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Book Review


Edward A. Alpers, The Indian Ocean in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x+146. Chronology, Bibliography, Further Reading, Websites, and Acknowledgements. $19.95 (paper).


     Since the 1990s, world history scholarship has focused on the Indian Ocean, partially to balance the emphasis on the Atlantic World and partially to challenge Eurocentric theories. With this book, Edward Alpers provides a concise, succinct, and easy-to-read textbook on Indian Ocean history from approximately 5000 BCE-present. This book is a must read for all world historians and teachers of world history at all levels, as well as anyone interested in commodities, migration, and trade networks.

     Some readers might be frustrated by Alpers' unorthodox approach; there is little background to the big empires in this book and the focus is put squarely on the Indian Ocean itself. But this is one of his major contributions. It provides a model to help instructors break out of their terrestrial frames of reference and his work highlights the shifts in power and settlement in the Indian Ocean and its littoral over the course of 7,000 years. The book gives the feeling of reading a series of stories rather than a regional textbook. He returns to specific themes in each chapter—migration, piracy, commodities, and technological change—that make it easy for the reader to understand change over time. His illustrations complement his text and the maps are truly valuable to any history teacher.

     Alpers divided this book into six chapters. The last five are chronological and the first helps situate the reader geographically and historiographically. He also describes the technologies in use in this period, in this case, a description of the many different types of boats that characterize this region.(11-18).

     The rest of the book moves chronologically from ancient to modern. In Chapter 2, The Ancient Indian Ocean, he sets the stage for later chapters and covers a staggering period of 5000 BCE-6th century CE. Using the terrestrial empires as reference points, Alpers constructs the trading world of the Indian Ocean showing how the networks grew, expanded, collapsed, and reformed as power fluctuated and new goods became commodities.

     Chapter 3, Becoming an Islamic Sea, traces the growth of Muslim merchant networks throughout the system and the increased contact between different religious constituencies including Buddhists and Hindus. He argues that the foundation of a trading port at Melaka combined with the Ming Chinese expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century to stabilize and ensure the success of all traders and merchants in the Indian Ocean and to provide the one important item that was so scarce in the region, security. (62-65)

     In Chapter 4, Intrusions and Transitions in the Early Modern Period, he expands on the tensions between security and stability as he traces the upheaval and opportunities experienced in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. This and the next chapter are his strongest. He discusses the political and economic participants in the Indian Ocean without privileging either land-based empires or European powers. Alpers situates the Portuguese, Ottomans, Dutch, and British, and their frustrations within the context of their rivalries, but notes that these rivalries opened new paths for new merchants including Chinese, Indians, and Armenians. He connects the economic changes and new trade paths through the Indian Ocean to social change and migration.

     He continues this discussion of social and economic change in Chapter 5, The Long Nineteenth Century. In this chapter, he highlights the changing global economic balance of power as the Industrial Revolution and rising wealth in Europe increased demand for Indian Ocean commodities while also developing the technologies used for extraction and transport of these goods including steamships, and the Suez Canal (112-114). He focuses on the British Empire, but acknowledges that others, like the Omani Empire expanded in this period as well (107). As in earlier chapters he discusses social mobility. He highlights the migration of people, both free (Indian merchants, Chinese workers, and Hadrami religious officials) and unfree across the region. He moves beyond the traditional narrative of African enslavement to include discussions of slave raids across the region impacting individuals from Madagascar to the Philippines (107-111, 115-124).

     The final chapter, The Last Century, is the weakest. He argues that nationalism restricted the trade of the Indian Ocean and oil changed the balance of power within the region. (128-135) The resurgence of piracy and the expansion of terrestrial disputes to the sea, for instance in the South China Sea, has further fragmented the area's utility as a trading zone, while the frequency of environmental disasters, volcanoes, earthquakes, and typhoons, combined with the ease of transportation made other areas more attractive (139-142).

     Alpers ends the book asking "Considering the millennia of Indian Ocean history, how do its people and their governments remember the connected pasts?" (143) To this, he answers that there are many heritage sites and commemorations, most notably of the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's Treasure Fleet, along with literature and family memory of homelands (144). He reminds his readers that the Indian Ocean was a dynamic region and a global crossroads. (146).

     Although this is an excellent book and one that all instructors should own, the book does have drawbacks. His discussions of piracy are very two-dimensional, despite a vibrant debate on it in the historical literature. Beyond this, Alpers is beholden to the existing historiography. Where his narrative is thin or when it jumps quickly between topics has more to do with a lack of secondary literature than any fault of his writing or research. The twentieth century chapter is weak because he fails to connect his themes fully, particularly during the early part of the century. He ignores events like WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, Indian Independence, and the breakdown of British imperial control, which caused massive economic and social disruption to the region. Rice shortages caused widespread starvation in the twentieth century during these years, while independence movements helped stimulate return migration, between Zanzibar and Oman for instance following Tanzania's independence in 1964.

     Despite these drawbacks, this book is a strong contribution to the literature that is short, sophisticated, and well written. It highlights important connections that teachers can use with their students and provides an immensely useful chronology and bibliography at the end.

Victoria Penziner Hightower is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Georgia—Dahlonega. She is a Middle East Historian and her research focuses on the pearl trade into the Persian Gulf. She can be reached at


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