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Book Review


Heather Streets-Salter, World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anticolonialism in an Era of Global Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xi + 236. Bibliography and Index. $29.99 (paper).


     Since the centennial of the First World War, there has been a proliferation of scholarly conferences, edited volumes, and monographs about the conflict and its legacies. Among the most important contributions to the field of world history is the recently published World War One in Southeast Asia. Streets-Salter contends that historians have yet to capture the global reach of the First World War beyond the frontlines of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Her case study of Southeast Asia demonstrates the significance of the Great War to remote places far from the trenches, as well as the importance of colonialism and empire to this global conflict. Her latest book builds on her earlier collaborative work with Trevor Getz, Empires and Colonies in World History, which remains one of the few surveys that underscores the centrality of European imperialism in modern world history.  In staging the war within the Southeast Asian region in her newest book, Streets-Salter provides rich and nuanced stories of the intersection of local, regional, and global narratives, as well as the ways empires and colonies were shaped by the contest between Allied and Central powers. 

     The book makes two significant methodological interventions to world history. First, Streets-Salter encourages a rethinking of empires as a "global phenomenon" by revealing a narrative in which the colony-metropole relationship was not central to the story of Southeast Asia. Rather, she argues that modern empires were "porous, interconnected, and frequently disrupted by transnational or global forces" (7). In this case, the Central Powers and anticolonial forces collaborated in order to destabilize British authority in the region. Equally important, the British repression of rebellion and anti-allied schemes in Southeast Asia necessitated military, diplomatic, and intelligence collaboration with their wartime allies like France, Russia, and Japan. Second, Streets-Salter asserts that historians can and must tell large-scale world histories that are documented with archival and empirical sources. So often, the grand metanarratives of world history depend on theory rather than historical evidence. Streets-Salter advances our understanding of world history during the turbulent moment of the First World War with a close reading of archival sources in English, French, and Dutch.

     This well-written book is structured around chapters that capture wartime alliances and rivalries as they played out in several locations: Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Siam, and China. The final chapter on China underscores its importance as a site for wartime contests and as a base for anti-Allied efforts orchestrated by the central powers in French Indochina and British Malaya. At the same time, this is not simply a story of European powers and their interventions in Southeast Asia on behalf of their wartime agenda. Other actors, notably the Indian soldiers and anticolonial revolutionaries, have a significant role to play in the central power's strategies to overthrow or destabilize imperialism by collaborating with Germans and Ottomans. Indeed, a central theme is the collaboration of German, Ottoman, and Indian anticolonial revolutionaries as they used Southeast Asia as a base to launch mutinies and carry out plots to incite rebellion across the empire. In other instances, Indian soldiers remained loyal to the empire and served British imperial efforts to subdue rebellion and resistance. Finally, Streets-Salter considers the perspective of local inhabitants, civilian and military, who were forced to confront the implications of global war as it played out in Southeast Asian communities. Although she contends with a scarcity of sources from locals, Streets-Salter is able to demonstrate the significance of the global conflict on Southeast Asian inhabitants as many were forced to take positions on the war that impacted their everyday lives.

     Writing histories of this kind poses significant challenges for a world historian. Not only does the author need to command several languages—Streets-Salter covers Dutch, French, and English—but also the historiographical fields of the various empires, nations, and colonies covered in the work. Moreover, archives have been constructed around the official views, ideas, and imperatives of the colonial state. Tracing the networks of ideas, propaganda, resources, and agents that defied colonial surveillance and official record remain elusive tasks for the historian. This is perhaps the book's greatest contribution. She delivers a book that captures as much as possible the covert networks and seditious ideas that challenged colonialism in Southeast Asia and beyond by reading against the grain of colonial sources and locating the voices and agency of locals and subalterns in the region. That said, this book prompts us to consider the dearth of archival sources beyond the colonial archive that might reveal the perspectives of the locals in their vernacular languages. Street-Salter is candidly aware of what the colonial sources cannot reveal, particularly in her chapters on the Singapore mutiny in 1915. She admits that the Malay perspective is not well documented in the archives and difficult to recover. This is not so much a criticism of the book, but a recognition of the difficulties inherent in writing world histories from below and in dialogue with the colonial archive.

     Ultimately, this book is essential reading for historians interested in Southeast Asia, European imperialism and colonialism, and world history. It advances our understanding of the ways the First World War impacted Southeast Asia and beyond. It also captures a global story that traces the struggles between Allied and Central powers as each intersected with British, Dutch, and French colonialism and anticolonialism in Southeast Asia. For world historians, this book should be required reading for methodological purposes. It considers the significance of scale and the intersections of local, regional, and world history. Equally important, it makes a strong case for situating archival evidence and research at the center of world history in order to enrich the stories we tell and our conceptualization of global transformation and connection.

Michele L. Louro is an Associate Professor of History at Salem State University, where she specializes in Modern South Asia, the British Empire, and World History. Her book, Comrades against Imperialism: Nehru, India and Interwar Internationalism (Cambridge University Press, Global and International History Series), traces the emergence of anti-imperialist internationalism in the interwar years from the perspective of India's Jawaharlal Nehru. Her research appears in the Journal of Contemporary History, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and the edited volume, The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds and Worldviews. She is currently the faculty fellow for the Center for Research and Creative Activities at Salem State University. She also serves as the Treasurer of the World History Association and the Managing editor of the Journal of World History. You may contact her at


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