In the early decades of the 20th century, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore toured China, Japan and the Dutch East Indies to spread his message of Asian solidarity. Tagore’s Asianist vision was rife with anticolonial sentiment but unapologetically Indocentric: it projected India as the cultural and religious fount of Eastern civilization and the spiritual motor of a revitalized Asia.

The vast watery expanse of the Indian Ocean has often been called the cradle of globalization. Long before the Age of Steam, intrepid mariners had taken advantage of the seasonal monsoon winds. The routes they charted energized, over time, the transoceanic circulation of people, goods, religions and ideas. By the early modern period, the episodic sea voyages of antiquity had given rise to a dense web of connections that integrated the far-flung littorals of Eastern Africa, the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia in a shared, ocean-oriented trading world.

Following the Great Rebellion in 1857, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, packed in a bullock card, and exiled to Rangoon. The termination of Mughal rule marked the advent of the Raj, but the British still had to contend with hundreds of regional power brokers whose loyalty had to be ascertained. These so-called Princely States were semi-sovereign principalities typically headed by a Maharaja, Nawab or king denoted by an equivalent term. Retaining the aura of their royal lines but not the power of their predecessors, the Princely States were essentially reduced to protectorates of the Raj in which the Viceroy had a carte blanche to intervene as he saw fit.

Following a long period of exile in the Western suburbs, Berlin’s Asian collections have returned to the spotlight. Since this autumn, they are on permanent display at the Humboldt Forum, a controversial new museum located in the heart of the German capital. The Forum, named after the Prussian polymaths Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, is conceived as the German equivalent of the British Museum, and houses, apart from temporary exhibitions and the Asian collections, Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.

On 6 July 1860, a British consul by the name of George Whittingham Caine arrived at the nondescript port of Swatow, today’s modern Shantou. He “disembarked from a warship to the cacophony of a seven-gun salute” and, following the obligatory hoisting of the Union Jack atop the improvised consulate building, “triumphantly declared the treaty port of Chaozhou ‘open’.” Yet unlike other treaty ports scattered along the maritime fringes of the tottering Qing empire, the British found themselves from the outset outflanked by established Chaozhouese (otherwise known as Chiuchow or Teochew) trading communities and failed to gain a foothold in the profitable local commodity trade in rice, sugar, beancake and, most remunerative of all, opium.

The tendency to view post-Mughal India’s relationship with the wider world primarily through the lens of empire has spawned a voluminous literature on the global entanglements of the Raj and the networks, activities and writings of a few key Indian figures spearheading the assault on empire. Yet as the French historian Claude Markovits points out in his new book India and the World, considerably less work has focused on the global travels and overseas sojourns of Indian traders, indentured laborers and sepoys (soldiers) that did not play a crucial or eloquent part in this “from empire to nation state” story.