MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire

By Alpers, Edward A. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire


Alpers, Edward A., The Middle East Journal


MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, by Sugata Bose. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2006. xiv + 282 pages. Notes to p. 313. Index to p. 333. $27.95.

Reviewed by Edward A. Alpers

Sugata Bose is the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University. In this innovative and engagingly written volume, he seeks to reconstruct the history of the Indian Ocean during an era when historians of the Indian Ocean agree this oceanic region lost its historical inner coherence as Great Britain progressively turned it into a "British lake."

Chronologically, Bose covers the period from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century, while also glancing back to the early modern period and ahead to the contemporary, post-colonial world. The author draws upon a wide range of archival sources, secondary historical works, and indigenous literary works to bridge the gap between a broad narrative without individual agency and the unique experiences and perspectives of specific historical actors. He does this by presenting what he calls "a series of nonlinear narratives" so that "[t]he weaving of broad patterns of interregional networks is matched in each chapter by the unraveling of individual tales of proconsuls and pirates, capitalists and laborers, soldiers and sailors, patriots and expatriates, pilgrims and poets" (p. 23).

The book is divided into seven chapters and a conclusion, beginning with an outstanding essay on "Space and Time on the Indian Ocean Rim," which theoretically largely reprises an earlier, important contribution by the author.1 His main contribution here is his definition of the Indian Ocean as "an interregional arena" that is "tied together by webs of economic and cultural relationships" (p. 6). He identifies three main themes by which he frames this period of global empire in the Indian Ocean. These are "the role of colonialism in restructuring and redefining ideologies of sovereignty" (p. 23), "the relationship of Asian intermediary capital and migrant labor with the broad structures of colonial and paracolonial capitalism" (p. 26), and "the role of extraterritorial identity and universalist aspiration among the people of the Indian Ocean arena in the age of global empire" (p. 31).

Chapter 2 draws an important distinction between pre-colonial and colonial empires and sets the stage for the remaining chapters, which treat, in turn: capitalists, laborers, and commodities; soldiers and soldiering; what he calls "expatriate patriots" and anti-colonial activities; hajj pilgrims and the impact of colonial domination on the conduct of the hajj; and an exploration of the universalist imaginings of the Nobel laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore during two Indian Ocean "cultural explorations" (p. 234) in 1927 and 1932. Bose concludes with a summary overview of "The Indian Ocean Arena in the History of GIobalization" and his hopes for "a new cosmopolitanism in a postcolonial setting" (p. 282).

Taken on its own terms, in this study Professor Bose succeeds admirably in achieving what he set out to accomplish. However, his conceptualization of the Indian Ocean is highly Indocentric. To be sure, there is no getting around the fact that, as Michael Pearson has noted, "in many important matters India [South Asia] was the fulcrum around which all other areas swung. …

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