Waves Across the South by Sujit Sivasundaram review – the age of revolutions reconceived

The Mahamuni temple in Mandalay, built by the Burmese king Bodawpaya in 1784.
The Mahamuni temple in Mandalay, built by the Burmese king Bodawpaya in 1784. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
The Mahamuni temple in Mandalay, built by the Burmese king Bodawpaya in 1784. Photograph: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

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

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 04.02 EST

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.”

When the age of revolution began, the court of Ava was growing wary of British advances along Burma’s border with eastern India. French and Spanish advisers, who had fled home in the aftermath of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic wars, had the ear of the Burmese king Ba-gyi-daw, who was engaged in strengthening his state and creating “a pan Burmese ethnic sensibility”. The name “Myan-ma”, to signify this Burmese identity, had started to find use. The cities of Burma were newly cosmopolitan, with “all sorts of sailors, strangers and aliens in habit and custom”, one unnamed young man wrote home from Rangoon, “and belonging to many races all of which I cannot name”. But in the first Anglo-Burmese war, 1824-26, the British hobbled this burgeoning nation-state, ransacked its treasuries and temples, and paved the way for its eventual annexation half a century later. That was how the Burmese royal carriage ended up in Piccadilly at the end of the war.

Sivasundaram isn’t the first historian to stretch the geographical range of the age of revolution; one of the most prominent scholars to do this, in fact, was his late colleague Chris Bayly, who in his magisterial book The Birth of the Modern World picked out revolutions in India, China and the Ottoman empire. In a sense, Sivasundaram extends Bayly’s premise, escorting it through the Persian Gulf, down the Bay of Bengal and southern India, across Singapore and Indonesia, via Tonga and New Zealand, and finally to Tasmania – an Apollyonic straddling of an entire hemisphere. He also locates these revolutions in a watery context: river battles of the kind fought between the British and the Burmese, maritime explorations, coastal encounters. “The physical setting of this story matters,” he writes. At a time when the world was expanding, the sea was both a barrier and a carrier, and the coast was the site of first contact between indigenous and foreign, between trader and trader, between new and old ideas. “To think with waves is to think with the push-and-pull dynamic of globalisation.”

Maori warrior.
Maori warrior. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Reading during a time of restrictions provided a small, secret thrill of vicarious travel. In Tonga, a new monarchic system replaced old systems of chieftaincy, aided and abetted by European arms and the advice of Englishmen. In New Zealand, where the painter Augustus Earle saw the Maori convene in meetings resembling “a rude parliament”, Europeans claimed the violence of power struggles between Maori groups to be a sign of “savagery”. The eventual colonisation of New Zealand could then be justified as a means of bringing peace, although it brought with it new and brutal forms of violence. In the Cape Colony in South Africa, the indigenous Khoikhoi and the trekboer farmers – both groups of subsistence pastoralists – revolted against the Dutch authorities, angry about their frail economic circumstances. Exploiting this confusion, the British intervened, occupying the Cape Colony for the first time.

Scrupulously, Sivasundaram tells much of this history from the ground up, from the perspectives of the colonised, and for this purpose, he taps the archives of a cast of astonishing, enjoyable characters – not rulers or officials, but regular folk. Maung Nu, a novice monk in Burma, wrote letters on behalf of others, to their relatives. Hikayat Abdullah, one of Stamford Raffles’s Malay scribes, wrote about steamships and sea voyages out of Singapore. Cora Gooseberry, an Eora Aboriginal woman from the coast near Sydney, left no writing behind, but Sivasundaram uses her metal breastplate and her “rum mug” to begin an investigation into her life. Some of his nuggets are so delicious – a group of men trekking through Persia and singing “Rule Britannia” to ward off jackals; the short tale of Trim, the intrepid cat belonging to the Australian explorer Matthew Flinders – that I sometimes wished he had a better sense of how to pace an anecdote or how to bring his human subjects to fuller life.

Like Bayly, Sivasundaram reads the word “revolution” flexibly. As is evident in the story of Tonga or in the birth of Wahhabism, the term doesn’t denote a crusade for republicanism; rather, it signifies a sharp rupture — a new way of ordering society. If we ignore the Buddhist koan-like question of whether a revolution that is never consummated is a revolution at all, Sivasundaram is largely persuasive in his demarcations of revolutionary sentiment. Not always, though. The unrest among the trekboers feels like a rebellion that might have occurred in any era of economic disparity, before or since the age of revolution. Among the Maori, the rupture often isn’t clear; the habit of war-making within the population had existed even before the British landed, and was then merely amplified by the use of western muskets. And despite Sivasundaram’s provision of generous evidence for indigenous agency, it is occasionally difficult to shake the suspicion that the churn in local politics in one territory or another is best explained as a proxy conflict between France and Britain – that, as with so much else, even these tiny, nascent revolutions were planted and watered for the opportunistic purposes of European imperialism. Small wonder, then, that they could be uprooted swiftly and brutally as well.

Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire is published by William Collins (RRP £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.