Sizing Up the “Small Wars” of African Empire

An Assessment of the Context and Legacies of Nineteenth-Century Colonial Warfare

In: Journal of African Military History
William FitzSimons Northwestern University

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This short essay makes the case that the theories and practices employed by European armies during the “small wars” of nineteenth-century imperialism were military innovations produced within the distinctly modern and global context of colonial conquest. Colonial military experiences spurred new tactics and strategies which were captured in treatises written by British and French military theorists at the same time that they transformed the nature of warfare in colonized spaces—often with devastating effects. Military approaches developed in response to these “small wars” have important legacies, both in shaping the contours of military operations within postcolonial Africa and contributing to worldwide “counterinsurgency” theories of the twenty-first century. Understanding the specific historical context in which colonial violence was produced can contribute to a fuller understanding of the meaning, impact and multiple legacies of imperial warfare.

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