Bengal, Burke and Bertie Wooster

Politics and Trade in the Indian Ocean World
October 1, 1999

Ashin Das Gupta, who died last year, was one of modern India's most distinguished historians. He is best known for a series of seminal books and articles on trade, politics and their interaction in the subcontinent in the centuries that saw the disintegration of the Mughal empire and the beginnings of European presence and power in Asia.

In his honour, the editors of this volume have brought together a collection of essays of a uniformly high quality. There are 11 contributions from authors in three continents. Some are former pupils of Das Gupta, others distinguished colleagues and friends. The essays reach in time from the Middle Ages to the 19th century and in space from the eastern seaboard of Africa to the Pacific, resulting in a book that will be of value to specialists in the history of early modern India and to all interested in the origins and impact of European influence in Asia.

The volume begins with an affectionate memoir of Das Gupta by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, who recalls, among other things, how his mentor - a considerable stylist in English and Bengali - maintained the importance of P. G. Wodehouse in his intellectual and literary development. There then follows a group of essays examining Indian trade and politics at the time of the collapse of Mughal power. As is now much the fashion, the authors argue that there was a shift rather than a decline in economic activity. They urge the vigour of local or regional economies and the awareness of local potentates of the importance of trade. Bhaswati Bhattacharya surveys the fortunes of Coromandel in the late 18th century and finds the economic impact of disorder far more localised and less serious than is usually alleged. So, too, Lakshmi Subramanian, discussing Surat, shows that the celebrated textile industry of the area, far from succumbing to the authority of the East India Company, was able to maintain its autonomy until the late 1700s. A less roseate picture emerges, however, from Ruchira Banerjee's account of the ways in which the leaders of the Mapilla merchants of

Cannanore attempted to resist European pressure by allying themselves - disastrously as it transpired - with the formidable rulers of Mysore. Optimism is restored in a contribution by Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Muzaffar Alam, which despite its self-indulgence throws new and important light on the emergence of the so-called kingdom of Arcot in the 18th century.

A brief and penetrating essay by Om Prakash opens larger horizons. He sketches the commercial activities of European companies and private traders throughout Asia before 1800 and argues, as few would deny, that relations with Indians were fundamentally changed once the English acquired Bengal. Similar conclusions are drawn by Kenneth McPherson in a useful survey of events in the Bay of Bengal. In a wide-ranging and nuanced contribution Sinnappah Arasaratnam discusses the changing nature of India's overseas trade to the East in the 18th century and the readjustments - not all of them disadvantageous to native merchants - occasioned by the massive expansion of English commerce.

The book ends with two pieces of very differing emphasis. Michael Pearson judiciously reassesses the role of Indians in East Africa before the early 1700s. He shows the importance of commercial relations between western India and Africa, but dismisses the notion of a "Greater India" there. Then, in an elegant and perceptive essay, P. J. Marshall recounts how the astonishing views of Edmund Burke on Britain and India - their peoples, he believed, "united through God's providence in a bond of protection and mutual benefit" - earned him the adulation of early Indian nationalists, ensured that he was ignored in the post-independence years and have now brought him back into fashion.

Attractively produced and well written, this collection of essays is a major contribution to the history of early modern India and the maritime economy of Asia, and a fitting tribute to a distinguished scholar.

Geoffrey Scammell is emeritus fellow, Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.

Politics and Trade in the Indian Ocean World: Essays in Honour of Ashin Das Gupta

Editor - Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Lakshmi Subramanian
ISBN - 0 19 564420 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 231

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