Emrys Chew. Arming the Periphery: The Arms Trade in the Indian Ocean During the Age of Global Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 309 S. ISBN 978-1-137-00660-8.
Reviewed by Felix Brahm
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (November, 2013)
E. Chew: Arming the Periphery
This book studies the proliferation of firearms in the Indian Ocean World during the ‘long’ 19th century, a phenomenon that historians have largely neglected. Emrys Chew studies this subject as part of the history of empires. Arms trade, the author is aware, has of course a long history, but only in the time-span under consideration here it became a global phenomenon. According to Chew, this global spread of small arms can be understood as a process of imperial expansion and ‘indigenous crisis’ (p. 3). The violence unleashed by the arms diffusion triggered arms controls – simultaneously creating patterns of imperial power control.
The main sources of this research are British and British Indian governmental files, contemporary newspapers and journals, and the Birmingham Proof House records. Chew organizes his vast field of study by distinguishing between a Western zone (chapter 3) and an Eastern zone (chapter 4) of the Indian Ocean; in both cases, he focuses on ‘European expansion’, ‘indigenous crisis and arming’, and ‘interlopers and intermediaries’. These chapters are preceded by a section on the ‘Arms Trade in the Metropolis’ (chapter 2), which in fact concentrates less on trade than on the small arms production in the UK, particularly in Birmingham. A short introduction and a first chapter present the topic, while a final chapter 5 (no conclusion has been included) discusses the impact of the expanding arms trade in the Indian Ocean World on imperial warfare in this region.
The first chapter includes a history of firearms technique. It emphasises that Europe became the centre of innovation during the 18th and 19th century while Asia was stagnating in terms of military technique. Whereas the Crimean War spurred the introduction of the rifled musket; major developments were the breech-loader (1850s to 1880s) and the magazine rifles until the introduction of the Maxim gun (1890s). For the slightly older or obsolete models a new market was found at the ‘periphery’.
Chapter 2 thoroughly analyses Birmingham’s small arms industry. Chew outlines its elastic character, the complex relationship between private and state-run industries, and the challenges posed on small producers by mass production of interchangeable parts. The Birmingham industry played indeed a major role as supplier of small arms to the ‘periphery’. Nevertheless, by the second half of the 19th century, its export to the ‘periphery’ – although still comprising an annual average of about 100-150,000 African trade muskets – was far outnumbered by Belgian competitors. Interestingly, the Birmingham and the Liège based gun-smiths also cooperated in their production for the foreign market.
Surveying the Indian Ocean World as a whole for over more than thirteen decades, chapters 3 and 4 offer rather general accounts including selective examples. Concerning the ‘Western zone’, the author underlines the central position of Zanzibar and Muscat as nodes of the arms traffic. The immense diffusion of small arms in the 19th century led to a militarization of the geopolitical frontier and to spirals of violence. Attempts to control the diffusion of arms, such as in the case of the international blockade of the Swahili coast in 1888/89, only resulted in a shift of the porous arms frontier to the north, namely to the Arab peninsula and the Somali coast. Chew convincingly describes the implementation of arms control as an uneven process, “with metropolitan, colonial, local, and personal factors all influencing the pace and depth of enforcement.” (p. 117)
The marked increase of firearms in the Eastern zone of the Indian Ocean World commenced earlier than in the Western zone. At first, the principal gateway was the island-colony of Penang; then, Singapore became the centre of the arms trade network in the Eastern Archipelago. Benefiting from the geographical fragmentation of the area, piracy played a more important role here than in the Western zone. Both zones shared the fact that occasional restrictions of the arms traffic led to a geographical shift of it. Interestingly, even the Arab peninsula and the Persian Gulf could alternatively function as arms supplier of the Eastern part of the Indian Ocean.
Chew underlines the ambivalent character of firearms serving, on the one hand, as ‘tools’ of empire (p. 25) while, on the other hand, enabling resistance at the ‘periphery’. In the concluding chapter 5 he argues that it would be erroneous to reduce European imperial domination to the supremacy in armament. As Chew argues, firearms in the hand of ‘indigenous’ societies could indeed be powerful instruments fighting imperial rule.
Chew’s approach proofs particularly fruitful for the cases in which he points at similarities and differences between the Western and the Eastern zones of the Indian Ocean World. For instance, in both zones firearms “filled an important niche in the indigenous arsenal” (p. 193) and enabled “new patterns of indigenous state formation” (p. 6). At the same time, the study limits itself by hardly abandoning a narrative of British Empire history and by consulting almost exclusively British and British Indian files. Was the European metropole really always the centre of the processes considered here? In my opinion, the author’s own results – e.g. when he emphasises the role of Indian and Chinese trading and financing networks – even contradict this viewpoint. Such critical comments should, however, not diminish the contribution of this pioneering study that enriches our understanding of the Indian Ocean World and inspires further research on the history of arms trade.
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Felix Brahm. Review of Chew, Emrys, Arming the Periphery: The Arms Trade in the Indian Ocean During the Age of Global Empire.
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