The Global History of a River

Robert Ivermee

A lyrical history of one of India’s great rivers—the entry-point of maritime commercial colonialism, and the life-sustaining waterway of Bengal and its former capital, Calcutta.

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Hooghly Hardback
September 2020£20

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The Hooghly, a distributary of the Ganges flowing south to the Bay of Bengal, is now little known outside of India. Yet for centuries it was a river of truly global significance, attracting merchants, missionaries, mercenaries, statesmen, labourers and others from Europe, Asia and beyond. Hooghly seeks to restore the waterway to the heart of global history. Focusing in turn on the role of and competition between those who struggled to control the river—the Portuguese, the Mughals, the Dutch, the French and finally the British, who built their imperial capital, Calcutta, on its banks—the author considers how the Hooghly was integrated into global networks of encounter and exchange, and the dramatic consequences that ensued.

Travelling up and down the river, Robert Ivermee explores themes of enduring concern, among them the dynamics of modern capitalism and the power of large corporations; migration and human trafficking; the role of new technologies in revolutionising social relations; and the human impact on the natural world. The Hooghly’s global history, he concludes, may offer lessons for India as it emerges as a world superpower.


Robert Ivermee is a global and imperial historian focused on colonialism in South Asia. He works in higher education management at SOAS University of London and teaches at the Catholic University of Paris.


‘A rare and fascinating narrative of the Bengal delta, tracing the dynamic confluence of imperialist politics, mercantile ambition and economic progress that flowed through these waters. A history buff’s delight and a stimulating narrative of a global melting-point, bubbling into life through Ivermee’s detailed yet fluid rendition. Vivid, colourful and compelling.’ — Shashi Tharoor, Indian MP and author of Inglorious Empire

‘Brisk and judicious, Hooghly sets out to make the case for regarding a short river in Bengal as a crucible of global exchange. Based on original sources throughout, it succeeds quite brilliantly.’ — John Keay, author of India: A History

‘A compelling book, which uses the history of a river to tell a story about the connection and conflict of people from different worlds. Hooghly is both an excellent introduction to the history of Bengal, and a comment on the limited nature of all claims to power, in the face of human diversity and the force of nature. Essential reading.’ — Jon Wilson, Professor in Modern History, King’s College London, and author of India Conquered

‘Not a history of the river but how the Hooghly made history, attracting Portuguese, Muslim, English, French, and Danish settlements, all drawing in global networks of trade, radical ideas, literature, and technology. An unusual and fascinating approach.’ — Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, author of The Great Uprising in India 1857-58: Untold Stories, Indian and British and Portraits in Princely India, 1700-1947