Review of Nalini Natarajan’s “Atlantic Gandhi”


Keith E. McNeal reviews Atlantic Gandhi: The Mahatma Overseas (Sage, 2013) in the journal New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, volume 90. The review highlights the book’s relevance to the Caribbean. [Also see previous post, New Book: Nalini Natarajan’s “Atlantic Gandhi—The Mahatma Overseas”.]

Arguing against the conventional view of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s time in South Africa (1893–1914) as merely preparation for the movement he would later lead in India, Nalini Natarajan makes a persuasive case for understanding his diasporic sojourns abroad as the transformative foundation for his mature sociopolitical position. Gandhi’s only time within the Atlantic region was his journeys to London. Thus the “Atlantic” in Natarajan’s title refers not primarily to a place, but to an analytic: the notion of the Atlantic region as ground zero for the development of the modern capitalist world-system. South Africa is not usually considered in analyses of the Black Atlantic, yet West Indian planters resettled there as part of the development of colonial plantation economy and indentured South Asian laborers were brought there to work after the system of Indian indentureship had been pioneered in the Caribbean. Thus South Africa not only became an intensifying locus of globalization, but also represented a key nexus of transformation from an earlier mercantile modality of South Asian diaspora throughout the greater Indian Ocean area to a colonial capitalist paradigm premised upon modern labor exploitation. Gandhi’s diasporic career therefore embodies the pivot between East and West.

[. . .] Natarajan situates indentureship within the dialectic between slavery and freedom and extends the logic of Black Atlantic history as precociously modern into the heart of the Indian diaspora. Gandhi’s plotting of a new nation while in diaspora inverts the abject status of “coolie” in colonial racial ideology, yet also paradoxically maintains its homogenizing thrust by incorporating merchants and agriculturalists, free and indentured, Hindu and Muslim, Northern and Southern, man and woman into a consolidating ethnonationalist category of modern Indianness that in turn triumphs at “home” and disavows the diaspora which birthed it. Satyagraha, in other words, surfaced in South Africa, and Hind Swaraj was conjured in exile. Gandhi is both a local cosmopolitan who links the politics of the Atlantic World with colonial South Africa and parlays this into a triumphant nationalism that unleashes a tidal wave of mid-twentieth-century global decolonization, and a modern anti-modern advocating a new composite “tradition” built in no small measure upon his mastery of literacy and use of print media. [. . .]

For full review, see


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