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Response to Review no. 726

I am grateful to Dr Fuccaro for her thoughtful and insightful review of my book. I would like to comment on three aspects of the book and then address Dr Fuccaro’s criticism of the book’s organisation and use of detail.

First, despite the book’s title, chapters two and three actually cover a much longer time period (1600–1947) and a much wider area: about half of Asia, half of the Middle East, and the eastern coast of Africa. The remaining chapters are a case study of Bahrain during 1816–1900, when Britain’s political agent there was a ‘native agent’.

Second, a ‘native agent’ is the term the British used for their locally-recruited, non-European representatives, who were often wealthy merchants. From the dawn of the Age of Empire in the 1490s to the present day, a great many Western overseas representatives (commercial, political, or consular) were native agents.  The East India Company and British Government of India employed native agents extensively throughout Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East. At one point, over half of their ‘men on the spot’ were native agents, not Britons as the historiography would have you believe. Native agent employment continues, for today over half of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s overseas representatives (now called ‘honorary consuls’) are locally-recruited. My book is one of the first to examine this practice.(1) Interested readers can find my argument summarised in an article available online.(2) Ronald Robinson’s theory of collaboration features prominently in my argument, as Dr Fuccaro points out.

Third, my book breaks out of the Middle East / South Asia ‘area studies’ paradigm in two significant ways. First, it argues that eastern and southern Arabia during the Raj was as much a part of the Indian Ocean world as it was a part of the Arab world: culturally, economically, financially, politically, and judicially. It is the first to argue that the emirates of eastern and southern Arabia formed part of the Indian Empire. I expand this argument further in a forthcoming article.(3) The ‘Arabisation’ of eastern Arabia that Dr Fuccaro refers to occurred after Britain’s withdrawal from India. Two of the main reasons for this reorientation were pan-Arab nationalism and commercial air travel, which connected eastern Arabia to an Arab world from which it had previously been isolated. Second, my book integrates Middle Eastern and South Asian historiography, bringing two seemingly unrelated bodies of literature together on the subject of empire and collaboration. The result is that my book is sometimes shelved in the ‘Middle East’ section of libraries and bookstores, and sometimes in the ‘India’ section.

Now for the criticisms of my book…

The first criticism that Dr Fuccaro makes is that a ‘wealth of detail’ in chapters two and three ‘sometimes constrains the narrative flow’, making it hard for the reader ‘to relate the evidence to the overall argument’, and that as a result the book ‘is not always incisively argued’. To this I would remark that the question of balance ­­in one’s writing (detail versus summary) is a problem every historian struggles with. I would agree that some portions of chapters two and three may appear dense to some readers, but I believe that the impression of ‘density’ will vary with the reader. The reader who does find the details too dense in places need only skip ahead to the next clearly-labeled section. I have organised the book to enable readers to do this easily. If, at any point, the wealth of detail somehow obscures the argument, all one has to do is read the opening paragraph of the section in question, where the main points of the section are clearly stated. Finally, readers will find the arguments of each chapter summarised at the end of each chapter and again in the conclusion of the book. I have devoted much time to making the argument clearly laid out and easy to follow.

The second criticism that Dr Fuccaro makes is that the book is ‘overladen with a dense historiographical apparatus reflecting its bibliographical spread (however commendable an effort in itself)’, which should have been left out. She cites ‘the lengthy literature reviews’ that should have been cut. However, the portions of the book I believe she is referring to amount to four pages of chapter two (pp. 48–52) and six pages in chapter three (pp. 74–80), a total of ten pages out of a book of 387 pages. These are small sections that can be easily skipped over by the reader. But I don’t see why I should have cut them. The first section establishes the place of my book in Gulf historiography, which readers could not possibly do on their own, and the second section examines the origins of the native agency system in India, mostly through the works of Michael Fisher and Sir Christopher Bayly.(4)

The third criticism that Dr Fuccaro makes is that, in the case study of Britain’s Native Agency in Bahrain (chapters four to six), ‘some context on Bahrain, which might have been useful for non-Gulf specialists, is left unexplained. This is particularly the case of the relationship between merchants and the ruling family, which underscored the development of the port economy of the islands and the foundation of the political structures of the principality.’ I agree that I could have provided a little more information on Bahrain for the benefit of those unfamiliar with Gulf history, although this information is not necessary to understand the events examined in the case study. Originally, the book had a whole chapter on Bahraini politics and the Al Khalifah (Bahrain’s ruling family), but this proved too cumbersome, so I published it as a separate article also available online.(5) In the introduction (chapter one) and at various points throughout the book, I refer readers to this article and invite them to read it in conjunction with the book. On the question of omitting background information on and context for merchant-ruler relations, I must disagree with Dr Fuccaro. Pages 95–6 provide this adequately.

The fourth criticism that Dr Fuccaro makes is that there are four ‘organisational problems, which reflect upon the scholarly apparatus of the study.’ First, that the introduction is ‘relatively short and although it is quite evocative it should have fleshed out more organically conceptual issues such as imperialism, collaboration and mediation as a way to introduce the reader to the following chapters. Instead these issues are tackled in some detail in chapters two and three’. To this I would reply that, of course, I could have put them in the introduction, but I didn’t because I wanted a short and snappy introduction (just seven pages) highlighting the most important aspects of the book: namely, an overview of its argument and an explanation of what’s new and exciting about it. Had I added anything more, the impact of the chapter would have been lost. (Readers can view my introduction online at by clicking on ‘A sample of this book’). I wanted to limit the detailed theoretical discussion to chapters two and three, leaving the remaining chapters to narrate, describe, and entertain. The second problem is that chapter three ‘should perhaps have been painted in broader strokes following a more succinct and engaging thematic rubric.’ Yes, chapter three is long, but it’s the core of the book: it explains what the native agency system was and how it worked. My book is the first publication to identify the system and to analyse it. The implications of the native agency system for studies of imperialism are considerable. This is the book’s main contribution. It warrants greater length as a result. The third problem is that the section ‘British Native Agency in Bahrain’ in chapter three (pp. 54–7) ‘would feature more appropriately in part II’ of the book, the part entitled ‘Agents of Empire’. I agree, it would have fitted better there. I would go further and say that there may be one or two other sections that possibly could have been located elsewhere to improve the flow of the book. Fourth, Dr. Fuccaro finds that ‘issues of organisation and synthesis’ seem to have occurred because of ‘the author’s too close reliance on his doctoral dissertation which forms the basis of this study.’ The book is certainly an improved and expanded version of my doctoral dissertation (Oxford 2001), but I did not want to change too much, since the dissertation did after all win prizes from the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES). I think I got the balance right, for the 2008 MESA book prize committee short-listed my book, its chair informing me that ‘a hardened committee of five academics agreed that yours was one of the four finest books out of the massive pack of 85 books received’.


  1. The only other book-length study of native agents in English is Yen-P’ing Hao’s The Comprador in Nineteenth Century China: Bridge between East and West (Cambridge, Mass, 1970). The few articles or book chapters that have been written on native agents are discussed on pp. 41–3, 74–80 of my book.Back to (1)
  2. James Onley, ‘Britain’s native agents in Arabia and Persia in the nineteenth century’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 24, 1 (2004), 129–37.Back to (2)
  3. James Onley, ‘The Raj reconsidered’, Asian Affairs, 40 (March 2009), 44–62.Back to (3)
  4. M. H. Fisher, Indirect Rule in India: Residents and the Residency System, 1764–1858 (Delhi, 1991); Fisher, ‘The office of Akhbar Nawis: the transition from Mughal to Britishforms’, Modern Asian Studies, 27 (1993), 45–82; C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 1996).Back to (4)
  5. James Onley, ‘The politics of protection in the Gulf: the Arab rulers and the British resident in the nineteenth century, New Arabian Studies, 6 (2004), 30–92.Back to (5)