Davis on Gooding, 'On the Frontiers of the Indian Ocean World: A History of Lake Tanganyika, c. 1830-1890'

Philip Gooding. On the Frontiers of the Indian Ocean World: A History of Lake Tanganyika, c. 1830-1890. Cambridge Oceanic Histories Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 252 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-00-910074-8.

Reviewed by Chelsea Davis (Missouri State University)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58379

Doing truly “interdisciplinary” history has been historically fraught. Since the early iterations of the Annales school, attempts to create a “total” history and employ methodological frameworks across multiple disciplines have, in practice, often fallen short. Philip Gooding’s On the Frontiers of the Indian Ocean World proves not only that this sort of history can be done but also that it is worth doing. In an incredibly organized and structured analysis, Gooding explores how the environment and peoples surrounding Lake Tanganyika shaped—and were shaped by—historical processes within the Indian Ocean World. By positioning this lacustrine region as a frontier, he connects the East African interior and coastlines to the longue durée of global commercial, political, and social networks in the Indian Ocean World’s historical past.

This work fits well within Cambridge’s broader Oceanic Histories series, which features studies of climate, imperial networks, migrations, political power, and exchanges connected by enormous bodies of water. As a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University’s Indian Ocean World Center, Gooding provides a clear intervention into that broader historiographical field, popularized since the 1980s by those like Gwyn Campbell. Inspired by Fernand Braudel’s pivotal and comprehensive examination of the Mediterranean, Gooding articulates that “the regions around the Indian Ocean World were bound by a ‘deep structure’ which has underpinned historical contexts, continuities, and changes over the longue durée” (p. 3). Moreover, in connecting the histories around Lake Tanganyika to the broader Indian Ocean, he charts encounters tied from one body of water to another. By reconsidering the land-based label of “frontier” to a lake and its surrounding regions, Gooding unites the historical experiences of the interior of East Africa—including its diverse communities and landscapes—with broader global processes.

European-centered histories of Africa suggest that there was a glaring juxtaposition between bustling coastal cities and ports and allegedly “disconnected” spaces of the African interior. Such works only replicate the discourse of European colonizers and undersell the mutually constitutive historical trajectories of coast and interior. Gooding argues that the increased migrations “to, from, and across Lake Tanganyika and East Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral region during the nineteenth century served to enhance the physical connections between the lakeshore and the wider Indian Ocean World” (p. 15). Gooding clearly demonstrates how despite its size, Lake Tanganyika has been somewhat ignored by historians. Lake Tanganyika in this story is not an “unimportant periphery” but rather a “key frontier zone” of the Indian Ocean World (p. 30). Gooding employs an interdisciplinary methodology, engaging with history, anthropology, sociology, archaeology, material culture, and even environmental science. The source base includes European colonial texts, material objects, and oral histories from twenty-seven semi-structured interviews (which were impressively conducted in multiple languages). This array allows Gooding to situate and critique colonial narratives within local historical memory.

The book is structured in two parts (“Demarcations of Space” and “Interactions”), with seven chapters, and an epilogue. Chapter 1 examines “emporium,” the commercial port towns around Lake Tanganyika as crucial sites of commercial and cultural interactions linking the interior to the coast. Chapter 2 argues that climate change is a critical and overlooked historical context for understanding the agricultural revolution and networks of bondage within East Africa. Chapter 3 studies the expansion of the global ivory trade and its impact on the perceptions of Lake Tanganyika (historically and in recent memory). Here, Gooding articulates that local ideas of the lake as “endless” and “like an ocean” made it compatible with broader perceptions of the Indian Ocean World (p. 116). Chapter 4 untangles the relationships between Omanis and Swahilis within the ivory trade in an attempt to clarify the diversity in traders, the agency of local peoples, and the tensions that ensued particularly within the East African interior. Chapter 5 challenges narratives of Africans as victims of asymmetrical trade and offers clear evidence of East African consumption shaping global commodity processes through case studies of glass beads, cotton cloths, and guns. Chapter 6 seeks to better understand East African slavery, suggesting that the “slave versus free” binary is unhelpful for describing the complexity and spectrum of enslavement in this period and region. Chapter 7 demonstrates how local converts (especially Ngwana bondsmen) were the principal drivers of Islam in the Lake Tanganyika frontier and reshaped the practices to fit into local culture, rather than merely copy Islam from the broader Indian Ocean World. The epilogue concludes that the conditions of the Indian Ocean World’s frontiers were “intrinsic to the understandings of its core” (p. 217).

This book is a rare instance of one that works as a whole and in piecemeal. Each chapter offers a clear blueprint of what is to come, outlining subsections and conclusions, which will be appreciated by academics and students alike. I assigned chapter 1 on emporium for my graduate students in historiography, as a useful companion to and more modern take on Braudel, and would confidently assign chapter 5 on beads, cotton, and cloths and chapter 6 on bondage in courses on global commodities, slavery, and African history more broadly. His use of the word “clientage” to describe East African slavery may run into further critique (as new terms often do), but such an intervention will only further propel more complicated histories of African bondage in the future. Gooding consistently prioritizes non-European perspectives over colonial sources, evidenced by the vast amount of work he did to collect interviews and unpack local memories.

In examinations of various cultural, commercial, and political interactions, Gooding successfully repositions the East African lacustrine region as a historical “frontier” of the broader Indian Ocean World, linking coast and interior in a clear and nuanced analysis.

Citation: Chelsea Davis. Review of Gooding, Philip, On the Frontiers of the Indian Ocean World: A History of Lake Tanganyika, c. 1830-1890. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58379

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