Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Edward A. Alpers. 2009. East Africa and the Indian Ocean

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Edward A. Alpers. 2009. East Africa and the Indian Ocean

Article excerpt

Edward A. Alpers. 2009. East Africa and the Indian Ocean. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers. 242 pp.

Edward A. Alpers' collected volume serves two purposes. First, it examines the significance of the Indian Ocean for eastern Africa. Second, it acts as a survey of the historian's four decade career. While the material presented here is all previously published, its compilation into a single collection serves both of these purposes well. Alpers discussion of history is one grounded in place, literally and figuratively. Much like a geographic study, Alpers is consistently concerned with the uniqueness and contexts of the places about which he writes. More figuratively, his attempts to place East African history in a larger Indian Ocean history serve to reveal important patterns of influence that have shaped this region.

The volume is split into three sections, defined by geographic extent, each consisting of three chapters. The first of these sections focuses on the western Indian Ocean. This is the broadest geographic scale Alpers covers; this serves the book's opening well as these chapters contextualize the larger region for the more specific writings to come. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on early trade networks in the region. Chapter 1 discusses the role(s) of Hindu merchants from the Gujarat region in the ivory trade. This discussion crosses three centuries beginning with sixteenth century, covering a period of competition and conflict between and across Portuguese and Arab trade routes. This is the widest timescale Alpers writes of, his focus becoming increasingly more narrow through the later chapters. Chapter 2 reproduces one of the least read items in the volume--a conference paper discussing trade in foodstuffs across the western Indian Ocean. This topic is notable, as Alpers himself points out it has been underdeveloped and often neglected in historical literature on the region. Chapter 3 takes a different approach, presenting the islands of the region as a focus and arguing they should be the driving point of study, opposed to the more common focus on continental locations in the region.

In contrast with Chapter 3, the second section acquiesces to larger scholarly emphases and focuses specifically on coastal East Africa. Despite this contradiction, the section segues well from the previous one, leading readers through a discussion of what is broadly conceived of as the Swahili coast. …

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