Waves Across the South by Sujit Sivasundaram review

From the Bay of Bengal to Tasmania ... a subversion of established history, giving the perspectives of the colonised and with a cast of enjoyable characters

In 1826, crowds poured into the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly to gape at a spoil of war: a Burmese imperial carriage, nearly 14ft long, its spokes silvered, its body clothed in gilt and its seven-tiers studded with 20,000 precious stones. An accompanying handbook showed, in a sketch, how the carriage would have been pulled by a pair of white elephants. How is it, the handbook’s authors wondered, that the Burmese, “scarcely removed from barbarism”, produced an object so magnificent? It had been captured two years earlier, in the first Anglo-Burmese war, from a town on the Dawei River, as British forces moved up its waters to subdue the forces of the kingdom of Ava. For Britons, the Times predicted, the Burmese carriage would be “equally attractive with the carriage of Buonaparte”, which had been displayed a decade earlier.

The imperial carriage is a handy symbol for the case study of Ava, one of several that Sujit Sivasundaram skilfully uses to advance the argument of his book. When Eric Hobsbawm popularised the phrase “the age of revolution” to refer to the period between 1789 and 1848, it denoted the spread of specific kinds of values – republicanism, contests of political agency, the production of knowledge – in a specific quarter of the world: America and Europe. But Sivasundaram finds concurrent revolutions flaring along the coasts and islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Sometimes they were fomented by men, women and ideas being shipped in from Europe; sometimes they were home-grown developments; on occasions they were reactions to the surging numbers of British, French or Dutch colonists. These revolutions might have modernised their territories and reformed their politics – except for the fact that the great powers like Britain quenched them; a kind of counter-revolution smoothly gave way to imperialism. “This in the end,” Sivasundaram writes, “was the tragedy of the mid-19th century.”

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