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Book Review


Lakshmi Subramanian, The Sovereign and the Pirate: Ordering Maritime Subjects in India's Western Littoral. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 296. Map and Index.  US$50.00 (cloth).


     The efforts of the East India Company (EIC) to consolidate its rule on the west coast of India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to a rise in piracy in the Northward. This was the name the British gave to a region that "comprised Gujarat, Kathiawad, Cutch [Kachchh], Sind, and extended from time to time, into the Trucial Coast" (2). This piracy, a term that covers various forms of maritime predation, was concentrated in the myriad creeks of the western Kathiawar Peninsula, especially Okhamandel (including Dwarka, Beyt, and Positra), and in Cutch. Responsibility for containing it fell to the Bombay Marine and the EIC's resident at Baroda.

     In The Sovereign and the Pirate, Lakshmi Subramanian assesses the changing meanings of piracy as it was understood by those involved on all sides of the issue. Invoking the work of Laura Benton, Marcus Rediker, and others, she begins by analyzing her subject in the context of the wider study of Atlantic world piracy. Yet having done so, she acknowledges that the Northward pirates were tied "more closely to littoral land based-regimes" (22) than were their Atlantic counterparts. She aptly references the maritime raiders of the Sulu zone twice, but without elaboration. Although she does not set out to write a comparative world history, her argument might have been better served had she considered North African and other Mediterranean corsairs, whose situation at precisely the same time would seem highly relevant to a discussion of the Northward raiders.

     Piracy in the Northward was fueled in part by the dislocation resulting from the EIC's consolidation of power further south, which pushed fugitive mariners into increasingly marginal occupations. Yet Dwarka was also the site of a temple that was "the abode of the cowherd thief-king Krishna" (23). Piracy was a not dishonorable occupation, and its beneficiaries included the temple guardians to whom, among others, tribute was due. The people of Kathiawad were also subject to more or less influence, if not control, by Rajputs and Marathas as well as rival Muslim rulers of Cutch, and coastal people had to deal with a host of "nested" obligations. Subramanian also suggests that, living as they did in a region of limited resources, but from which it was easy to prey on the growing cotton trade, these pirates could be considered as "part of a complex network of redistribution" (238).

     The core of the book centers on the EIC's response to maritime violence in the Northward, and how the people of the Northward viewed themselves. Although the Bombay Marine would have liked to exercise a military option to eliminate piracy and secure restitution for past crimes, they lacked the resources to do so. Alexander Walker, resident of Baroda, charged company agent Sundarjee Shivjee with securing treaties and a renunciation of piracy from local rulers and establishing the primacy of the company's flag and passes. In the course of this work, Shivjee compiled a history of the region that is best known through Walker's writings and interpretation. This "ethnography" of piracy, as Subramanian calls it, offered a more nuanced appreciation of the myriad forces at work in the lives of the Northward pirates than the EIC was accustomed to.

     Together with depositions of captured pirates Kassow Nackwa and Jecho Nackwa taken by James MacMurdo (not McMurdo) in 1813, this ethnography makes the privation of the men involved apparent. The EIC was the least of their problems, and most of the people on whose account pirates sailed, either as traders or pirates, routinely cheated them. As Subramanian notes, "Their repeated allusions to piracy as subsistence could not be entirely dismissed as excuses" (113).

     While the book's thesis is fairly straightforward, its arrangement is somewhat labored, and Subramanian favors excessively long sentences. Much of the clearest and best detail is saved for the end of the book, the opening of which is freighted with theoretical issues that Subramanian seems hesitant to engage fully. The final chapter belatedly discusses the archives on which she draws, which lends a fascinating dimension to the work. Readers' engagement would have benefited from an introduction to these early on, together with some basic information about them, in particular a sense of the extent of Shivjee's and Walker's surviving ethnographic records.

     The book's epilogue is also marred by the wholesale repetition of long extracts from Kassow Nackwa's deposition and the recounting of an episode in which he and confederates boarded a ship disguised as women. These apparent errors are compounded by the source notes having different pagination (180n49, 182n50, 184n51, 234n3, 235n4). Finally, the book's one map includes many place names not mentioned in the text and omits others that are, especially places not in Kathiawad, including Baroda, Cutch, and Bhuj.

     These caveats notwithstanding, The Sovereign and the Pirate is an important contribution to the study of maritime predation, as well as to responses to European colonialism at a critical juncture in its development, and Subramanian's conclusions are sound. The book's narrow temporal and geographic focus and Subramanian's style would probably limit the use of the book in undergraduate world history courses, although extracts could be used to good effect.

Lincoln Paine is a maritime historian. His books include The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (2013).


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