X-Post: Review Deshpande on Alpers “The Indian Ocean in World History”

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Edward A. Alpers. The Indian Ocean in World History.  New Oxford
World History Series. Oxford  Oxford University Press, 2013.
Illustrations, maps. 172 pp.  $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-533787-7;
$44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-516593-7.

Reviewed by Anirudh Deshpande
Published on H-Asia (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Deshpande on Alpers

The place of the Indian Ocean in world history is unique because it
has been a crossroads for three continents of the Old World and the
region of Polynesia and Australia beyond the fluid maritime frontiers
of Asia. The Indian Ocean world was "discovered" and made
cosmopolitan by the African and Asian societies inhabiting its rim
centuries before the Portuguese caravels entered the Arabian Sea only
to be guided to the Malabar coast by Arab pilots. The book under
review provides a refreshed perspective on the total history of the
Indian Ocean region in the current context characterized by the rise
of China and India as the new powers set once again to influence this
maritime palimpsest. I dare say Fernand Braudel would have relished
this tightly written narrative.

In the preface, the series' editors, Bonnie G. Smith and Anand Yang,
inform us that the New Oxford World History series "offers readers an
informed, lively, and up-to-date history of the world and its people
that represents a significant change from the 'old' world history,"
which, it may correctly be presumed was history without people and
their ideas. Further, the preface espouses the cause of dialectical
history by asserting "that there is much to be gained by considering
both the separate and interrelated stories of different societies and
cultures" (p. ix). These historical stories, we are informed, present
"local histories in a global context" and contain "an overview of
world events seen through the eyes of ordinary people" (p. x). So far
the preface is fine. These well-intentioned prefatory assertions are
based on the shaky assumption that interest in world history is
growing in the time of globalization. I wish to point out that
interest in foreign lands, cuisine, lifestyle, and culture conveyed
by the omnipresent media these days is not the same thing as interest
in world history, for often globalization promotes bourgeois tourism
at the expense of meaningful national or local histories. The real
workers who make globalization happen, and can be seen in large
numbers in the book under review, are usually made invisible by the
media narratives of globalization.

In contrast to the superficial world history that crams the brain of
the so-called postmodern media addict, Edward A. Alpers has written
an astonishing volume that distills knowledge accumulated about the
Indian Ocean over centuries in about 146 pages rich in information
and analysis. Scholars of the Indian Ocean know that Alpers is no
stranger to their subject of choice. His vast professional
experience, love of the subject, erudition, powers of analyzing large
amounts of data and presenting them in succinct generalizations, and
ability to transcend time and space within which most history is
conceived are demonstrated in this delightful book. This slim volume
deserves a substantial review compared with numerous fat ones, which,
though they come with undeserving blurbs, might be dispatched in a
sentence or two.

As an Indian historian who has traveled a little in Egypt, Arabia,
the Gulf, and Southeast Asia, I found only one noteworthy blemish in
the book. In chapter 2, which deals with the Indian Ocean in the
ancient world and the Hellenic influence on the Arabian Sea region,
Alpers states that Chandragupta Maurya established the Gupta Empire
and Emperor Ashoka ruled for sixty years (p. 30). In fact,
Chandragupta established the Mauryan Empire and his grandson Ashoka
ruled for thirty-seven years (269-232 BCE).

The book comprises six thematic chapters followed by a chronology,
which all Indian Ocean scholars will find useful. There are also
sections on further reading and websites consulted by the author and
recommended to the readers. The acknowledgments and index come at the
end. The whole text is peppered with maps, reproductions of
paintings, and photographs; without references to visual evidence no
history in general is complete. The visual evidence illustrating
various facets of the Indian Ocean history has been selected by the
author with great dexterity. This stringing together of visual
evidence can, with a little effort, be perceived as a parallel
narrative of knowledge and discourse that have characterized the
human history of the Indian Ocean since the times of classical
antiquity.

Chapter 1 is about imagining the Indian Ocean, chapter 2 looks at the
Indian Ocean in the ancient world, chapter 3 tells us how the Indian
Ocean became an Islamic sea during the medieval period, chapter 4
focuses on transformations in and challenges to the Indian Ocean in
the early modern period, and chapter 5 is a well-crafted discourse on
the nineteenth century during which a great amount of change in the
Indian Ocean world was compressed in a century dominated by Western
colonialism. It was a century in which "Great Britain's colonial
enterprise in the Indian Ocean had wrought a whole range of serious
consequences that affected millions of inhabitants of the entire
region" (p. 126). Among these consequences were the widespread and
long-term migrations of the Hadrami people whose history is well
known to the historians of the Indian Ocean diaspora. This history
continued uninterrupted during the colonial period. Much work has
also been done on the Indian indentured laborers and the continuous
movement of the ubiquitous _lascars_ who manned the sailing and steam
ships; all this finds mention in the volume. And, of course, Alpers
points to the thousands of deaths due to the spread of fatal diseases
like cholera. The last chapter is focused on the twentieth century
and brings the modern social and cultural story of the Indian Ocean
region up to the events with which most readers will be familiar.
This it does by milking the rich diasporic history of the Indian
Ocean, which has generated variegated sites of public and personal
memories indispensable to the modern social historian. The dialectic
of continuity and change expressed in the documented and remembered
experiences of men and women--the central problematic of all history,
memory, and historiography--informs this book from the beginning to
the end. Finally, the book ends by reminding us that the Indian
Ocean, despite the long-term stability of its geographical location,
"is today more than ever a major world crossroads" (p. 146).

There are two aspects of this book worth noting and that make it
exemplary of the historians' craft fashioned since the ancient times.
The first is an imagination of the Indian Ocean, at whose center lies
India, brought to the reader through the prose and poetry of ancient,
medieval and modern voyagers, historians, and even ship pilots like
Ibn Majid. This imagination produces a blend of the romantic and
real--a hallmark of human memory in general. The history of ideas and
goods, the author convinces readers, happens in one history that can
be grasped only by following the dialectical method. The evocative
description of the sailing ship as "an essentially male floating
society" which facilitated an exchange of goods and ideas comes from
this imagination (p. 11). Throughout the book, Alpers displays an
awareness of "the enormity of attempting to gain both physical and
imaginative control of this vast oceanic world" (p. 4). Alpers proves
it to us that before we write the history of any subject we must know
how our predecessors have imagined it with respect to time and space.
The following words echo his own struggle with a subject in which he
finds himself implicated: "Whether they were insiders or outsiders,
each of these early writers struggled with the challenge of conveying
the vastness and complexity of the Indian Ocean world. This was
inevitable, considering the many different societies that were a part
of the region's history. More significant, each cannot escape the
ties that bind him to the place from which he viewed the India Ocean
world" (p. 5).

The second aspect comprises the centrality of exchange, of goods and
ideas together, which has created a unique hybrid cosmopolitan Indian
Ocean world, which can be perceived in the evolution of the Indian
Ocean societies and their technologies. From shipbuilding technology
and its products like the _dhow_,_ prahus_, and _junks_ to the trade
in and migration of grains, fruits, vegetables, exotic animals, and
cattle, almost everything is underlined by modes of coastal and
oceanic exchange promoted since ancient times by the intrepid
inhabitants of the Indian Ocean region. The book is a description of
these people and simultaneously an ode to them because their memories
are built into the popular interdisciplinary nature of the author's
narrative. However, this does not mean that the dangers posed to the
trade of the Indian Ocean region are overlooked by Alpers. All is not
hunky dory. The historical and geographical threat posed to traders,
pilgrims, and travelers, like piracy and the vagaries of nature,
described in detail in the author's sources and personal experience
have found their way into the text. The Red Sea and Malacca were, and
continue to be, notorious maritime sites of piracy. The volume also
underscores an important point that goes against understanding the
Indian Ocean world from a Eurocentric "Orientalist" perspective
despite the rise of European colonialism in the nineteenth century
having followed the political decline of Islam.

The history of the Indian Ocean world has been marked by several
continuities and changes since time immemorial, but since the days
when the water bodies of this geographical area first entered a
narrativized human imagination, numerous local traditions, of which
the communities living on the Indian Ocean rim are the custodians,
have displayed a remarkable resilience documented in this
easy-to-read jargon-free volume. This distillation of historical
knowledge of the Indian Ocean world is most welcome in our academic
"corporate" world where both teachers and students are not left with
enough leisure to read large volumes.

Citation: Anirudh Deshpande. Review of Alpers, Edward A., _The Indian
Ocean in World History_. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2015.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43277

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