In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama

Kunal Jha

In his book In Asian Waters, Eric Tagliacozzo takes the readers on the voyage of oceans and seas of Asia to understand the interconnected and shared maritime history of the continent. This book presents a comprehensive account of Modern Asia as a result of trade through the sea routes in this part of the world. The book is based on historical sources backed by the author’s own on-ground experience, which he gained from interviews and oral history while spending a long period in the regions discussed in the book. The book is divided into six parts and each part takes up a specific theme which has played a crucial role in the history of these seas. 

The first part, entitled ‘Maritime Connections,’ consists of two chapters aiming to explore the dynamic maritime circuits of Asia. The first chapter of this part (Chapter 2) tries to trace the relationship between two poles of the ancient maritime trade route that is China and Africa. It explains that the modern-day interconnections between Asia and Africa are a result of ancient trade between these two poles. This interrelation cannot only be established by literary and historical sources, but also DNA and archaeology-based evidence proves the same. Chapter 3 adopts the opposite view and keeps Vietnam at the centre of the discussion. The author argues that though the discussion of Vietnam is not prominent in the existing literature on maritime history, it has been one of the most important pillars in shaping Asian maritime economic history. The second part of the book, ‘Bodies of Water,’ consists of two chapters discussing two important bodies of water in the present: the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Chapter 4 revolves around the history of smuggling in the South China Sea. It also sheds light on the present-day relationship between China and South Asia. Chapter 5 then analyses the emergence of European dominance in Asian waters. It shows how the Asian maritime system evolved under the influence of European power in the countries of the Indian Ocean. The European contact with Asian countries between the 17th to 19th centuries is also discussed. 

The third part, entitled ‘Religion on the Tides,’ aims to explain how religion is transmitted through the sea routes of Asia. The first chapter of this part (Chapter 6) explores the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism from the Bay of Bengal towards the South East Asian countries. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates religious and cultural transmission through the sea routes. Chapter 7 focuses on Zamboanga, a port in the southwestern Philippines. It analyses how various religions accumulated in a small port city and their evolution into a peacefully coexisting community. The fourth part of the book, ‘Cities and the Sea,’ deals with maritime trade-induced urbanism and the interrelationship between these urban cities. Chapter 8 discusses how the trade routes shaped the coastal cities of South and South East Asia. It comprehensively looks into the emergence of these coastal cities, their morphological distinction and the urban connectivity through sea routes. The second chapter of this part (Chapter 9) broadens the perspective and takes a larger geographical area including the British empire to discuss the movement of ideas and how these ports emerged as the centre of political significance along with commerce. 

‘The Bounty of the Ocean,’ discussing the environmental history of Asian sea routes, marks the fifth part of the book. Chapter 10 analyses the trade and transport of marine products between East and South East Asia. It highlights the dominance of China in the Asian maritime trade. Chapter 11 then shifts focus from the east of the Indian Ocean towards the west. It explores the emergence of the Indian coast as a hub of spices and how this spice trade attracted explorers to this part of Asia. The chapter concludes that with time, the spice trade became most significant and also shaped the maritime history of Asia.

The sixth and last part of the book, entitled ‘Technologies of the Sea,’ analyses the technological advancement and establishment of lighthouses. These lighthouses were not only meant for the safety and security of ships but also acted as the centre of surveillance for monitoring the local people. The second chapter of this part (Chapter 13) focuses on the importance of map-making. The advancement of sea-mapping technology enabled the European colonial powers to dominate the region. The mapping of the sea became highly important for voyages within this region. The book concludes with the chapter ‘If China Rules the Wave,’ which discusses the central role of China in steering the economy through the Asian sea routes.

The books present an extensive account of the history of Asia through the seas and maritime trade routes. Though several works have been done keeping the oceans in the centre, the author successfully interconnects various topics shaping the maritime history of Asia in this book. The space and time aspect of this publication is extensive and presents a holistic view of Asian history. The book is built on a strong foundation of facts and evidence along with the author's own experience. The author undertakes macro as well as micro level analyses and does not leave any stone unturned in Asian maritime history. It will not only serve academia and subject experts, but also open doors for people interested in understanding the maritime history of Asia. While reading the book, it feels as though it sometimes focuses more on the Southeast Asian countries. Moreover, I believe that India, holding the central position in the Indian Ocean, could have been more prominent in the discourse. This book leaves scope to explore India’s role in shaping the maritime history of South Asia and Southeast Asia. It is sure that by diving into In Asian Waters by Eric Tagliacozzo, one would certainly come out with the pearls of knowledge and understanding of the maritime history of Asia as a whole.