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25 review for Empires Of The Monsoon: A History Of The Indian Ocean And Its Invaders

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    This was a very ambitious book that was interesting but I think perhaps bit off more than it could chew. It's booked as a "History of the Indian Ocean" but it really is mostly a history of East Africa. The author lived in and covered East Africa for the Financial Times for over 20 years, and has written other books on the region, this was a book meant to contextualize East Africa within the wider Indian Ocean milieu, and this is a worthy thing to do and I think that, writ large, he succeeds in This was a very ambitious book that was interesting but I think perhaps bit off more than it could chew. It's booked as a "History of the Indian Ocean" but it really is mostly a history of East Africa. The author lived in and covered East Africa for the Financial Times for over 20 years, and has written other books on the region, this was a book meant to contextualize East Africa within the wider Indian Ocean milieu, and this is a worthy thing to do and I think that, writ large, he succeeds in doing that. Writing a history of East Africa is difficult because the natives of the region never developed a written language, nor was there a tradition of oral storytelling such as there was in West Africa, at least not one that has survived to the point of Arab or European contact so the historical record is entirely travelogues written by people from other civilizations and the author weaves together the stories of Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and the chronicler of Zheng He's voyages, so the history of the region pre Da Gama is given to us from the Italianate, Islamic and Chinese perspectives. This is interesting but since all these chronicles are themselves available to the reader, I can't say that the synopses of their East African sections, though usefully collected, are particularly illuminating. Except for the fact that I knew nothing at all about this region and I learned quite a bit. In essence, the Islamic world captured a string of Islands down the East Coast of Africa and set up trading sultanates in each of them which exported the various products of the region to the Islamic and South Asian regions. Something I also did not know was that the East African slave trade, controlled by the Arab Sultanates pre-dated the West African slave trade to the Americas by 300 years and was on an equivalent scale. Relative to the populations as a whole, the scale might have been larger. This is because the slave revolts that occurred in the Arab world were on a larger scale and occasionally succeeded. He tells the story of the "Revolt of the Zanj." Zanj being an Arab word for the region from which the slaves were brought, mostly what is today Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya. The Zanj were put to work in large numbers draining the swamps in southern Iraq and revolted several times with varying degrees of success. At one point, the Zanj successfully seized the whole of what is today Basrah and Nasyiria provinces in Iraq, slaughtered the local population and ruled it as an independent kingdom defeating army after army sent against them. They were eventually overcome but the Arab and Indian worlds continued to import slaves from the region for the next 300 years. The historical record gets considerably denser once the Portuguese round the Cape of Good Hope and begin interacting directly with the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese, though intrepid navigators, Da Gama's voyage was three times the length of Columbus', do not cover themselves in glory. For one thing, they spend a huge amount of time and resources looking for a legendary Christian empire in the East with whom to ally against the Turks. It is striking how a group of people who can master experimental science well enough to advance navigation and shipbuilding in a few decades what will take relatively more culturally advanced societies hundreds of years to catch, do so in the pursuit of utterly fantastical aims. And of course, when they do find what Columbus sought, India, instead of establishing trading relations in an effort to edge out the Turks and Venetians, they simply steal and/or destroy everything they can find. Two hundred years after the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols, the Portuguese enter the Indian Ocean as a kind of seaborne barbarian horde using the advantage of stable deck mounted cannon to become extremely effective and destructive pirates throughout the Indian Ocean. Their seizure of Goa is hotly debated simply because they prefer piracy and establishing a permanent base exposes them to expulsion from it. The marauding and depredations of the Portuguese eventually compels the Islamic sultanates of the Deccan plateau in India to form an alliance with the Ottoman Turks who contract Venetian shipbuilders and gunsmiths to travel to Suez, and build them an oceangoing fleet with with to destroy the Portuguese. The Portuguese, come upon the Ottoman fleet anchored at Diu and, in a prequel to what Nelson would do to Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile, they destroy it entirely before it can raise anchor. Nonetheless, the resources of the Deccan Sultanates and the Ottoman Empire are large enough that they try again. This campaign is even more interesting than the first because the Ottoman Turks actually succeed in sweeping up the Portuguese Empire in East Africa, all the way down to Mombasa where a truly astounding siege and counter siege begins. The Ottomans eject the Portuguese garrison before a relief force can arrive but then an army of cannibals sweeps down on them and they turn to defend the Arab residents of Mombasa from this new threat. Just then the Portuguese relief force arrives and temporarily forms an alliance with the cannibals and the two crush the Ottoman army between them saving the Portuguese Empire again. But the Islamic world is not done with the Portuguese and the destruction of the Portuguese Empire in East Africa North of Mozambique falls to, the Sultan of Oman who destroyed the Portuguese garrison that had been guarding the strait of Hormuz and then sailed down the East Coast of Africa capturing all of the Portuguese forts down to Zanzibar. Once in command of the coast, the Sultanate of Oman used his connections in the Islamic world and South Asia to vastly expand the slave trade, raising exports from 30,000/yr to 100,000 yr, the same size almost exactly as the trade with the Americas. With the profits of the trade, he vastly expanded his navy, buying ships from Britain until he was the dominant naval power in African waters. So important was the slave trade to Oman, that a subsequent sultan moved the capital of Oman form Muscat to Zanzibar where it remained until deep into the nineteenth century. British efforts to suppress the slave trade eventually bankrupted the Sultanate over which the British had established a protectorate. The terms of the protectorate were such that in the event of a succession dispute the territory would be governed by the English monarch as regent for a successor. Naturally, a polyagmous society with branches in Oman and Zanzibar lends itself to succession disputes and Britain eventually took title to Zanzibar. The author spends relatively little time on the "Scramble for Africa" which occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, though there is a very interesting section on the prehistory of the interior of the country which I think is largely a reference to his other work. Apparently, settled African kingdoms inland from the Arab sultanates were swept aside by barbarian invaders from the South in the preceding decades so by the time the Europeans decided to push inland there was little formal resistance to them and, what resistance there was was put down brutally in one sided battles of machine guns against muskets or spears. European rule collapses as quickly as it began, within a single generation at least in East Africa. Western and Southern Africa having seen a much more intense European presence from the fifteenth century on. All in all, I learned quite a lot. The Portugese Empire was really just a piratical house of cards and it was not destroyed by the Dutch and the English, but rather by an alliance of the Islamic Empires of the Near East and India. Still, the book was underwhelming. It is, in essence, a work of journalism not scholarship. It is a fine tale of folly and adventure, but it is not very illuminating about the forces at work or really about the lives of the Africans themselves though the sections on the interior are well done. The book largely serves as an advertisement for the works for Ibn Battuta and Zheng He, as well as a lure for more academic histories of Africa.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bronwyn Echols

  3. 5 out of 5

    Pranay Kotasthane

  4. 4 out of 5

    J

  5. 5 out of 5

    Emperor

  6. 5 out of 5

    John Hardy

  7. 5 out of 5

    sean

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mark Henwick

  9. 4 out of 5

    phil kettley

  10. 5 out of 5

    Gokul Gr

  11. 5 out of 5

    Abhiram

  12. 5 out of 5

    BookDB

  13. 4 out of 5

    Andy Todd

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alison

  15. 4 out of 5

    Wens Tan

  16. 5 out of 5

    Stefano

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mustafa

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  19. 5 out of 5

    Yama Chen

  20. 4 out of 5

    Pushkar Singh

  21. 4 out of 5

    Isbook

  22. 5 out of 5

    reyad

  23. 4 out of 5

    C

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  25. 5 out of 5

    eric wen

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