A HUNDRED HORIZONS: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire

Article excerpt

A HUNDRED HORIZONS The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire Sugata Bose Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 333pp, US$27.95 doth (ISBN 978-0674021570)

For those who have a penchant for pondering the past on grand scales, these are exciting times. Over the last decade, there has been a spate of books by historians and historically minded social scientists on expansive periods that encompass significant portions-if not the entirety-of the world. Taken as a whole, these exhibit a multiplicity of approaches and marshal a wonderful array of motifs in their quest to elucidate the past on the largest of canvases and to help us understand how the world came to be as it is today.

A Hundred Horizons may be thought of as an exemplar of the latest wave of what are nowadays often termed global histories. This is Sugata Bose's first book-length foray into this field. He comes to it from a background in the social and economic history of modern south Asia. Its imprint is clearly visible in his conception of the Indian Ocean. Another major influence is Bose's current academic milieu. He is based at Harvard, where he is the Gardiner professor of oceanic history and affairs. But, more importantly, Harvard is also home to Bernard Bailyn who, in the mid1990s, was among the first to contextualize the then-burgeoning field of "Atlantic history," a field of which he is considered one of the principal standard-bearers. It is then no surprise that there is strong resonance between the work being done by Atlantic Ocean historians-especially at Harvard-and in the timing of A Hundred Horizons, its approach, and the themes that it explores.

The main focus of this work is purportedly the Indian Ocean in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Bose argues that, for the modern period, this "ocean was-and, in many ways, continues to be-characterized by specialized flows of capital and labour, skills and services, ideas and culture." Furthermore, the Indian Ocean is of "continuing relevance...as an interregional space in a time of intense global interconnections" (3). These arguments stem from Bose's key historical claim and, potentially, his most important contribution to the historiography. He has set himself the task of upending the commonplace view that "the organic unity of the Indian Ocean rim...was ruptured with the establishment of European political and economic domination by the latter half of the eighteenth century" (7).

Bose knows that, by embarking on such a monumental project, he runs the risk of being ensnared in a conceptual and methodological quagmire. He tries to avoid this fate in two ways. First, he embraces a fairly recent coinage among historians, namely, interregionalism. Though his analysis operates on multiple physical scales-local, national, regional, interregional, and global-it is interregionalism that ends up bearing most of the explanatory burden. For his purposes, this space "lies somewhere between the generalities of a 'world system' and the specificities of particular regions" (6). Second, he invokes the metaphor of horizons and, by extension, flags his intention to use in his study rhetorical devices more often associated with literature. It is imperative for a work of this type to find a way of resolving the analytical tension between a relatively well-defined Indian Ocean as a physical or geographical space, and the fluidity of the Indian Ocean as a sociocultural entity. As Bose sees it, the answer lies in harnessing the rhetorical power of literary devices, and the stories of individuals that can thus be told through them, to the traditional analytical toolkit of historians. "In exploring Indian Ocean history in all its richness," he insists, "we have to imagine a hundred horizons, not one, of many hues and colors" (4).

After setting out his approach in an instructive, balanced, and fairly detailed introduction, there follow six substantive chapters in which three main themes are examined. …