’Empires of the Sea’: A study of maritime history that’s all at sea

Radhika Seshan’s book on maritime history lacks coherence and appeal, either for scholars or common readers

Aashique Iqbal
First Published17 May 2024
Maritime engravings at Jor Bangla temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal.
Maritime engravings at Jor Bangla temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal. (Getty Images)

In Empires of the Sea, maritime historian Radhika Seshan attempts the ambitious task of presenting the story of India’s engagement with the sea from the era of the Indus Valley civilisation to the 18th century. Despite consulting a shipload of books, Seshan’s reach far exceeds her grasp. The final product is a book that, while well researched, is poorly organised and is often unable to forge a meaningful connection with the reader.

Empires of the Sea centres around the Indian peninsula to provide maritime history of the Indian subcontinent in a manner that aims to appeal to a general audience. Seshan claims that the region, which was often politically fragmented, is well worth studying by virtue of being at the centre of the Indian Ocean world, both geographically and economically. The book is largely concerned with trade and the circulation of commodities across India’s eastern and western coasts. Seshan’s key argument is that Indians have had a close engagement with the seas for millennia, contesting colonial historiography that has shown Indians to be unconcerned with maritime affairs.

The book has strengths worth applauding. First, it deploys a highly extensive literature on the Indian Ocean, with which the author is clearly well versed. A variety of works, both classic and cutting edge, from the vast realm that is Indian Ocean studies find mention through the book, including Sanjay Subhramanyam, K.A.N. Sastri, Ashin Das Gupta, and M.N. Pearson. Second, the book makes excellent use of sculptures, such as those in the Jor Bangla temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal, and paintings, such as those in the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, to supplement secondary sources. The Jor Bangla sculptures, which also feature as photographs in the book, offer solid material evidence for Seshan’s central claim that Indians were closely involved with shipping and trade in the pre-colonial era. Third, the book offers an engaging narrative of the late medieval and early modern era in its second half. We learn of the sustained contributions of merchant communities such as Armenians, Jews, Parsis and a variety of Arab groups to trade in South Asia.

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The section on Indian responses to European trade and conquest, which focus on powerful entrepreneurs such as Malaya Chetti, a Vijayanagar politician who traded with the Dutch, paint a nuanced picture of the complexities of the era. The early history of European trade and violence in the Indian Ocean world is well chronicled. These strengths, however, ultimately fail to make up for the book’s many deficiencies.

The key problemis the lack of organisation of chapters, which makes it difficult to read, even for subject experts. Academic writers are often accused of taking a didactic tone in their writing by providing far too many sub-headings. The author, in this case, might have benefitted from this style of structuring as the writing often comes across as disorganised. The reader is given little indication of what the subject of a chapter or even sub-sections of the chapter might be. In chapter 2, for instance, a discussion on naval warfare in the Shilahara kingdom in 1265 CE pivots to a discussion of trade between Bahrain and the Harappan civilisation, in the course of a couple of sentences. As such, it comes across as simultaneously well-researched and incoherent. This is particularly the case for the first two chapters, which deal with Indian Ocean geography and the early phases of maritime history.

Many of the book’s issues appear to spring from an inability by the author to find a balance between what the book’s blurb describes as “scholarly rigour” and “a storyteller’s flair”. On the one hand, Seshan appears to assume that her readers are experts. So, we are told, for instance, about how Captain William Hawkins of the East India Company received nothing but ill-will at the Mughal court without being given any reason for why this happened. On the other hand, Seshan does not hesitate to make excessively simplistic statements like “as every age in its own time is modern, so is all technology modern”.

Empires of the Sea: A Human History of the Indian Ocean World: By Radhika Seshan, Pan Macmillan India, 228 pages, 550

Caught between establishing its author’s academic credentials and engaging with a wider reading public, the book struggles to maintain a clear, consistent tone, afflicting the reader with a certain amount of whiplash. This need not be the case as can be seen in the works of other magisterial histories of India, which balance academic rigour with excellent storytelling, such as India: A History by John Keay and A History of Modern India by Ishita Banerjee Dube.

Through the length of the book Seshan is unable to decide whether she is writing for fellow academics or a wider public. The incoherence of the book’s narrative means that it is often difficult to get any real sense of historical change. We learn next to nothing about how the ships of the Rashtrakutas might have differed from the Vijayanagar empire and how these, in turn, might have been different from those of the Marathas. The key focus of the book is trade, with naval warfare a distant second, meaning that we learn next to nothing about other facets of maritime history.

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Piracy gets a handful of pages while law, religion and health receive almost none. We learn, for instance, that Islam and Buddhism used the Indian Ocean as a highway to spread across the Indian Ocean world but find very little by way of mention of how these religions were changed by their maritime transmission. Furthermore, there is little in the book on the social aspects of maritime history, including caste, class, and gender.

Seshan does succeed in substantiating her claim to rescue Indian maritime history from colonial historiography through the deployment of a substantial body of secondary literature from the field of Indian Ocean studies. Despite, or perhaps because of, this the final product is a poorly organised work that will appeal neither to dedicated academics nor to a wider public.

Aashique Iqbal is a historian of modern South Asia and author of The Aeroplane and the Making of Modern India.

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