figure of the French colonial period is Joseph Gallieni. He began his career as second lieutenant under General Faidherbe’s orders in western Africa until 1888. He was assigned to Madagascar, then to Tonkin. It was there that he experimented with the “pacification” technique under the “ink blot” principle.1 The idea was to expand gradually, starting from the controlled zone, in which significant economic improvements had been made and had been immediately felt.

“It is the combined action of politics and force that must result in the pacification of the country. . . . Political action is by far the most important; it draws its greatest strength from knowledge of the countries and their inhabitants; these are the goals toward which the first efforts of any territorial command must tend.”2

It was necessary, he wrote, “[to] develop as quickly as possible, the electricity-supply network. . . . It is certainly more thanks to roads and telegraphs that a colony is conquered, than to using troops. Money is never more quickly recovered than when it is thrown massively into spending on the first installations. A telegraph line is immediate savings in military manpower.”

From this point of view, however, the French were amazingly shy and parsimonious, especially when compared with the processes used by the English, for whom building telegraph lines was to be done, step by step, along with, if not preceding, penetration. The French, on the contrary, despite the means extensively made available to them by the existing state of science, were still waging colonial wars overall as they had been in the eighteenth century.

“In sum, for all colonial enterprises, like for every industrial enterprise, the first capital outlay must be as large and speedy as possible.”3

No country was to be, on any account, directly administrated. Any organization more or less approaching direct administration would require staff in proportion with the population numbers, which would be impossible to deliver. The basis of the colonial regime was therefore to be a protectorate.

The general idea for the English was that in India, in Burma, “next to each indigenous chief a European agent [was] to be placed for supervision and control. But here, the difficulty [was] to react against the innate tendency among all the French to replace the local chief completely, down to every detail, and to indulge in direct administration.”

Hubert Lyautey, who remained in Morocco for a long time, had been under Gallieni’s orders in Madagascar and regarded himself as the spokesman of the latter’s methods.4 At the time, in the French colonial army, officers were assigned to a given territory for only three years. Lyautey argued for them to settle lastingly in the country where they had gotten projects underway.

“No wonder there are not more officers studying the languages. How encouraging can it be to learn Madagascan if you won’t be using it anymore? Let officers stay assigned to the same colony if they wish to, as other nations are showing us…”5

In Morocco, Lyautey used the “ink blot” technique dear to Gallieni. Economic development was central to his strategy. During World War I, even though he was deprived of two-thirds of his military staff, who had been sent to the front, he preserved “the apparent contour of ground occupation” and waited for the European conflict to be settled, when he would isolate every mountain range with a solid front, marked with advances into the valleys and the blocking of mountain passes (1919). He would leave Morocco after the failure of Abd el-Krim’s great insurrection (1922-1926), which had begun in Spanish Morocco in the Rif region.

From guerrilla warfare to counterinsurgency

The first work on small wars as seen from the counterinsurgency angle was written by the British Major-General Sir Charles E. Callwell.1

Although small wars drew attention in Europe between the events in Spain and, to a lesser extent, in Russia, not much more was written on irregular wars because it was no longer being practiced, except marginally in Poland and Italy. After Sadowa and Sedan, the major military event since the Napoleonian period was the sudden rise of Germany.
Colonial conflicts or wars were often brief operations, though repeated (they were seldom finished in certain areas, usually mountainous ones), and counterinsurgency was a critical part of them.

With small troops, hence few losses, the European powers conquered India and Burma, humiliated China, and after that, occupied Sudan, southern Africa, New Zealand (the British), Algeria, the African west, Madagascar, Vietnam (the French), or central Asia and the Caucasus (the Russians).

Lost battles were rare: Afghanistan (1842), Isandlwana (South Africa, 1879) against the remarkably disciplined Zulus, and Majuba Hill (South Africa, 1881) against the Boers on the British side; Lạng Sơn (Tonkin, 1885) on the French side; Annual (Rif region, Morocco, on the Spanish side, 1922), and finally a war lost by the Italians in Abyssinia in 1896, which Mussolini would claim to avenge in 1935 by using mustard gas. It would be wrong, however, to believe these successful achievements to have been easy and final. Various societies, including those with martial traditions (in India, those of the northwest, which was the route for ground invasions), fought back, sometimes fiercely. This was the case of the Maoris in New Zealand.

For the major colonial power in the Victorian era, examples of these difficulties were recurrent (see box).

British counterinsurgency wars

  • Burmese Wars: 1824-1826; 1852-1853.
  • Wars against the Maoris: 1843-1848; 1860-1861; 1863-1864; 1868-1870.
  • Wars against the Sikhs (northwestern India): 1845-1846; 1848-1850.
  • The Great Mutiny (northern India of North) 1857-5189: mutiny in Bengal 1859-1862.
  • Wars against the Kaffirs (southern Africa): 1850-1852; 1880-1881.
  • Wars against the Basutos (southern Africa): 1851-1852; 1880-1881.
  • Wars against the Ashanti (Gold Coast, Ghana): 1863-1864; 1873-1874; 1893-1894; 1900-1901.
  • Wars against the Afghans: 1839-1842; 1878-1880.
  • War against the Zulus: 1879.
  • Wars against the Matabele (southern Africa): 1893; 1895-1896.
  • Wars against the Boers: 1880-1881; 1899-1902, the latter being a legendary war.
  • Wars in China: 1840-1842; 1856-1860; 1900 (Boxers).
  • Wars against Mahdism (Sudan): 1885; 1896-1898.
  • Conquest of northern Nigeria: 1897-1903.
  • Somalia: extended Mahdi resistance (the “Mad Mullah”): 1898-1920.

Campaigns were led almost yearly in the North West Frontier, and in Swat and Waziristan in the current border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are also many examples for the French penetration—Algeria was one of the most difficult conquests along with Tonkin (northern Vietnam)—or the much lesser known, virtually uninterrupted wars waged by Portugal in Angola.2

The Russians’ imperial expansion was achieved based on territorial continuity as early as the sixteenth century by driving back the Mongolian advance. Later, in the eighteenth century, they had no difficulties in conquering the Kazakh steppes, and their conquest of central Asia (Kokand, Khiva, and Bukhara [1857-1882]) was effortless. Not that of the Caucasus, however, where the nature of the ground, the region’s martial-arts traditions, and the role of Imam Shamil, who was a member of the Naqshbandi order, explain the long resistance sustained for more than a quarter of a century (1834-1859) against the Russian takeover.


The reappearance of guerrilla warfare

The reappearance of guerrilla warfare in modern times stems from the vast armies stirred up by revolutions and empires, which, contrary to mercenary armies, live and are supplied on the field. Napoleon, for instance, to gain in mobility and speed, eliminated the food train, which was slow. Supplies were no longer at the rear but at the front, where the troops’ needs were being provided from the country. But what worked in countries like Austria or northern Italy became problematic in poor countries like Spain or Russia.

Added to the poverty and the absence of surplus was the religious dimension. In Spain, priests played a significant role through their opposition to a revolution considered contrary to Catholic faith, while in Russia the French were regarded as representing the “Antichrist,” to use Tsar Alexander’s expression. The losses caused among the French by the Spanish guerrilla supported from Portugal by the English (Wellington), would be substantial.
In the County of Tyrol, there was the traditional rejection of mountain dwellers protective of their independence.

In Russia, the losses caused by the cold during the final weeks of Napoleon’s retreat were considerable. Added to this were the deaths and casualties of the Battle of Borodino (Moscow, 1812) as well as the many victims of Cossack harassment.1

Theorizing guerrilla warfare

The literature devoted to guerrilla warfare itself—and not to light infantry forces used to badger the enemy—was born in the early nineteenth century. The Frenchman Jean-Frédéric-Auguste Le Mière de Corvey and the German Carl von Clausewitz are among the most remarkable theorists of irregular warfare.2 Here is what the former wrote:

“The goal of a partisan corps is to have at all times an impressive enough force to worry the enemy, to be able to take it everywhere needed to badger the enemy unceasingly, undermine it little by little, prevent its provision of supplies, destroy its convoys, abduct them, take its dispatches, intercept its communications, and surprise all the isolated men one runs into. This war, when well waged, led by a skilled commander, will raise terror among the enemy, who will occupy cities in vain, and as it will need to cross roads to communicate with one another, it will be attacked on the roads; it will have to sustain combat at every gorge; it will no longer dare to let a carriage out without an escort; it will tire out its troops, will not be able to recruit, and will be destroyed, little by little, without any great loss at any one time.”
As for Clausewitz, who as a Prussian patriot took part in the War of 1812 alongside the tsar, he regarded irregular combatants as auxiliary forces to a regular army. Basically, as partisans. Because partisans act on the margins of a regular army with classic irregular-army techniques: mobility, surprise, harassment.3 Guerrilla warfare, born more or less spontaneously through the movement of a social, religious (Vendée uprising in France), or patriotic revolt, can be waged on its own.

On the ground…

This is, generally speaking, what would be met by colonial troops, limited in numbers, frequently at a one-to-ten ratio, fighting in a square formation, with discipline and cohesion, and indisputably more powerful armament than their adversaries’. It should definitely be added that the first enemy, especially in the tropics, was disease, including the fevers. The advent of quinine at the time was of unparalleled help. The tropics were daunting. Wounds degenerated into gangrene and diseases caused three times more victims than combat.
Designed for conventional warfare, European armed forces had to adapt to the ground. It was Bugeaud who, benefiting from his own experience in Spain, imposed as of 1844 a strategy adapted to the conditions, which included making the army train shorter, mobile columns, a network of points of support, and the particular brutality so often adopted in the colonial conflicts.

In Great Britain, Field Marshal Wolseley, one of the most outstanding colonial soldiers, published for the first time a small practical handbook adapted to colonial conflicts: The soldier’s pocket-book for field service (1871). But of course, at war, decisions are wrested on the ground. The British had, in addition to the great Wolseley who was present on every field of battle, Jardine in China, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts in Afghanistan, General Sir Herbert Kitchener in South Africa, while the French, with General Louis Faidherbe and above all, Captain Joseph Gallieni and General Hubert Lyautey, developed a brand new counterinsurgency corps.


Chapter 3 – Colonization and “small wars”

Conventional wars—those seeking battle and ultimately, whatever the tactical approaches, frontal clash until one of the protagonists is defeated—have been rare since the end of World War I.

After the Chinese civil war (1945-1949), the few conventional wars have been: the Korean War (1950-1953), the Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), the Indo-Pakistani wars (1948, 1965, 1971), the Falkland War (1982), even the short Russian-Georgian confrontation (2008), as well as a few battles, the most famous of which is that of Diên Biên Phu (1954). Others were waged, briefly, on the Himalayan heights between Chinese and Indian troops (1962), the Soviets and the Chinese at the Ussuri River (1969), and at the Chinese-Vietnamese border (1979).

Guerrilla warfare, or “small wars,” which in ancient times was never, with one exception, the subject of a treatise, has however not once in world history ceased to be a widely used form of combat: during peasant uprisings; by movements of resistance to foreign invaders, in particular during the constitution of empires (Roman, Ottoman, Napoleonian, and so on); and in civil wars, most often religion-based.1


Importance of the demographic factor

In the range of reasons explaining the changes that we have experienced, how could we not emphasize the demographic dimension? At the end of the nineteenth century, China and the British Indian Empire were, as they had always been, the world’s two most populated areas. The Indian Empire, which included as previously mentioned Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and a few small Himalayan states, was under Great Britain’s dominion. China, which had suffered a military defeat by Japan (1895), had been humiliated for several decades by “unequal treaties” giving free access to its main ports, which were under the jurisdiction of foreign powers. Russia had expanded its borders through territorial continuity by appropriating one million square miles formerly under the Manchu Empire’s rule. Outside of the two demographic giants, one subjected to Europe and the other humiliated by unequal treaties, the demography of Asia and Africa’s countries was very low. The most populated Asian country after China and British India was Japan, with a population of forty-five million at the beginning of the twentieth century, which by beating Russia on sea and on land rose to the rank of industrial power soon-to-be colonial power.

Most populated states in 1900 except China and British India (in millions)

Russia 135
United States 76
Germany 64
Austria – Hungary 46
Japan 45
Great Britain 41
France 39
Indonesia 38

In 1900, six Western countries were among the ten most populated countries (see table). At the time, Brazil had a population of eighteen million and Nigeria seventeen million, that is, together, the population of Italy at that time. The population of the entire continent of Africa was just one hundred ten million. Latin America, seventy-five million. Asia, minus China and India, some two hundred fifty million. Europe, Russia included, and North America bordered on five hundred million. This gives a better measure of the difference between this period and the world we know now. In fact, in their crushing majority, the colonial conquests were of countries with populations of no more than three to five million, often less. The population of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan) in 1920, when it was divided between French and British Mandate less than a century ago, stood under ten million (against seventy-five million today). Just before its fall (1920), the Ottoman Empire, which included the whole of the Arab Levant and the coast of Arabia down to Yemen, ruled over twenty million subjects. Today, Turkey alone has seventy-eight million inhabitants.

Twenty most populated countries in 1950 and their numbers in 2014 (millions)
Source: 2014 Yearbook of the United Nations

1950 2014
China 557 1373
India 368 1250
Soviet Union 180 Russia 144
United States 152 323
Japan 84 127
Indonesia 80 255
Brazil 53 204
Great Britain 51 63
West Germany 50 Germany 82
Italy 47 61
France 42 67
Bangladesh 42 158
Pakistan 40 191
Spain 28 46
Vietnam 28 94
Mexico 27 120
Poland 25 38
Nigeria 23 177
Philippines 21 101
Turkey 21 78

In 2025, or in less than ten years, the world population will have topped eight billion:

  • Africa, credited in 1950 with approximately 230 million, or 9% of the world population, will border on 1.5 billion, or 18% of the world population. A very high share of the population growth will take place in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Asia will go from 1.4 billion (1950), or 55%, to 4.75 billion, or 59%.
  • Latin America will go from 170 million (1950), or 7%, to 690 million, or 8%.
  • The United States and Canada will go from 172 million (1950), or 7%, to 690 million, or 5%.
  • Europe will go from 550 million (1950), or 22%, to 740 million, or 9%. The share of European population will collapse.

Since about fifteen years ago and for about the next fifteen years, the population share of sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing and is set to double. This demographic pressure on a labor market with no prospects is destructive. Despite some encouraging figures, a number of countries, if not the majority of them, will have neither the means, in terms of economic growth, to provide employment, nor the necessary infrastructure to school new generations. Wealth there is highly concentrated at the top, and the middle class, in the majority of these countries, is very narrow. Massive emigration will not be possible. Everything seems to indicate today that sub-Saharan Africa will be in the coming period one of the world’s areas both most unstable and most favorable to the propagation of Islamist ideology, both in West Africa and in East Africa.

Islamism, in the area where Islam was established long ago and has been instrumentalized for decades by Wahhabi preachers or the Muslim Brotherhood, will be the way out for the marginalized. Eastern Africa and the African west will be affected, and what has recently occurred in the Central African Republic (a minority Muslim government oppressing a majority of Christians, leading France to intervene militarily), is just a harbinger. Already, as a consequence of the intervention in Libya, the Sahel is being affected by this drive. This is also the case in the northern periphery of Nigeria, in particular in the Hausa region (Niger and Cameroon). In eastern Africa, Sudan, Kenya, and northern Tanzania, are candidates for increasing Islamic agitation.

As a protest ideology, Islamism has taken over from the Marxist Leninism of former times.
Although in 1900 thirty-three percent of the globe’s population lived in Europe, the United States and Canada, by 2025, at best, this will be a fourteen percent share. The persistent importance of the European-US model is due to the illusion of the United States’ “soft power” and the continued influence of its movie and television industries, and so on, but the blonde, blue-eyed Hollywood star is a rapidly disappearing species.

There is nothing ultimately surprising in the fact that public opinion in western and central Europe, and in the United States and Canada, does not want its soldiers, be they volunteers, to die or to risk dying in theaters that do not seem of vital importance and where victory is anything but certain.

In Europe, a long period of peace, safety, and relative prosperity, and the fact that the continent has essentially depended on US military protection have contributed to a sharp reduction in military budgets when others are building up their fire power, and eagerness to fight has lost its edge.1 This process, particularly in certain countries including France, has been aggravated by excessive assistance of states anxious to prolong social peace as long as possible.

As for the West in general, whatever the dynamism of the United States, it is paradoxically characterized by its recent denial of death and singular reluctance, partly due to the aging of its populations.


First-hand knowledge of the field and the adversary

The British “Indian Army” was made up of volunteers, who when they joined it between 1815 and 1847, were committed to twenty-one years of service. After 1847, commitment to military service was reduced to twelve years. Thereafter, it was further reduced to six years of active duty and six years on reserve.

Indian Army officers were the only ones authorized to go to Great Britain during their active life, and only after having served ten years.

All of this explains that the body of officers were well rooted in an environment that became part of their existence, for which they came to acquire first-hand knowledge of the field and possibly the language, and in any case, of how local society worked, its codes, and how to handle them.

When Lord Kitchener, the first Governor General of Sudan, was replaced in 1899 by General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate (one of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s mentors) who remained in office until 1916, the latter instituted the Sudan Political Service. The administrators of this body were recruited in Great Britain and spent their whole career in Sudan.1

A system such as this, strengthened by the Victorian mindset, explains and provides keys to an era very distant from ours. As indicated by William Carson, a colonel in the US Marines: “We did not wage war in Vietnam for eight years, we waged a one-year war eight times.”2

This era ended with the Indochina War (1954), which had been waged by long-term volunteers who were relatively rooted in the environment in which they fought.

Time and wars of attrition

Time, as a factor, plays today against Westerners, who are in a hurry to end any sort of fighting because of public attention. During the colonial wars, time weighed, on the contrary, in favor of the conquerors. For isolated traditional societies having no external support, a war of attrition was costly. If necessary, their harvests were destroyed and their cattle were decimated. This scorched-earth policy was applied in India by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in Algeria by Thomas Bugeaud, and in the Caucasus (Dagestan) by Aleksey Yermolov.

Faraway public opinion

Public opinion before World War I was not very well informed on these faraway conflicts.3 They were either indifferent, or sometimes proud of the victories when these flattered national pride. As for the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, it was followed with passion (British testimonies by Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and Winston Churchill). It is true that it was a war between “whites.” At the time, hardly any testimonies regarding the adversaries were brought to the attention of the public.

These irregular wars, usually waged by very limited forces, were somewhat scorned by the military or by politicians who were concerned with national competitions in Europe. It would be some time before the considerable sociological changes produced indirectly by these apparently minor conflicts were noticed. Only very recently has some attention been directed to battles formerly considered as “decisive” (John F.C. Fuller). This is why nothing could be found on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which could be rightly said to have been decisive. Nothing, either, on the very important Arab victories at the Battles of Yarmuk (636) and Qadisiyah (637), which would lastingly impose Islam in Syria at the expense of the Roman Byzantine Empire, and in Iran by causing the fall of the Sasanian Empire.4


Factors of success

Qualitative superiority

The conquered peoples, wherever they were, knew little or nothing at all about their invaders. Whence did they draw their superiority? Even societies that had known Europeans before the industrial revolution were surprised by the continent’s leap. In 1683, the Ottomans had besieged Vienna and superiority was theirs. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europeans, whether the Habsburg or the Russian troops, had become qualitatively superior to them. The German army, even before the Battle of Sedan, became the model for the Ottoman army, which included an instructor called Helmut von Moltke. The Europeans’ lead was not just explained by technique or fire power. The Ottoman officers sent to the German war schools were getting only and strictly military training, but nothing of the ideas that prepared Europe’s rise in the nineteenth century.

A divided adversary

The societies confronting the European forces were divided. India was a major example. England, who had overpowered it through Bengal, was progressing in leaps and bounds, taking advantage of the existing divisions. These societies were either declining, as were those in China in the mid-nineteenth century, or had been reined in, as in Muhammad Ali’s Egypt, or were simply backward from the material point of view. The conquering momentum, on the contrary, was encouraging the European nations, who were sure of themselves, competitive, and predatory.

Opposite them, their adversaries, save for a very few exceptions, had neither external support, nor sanctuary.1 And these were two major conditions for guerrilla warfare to endure.


Chapter 2 – The West’s advantage

Despite a few battles lost in Afghanistan, in South Africa, and in Tonkin, Europeans triumphed in all the wars and conflicts they waged in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. What was the basis of the West’s advantage? The importance of weapons superiority cannot, of course, be underestimated. The percussion-cap rifle, which was loaded from the front, was replaced by rifles loading from the breech (1860) and soon by the repeating rifle. In particular, the Gatling gun (1862) was followed by the powerful Maxim machine gun, which demonstrated its dreadful effectiveness against waves of determined attackers, like in Omdurman (Sudan, 1898). Fire was killing massively. In the second part of the nineteenth century if not earlier, European troops, except in the event of a surprise, were out of the reach of missile weapons and even of the type of fire arms being used in most societies. But the colonial wars, considered at the time as minor, were successful far beyond the limited means committed to them. Outside of the weaponry, what were the factors explaining these achievements?


European colonial expansion

When they first entered Asia in the sixteenth century, Europeans encountered civilizations with powerful empires. The small number of Portuguese, for instance, was just enough for them to secure fortified coastal towns like Goa or Malacca, but they would never control the hinterlands. Later, the Dutch would settle in Batavia (Jakarta) but would invade Java only gradually.

This became a completely different story in the nineteenth century, which was the great colonial century. The progress brought about by the industrial revolution, particularly to the military field, would allow Europeans, with very few troops, to win decisive victories over societies that were overwhelmed, unable to understand the source of their adversaries’ superiority. From about 1765 to 1940, colonial wars were asymmetrical in that one of the sides had nearly absolute superiority over militarily and/or intellectually deprived societies. It would take time for the defeated to assimilate the conceptual tools and the means of responding victoriously to the European challenge.

Skirting Africa to invade Asia

Forty years before Christopher Columbus reached the threshold of the New World in 1453, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire disappeared, a thousand years after the fall of Rome. Europe, taken over as far as the Danube by the Ottomans (in the fourteenth century), was seeing the scope of its trade relations shrink. The future Pope Pius II wrote at the time, deploring the fall of Constantinople: “What have we just lost, exactly? Undoubtedly, the sovereign city, the capital of the Eastern Empire… Alas, Christian religion, you who have formerly experienced such extension, how can you restrict yourself thus and weaken? You have lost one of your eyes.”1

With the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean, Anatolia, and the Balkans in Muslim hands, the Indian Ocean had been the great trade route for centuries. Now, in the mid-fifteenth century, it was out of the reach of the Catholic world. It was the Muslims’ prerogative from the coasts of Eastern Africa to the Maluku Islands. Beyond, the Indian Chola Dynasty thalassocracy ruled it for a while, and the Chinese fleet sailed on it for their long journeys to the coasts of Africa.

The westernmost part of Europe and what remained of central Europe, under Habsburg rule, seemed quite isolated. How could Europeans gain access to the spices they so coveted when the essence of trade was in Muslim hands? This was when the Portuguese, spearheaded by Henry the Navigator, sailed beyond the Cape Verde islands and ended up crossing the Cape of Good Hope (1478). Soon, thanks to the services of a Muslim pilot, Vasco da Gama landed in India (1498). Christopher Columbus, a Genoan sponsored by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, reached the West Indies and the American continent in 1492. In 1519, the same year in which Cortés invaded Mexico, the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived in Brazil. In 1522, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition succeeded in its circumnavigation of the Earth, an unprecedented achievement.

It was high time for Europeans to break their land-side isolation. In 1529, the Ottomans besieged Vienna.2 Not only did this break their isolation, but the papacy divided the world, a world unknown to it, between the Spaniards and the Portuguese!3 The latter occupied a series of fortified towns in Asia, from Goa to Macau, but their low numbers and lack of cavalry prevented them from occupying the hinterlands.

Europe’s colonial—and exploratory—expansion proceeded in several stages. That of the Portuguese, who set up trading posts around Africa: Guinea, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Goa and Diu, and, beyond, Malacca (1511). On the American continent, the huge area of Brazil (1519) would be preserved in one piece once it was taken over. On the Spanish side, expansion was reduced in Asia to the Philippines (1564) but was considerable on the American continent: from California to the south of Chile and Argentina, and two viceroyalties, in Mexico and in Peru. This would be a lasting conquest on the American continent for the Spaniards and the Portuguese. Most of the New World speaks Spanish or Portuguese and practices Catholicism. At the very end of the fifteenth century, the naval forces were boosted by a series of innovations. The last of the galleys would be seen in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

It was in the early seventeenth century that the Portuguese would be supplanted in Southeast Asia by the Dutch (Batavia, 1619), in turn later unseated by the English. The latter landed in Calcutta in 1690 with their East India Company and soon went on to conquer the hinterlands. Contrary to all the land-borne invaders who in the course of history had swarmed in from the northwest, they unexpectedly arrived by sea from the northeast. They would benefit from the decline of the Mughal Empire, the country’s divisions, and their weapons superiority. In India, they clashed with the French, but Great Britain provided better support, and they would take over Bengal and the eastern coast despite General Joseph-François Dupleix’s efforts. In 1763, France signed the Treaty of Paris, recognizing its defeat in India and in Canada.

In Europe, Great Britain started the industrial revolution alone. This enabled it to take precedence over its competitors and establish its maritime and commercial hegemony at the expense of Holland and France. In 1788, it opened the first penitentiary on Australian territory, starting a process of occupation of the island continent. Shortly after the Napoleonian wars, it dominated a large part of India up to Delhi by playing on local divisions, using force against the Maratha Empire, and leaving potentates in power when they were cooperative. With Singapore (1819) and Malacca (1824) it established its control over the Indian Ocean. On route to India, it pushed the Dutch colonists, who had settled in the Cape since 1640, to the north (the Great Trek, 1836-1840), and to the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

After its repression of the “Indian Rebellion,” a mutiny led by the mostly Muslim Sepoys (1857), Great Britain took direct charge of the administration of the Indies, thus contributing to the country’s unity. As of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Indies, which at the time comprised India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka and a few small Himalayan states, were held by some seventy thousand Britons. A dense railway network connected the country and English became the language of the elites.

While a few Western European nations were taking over the world by the seas, including France in India and in North America, starting in 1556 Russia, under Ivan the Terrible, pushed back the Mongolian Khanates with its guns and began its advance to the Pacific in territorial continuity: Tomsk (1604), Irkutsk (1652), and Nerchinsk (1656).

After having secured its domination over the Kazakh steppes (eighteenth century), Russia pressed on toward the provinces of the Rivers Amur (1858) and Ussuri (1860). The conquest of Turkestan was achieved without difficulty: Samarkand (1868) then Khiva (1875). This was not the case in northern Caucasus, where Imam Shamil’s resistance in the mountains of Dagestan and of neighboring Chechnya lasted more than twenty years (1834-1859).
Great Britain, once it had secured its domination in India, forced the government of Beijing to accept importing opium. As the Chinese expressed reservations about this, Great Britain declared war on China (1840-1842). Hong Kong was occupied, and other ports, including Shanghai, would be opened. Unequitable treaties were signed shortly after a new Chinese defeat following the capture of Beijing by the British and the French (1860). The Taiping revolt was crushed (1864). The Russians occupied one million square miles of the Manchu Empire and founded Vladivostok (1875). France, after its difficult conquest of Algeria (1830-1847), undertook that of Vietnam and Cambodia, and came to dominate the Indochinese peninsula (1862-1885).

Except for a few buffer states, like Siam, Afghanistan, and Tibet, Asia was colonized or semi-colonized, like China and even Persia, while after 1878, the Ottoman Empire, insolvent, only survived because Great Britain did not want to have Russia occupying the straits.

Only Japan escaped the “white peril” at a time when the “yellow peril” was being raised as a threat. When in 1853, Americans and Europeans were demanding that Japan open its ports, Emperor Meiji (1866-1912), supported by two samurai clans, overturned the Tokugawa shogunate (1868) and decided to Europeanize Japan to help it resist against foreign dominion. This included modernizing the army, which allowed Japan to defeat China in 1895.
To Asians’ amazement, the war between Russia and Japan over Manchuria was won by Japan (1904-1905), and on top of that Japan won a battle against the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait (1905). Korea soon became a Japanese colony (1910).

This victory of an Asian country that had forced itself to learn from the European school had important repercussions in Asia, although no other nation seemed able at the time to follow the Japanese example.

The conquest of Africa and the role of Islam

The fate of Africa was sealed in 1884 at the Berlin Conference.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the hinterlands of which had been recently explored by Barth, Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke, Faidherbe, and others, was divided up among the European powers.

Except for Morocco and Libya, North Africa had already been overrun.4 Algeria and Tunisia by France, Egypt by Great Britain (1882).5 Muhammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt and an exceptional modernizer, had gained control of Syria and the holy places of Islam. While he was hoping to take power in Constantinople, he was summoned by the Europeans, with England at their head, to give up his ambitions or be evicted from Egypt. The Suez Canal became the shortest road to the Indies.

What is important to point out is that by that time Islam had been present for a long time in sub-Saharan Africa through conquests (Morocco) and trade (Tombouctou, Agadez, Ghadamis), not only in a very large part of the west, but also in the east of Africa, from the coasts of the Horn of Africa to Zanzibar and beyond, as far as Kilwa (present-day Tanzania). Swahili (close to Arabic) was, and still is the vernacular language of eastern Africa.

Besides, at the end of the eighteenth century, that is, a century before the European colonial period in Africa, Islam was on the move. There was the dynamic influence of Qadiriyya Sufism (born in Baghdad in the twelfth century) brought over from Egypt, predominant among the Fula of Sokoto (present-day Nigeria), and of the more populist Sufi order Tijaniyyah (founded in the nineteenth century), not to mention Wahhabi rigorism, also among the Fula and disseminated all over the African west: in Futa Djallon, Massina, Futa Tooro and in Hausa country, as well as among the Toucouleur people, and others.

At the margins of trade, which played a very important part in the Indian Ocean with Zanzibar as its epicenter (role of the Oman Sultanate and the Muslim Indian tradesmen), it should also be recalled that resistance to European penetration was very often led by Muslim movements.6  It was Samori Ture who for a large part of the African west took on the title of Almami, commander of the believers, and attacked African “infidels” such as the Mandinka.7 It was Usman dan Fodio, a Fula, who established the Sokoto Sultanate, in the west of present-day Nigeria, not far from the border of Niger, and proclaimed a Jihad in 1804, before proclaiming himself Caliph (1810). The area that he dominated was larger than seven hundred fifty miles from east to west and included part of German Cameroon. Today, Boko Haram claims it as a model.

There was also, of course, resistance from the animists, who were millenarian movements in southern Africa (the Ndebele against the Shona, 1896-1897), and there were revolts, like that of the Herero people in the southwest of Africa, which were very fiercely repressed by the Germans (1904-1907). Overall, however, most resistance movements were Islamic, like that of the Maji Maji (1905-1906) in German Tanganyika and more particularly the Mahdist movements in Sudan, initially directed against the Egyptian Khedive and the Ulama before rising against the English in Darfur. The Mahdists were decimated at the Battle of Omdurman (in 1898, by General Sir Herbert Kitchener). The “Mad Mullah,” as the British called him, then took up the torch in Somalia, where the revolt lasted a quarter of a century.

The last major armed migration

Between the sixteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, colonial wars were the vector of the last major armed migration known to the world since the Mongolians’ blitz expansions of the thirteenth century and that of Arab Islam from the Atlantic Ocean to the stairways to India and Turkestan. This European expansion, achieved with relatively few forces, would endure on the American continent and take Europe all the way to Vladivostok, while the British were also taking over Australia and New Zealand. Between the end of the eighteenth century and World War I, the whole of Asia was colonized or semi-colonized, and Africa, with a few rare exceptions, was entirely occupied.

The colonizing troops’ weapons superiority was an important factor of success, but as previously mentioned, this is not enough to explain the Europeans’ (or US) victories. There was also troop discipline and cohesion, and their officers’ knowledge. Above all, there was the fact that the adversaries, after the industrial revolution and its consequences, had very poor knowledge of their attackers (only the Boers in South Africa knew their British adversary well).

At the turn of the twentieth century, Great Britain ruled over five hundred million subjects, or thirty percent of the planet’s population, and about one-fourth of the globe’s surface area. Russia controlled about ten million square miles. The whole of Africa and Asia, except for Japan, was under direct or indirect European domination.

During the nineteenth century, the share of Europeans in the world population doubled with nearly sixty million Europeans having emigrated, mostly to the American continent. In 1900, Europe, with its population of four hundred thirty million, was responsible for sixty percent of world production (the United States for thirty percent). With the increase in industrial production and the development of communications, the tonnage of merchant marines, with steam having replaced sails, had doubled just before 1914 while worldwide, the railway network had quintupled. The Trans-Siberian Railway reached Vladivostok in 1902.

A new form of globalization was in action. Europe (Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy) was the matrix of scientific innovation. Ideas born in Europe were disseminated, including that of modern nationalism (the nation state was born in France in 1792), carrying with them the seeds of the death of territorial empires. Fire power became greater during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and in Europe with the Battles of Sadowa (1866) and Sedan (1870), making mass warfare particularly deadly, as would be brutally discovered in 1914. Meanwhile, the machine gun, invented in the second half of the nineteenth century, became the major instrument of colonial conquests.

Great Britain had imposed itself as the colonial power par excellence, followed by France and Russia. The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and somewhat later Italy also become colonial powers, albeit more modest ones. This avalanche of success in the second part of the nineteenth century brought about the coining of the term “social Darwinism,” or survival of the fittest, apparently the “whites,” whose civilization was considered superior. Actually, the modernity expressed through the consequences of the industrial revolution was not the exclusive prerogative of the “white race,” as shown at the time by the example of Japan.

For a long time voluntarily isolated, the United States, once their hinterland was conquered, wished to push Europe out of the Western hemisphere (opposition to the French in Mexico under Napoleon III). In 1898, the United States evicted Spain from the Caribbean and even from the Philippines, which would be their only colony until 1945. The Panama Canal (1903) belonged only to the United States, while Alaska had been purchased from Russia (1867). In fact, the Western hemisphere was under US hegemony. Whatever their economic and financial power, the United States, whose population bordered on eighty million, had taken only a marginal part in Europe’s encroachments all over the world (China, intervention in Beijing in 1900).

The whole of Africa was occupied except for Liberia, where former African American slaves had set themselves up as masters. Colonialism and semi-colonialism reigned both in Asia and in Africa. It was a golden age for the rich, while the many revolts were being crushed.

Asymmetric-warfare models

The conquest of Mexico

The conquest of Mexico (February 1519 – August 1521) is a model of asymmetric warfare. The correlation of forces seemed overwhelmingly in favor of the Aztecs. At no point in the eighteen months of conquest were there ever more than two thousand Spaniards in Mexico, whereas their adversaries were likely in the hundreds of thousands.

Hernán Cortés landed with eleven ships, about a hundred sailors, five hundred and eight soldiers, sixteen horses, and fourteen artillery pieces. He had left Cuba in a hurry despite the opposition of the island’s governor, and some of his troops were partisans of the latter. From the start, he avoided rousing antagonism among the coastal populations. After a few contacts, some of which were lethal, he was fortunate to find a Spaniard who had survived a shipwreck several years earlier and spoke the language of the Indians of the coast. This man became all the more invaluable that the young Indian who had served as a sort of interpreter had deserted the Spaniards and advised the Indians to attack them.

Like all conquerors, the Spaniards came as predators, but also as subjects of their sovereign king and as proselytes of the Christian faith symbolized by the pope. They were sure they were in the right, and their incentive was to find gold, glory, and honors.

Thanks to Cortés’s diplomatic skills, relations with some of the indigenous communities were cordial and, as a token of peace, the Spaniards were given a score of Indian slaves. One of these, Malintzin (later christened Marina), would play a key role in the conquest.

The singular arrival of these intruders from the sea intrigued and worried the Aztec sovereign Moctezuma II, who dispatched emissaries to learn more about them.

Four worlds had preceded that in which the Aztecs lived, and each had been destroyed by a cataclysm. The fifth, like the preceding ones, was condemned to disappear at a date that had already been set. According to the Aztec calendar, the Spaniards had arrived in the year ce Acatl, or “1 Reed,” the same year in which the god Quetzalcoatl had been born and the year when he had later disappeared. A disconcerting coincidence, which had in fact been heralded by disastrous omens. Were these men come-from-the sea actually gods?
Moctezuma’s emissaries—who communicated thanks to the shipwrecked Spaniard and Malintzin, who, an Aztec herself, spoke Nahuatl—were vividly impressed by the strangers’ appearance, their weapons and their horses—animals unknown to them—and the sound and the effect of the cannon, a demonstration of which they were given. They were both confused and dismayed.

The foreigners expressed their desire to meet with the Aztec sovereign; the request would be repeated several times, and each time, Moctezuma would evade it and try to dissuade those come-from-the-sea from meeting with him in Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City.
Malintzin, Cortés’s interpreter and lover (she would bear him a son, whom he would recognize as his), quickly learned Spanish, and gradually, thanks to her, Cortés and his companions would discover the Aztecs’ thinking, and conception of the world, whereas the Aztecs would learn virtually nothing about the Spaniards except that they were mortal and liked gold.

In the first days of August 1519, the ships were dismasted to prevent the governor’s partisans from going back to Cuba and to make it clear that there was no other option than to forge ahead. The Spaniards began marching toward Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. In six months, they lost forty-five men, mostly to disease or gangrene.

As they went forward, after winning a few armed clashes, the Spaniards realized that the Indian peoples under the Aztec yoke were suffering badly from Aztec tyranny. The Tlaxcaltecs, for instance, were forced to deliver hostages for a sacrificial holocaust in which their blood would nourish the sun. In the mid-twentieth century, Jacques Soustelle would write that out of death, the Aztecs generated life.1 And this came with a toll.

In his march toward the empire’s capital, Cortés had three hundred and sixty men and sixteen horses (he had left a garrison in Villa Rica de la Santa Cruz, a coastal city built by the conquistadors). The Spaniards emerged unscathed from an ambush in Cholula, within sight of the capital. Moctezuma received them with honors and in fear. Built on a marsh in the middle of a lake, the imposing city could only be entered by three roads that could be easily blocked. To make sure they would be safe, Cortés made the bold move of going first to Moctezuma with a small party, which through Malintzin, made the sovereign understand that he was to follow them to reside in their quarters. Moctezuma protested, but in vain. He was forced to yield to their demand, and the Spaniards were able to secure their way, albeit precariously.

The news then came that nearly a thousand men had landed on the coast, sent by the governor of Cuba to capture Cortés and his soldiers. (This was the expedition that brought smallpox onto the continent, and the epidemic would decimate the Indian populations.) Cortés rode out to meet them and managed, with a combination of diplomacy and coercion, to neutralize them and bring them around by luring them with the promise of the spoils of the conquest. The last week of August 1520, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan with thirteen hundred soldiers and ninety-six horses. He found the city plunged into a bloodbath. The Spaniards who had remained there were facing a general uprising. Soon Moctezuma, who was seeking to parley with his people, was killed by a stone projectile. The Spaniards who were besieged in the city had no other choice but to escape, which they attempted to do on the night of June 30. This was the “noche triste” (sad night), when the Spanish lost half of their troops, three-fourths of their horses and all of their cannons. Cortés, his lieutenants, and Malintzin were safe.

The Spaniards had one last, very unfavorable battle to wage, but they managed to kill the chief of the Indian forces, which then had to give up fighting. Those who escaped took refuge among the Tlaxcaltecs.

The Aztecs were in the habit of fighting violent but short battles with few casualties, as their goal was not to kill but to take prisoners who would be used for human sacrifice. Their weapons were made of obsidian, so were very sharp but fragile. For the Spaniards, wars were quite a different story. No one was spared on the battlefield; the point was to destroy and crush the enemy, no compromise possible. War to the death it was; you either conquered or you died. On the Indian side, only the first rank fought and there was little discipline. The Spanish, on their side, led surprise attacks, fought by night, and used terror. Above all, their horses gave them impact power previously unknown to the Indians. Once they are struck at the top, highly vertical societies such as the Aztecs’—or the Incas’ in Peru—go to shambles.

Beaten but not defeated, Cortés prepared a second campaign. He had thirteen brigantines built, about fifteen meters long, with sails and oars and a twenty-five-to-thirty-man capacity. The vessels were carried in parts by their Tlaxcaltec allies then assembled and shipped along a canal a little more than a mile long and thirteen feet wide. This was aimed to establish a naval blockade, and on the ground, the Spaniards advanced on foot or on horse along the three entry roads.

The Spanish forces were made up of some nine hundred men, including ninety horsemen and one hundred and twenty harquebusiers and crossbowmen, plus thirty large artillery pieces and fifteen small ones. Sixty-two Spanish soldiers were sacrificed on the pyramids. In all, of the Spanish forces disembarked in Mexico between 1519 and 1521, sixty percent died either from disease or in combat. Indian losses were considerable but difficult to quantify. Probably more than a hundred thousand. After a three-month siege, thousands of Tlaxcaltec warriors joined in the combat. The city’s freshwater aqueduct was destroyed. The blockade was meant to starve the city, which was also being devastated by smallpox. After the new monarch was captured, the Aztecs surrendered.

The asymmetry inherent to the conquest of Mexico was also found in that, more complex, of Peru.

The conquest of Peru

When Francisco Pizarro landed on the coast of Peru in 1532, it was his third expedition and he hoped that this would be the one to succeed. He was about fifty years old, the age of a veteran. With him, he had less than a hundred and sixty men, including sixty-two horsemen. The Spaniards climbing the Andes were unaware that they were lucky to intervene when a civil war was raging. The two sons of the Inca had been disputing the empire. One of them, Atahualpa, had just won; he knew about the Spaniards and of their small numbers.

The Spaniards’ arrival in Peru, like in Mexico, is said to have been preceded by omens of disaster. Most of all, the god Viracocha was supposed to have announced the end of the Inca world and the destruction of the empire under the rule of the twelfth Inca, and the eleventh sovereign was the father of Atahualpa and his brother.

These omens and predictions may have also been invented ex post facto to explain the cataclysm …

On November 16, 1532, the Spaniards, after having climbed the Andes, found themselves in the town of Cajamarca, where they designed one of the most daring ambushes in history. They would soon capture the Inca alive when he was standing in the middle of the town plaza surrounded by his warriors. Indeed, the day before, a small party of Spanish horsemen with an interpreter had invited the Inca to meet in peace, to exchange words and presents. The Spaniards had been waiting all night in a state of extreme tension.

The Cajamarca plaza lent itself to the plan. Three of its sides were flanked with low buildings that had many exits onto the plaza. The first two sheltered horses and riders. The third was occupied by Pizarro and some of his infantrymen.

On the fourth side of the plaza stood a tower where four small pieces of artillery were dissimulated, along with ten harquebuses and the rest of the infantrymen. All firing and attacks were to wait for Pizarro’s orders.

The Inca, carried in a palanquin and surrounded by dignitaries and warriors, entered the plaza where Pizarro, the priest of the expedition, and a young Indian interpreter stood. The priest spoke and was probably trying to communicate the message of the Bible that he held in his hand. The Inca asked for the book, opened it, put it up to his ear in vain, shook it, and disdainfully threw it on the ground.

At that moment, Pizarro gave the agreed-upon signal, and the Spaniards charged on horseback after two cannons had ravaged the tight formations. The Indians’ surprise turned to panic. While they were trying to flee, Pizarro and two dozen battle-hardened infantrymen attempted to seize the Inca. They turned over his litter and killed his escort. Pizarro commanded that the Inca not be struck, while the horsemen chased those who were fleeing and massacred them.

The plaza was now strewn with nothing but dead bodies. The Indians’ rout was complete. Those fleeing did not stop to try to gather and fight back.

In just one blow and without knowing it yet, this handful of Spaniards had just overthrown an empire divided by a civil war, the victor of which they held at their mercy.

The Spaniards counted themselves and not one had been killed. How could they not believe that the grace of God had helped them to triumph? Later, when the Incas reorganized, they would seek to be done with the Spaniards. It would be too late. None of the uprisings would succeed.

The wars of conquest of the American continent in the first part of the sixteenth century were, without the slightest of doubts, models of asymmetrical wars. They show a clash of civilizations where the major weakness of the defeated lies in their worldviews, which are about the spirit. While the Aztecs were fearing the end of the world, they were facing conquerors sure of their faith and of their sovereign’s grandeur. The God of the Christians, contrary to the gods of the Aztecs, could not be defeated, even if Spanish troops might be. The Spaniards’ world did not carry concern for the future, contrary to that of the Aztecs, who saw an omen of disaster in the arrival “come from afar.”

Added to this are the two previously mentioned major facts: the Spaniards, thanks to their interpreters (particularly Malintzin), knew what their adversaries were thinking while the latter would learn practically nothing about the Spaniards if not that they were mortal and that they liked gold. Moreover, the very concept of warfare was completely different on either side: mostly ritualized warfare for the Aztecs (the point was to take prisoners), and warfare that spared no one for the Spaniards. In Peru, Pizarro had learned the lessons of the conquest of Mexico: you need to seize the emperor, whose fall will precipitate that of a highly centralized pyramidal society. Later, when Westerners would attack other, less elaborate indigenous societies that did not have at their head a quasi-deified sovereign, resistance would be longer.


Chapter 1 – Wars of conquest

Why did Europe—particularly since 1757, when the British began their conquest of India at the Battle of Plassey—and also the United States in their brief 1898-1901 foray into the Philippines, ultimately win all colonial wars for nearly two centuries, despite a few lost battles?

We could simply say that they had better weapons. This would be a suitable answer if the West had lost its material superiority since then, which is far from being the case.
In the colonial or postcolonial context, wars are asymmetric, a conflict between the strong and the weak. They are irregular wars, involving guerrilla warfare and/or terrorism, in contrast with conventional wars, which are waged between two opponents who have agreed to fight a frontal battle, agreed to clash, theoretically with substantially equal forces.

For Europeans, the first colonial-type war—even if it was not in its time perceived as such—was Spain’s conquest of Mexico, which preceded all the others, from the conquest of Peru to those in Asia and in Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and through to the mid-twentieth century.