Located between the foothills of the eastern Himalayas and the northern shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Bengal Delta has been for more than a millennium a major frontier region of the subcontinent, a gateway to the Indian Ocean and an evolving cultural hub. Because of its frontier location, the region has experienced the interplay of domination and independence from northern Indian imperial powers. Its location also allowed it to connect with the western Indian Ocean as well as the Southeast Asian and South China maritime spaces, making it a long-term player in international trade. These spatially induced political and economic experiences and a remarkable mobility of people and ideas from and into the region shaped a culture that was regionally rooted yet open to cosmopolitan ethos. It was not until the arrival of late colonial national imaginations when the Bengal Delta’s regional integration was put to the test, which resulted in its splitting into two parts: West Bengal of India and Bangladesh.
A. C. S. Peacock
With its conquest of the Arab lands in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire (1300–1923) came to control some of the major entrepots of the Indian Ocean trade in the west. This expansion, however, also brought the Ottomans into confrontation with the Portuguese, who were seeking to establish a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. In the first half of the 16th century, Ottoman involvement was limited to the western half of the Indian Ocean, but in the later 16th century, the Southeast Asian sultanate of Aceh forged an alliance with the Ottomans, which, if short-lived in practice, was to attain considerable symbolic importance in later times. Ottoman involvement in the Indian Ocean resumed in the 19th century, again as a reaction to European colonial activities. In the meantime, both commercial and religious links, in particular the hajj, meant that the Ottomans had a prominent role in the Indian Ocean despite only controlling limited littoral territories.
The origin of British India can be traced to warfare in 18th-century Europe and India, trade-related conflicts and disputes, and the East India Company’s business model. The state that emerged from these roots survived by reforming the institutions of capitalism, military strategy, and political strategy. As the 19th century unfolded and its power became paramount, the Company evolved from a trading firm to a protector of trade. The rapid growth of the three port cities where Indo-European trade and naval power was concentrated exemplifies that commitment. But beyond maintaining an army and protecting trade routes, the state remained limited in its reach.
Sebastian R. Prange
Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.
The Marathas, now sometimes called “Maharashtrians,” are an Indic people, speakers of the Marathi language. The boundaries of the modern Indian state of Maharashtra were drawn so as to include all majority Marathi-speaking areas. The Marathi language emerged a thousand years ago, but the Maratha Empire took shape only after 1674. Its leaders contended with the Mughal Empire and contributed to its downfall. They created a loosely knit but dynamic political system that grew within the frame of Mughal imperial power while reducing it to a shadow of its former self. Maratha governors ruled the great cities of Agra and Delhi, and it was from them that the British wrested control of north India in 1803–1806. The residual Maratha states still put up a fierce resistance before succumbing to the new British Empire in 1818. British historians wrote the first draft of Indian history. The English public was uninterested in the Marathas. The Mughal dynasty and the older states of Rajasthan received far more favorable attention. The historical narrative that the British rescued India from chaos also required a depiction of the Marathas as predatory sources of disorder. This representation has resulted in minimizing the commercial dynamism and flexibility of Maratha administration. Maratha taxation was far from destructive. It operated within a dynamic political economy. While periodically affected (as Indian governments had long been) by climatic catastrophe or political breakdown, this economy could recuperate quickly in better times. The Maratha Empire also represented a unique identification between a people and an empire. Ordinary Maharashtrian farmers served in its armies, were proud of its political achievements, and identified with the Maratha patria. The empire was also marked by a continuity with the symmetrical patterns of kinship and marriage customary in Maharashtra. While sons of secondary wives could rise to high positions in the lineage, primary marriages continued to be with women of status. Affinal relatives were recognized and played a large role in governance. Also, unlike the Mughal Empire, the Marathas used their own language wherever they ruled, enriching and elaborating it all the while. This prefigured the rise of linguistic nationalisms more generally in India under British rule.