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Book Review


Kearney, Milo. The Indian Ocean in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). 160 pp, $26.95.

     Milo Kearney, in The Indian Ocean in World History, has a very attractive thesis to offer. His fundamental argument that binds the volume together is that a major presence in Indian Ocean trade and maritime activities were a necessary precondition – a 'requirement' – for world leadership. In his words, "which land (or lands) has (or have) been in the lead in world wealth, power, and creativity at any particular time has been determined to a significant extent by, or been correlated with, control of or significant participation in the trade of the Indian Ocean." (3) The author further argues that for much of history the western hemisphere lagged behind the eastern hemisphere precisely because the former was distant from the Indian Ocean world. While the importance of the Indian Ocean for the littoral societies around the rim is accepted and obvious, the contribution of Indian Ocean to the rise and fall of European powers, as Kearney claims, is a controversial addition to the scholarship. 1
     In presenting this thesis, Kearney looks at the history of the world through the Indian Ocean lens. He examines five successive patterns of world leadership and demonstrates how the powers involved in these consecutive phases controlled the major reins of the Indian Ocean trade. In Chapter 2, the author brings out the first monopoly of the Indian Ocean trade by the lands on the rim of the ocean. The earliest trading pattern influenced the rise of the Sumerians to prominence and enhanced their inventiveness. This also influenced three other major civilizations, viz. the Indus Valley Civilization, the ancient Chinese civilization of the Xia dynasty, and the Egyptian pharaonic civilization. At the same time, the trade generated in the Indian Ocean also incorporated the Atlantic and Pacific world. In the west, he argues, Iberians rose to prominence as a result of this impetus, while in the East it influenced the great Indonesian migration to the Pacific. This state of affairs continued up to sixth century BCE. 2
     In Chapter 3, Kearney describes the next phase, which ranges from the sixth century BCE to sixth century CE. During this period the Persians and the Greeks dominated the scene. They were then followed by the long tradition of Indo-Roman trade with the Mauryan dynasty at the helm of affairs. During this period the Han Chinese entered the scene and, according to Kearney, China rose to world prominence through participation in the Indian Ocean arena. In Chapter 4, the author describes the period between seventh and eleventh century CE. In this phase a new pattern of Indian Ocean trade emerged with the Arabian World in the lead. At the same time, the T'ang Chinese dynasty entered the Indian Ocean trade. In the next chapter, Kearney argues that between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, both the Chinese (Sung dynasty) and the Mediterranean powers intensified their influence on the Indian Ocean and thereby also enhanced their own power and prestige in world affairs. During this phase the global pattern was warped by two destructive forces that operated in the Old World: the destructive Mongol 'bulldozer' and the catastrophic Black Death. The Mongol invasions, however, facilitated the future linkage of different political units, and the Black Death did away with the impediments that the North Atlantic powers may have encountered from the southern and eastern states. This change in the global pattern, Kearney argues, brought the North Atlantic powers into the global fold, and allowed Western Europe to begin dominating the world through control of the Indian Ocean trade. In Chapters six, seven, and eight, Kearney discusses how the North Atlantic control of the Indian Ocean was initiated by the Portuguese and was continued by the British Raj. After the Second World War, American global hegemony corresponded with American influence in the Indian Ocean. 3
     Although Kearney's core thesis is attractive and holds promise for an alternative ocean basin-based world historical analysis, Kearney himself does little to keep this promise. His initial description of the Indian Ocean World for the first three periods—up to the eleventh century CE—is striking and his recognition of the four points of entry into the Indian Ocean world (Strait of Malacca route; Persian Gulf route; Red Sea route; and, Cape of Good Hope route) is an important generalization as well. However, his central idea of the Indian Ocean as the 'hub of the (global) wheel' gets considerably weakened after 1500 CE. Further, Kearney's account of the modern age is a strained effort to see the developments of the Cold War through the Indian Ocean window. 4
     While Kearney develops his thesis to achieve a 'world perspective' by highlighting the centrality of the Indian Ocean world, ironically most of the volume is devoted to European history. Besides, his recognition of 1500 CE as the watershed mark in world history also comes across as anachronistic, especially in light of the work of Andre Gunder Frank, R. Bin Wong and Janet Abu Lughod. These historians have demonstrated that European influence in the Indian Ocean trade and in Asiatic affairs was not prominent before 1750 CE. Moreover, Kearney's assumption that the participating states in the Indian Ocean trade throughout time have been the ones making prime contributions to world progress and cultural creativity is a polemic one at best. Such an assumption makes for a twisted concept of both progress and creativity. Where should we place the ancient Mayans and Aztecs? Whose yardstick shall we use to measure creativity in the cultures and civilizations far removed in time and space from the Indian Ocean? Finally, Kearney's model, which sees the world powers who participated in and dominated the Indian Ocean trade as 'predestined' to be dominant requires urgent review. By recognizing Indian Ocean as the 'hub of the wheel,' Kearney risks being geographically deterministic and thus his work falls short of being a 'world history approach.' Nevertheless, he does provide an interesting and absorbing platform to look into the global developments of the last five millennia. 5
Amitava Chowdhury
Washington State University

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