“In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama” by Eric Tagliacozzo

In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama, Eric Tagliacozzo (Princeton University Press, July 2022) In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama, Eric Tagliacozzo (Princeton University Press, July 2022)

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.

In Asian Waters, the latest book by the historian Eric Tagliacozzo, sheds new light on some of these “maritime pathways” that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea during the past half-millennium. Rather than offering a comprehensive treatment of a single theme, this study comprises six parts, each containing two chapters, that provide different topical windows on the routes that shaped Asia’s connected past. Prominent themes include the ebbs and flows of the commodity trade, the history of religious diffusion across the Indian Ocean, the role of port cities, and the sea as a space of overlapping and competing colonial circuits. Some chapters, most notably those dealing with the diffusion of Indic religions across the Bay of Bengal, the Malabar spice trade and smuggling networks in the South China Sea, offer handy summaries of fairly familiar themes. But In Asian Waters also breaks new ground and draws on archival findings, fieldwork notes, and travel observations. For example, Tagliacozzo examines the transregional trade in marine produce and investigates the role of hydrological surveying and the installment of lighthouses in energizing synchronous British and Dutch attempts to establish a foothold in the remoter parts of the Indonesian archipelago.


Although In Asian Waters has a roving quality, China offers a recurring anchor point as we travel with Tagliacozzo from Yemen to Yokohama. For example, the book’s first chapter examines the evidence for early Sino-African encounters, ranging from shards of Qingbai glazed ware washed up along Eastern Africa’s shores to the latest insights provided by DNA research. Tagliacozzo also discusses the impact of the 15th-century Ming armada which skirted the Swahili Coast. These tribute/trading expeditions, led by admiral Zheng He, were a statement of intent that showed those who encountered these impressive fleets that “China ruled the waves.” Pondering the comparative sizes of Zheng He’s flagship and Columbus’ Santa Maria, Tagliacozzo observes that “the Iberians were discovering the world in row-boats … next to the Chinese equivalent of aircraft carriers of the age.” Although these fleeting encounters never translated into sustained contact or exchange, at least one giraffe survived the long haul from Africa to China. In Nanjing, the animal was declared to be a qilin (a mythical hooved creature) and immortalized in a painting by the artist Shen Du. As Tagliacozzo writes:


The giraffe … was the routes made corporeal; the fullest expression in flesh, sinew, and blood of the nautical pathways that tied together vast tracks of the known world. And it was transportable, a moveable cypher of the power of commerce and connection that was made possible by China’s trade.


Even if the short flicker of Chinese state interest in Asia’s oceanic worlds gave way under later Ming emperors to an isolationist policy, trading diasporas and migrants hailing from Guangdong and Fujian continued to play a prominent role in the commercial circuits of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. In Asian Waters examines, for example, how littoral Vietnam and ports such as Hôi An were incorporated in the larger trading world of the South China Sea. Another chapter explores the profitable China-bound trade in edible sea cucumbers from the Philippines, birds’ nests from Indonesia, seaweed from Burma, and pearls, shark fines and fish maws (dried swim bladders) harvested across the Indian Ocean world.


Although Chaozhou-based gongsi partnerships, and prominent trading and banking communities such as the Armenians, Parsis and Chettiars, continued to oil the wheels of commerce, by the late 19th century the waves were ruled by Britain. In the early modern period, the ineffectual Portuguese naval license (cartaz) system and aggressive Dutch monopolies had reconfigured the balance of trade but, as Tagliacozzo asserts, only the British succeeded in making “the leap from mercantile capitalism to the systemic oceanwide control of capitalism-in-production”. Crucially, European commercial interests, often in collusion with local merchant elites, succeeded over time in shifting “production away from traditional destinations … into conduits of their own design”. The Gujarat port of Surat, for example, transformed from a cloth- and indigo-exporting town catering to markets in the Middle East into “a Company entrepot geared toward China exports”. Even a nominally independent country such as Siam succumbed to commercial pressure: “the gilded crown of the kingdom remained on Chulalongkorn’s head during the apex of the age of domination” but “Siamese rice left Siamese docks in British steamers”.

Ultimately, however, In Asian Waters is less concerned with establishing hierarchies of power and chronicles the constantly changing patterns of transoceanic trade and exchange. The book can be said to resemble a sea journey and along the way Tagliacozzo shares a fascinating array of facts and observations, while keeping an eye out for the arresting vignette. We learn for example about the Vietnamese Emperor Nguyen Anh (Gia Long) who had, to the astonishment of American traders, grown “extravagantly fond” of an “apothecary-plaster-like-substance” that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be Best Durham bottled mustard. As Tagliacozzo notes, “these sorts of rather mundane products …  took on new valences in local trade” and could “episodically make or break trading missions in Southeast Asia”.


Although Tagliacozzo’s kaleidoscopic approach allows for the coverage of a wide variety of topics, readers might occasionally struggle to find their bearings as the book moves with dizzying speed across the seas and centuries. More background information and a few additional chronological anchor points would have rendered this study more accessible and somewhat easier to navigate. This occasional sense of disorientation is compounded by the inclusion of photographs taken by the author and fieldwork notes (some dating back to the 1990s). The resulting blend of historical analysis, ethnographic reportage and travelogue is not always harmonious, and while some of the book’s most inspired passages draw on the author’s conversations with locals, they offer few concrete takeaways. The same can be said of the book’s concluding chapter “If China Rules the Waves”, which ultimately shirks from shedding light on the implications of the geopolitical ascent of China for the oceanic worlds surveyed in this study.

These caveats aside, In Asian Waters offers a wide-ranging introduction to the various ocean-spanning networks that tied Asia’s maritime regions together in both loose and more structural ways. Tagliacozzo shows that some legacies of this entangled past can still be discerned today, but this book can also be read as a powerful history of rupture and change; of technologies no longer in use, once-priceless goods that have lost their value, prominent port cities that have become provincial backwaters, and social worlds that have altered beyond recognition. By reconstructing some of the maritime pathways that connected, long before the era of modern globalization, the different shores washed by the Indian Ocean, In Asian Waters offers fascinating glimpses of a world at once strangely familiar and deeply foreign.

Yorim Spoelder is a Dutch historian based at the Free University Berlin, and the author of Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, ca 1800-1960.