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A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 18, Number 3, September 2007
pp. 377-379 | 10.1353/jwh.2007.0018

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Revealing early on that his title is paraphrased from none other than Fernand Braudel, Sugata Bose alerts his readers that he intends his book to be an epic journey of "human agency, imagination, and action" (p. 4) carried on the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. This body of water's scholarship suffers neglect in comparison to the rich literatures of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific. This was clear from the unfortunate omission of the Indian Ocean from The American Historical Review's otherwise stimulating June 2006 forum on "Oceans of History." Who better than Bose, then—with a title of Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University—to captain Indian Ocean studies back into the conversation with theorists of oceanic world history and globalization? While he does sail into this discussion briefly, and with incisive skill, the author's eyes are fonder of other horizons: those that bound Indian Ocean world historiography, especially as seen from the shores of South Asia. It is here that Bose makes his greatest contributions, in particular by extending early modern understandings of the Indian Ocean into the twentieth century, in exploring cosmopolitan notions of anticolonialism across the region, and through the South Asianist project of deterritorializing Indian nationalism.

One tension that has long beset Indian Ocean studies, like other transnational or world or global historical fields, is the question of balancing the ebb and flow of movement with the power structures that prevent or control it. At a 2002 conference on the Indian Ocean world, South Asian historian Vinay Lal of UCLA commented, in response to many papers about interregional flows and fluidity, that we needed to think more about "constipating" the Indian Ocean world. On the other end of the balance, the dominant view established by leading historians Kenneth McPherson and Michael Pearson is that European global empires sundered or subordinated preexisting Indian Ocean linkages while fusing the region to the world economy. Bose offers a nuanced corrective by borrowing from Ranajit Guha, founder of India's subaltern studies collective, to argue that Europeans merely achieved "dominance without hegemony" in the Indian Ocean: "The peoples of the Indian Ocean made their own history, albeit not without having to contend with economic exploitation and political oppression, and the oceanic space supplied a key venue for articulating different universalisms from the one to which Europe claimed monopoly" (p. 273).

The human agents Bose follows to illustrate his argument are a motley crew: Indian laborers in the oilfields of Bahrain and on the rubber plantations of Malaya; Gujarati merchants in Zanzibar and Tamil financiers in Burma; Indian soldiers deployed overseas in service of the British empire to France, Mesopotamia, and Southeast Asia; "expatriate patriots" such as Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and Subhas Chandra Bose, who marched from Singapore to northeastern India with an army of colonial liberation during World War II; Muslim hajjis who traveled from India to Arabia on spiritual pilgrimage; and finally Rabindranath Tagore, whose peripatetic poetry written while on oceanic voyages made him a pilgrim of another sort, one in search of a "Greater India." This dazzling ensemble provides Bose with just a handful of the "hundred horizons" that represent the varied shared experiences found across the interregional Indian Ocean arena.

Bose argues that the same scholars who sought out a precolonial Indian Ocean world "organic unity" inevitably read its collapse with the coming of European power (p. 20). Bose tells us that we must instead "keep in play an Indian Ocean interregional arena of economic and cultural interaction as an analytical unit while avoiding the pitfalls of assuming any uncomplicated and unsustainable thesis about continuity" (p. 21). The method employed here is to sketch the histories of the "circular migrants" listed above, centering their encounters with the Indian Ocean as the backdrop. However, one can see the challenge in trying to hold these stories together within a single ambitious book. One downside of this inclusive approach is that we do not spend enough time with most of the historical actors to get to know them well (exceptions are perhaps Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Tagore, but then again these are familiar characters). A surprisingly narrow aspect of the...



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