Michael Francis Laffan, Under Empire: Muslim Lives and Loyalties Across the Indian Ocean World, 1775-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2022). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Michael Laffan (ML): Even if I had not elected to term it such, I had long had a strong sense that it was possible to write a connected history of the Indian Ocean from its southern and central latitudes, while still considering the strong pull of Hadramawt and Egypt alongside Mecca for so many Muslims who came under the direct authority of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. At the same time, I wanted to factor in both the earlier place of Dutch empire and the subsequent appeal of the Ottoman and then the Japanese ones—especially for Indonesia, where much of my earlier work is grounded. Of course none of this was clear to me in the beginning. I had been motivated in part by sheer curiosity about the once Malay speaking communities of Cape Town and Colombo, which I have been able to visit and revisit over the last few years. As an Australian the former place was particularly intriguing to me. The (introduced) flora and indeed people are rather familiar, to say the least, and there is something about the environment in general that made me start to rethink my own national history, which also has its own rather unusual connection to the Indian Ocean world.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ML: The book opens two of its three constituent parts (“Western Deposits” and “Muslim Mediations”) by considering stories of forced and then seemingly unforced migrations between what is now eastern Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and most especially Cape Town. In what follows thereafter, it places the Ottoman state less in an antagonistic role vis-à-vis Britain than one of an imagined partner acting for Muslim interests, at least before the Russo-Turkish Wars that saw Abdulhamid II take advantage of many older aspirations expressed by Indian Ocean Muslims concerning the primacy of his office as Caliph. Here, I engage with recent work concerning the imaginings of Southeast Asians abroad, most notably that of Ronit Ricci, as much as that charting the vicissitudes of people of Hadrami background in Southeast Asia. Certainly, the latter captured a lot of attention in the past few decades—from Ulrike Freitag and Engseng Ho to the more recent Nurfadzilah Yahaya—though my concern is to emphasize their local roots even as they made appeals to Istanbul. In so doing, I try to turn a little sideways to look at both the local Indonesians drawn to the Hadrami community and their sometime fellow travelers from Egypt, Sudan, and Tunis.

In some ways, too, I wanted to give more flesh to some of Cemil Aydin’s explorations of the complex origins of both Islamic and Asian anti-Westernism and the very idea of the Muslim world, for I think Indonesia offers the ideal space for thinking about both forms of confraternity in global history, particularly when we see (in part three, “Eastern Returns”) how many erstwhile proponents of pan-Islam in the 1910s and 1920s became enthusiasts for Japan in the 1930s, if not for the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, while it lasted.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ML: Having tackled more recondite questions of orientalist assumptions about Indonesian history and thus its religious character, this was something of a return to, and expansion of, the themes of my first book, where I was thinking about the impacts of travel and longing for a homeland, though in several of the newer oceanic cases we see the impossibility of return and thus the necessity for building new community abroad. This is most clearly in evidence in South Africa, where the forced migrants of past eras under the Dutch East India Company were crucial leaders of the emerging Muslim community that the British chose to read as “Malay”, despite their origins being more Indonesian and indeed broadly Afro-Indian.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ML: Well, I hope that readers can deal with my efforts to try and keep everybody in the story in the hope that fresh connections can be made to people who have otherwise been forgotten. Otherwise, we will keep treading in the same furrows, offering the same characters for various national or glorified imperial histories. On the other hand, too, I would hope that the fresh attention to the exilic experience of Ahmad Urabi and, just as importantly, his fellow deportees to then British Ceylon, will be of interest to students of the Middle East. Naturally, in treating so broad a swathe of time and space, some might blanch at the whole package—there is a lot of inside baseball as one reviewer noted—but I also hope that the tripartite structure of the book will invite more detailed dives for graduate students and even advanced undergraduates more focused on African, Sri Lankan, or Southeast Asian concerns.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ML: As I hinted with regard to my own country’s connection to the Indian Ocean, and even South Africa, my new project concerns the surprisingly complex history of a very small atoll south of Java—that of Cocos-Keeling, a community of mostly Malay-speaking Muslims which has been administered by Australia since the 1950s. Settled in the 1820s, and largely by forced migration by way of Cape Town in the first instance, it saw the visits of Charles Darwin, querulous American whalers, regular cyclones, a cable station built by Chinese workers in 1902, an unwelcome German raider in 1914, and (yes) Japanese bombers in 1942, not to mention hundreds of military personnel from across Asia, Africa, and Europe. My hope is to rechart the early years of the islands’ history until the transition to Australian rule, focusing more on the family lineages of the workers than the pseudo-Scottish dynasty that claimed them as its own. Almost.

J: Could you tell us about the front cover of the book?

ML: In some ways I am a bit sheepish about the front cover. For my book on the history of Orientalist and reformist framings of “Indonesian Islam,” more often called Islam Nusantara these days, I found an image drawn by a Muslim for a Dutch scholar depicting his imagining of an Arab saint, and yet I did not really talk about it as the sort of framing device I could have made it. Once again I have found something that spoke to me in retrospect. This time it is a painting of a “Malay priest” made by the celebrated South African artist Irma Stern in 1931 and now held in the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch. The question for me now, though, is: Who was it? I think this may well be something that can be discovered in time through her papers. For now, though, and despite the misapplied rubric of “priest,” I am glad to have an image that conveys an appropriate sense of dignity that still speaks to us today, past the experience of exile and apartheid.


Except from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-6)

The Arab with the Turkish Buttons 

On November 9, 1920, Salih bin ʿAbdat, a twenty-two-year-old resident of the lush hill town of Buitenzorg, otherwise known as Bogor, in West Java, boarded a train for the hour and half journey down to Batavia, the stifling capital of the Netherlands East Indies. It is hard to know whether he would have been confident or nervous. There is surely no record of what class of ticket he purchased, and thus whether he sat with other so-called “natives” or among those identified as “foreign orientals”, occupying a carriage closer to that of the Europeans in first class with its electric fans. The humidity would have been oppressive in any case. Sweat beaded on the brows of many passengers soon after the towering volcano Gunung Salak disappeared into the morning haze behind them.

Once at Batavia, with its canals and tramways, we do know that Salih presented himself for an interview with Josiah Crosby (1880-1958), the Acting Consul General for Great Britain. Already an old hand in Southeast Asia, Crosby had spent many years at Bangkok and had just been seconded from a fresh appointment to Saigon. Salih hoped that Crosby would grant him a visa in order to make a much longer journey across the Indian Ocean via Colombo to Aden, at the opening of the Red Sea. From there he would sail northeast along the South Arabian coast to the port of Mukalla, and then continue by camel up to the hinterland oasis corridor of Hadramawt.

This would not be his first journey to the striking environs of South Arabia where patches of agriculture and mud brick compounds offered water and a modicum of cool security between desert and towering cliffs. Salih claimed a wife and residence in one such redoubt the village of Ba Bakar. Lying at the western end of the long wadi, it was controlled from the town of Shibam by a governor appointed by Sultan Sir Ghalib b. ʿAwad al-Quʿayti (r. 1910-22). Sultan Sir Ghalib was seldom there, though. His whitewashed palace stood on the coast at Mukalla and looked away from Hadramawt toward India, and Hyderabad in particular, whence his family’s wealth derived. It was by virtue of the loyal military service of his forebears to a string of fabulously wealthy nizams that they had been able to recreate a small corner of the Raj in the land of their ancestors.

Ghalib’s passport had been issued to Salih on August 6, 1918, perhaps soon after the young man’s previous arrival in the land that was similarly of his paternal ancestors. For Salih had been born in Batavia and spent his childhood between there and Bogor, speaking Malay as well as Arabic. When dressed in the same sort of sarung worn on both sides of the Indian Ocean, he would have been hard to distinguish from many of his Indonesian relatives, Javanese and Malay among others, but he would still have stuck out to his Arab ones as being muwallad jawa: Southeast Asia born. Salih was surely not wearing a sarung the day he called on the British consul. Based on the photograph he supplied, dressed in a modern white suit topped off by a cocked red fez with a black tassel, Salih was the epitome of the modern young Indies Arab. Such youths and their mentors were oriented to Egypt, another protectorate of the British empire for the moment, with its opportunities, its rhetoric of Muslim equality for Arab and non-Arab alike, and its booming literary and journalistic scene.

Many such trouser-clad young men—and soon a number of skirted women—were graduates of the modernist Irshad School, founded at Batavia in September 1914 by an African teacher, Ahmad Surkati al-Ansari (1875-1943), and bankrolled by the local Dutch appointed “Captain of the Arabs,” ʿUmar Manqush. Although Salih could not have started his schooling at the Irshad School, his father’s voluble support for both men and their egalitarian movement would have seen him invest in a suite of modern languages. They included Dutch and English at a minimum to negotiate business both in the Indies and en route to the hallowed homeland or watan of Hadramawt.

The problem for Salih, however, was that his father shared something with Manqush that no money or clothing could change. As the descendant of a relatively lowborn member of the larger Ba Kathir moiety—whose own sultan was landlocked in the central wadi town of Say’un—Salih’s modern learning and his Indies wealth were seen as a threat to the elite sayyids who claimed descent from the Prophet and who, as inviolable mediators between princes, effectively controlled the valley of Hadramawt and the ways thither. To some sayyids, young Salih was barely more than a “native” (watani), and he should have known his place—it being one of social immobility. If they met on the streets of any major town of Java, where Arab men were vastly outnumbered by thousands of women and men of several Asian communities—Javanese, Sundanese, and Chinese for starters—a reverent greeting and inhaling of the perfumed hand would have been due to the sayyid. Salih could never have hoped to marry one of their sequestered daughters.

Such expectations had caused Surkati, a Sudanese outsider trained in Ottoman Mecca, to establish his own school. This move was quietly welcomed by some Dutch officials appointed to monitor their Muslim subjects. On the other hand, the political relationship between the sayyids and Britain had only grown during the Great War, when the Netherlands was neutral, and in opposition to the continuance of Ottoman authority over Arabia. Once the Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany, many Irshadi Arabs and like-minded Indonesians, as they were starting to call themselves, remained sympathetic to Turkey and its sultan, whom they respected as the modern caliph of Islam. By contrast two particularly prominent sayyids—Muhammad b. ʿAqil of Singapore and ʿAli b. Shahab of Batavia (a.k.a. Habib ʿAli Menteng)—convinced the British in both cities, and thus Aden, that fez-wearing youths like Salih were not merely Turcophiles, but pro-German enemies of the Union Jack and likely Bolsheviks.

Before his interview with Salih, Crosby perused the ever-lengthening list of Arabs supplied by Habib ʿAli, since updated by his visa application:

Saleh bin Salem Bin-Abdat. Born in Batavia. Address, Buitenzorg.

A reckless anti-British preacher. In conversation in the habit of condemning Great Britain and of impressing upon the Arabs (both members and non-members of the Al-Irshad Society) that the principal aim of the Society is to see the Hadramaut free from the grip of Great Britain to whom the country was sold by the Sa[yy]ids.

Upon being advised by certain Arabs against being to too [sic] reckless in his anti-British preaching, he replies that he has nothing to fear as he feels sure to be able to move about freely with Al-Gaity’s passport which he holds. His father Salim bin Awad Bin-Abdat, resident at Buitenzorg, is one of the strongest supporters of the Al-Irshad Society and is an intimate associate of Manggesh [sic: Manqush] while he himself is highly respected by Manggesh despite his age.

In his interview Salih—whose slightly mismatched eyes subtly mirrored those of the consul—did not present in so hostile a manner. He denied “strenuously” that he was “in any way anti-British.” Still, there was the slightly worrying matter of his dress. As Crosby observed:

He happened at the time to be wearing in his coat buttons the device of the star and crescent stamped upon them. I asked him why he chose to exhibit the national Turkish emblem in this manner, whereupon he professed ignorance of the fact that the device in question had any connection with Turkey at all! (The same type of button is largely stocked in the local bazaar and is much in vogue with the native public here. The possibility exists that the sale of it may in itself be a form of pro-Turkish propaganda.)

While hardly likely that such sales were Turkish propaganda, Salih could not have been ignorant of the powerful symbolism of his buttons. If they didn’t suggest an allegiance to Turkey, saddled with a suite of occupiers after the 1918 Armistice of Mudros, they most decidedly invoked an Islamic identity in 1920. And it was an increasingly global one that wedded all manner of local struggles against a ubiquitous colonialism: British, Dutch, French, Italian, and American. Few places were free in Africa and Asia. Empire was the rule.

Crosby—who later embarrassed himself as the pro-Japanese consul at Bangkok in 1942—had already expressed his doubts about the biased information that he had been receiving from Bin Shahab. He decided to issue Salih with a visa because of his youth and the hearsay of the charges against him. The young Arab could travel. But he would be watched, and ultimately with reason. In 1924, his paternal kinsmen—ʿUmar and Salih b. ʿUbayd Bin ʿAbdat—would attempt to build a state of their own centered on the tiny fortified town of al-Ghurfa, which lay between Quʿayti Shibam and Kathiri Say’un, eventually allied by British agreement in 1937. Starved of resources by the Japanese occupation of Java in 1942, the Bin ʿAbdats held on to their patch of the wadi until 1945 when Britain sent troops over from Hyderabad, and as yet more Indian soldiers were being mobilized to help the Dutch regain control of Java from nationalists who had declared independence two days after Japan’s surrender.