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Empires of the Monsoon Paperback – 4 Oct 2010
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‘Empires of the Monsoon is a panoramic study of the history of the Indian Ocean and the destruction of its traditional trade by colonial Europe… Its major achievement is to weave into a coherent whole the histories of a kaleidoscope of civilisations and peoples… Empires of the Monsoon reads like some mediaeval Book of Wonders, rich with exotic improbabilities… . It is all gripping stuff, dizzily ambitious in its scope and full of some of the oddest facts imaginable.’
William Dalrymple, Independent
‘Empires of the Monsoon is an example of popular history at its best… It is the story of many marvels and many great adventures.’
J.D.F. Jones, Financial Times
‘A panoramic account of the Indian Ocean and its invaders… combining scholarly zeal with a good journalist’s flair for selection and narrative. The book is full of fascinating information.’
John Grigg, Sunday Telegraph
‘Hall’s lively compendium is rich in bloodthirsty sultans, swashbuckling pirates, hypocritical imperialists and serendipitous Sinbads… He is an enthusiastic storyteller who can hold you with his glittering eye.’
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Sunday Times
‘A vast and fascinating history… I found it both absorbing and instructive.’
Robert Carver, Scotsman
From the Back Cover
Until Vasco da Gama discovered the sea-route to the East in 1497-9 almost nothing was known in the West of the exotic cultures and wealth of the Indian Ocean and its peoples: a 16-million-square-mile sea, bordered by civilisations more ancient than those of Greece and Rome, fed by the Indus, Euphrates and many of the world's greatest rivers. For almost a thousand years after the fall of the Roman empire, the western littoral of the Indian Ocean was as much an entity as the Mediterranean, surpassing it in wealth and power. The arts and scholarship flourished in cities to which merchants travelled from all corners of the East to trade in gold, ambergris, leopard skins, ivory and slaves.
It is this civilisation, and its destruction at the hands of the West, that Richard Hall, one of Britain's finest popular historians and writers on travel and exploration, recreates in this sparkling book. 'Empires of the Monsoon' combines historical analysis with an exciting narrative to show how, from the sixteenth century onwards, the European presence changed the life of the Indian Ocean irrevocably. Then with the insight derived from his many years in Africa, Hall charts the liberation of Africa south of the equator the mid-nineteenth century – first from isolation, and then from a colonialism which, although short-lived, seemed at one point to have forged unbreakable bonds between Africa and Europe.
Hall's history of exploration and exploitation – by Chinese and Arab travellers and the Portuguese, Dutch and British alike – is one of brutality, betrayal and colonial ambition. It is told with an eye for the exotic in a fine, unobtrusive style. It is a compelling and instructive epic.
Richard Hall has travelled throughout the Indian Ocean region as an historical writer and journalist. Born in 1925, he spent part of his boyhood in Australia, was educated at Hastings Grammar School, served in a destroyer in the Royal Navy, then went to Oxford University. After working in London on the 'Daily Mail', he lived for thirteen years in Africa where he was editor of the 'Times of Zambia'. He later became the Commonwealth correspondent of the 'Observer', and a columnist on the 'Financial Times'. In 1986, he founded the financial and political bulletin 'Africa Analysis'. He has written biographies of the Victorian explores Sam and Florence Baker and Henry Stanley, and of the modern merchant – adventurer Tiny Rowland. He lives in Oxfordshire.
"A triumph: a first class comprehensive narrative of the impact upon the people of the Indian Ocean of those who penetrated it. It is hard to believe that this account of a European epic has any rival."
J. M. ROBERTS, author of the 'Penguin History of the World'
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Ibn Battuta, perhaps the most famous Arab voyager is a frequent visitor to the earlier pages of the book. One surprising fact I learnt about him was the ease of which he divorced his wives. Often he would reside in a town for a number of months or years and more often than not he would marry many times during his stay. However as soon as the opportunity arose to set off once again on his travels he would simultaneously divorce all his wives (who by this time where more often than not pregnant) and resume his journey. Another fascinating character is the Chinese Admiral Zheng He. Born a Muslim he was castrated (one imagines to his dismay) at the age of ten in preparation for his entry to the royal court. He went on to serves as China's most prodigal seafarer making journeys ranging from Mombasa to America (admittedly there is still some contention whether he reached America, for if he did he would have beaten Columbus by a good 200 years).
The Portuguese also made impact on the Indian Ocean in a most brutal way. Once Vasco da Gama had made the pioneering journey from Portugal to India around the Cape of Good Hope things took a turn for the worse for the inhabitants under the attempted Portuguese colonisation. Though they made have described the people of Africa as savage their actions soon made any barbarism from the Africans tame in comparison. Many of their victims tortured and killed in the most gruesome manner, often as they killed Muslims they would force them to eat pork. Of all the colonisers of the countries of the Indian Ocean the Portuguese were the most brutal.
The book will be of especial interest for those who come from Mombasa (like myself) as the book goes into some detail on the history of the city. Often bad luck played a part on the fortunes of its inhabitants. In period of 200 years the Portuguese razed the city to the ground three or four times. The Sultan of the Ottamans had on one occasion sent down a small fleet of ships protect the city from an impending Portuguese invasion when the island was beset from the other side by a horde of cannibals called the Zimba who proceeded to devour the inhabitants of Mombasa. These cannibals were later killed by people from Malindi. The Mazrui family (from which I believe the prominent academic Ali Mazrui descends) often played an important role in Mombasa's history. At one point when in control of the city they offered it to the British to occupy instead of allowing the Sultan of Oman control of it.
Overall the first two thirds of this book make fantastic reading. Unfortunately the last third isn't as good and in truth should probably be skipped. The chapters are short and for the most part the book is written in an extremely readable style. There is a plethora of information to be beheld between its pages and I learnt an incredible amount, it covers the slave trade and its abolition in some detail and much of the European colonisation of South Asia and Africa.
Full of fascinating accounts ( E.g. The Chinese ventures to East Africa in the fifteenth century, The fabled Christian kingdom of Preston John and its reality in Ethiopia, the landing of Vasco Da Gama at Calicut in West India and his meeting with the Hindu Zamorin ), this book is mostly about the Christian ( and other ) invaders of the Indian Ocean. I read this 500 page book in under a week and found it to be highly rewarding.
This book is highly recommended and gets a 12/10
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