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  • How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850
  • Meha Priyadarshini
How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500-1850. Edited by Giorgio Riello and Tirthankar Roy. Leiden: Brill, 2009. 490 pp. $188.00 (cloth).

The nineteenth-century watercolor on the front cover of this volume depicts a scene in Southern India that reveals local factors responsible for the global reach of Indian textiles. It shows a cloth merchant seated in his shop selling chintz to a customer. The two men are gesturing to one another, possibly haggling over the price. Global supplies of these textiles depended on such personal negotiations between various intermediaries of the trade network. The variety of textiles seen in the background is a testament to the skill of the craftsmen who were able to cater to markets across the world. Given the scale and at times the unpredictable nature of the trade, an overarching model of the "world" of South Asian textiles is not possible. Rather the best approach is to study it from several different perspectives, as is done in this volume.

Editors Giorgio Riello and Tirthankar Roy state that the goal of the book is to study the Indian Ocean region and Indian textiles using the conceptual framework of global history. They aim to connect these textiles to cultures and economies beyond the Indian Ocean and to relate them to current global economic theories. They begin with acknowledging the importance of world-systems theory because it eschewed a division of the world according to territorial states for one that focused on the unequal exchanges between regions. While the essayists of this volume do not conceptualize the Indian Ocean as a system, they do see the world as a web of "intersecting paths along which commodities, materials, and specie flow" (p. 15).

The second theory addressed by this volume is that of the great divergence, most recently expanded upon by Kenneth Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, 2000). Pomeranz proposes that Europe's surge ahead of Asia is best understood by studying global historical contingencies rather than focusing on ideas of European exceptionalism or Asian backwardness. [End Page 860] These scholars follow Pomeranz in arguing that the rise and decline of Indian textiles is best understood through a global approach that takes into account historical contingencies beyond the Indian Ocean region. However, they do not see Europe's eventual takeover of the textile industry as "great" or "late."

The book is divided into three sections, each with five essays: "Regions of Exchange," "Regions of Production," and "Regions of Change." The first deals with the trade of Indian textiles and cotton to Southeast Asia, Africa, and China. The second focuses on the various regions of India that produced cotton textiles, namely Gujarat, southern India, and Bengal. The final section is on European consumption of Indian textiles and the resultant changes in Europe and the Indian Ocean region.

Anthony Reid's opening essay provides a trajectory of Indian cotton cloth consumption in Southeast Asia from its position of strength in the early seventeenth century to its decline in the later part of the century and its eventual replacement by British cloth in the nineteenth century. Pedro Machado, in the second essay, argues against the marginalization of East African consumers of Indian cloth. He claims that consumer tastes in East Africa dictated the kinds of textiles that were brought to these markets, and that Gujarati merchants had an advantage over Europeans due to their access to a network of middlemen on both the supply and demand sides of the ocean. He shows that the narrative of decline of Indian textiles and native merchants in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries needs to be amended to include markets that continued to demand Indian cloth and Indian merchants who met this demand.

In his essay, Joseph Inikori shows the nexus between the import of Indian cloth into West Africa and the Atlantic slave trade. As items of exchange for slaves, Indian textiles replaced locally produced cloth, thus disrupting a thriving trade network that existed prior to the arrival of the Europeans...