A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire
In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the Indian Ocean “both was a British lake and it was not,” says Professor Bose, a Harvard historian of Indian descent. To outward appearances, the Indian Ocean rim was dominated by British power emanating from colonial India. But a closer look shows that the old “interregional” relationships persisted under British domination and continue to this day. The powerful culture of India exerted its influence from South Africa to Indonesia, diffused by trade and worker migrations. Simultaneously, the transnational fabric of Islam, spread by merchants traveling by sea, blanketed coasts from Zanzibar to Java. These and other indigenous forces, including the perennial Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah, created a regional unity that outlasted the British Empire. Thus it was not surprising that Mahatma Gandhi’s own conceptions of Indian nationality should have crystallized during the years he spent amid the Indian expatriate community in South Africa, on the western edge of the Indian Ocean. Or that Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore should visit Baghdad in 1932 and, speaking about the Hindu–Muslim conflict in his own country, would call on his hosts to “resend” to India the universalist message of their Prophet, to rescue India from narrow-mindedness and bigotry. In the end, the British era in the Indian Ocean region may have been, as another Indian historian put it, one of “dominance without hegemony”: Fundamentally, the people of the region wrote their own history. Bose conveys this well and with considerable insight. Among other topics, he relates in compelling fashion how Indian Muslim pilgrims managed to make their way to Arabia’s holy places each year under the watchful colonial “policing” of the British. This book is nicely illustrated with historical photos that capture the spirit of the times.