India has suffered much from stereotyping, particularly at the hands of Western historians. It has been dismissed as being almost stagnant until Western encroachments somehow woke it up, and it’s been regarded as isolated from surrounding territories, somehow evolving on its own first as “a self-generated Hindu and Sanskritic civilization”, as Richard M Eaton puts it in this new book. From 1000 to 1800 CE historical convention labels this time-span “the Muslim period”, although the inhabitants of India habitually referred to their conquerors not as Muslims but “Turks”, an ethnographical term rather than a religious one. Eaton notes that in the case of Central and South America, historians usually refer to the “Spanish” (or Portuguese) conquest, rather than the “Christian” conquest, and he rightly wonders why this should be the case, since forced conversion of native populations was almost as important as gold and silver.

On 7 September 1695, just off Surat in Gujarat, an English pirate ship knocked off the Fath Mahmamadi, owned by an Indian trader who, according to a contemporary source, did as much trade alone as the East Indian Company all together. The pirates had been waiting for it at the Bab-el-Mandeb between Arabia and the Horn of Africa, but the Fath Mahmamadi had slipped by them in the dark of night. The pirates, whose ship the Fancy was one of the fastest afloat, beat the Indian vessel back to its home port and laid in wait again. The Fath Mahmamadi surrendered after a single broadside, yielding more gold and silver than the pirates had ever seen in one place.

In the 19th century, long before Barack Obama’s election as the President of the United States in the face of jokes about the possibility of a black man living in the White House, the British mocked another “black man” who dared to stand in elections to be elected to the House of Commons in England. Dinyar Patel’s Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism is a biography of that “black man”. Straightforward in style, and well-detailed in approaches to a life as it intersected with multiple, complex movements, places, ideologies, Naoroji addresses the vacuum in the pre-Gandhian political history of modern India. It is a much-needed intervention in acknowledgment of the contribution of Indian freedom fighters before there were Indian freedom fighters.