Maritime India: Holden Furber, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800/maritime India in the Seventeenth Century/The Indian Ocean: A History of People and the Sea

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Maritime India: Holden Furber, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800 (1976), 408 pp.; Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century (1994), 294 pp.; Kenneth McPherson, The Indian Ocean: a History of People and the Sea (1993), 397 pp., with an introduction by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Oxford University Press, New Delhi (2004), Rs 850.

Anyone who picks up Maritime India anticipating a wealth of information on the maritime trade, merchants, port cities, and commodities of India will not be disappointed. But this omnibus volume is greater than either its title or the sum of its parts. Its geographical coverage exceeds the confines of even a very broad definition of India and extends to most of the Indian Ocean. More important, the three works included offer an exemplary slice of the historiographical shift that contributed to the growth of Indian Ocean studies in the past three decades. And finally, the introductory essay by the historian of the early modern Indian Ocean, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, expertly outlines the genealogy of these three books and the state of the field today.

Since the 1970s interlocking national, regional, and local histories have gradually displaced the traditional story of 'European expansion' and its concomitant - implicit or explicit - teleological emphasis on the triumph of European imperialism in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. These new histories dissect European commercial and political structures to reveal their fissures, highlight the largely ignored indigenous roles, voices, and themes, and describe indigenous interactions with outsiders as only one part of the overall picture of social, economic, and political dynamics in the region. Holden Furber, the American historian of the British in India, was a precursor, herald, and indeed friend and mentor to many of the scholars who fashioned the new perspective; it is thus fitting that the volume under review should open with this scholar's last published work, a study of European East India companies in Asia from the early seventeenth century to the late eighteenth. Almost two decades later, Sri Lankan historian of the East India companies Sinnappah Arasaratnam devoted his last monograph to the survey of trade and society in seventeenth-century coastal India, and Australian modern historian Kenneth McPherson undertook his ambitious overview of the history of the entire Indian Ocean from earliest times to the twentieth century. While it might be more pleasurable to handle each monograph separately than in this bulky tome, the juxtaposition casts in high relief the historiographical place of each of these surveys, their relationship to one another, and the common themes in the history of the Indian Ocean

Furber's Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient highlights Dutch, English, and French rivalry, but also the conflict within national fronts as well as the roles of smaller European groups and private traders. In relating these Europeans' jostling for position in the arena of Indian Ocean trade, Furber draws a picture of intertwined European and native destinies. He offers a lucid introduction to the concept of 'country trade', on which his earlier studies remain seminal. Contrary to 'Europe trade', country trade describes the embedding of Europeans in regional Indian Ocean trade, and thus inevitably raises the question of the hitherto unexplored role of indigenous economic actors, best summed up by the observation that 'many an Asian trader could do without the European while no European could do without the Asian'. Furber concedes that his vista of Asian life can be only 'the tip of the iceberg'; the Asian perspective, he further posits, may be hard to access due to the paucity of sources.

Second in sequence, Sinnappah Arasaratnam's Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century provides a virtual answer to that very problem. More narrowly focused chronologically on the seventeenth century and geographically on what he defines as the four segments that make up India's long coast (Gujarat, Malabar and Kanara, Coromandel, and Bengal), Arasaratnam's work demonstrates that it is possible to use the available sources - most of them European but also an increasing corpus of relevant indigenous written and material fragments - to expose the nexus between Indian geography, trade and society, and ultimately to invert the portrait of ruthlessly successful European intrusion and dominance. …


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