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Book Review


Bose, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2006), 333 pp, $27.95.

     As Kären Wigen explains in "Oceans of History," while maritime regions have typically been slighted by stubbornly continental and area-studies-driven conceptions of geography, "across the discipline, the sea is swinging into view." Indeed, "no longer outside time, the sea is being given a history, even as the history of the world is being retold from the perspective of the sea" (American Historical Review, June 2006, Vol. 113, No. 3). Despite these advances, however, this burgeoning field confronts even the most intrepid scholar with a daunting array of unresolved methodological puzzles. In particular, skeptical observers have questioned how responsible scholars are to move between, connect, and balance the competing narratives of local, national, regional, imperial, oceanic, and global frames without succumbing to "the high degree of abstraction," which tends to obscure real people, ignores their historical agency, and has unfortunately been all too characteristic of many recent attempts at global, oceanic, and comparative histories. (22-23)

     Thus, it is with a healthy dose of methodological skepticism that Sugata Bose enters into the intellectual arenas of oceanic and global history with his latest book, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (2006). Drawing upon the now classic seascape template provided by Fernand Braudel's investigations of the Mediterranean basin and the well-established, if sometimes underappreciated, contributions to Indian Ocean research undertaken by such scholars as K.N. Chaudhuri, Ashin Dasgupta, Kenneth McPherson, M.N. Pearson, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Bose offers bold new perspectives which redefine both the "spatial boundaries" and "temporal thresholds" of Indian Ocean history during the age of European imperialism and anti-colonial nationalism. However, Bose is not satisfied with merely addressing Indian Ocean historiography. He also bravely tackles the history of globalization in the hopes that it can eventually be pried "from the clutches of social scientists and journalists," who have tended to falsely characterize it as "a contemporary development about a quarter century old" (276). In doing so, Bose articulates a new plane of analysis between national and regional histories and the history of globalization.

     Like a "seascape artist," patiently painting "in broad strokes," dipping his brush into "the sources of many archives," in order to reveal the contours of a "more textured and complex" canvas, Bose subtly redefines the Indian Ocean as an "interregional arena." Bose situates this concept "somewhere between the generalities of a 'world system' and the specificities of particular regions." Bose contends that lingering colonial boundaries still "obstruct the study of comparisons and links across regions." Moreover, colonial influences have also shaped the "regional entities known today as the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, which underpin the rubric of area studies in the Western academy." As a result, this system has tended to "arbitrarily project certain legacies of colonial power onto the domain of knowledge in the post-colonial era." (5-7)

     Bose is similarly suspicious of macro-perspectives such as Immanuel Wallerstein's world-systems theory, which while overcoming some of the limitations of area-studies regions, "have tended to view an omnipotent West as the main locus of historical initiative and are too diffuse to take adequate account of the rich and complex interregional arenas of economic, political, and cultural relationships." He laments that such approaches have also contributed to the widely-held assumption that as the globalizing capitalist system spread beyond Europe, by the latter half of the eighteenth century the unity of Indian Ocean basin was "ruptured" by the "establishment of European political and economic domination." (7) Thus, "Indian Ocean historians, so adept at defying the constraints of arbitrary spatial boundaries imposed by conventional area studies, have been by and large remarkably diffident about crossing the great temporal divide of the eighteenth century." (20) In fact, whether one consults the works of K.N. Chaudhuri or those of M.N. Pearson, or whether the Indian Ocean's demise is recorded as occurring in 1750 or 1800, seemingly all Indian Ocean historians agree that by the end of the eighteenth century roughly a millennium of cultural, economic, environmental, and religious integration had been torn asunder and reoriented under European, particularly British, domination. As a result of this consensus, most historians have abandoned the modern Indian Ocean as a unit of analysis, leaving the region's scholarship stunted and unnecessarily confined to investigations of the premodern and early modern periods.

     In response to these lacunae, Bose sets out to illustrate "the relevance and resilience of the Indian Ocean space in modern times." (272) Though he acknowledges the West's economic and political supremacy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Bose reminds us of Ranajit Guha's famous subaltern maxim, "dominance without hegemony." In other words, despite the impact of imperial domination and economic globalization, he contends that: "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 a monopoly." (273) In order to recover these alternative narratives, Bose advises that rather than continuing to follow "the longitudinal axis that linked metropolitan Britain and colonial India," we must turn our attention to the often fragmentary, but equally important, "latitudinal connections" between India and the rest of the Indian Ocean basin. (23-24)

     From roughly 1850 to 1950, Bose artfully explores these "latitudinal connections" through "a series of non-linear narratives." These cross-cutting stories carefully balance the "broad patterns or interregional networks" against "individual tales of proconsuls and pirates, capitalists and laborers, soldiers and sailors, patriots and expatriates, pilgrims and poets." (23) While Chapter 1 outlines the methodological framework, it is in Chapter 2, "The Gulf between Precolonial and Colonial Empires," where Bose begins to display the masterful storytelling that makes this book so special. Bose sets sail with Lord Curzon, listening in on the viceroy of India's 1903 journey to the Persian Gulf, in order to convey a sense of colonialism's role in violently restructuring states and frontiers and redefining the meaning of sovereignty. Bose juxtaposes the loosely constructed, layered concepts of shared sovereignty common among the precolonial states of the Indian Ocean basin with more rigid notions of unitary sovereignty imported from Europe. Bose also traces the expansion of a system of false sovereignty, invested in traditional rulers in post-1857 India, and subsequently extended to the paracolonial sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf's so-called Pirate Coast.

     In Chapter 3, "Flows of Capitalists, Laborers, and Commodities," Bose sketches both the points of contact and divergence between the global and interregional roles of India's migrant labor and intermediary capitalists during the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries. With case studies covering the role of Indian finance in the pearl economy of the Persian Gulf, its engagement with the cloves economy of Zanzibar, its deployment of credit to Burmese peasants for rice cultivation, and its extension of loans to migrant laborers on the rubber plantations of Malaya, Bose demonstrates how South Asian networks of intermediary capital could operate within the Indian Ocean with a degree of independence from European capital, though not necessarily in direct conflict with it. Again, he shows that while most histories of economic globalization have tended to concentrate on the role of European and American capitalists, in reality, there was no shortage of Asian capitalists "with supralocal, if not global, ambitions." (73)

     In the second half of the book, Bose turns to "the role of extraterritorial identity and universalist aspiration among the people of the Indian Ocean arena," whose "dreams and goals were never fully constrained by the territorial frontiers of colonial states." Bose demonstrates how nationalism and universalism, rather than acting as opposing forces, were in fact joined in a kind of symbiotic relationship. By doing so, he also shows how anticolonial ideologies were simultaneously "tethered by the idea of homeland while strengthened by extraterritorial affiliations." (31)

     In Chapter 4, "Waging War for King and Country," Bose traces the divided loyalties of Indian soldiers swept up by the events of World Wars I and II. Piecing together censored war-time letters of Indian subalterns, depositions in courts-martial, and various kinds of memoirs, Bose "explores the interplay among loyalties to empire, religion, and nation" in order to better understand the "simultaneous pulls of universalism and nationalism." (32) In Chapter 5, "Expatriate Patriots: Anticolonial Imagination and Action," Bose expands on these themes, taking what might otherwise be considered unoriginal stories about the opposing strands of patriotism exhibited by Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Army's leader Subhas Chandra Bose, and artfully reorganizing them under the single rubric of diasporic or expatriate patriotism. Here, Bose explores how Indian expatriates tended to "discover their Indian-ness after leaving the shores of India." Thus, he challenges us to explore "mobile," as opposed to more territorially "rooted," aspects of India's anticolonial politics by looking at how migrant communities in South Africa and Southeast Asia, "[fighting] for the freedom of their distant imaginary homeland," helped to shape and define Indian nationality. (33, 149-150)

     It is in Chapters 6 and 7, however, where Bose saves the best for last. In these two beautifully written, deeply evocative, and refreshingly original chapters, Bose describes how the articulation and pursuit of alternative visions of universalism, whether religious or cultural, were also crucial outlets for the expression of anticolonial sentiments. In Chapter 6, "Pilgrims' Progress under Colonial Rules," Bose points out that Islam, particularly the rituals of the hajj, had been a key integrative element in the overarching unity to the Indian Ocean during the premodern and early modern periods. By reading the accounts of the hajjis against the colonial archive, Bose documents how despite having to run a gauntlet of deprivations, diseases, scams, and a myriad of colonial political and sanitary surveillance measures, the flow of pilgrims continued unabated during the colonial era. For South Asians lamenting both India's and the rest of the Islamic world's (particularly the Ottoman sultan-caliph's) loss of temporal sovereignty in the face of Western imperialism, the very act of performing the hajj became a crucial anticolonial activity, a symbolic reminder of Allah's divine sovereignty. He also reminds us that it is precisely this alternative brand of Pan-Islamic sovereignty that provides the impetus for the Khalifat Movement of 1919, which was, after all, the first mass nationalist movement to span all of India.

      In Chapter 7, "A Different Universalism?: Oceanic Voyages of Poet as Pilgrim," Bose follows a different sort of pilgrimage by tracing the oceanic journeys of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Although his Bengali contemporaries referred to him as biswakabi (global poet), Bose points out that in the twilight of his life, Tagore "also imagined the Indian Ocean interregional arena to be a common milieu invested with a distinctive unity of poetry and culture." Tagore described his travels as intellectual quest, a search for the "cultural contours" of a "Greater India." This quest would take him across the Bay of Bengal to Malaya and Java, chasing different Southeast Asian adaptations of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. However, it was his pilgrimage to Iran to which Tagore attached the greatest importance, "emphasizing how an exploration of the historic unity of Indo-Persian culture had given new meaning to "the evening of his life." Visiting the tombs of the Persia's greatest poets, Hafiz and Saadi, Tagore sought to trace "the lineaments of universal brotherhood of Sufi poets bridging the Arabian Sea." (233-235) As in the case of the hajj, Bose's use of Tagore's Indian Ocean journeys deftly establishes a sense of deeply-rooted cultural and religious affinities and continuities reconnecting the premodern, early modern, and colonial eras, proving that regardless of whether or not the economic and political unity of the Indian Ocean was disturbed by European intervention and the forces of globalization, the religious and cultural bonds of this interregional arena retained their distinctiveness. Thus, Bose concludes that European modernity did not have a monopoly on universal aspirations or the terms of globalization, nor were local, regional, and national cultures merely "the jealous guardians of their own distinctiveness." As it turns out, they too "wished to participate and contribute to larger arenas of cultural exchange." (268-270)

     While some will undoubtedly accuse Bose of having chosen an overly ambitious project, or perhaps they will criticize his choice to make this book accessible to a wider audience than the normal collection of national or regional specialists, I have found it exceedingly difficult to do this truly original book justice. While this review offers a glimpse of the Bose's ideas, it was virtually impossible to summarize the layered strands of argumentation contained within the pages of this work. Simply put, this is a masterfully crafted piece of writing, filled with the kind of interesting stories and contemporary relevance needed to hold the attention of students and non-historians alike. Thus, it should prove a useful addition to upper-division undergraduate courses in either South Asian or world history. For students interested in world history, particularly at the graduate level, however, this book is a must-read. Its cautious message concerning the dangers of ignoring local, national, and regional narratives at the expense of global abstractions, will teach world history students how to contend with the complexities of globalization, while avoiding the excesses of their predecessors.


Michael Christopher Low
Georgia State University


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