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Interactions in the Indian Ocean

Cross Currents and Community Networks: The History of the Indian Ocean World edited by Himanshu Prabha Ray and Edward A Alpers (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2007; pp xvi + 311, Rs 650.

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Interactions in the Indian Ocean

Robert Nichols

I
n February 2008, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in partnership with the Dubai School of Government hosted over 150 scholars as part of workshops “to explore an exciting new frontier of ‘Inter-Asian research’”. The introduction to the programme stated,

This is the first forum that brings together such a wide range of scholars of the Middle East, South Asia, Russia/Eurasia, South-East Asia and East Asia, to discuss the shared histories and shared futures of Asia. The host city of Dubai exemplifies the conference theme of ‘Inter-Asian Connections’, and reminds us about the importance of creating and furthering exchanges and dialogues among the different regions of Asia.1

These SSRC workshops were the latest in academic efforts to re-imagine international scholarship after the end of the cold war and to question the continued relevance of area studies programmes in the United States. In the 1990s, many scholars (including social scientists) and the SSRC turned away from cultivating area-specific knowledge (including regional languages, literatures, and histories) to argue for theories and methodologies that applied broadly in an era of globalising economies and cultures.2

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OCTOBER 23, 2010

Cross Currents and Community Networks: The History of the Indian Ocean World edited by Himanshu Prabha Ray and Edward A Alpers (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2007; pp xvi + 311, Rs 650.

A less spectacular conference in 2003 in New Delhi gathered a much smaller group of historians and historically-minded scholars, many trained in particular Asian societies and regions. The New Delhi conference reflected the reality that area specialists have often been among the best at integrating regional knowledge into broader interregional and interdisciplinary studies. These scholars of Africa, west Asia, south Asia, and south-east Asia have produced an intelligent collection of chapters on a thriving, decades-old subset of “Inter-Asian Connections” – Indian Ocean history. They place at the forefront of their interest “the maritime cultural landscape of the sea and the multiplicity of maritime communities that traversed it from Africa to the Indonesian archipelago” (Ray and Alpers 2007: 2).

The chapters of this edited volume are cohesive – thoughtfully written essays that begin with a review by Michael Pearson of the conceptualisations of the “Indian Ocean” scholarship,3 and continue with a discussion by Kenneth McPherson on the

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-Indian Ocean communities as they have evolved over space and time. The chapters that follow explore the local and interregional dynamics of trade networks, transport technologies, the ways in which

littoral societies thrive and connect, the effects of religious and imperial initiatives, and the broad reach and mechanisms of commercial networks and currencies. These chapters offer discussions on the specific nature and history of Indian Ocean slavery, port city social history, and Asian and European imperial politics. Sound research and sophisticated perspectives reveal how local, territorial, economic, and cultural themes have simultaneously influenced and reflected centuries of interregional and globalising dynamics.

The volume is characterised by a selfreflective sensibility that measures the progress made in Indian Ocean studies against the limitations of previous work and the expectations of contemporary transnational, cross-disciplinary thinking. Pearson, writing about the problems and opportunities of studying the Indian Ocean, traces framing notions of Indian Ocean unity as well as questions and shortcomings in the field (ibid: 15-33). Scholarship across temporal periods is uneven, with a “gap” between dense studies of “the earliest period” and the early modern period, with less “from the late eighteenth century”. Pearson calls for less technical, trade, and political history and more “ozone”, meaning fresh air, including “placing the maritime world at the centre

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of our research” (p 16). This involves a full understanding of complex littoral societies, attempting “to be amphibious, to move easily between land and sea” (p 28); investigating and gauging littoral community ties with their own hinterlands and other often distant coastal communities; and placing insights from such Indian Ocean history within the wider context and flows of world history (p 30).

Exploring Maritime Networks

McPherson narrates the development of the maritime community from the earliest ancient occupational specialisation (when fishermen became sailors) to the age of steam, diesel power, and the container ship (pp 34-49). Some ports had developed which linked productive interior regions to export markets while other ports served as basic exchange centres or entrepôts. The communities that developed “were the nodal points where different cultures came into contact and were filters through which these cultures permeated into hinterlands” (p 39).

Himanshu Prabha Ray “moves beyond the two-way nature of circulation to highlight multi-cornered maritime networks” when she examines three themes in the complex “world of traditional shipping that survived European intervention in the Indian Ocean and its changing relationship with other travellers along the sea-lanes” (p 51). First, traditional ships, variations of the “dhow”, and other local vessels continuously filled transport niches even as western technologies and shipping dominated certain roles. Second, from antiquity, coastal topography, including prominent temples and fortresses, guided navigation and shaped spatial orientations. Third, “geographies of religion” not only projected communities to distant locations, but also provided “autonomous networks” the ability to maintain continuities across time. One fascinating example traces how the Buddhist site of Bodh Gaya in northern India has over centuries remained crucial to religious networks or pilgrimage and patronage connecting Sri Lanka and Myanmar (p 72).

Each chapter of the volume offers history developed along the lines of interregional and intercultural research.4 And again, reflexive commentary provides the reader with a strong sense of the developing path of Indian Ocean historiographic debate and scholarship. Subrahmanyam (1999) critiqued how area studies approaches might too easily slip into “parochialism”, and that, despite a claim by Anthony Reid for a specific south-east Asian historical unity, “the sceptical reader still remains unconvinced”.5

In his chapter “Aceh between Two Worlds” (pp 79-99), Anthony Reid acknowledges Subrahmanyam’s critique as well as the related question of why “Southeast Asia studies has to date engaged rather little with Indian Ocean Studies” (the economic and demographic impact of China has been the focus too often). He then presents a subtle Indian Ocean sensibility by placing the 16th century Aceh sultanate on the northern end of Sumatra at the “intersection” of south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean.6 Reid offers a history of how a “direct Islamic” sea trade route carried pepper to Red Sea ports via the Maldives, skirting Portuguese trade restrictions in south India. In the 1560s, Aceh “was shipping as much pepper to the Mediterranean as the Portuguese were taking to Europe” (p 107). Reid traces a simultaneous “exceptional period of Indian Ocean Islamic solidarity”, as Aceh and the Ottomans

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negotiated diplomatic and military connections in opposition to the Portuguese.

Of Slavery and Local Histories

The volume is organised in two sections, Part I: Maritime Communities and Littoral Societies and Part II: Commercial Transactions and Currency Systems. In sum, the authors argue that Indian Ocean “maritime spaces include: a consciously different articulation of social power, local and regional nautical traditions, a new language for commercial transactions, management of exclusive resources, and diverse environmental concerns – in short, the creation of a distinctive culture” (p 1). Elements of production, exchange, labour, and trade had community and regional specificities within wider interregional processes.

The political economy and cultural dimensions of Indian Ocean slavery were historically different from the commercial plantation and mining slave labour model so familiar in Atlantic and American history. Gwyn Campbell outlines 4,000 years of a more incremental, indirect circulation of slaves in contrast to the western history (pp 286-305). In the Indian Ocean, the majority of slaves “were female, notably girls and young women, valued particularly for their sexual attractiveness and reproductive capacity” (p 288). Along with performing basic field and manufactory labour, female and male slaves filled household, service, and business roles.7 Campbell’s scholarship is of a broad perspective, offering an analysis of the history of slavery and of Indian Ocean and world history scholarship. He also argues persuasively to fully include the history of Africa in any Indian Ocean historical project. The comparative value of this chapter becomes strong when it elaborates the range of conditions that led to unfree labour conditions, especially legally imposed slavery for debt. “Possibly the majority of people entering slavery in the Indian Ocean world did so through debt” (pp 290-91). Campbell sketches the contours of how the Indian Ocean slave trade “was multi-directional and changed over time” (p 293), while, “In all of these trades, sources, markets, routes, and slave functions varied considerably from region to region and over time” (p 294). Unfortunately, abolition did not end

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“non-slave forms of unfree labour” (p 301), forms and practices yet to fully disappear.

Throughout the volume, well researched case studies reveal global and interregional processes as they emerged in local histories. Over centuries, Indian Ocean regions developed littoral societies and cultures based on specific influences of religion, migration, conquest, imperial networks, trade, and commercial activity. Mahesh Gopalan details how after decades of conflict and negotiation, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and their convert communities survived and were accounted for in local political, social, and devotional networks (pp 79-99). Nigel Worden reorients the history of Cape Town, revealing it as an Indian Ocean port city heavily defined demographically by policies of the Dutch East India Company. Worden equally argues for the necessity and possibility of writing new social histories that collect ethnic, class, and gender narratives silenced by previously dominant historical discourses (pp 142-62).

Trade Networks and Power Relations

Edward Alpers patiently maps a complex ethnographic history of the littoral communities that settled and interacted on the African and Madagascar sides of the Mozambique Channel (pp 123-41). As do each of these studies, Alpers offers wider interregional insight, including how over many centuries Madagascar was settled by both Africans and Indonesians, with the Indonesians probably introducing food crops such as Asian yams, taro, sugar cane, and bananas (p 129). It was a true littoral society with a “mixed population of Mozambique Africans, Malagasy, Comorians, Swahili, Antalaotse, Arabs, Indians, Portuguese, and mixtures thereof, not to mention Dutch, English, American, and French traders who resided in their midst from time to time...” (p 136).

Finally, this collection brings a historical perspective to the fuelling element of distant interaction, the creation and control of capital and financial instruments, as well as their ebb and flow within maritime communities, and across trade networks and continents. Sanjay Garg details the long existence of non-metallic currencies, especially bitter almond (badams) and

vol xlv no 43

cowries (pp 245-62). Rarely has this history been better outlined, confirming that resource exchange and accumulation had since ancient times shaped local and distant power structures and economies.

Najaf Haider describes how from the 13th through the 16th centuries, the Indian Ocean further tied together, as imperial states consolidated territories and surpluses, as there occurred “a surge in the circulation of metallic and bill money to finance exchange” (p 181), and as commercial groups emerged able to handle and elaborate new forms of long distance trade and finance. Haider offers useful details of centuries of gold and silver flows across world economies. Lakshmi Subramanian continues a scholarly trend that blurs any narrative of a dramatic and complete shift to colonial economic domination from the mid-18th century, when indigenous merchants were faced with the “imperatives of transitional politics” (p 8). Growing European dominance did indeed transform relations of power and access, but with multiple effects on trading communities and regions. Some adapted, others failed, and many, especially in the eastern Indian Ocean, were absorbed into new social and economic relationships.

The sense of this volume is that histories of Indian Ocean circulation, exchange, and competition have evolved and diversified since antiquity, and may continue to be recovered by patient scholars revisiting sources and revising basic approaches. Spatial contours of this sphere of activity varied over time as political, economic, and cultural variables emerged, entered new spaces, influenced littoral and interior societies, and were transformed by degrees before circulating again.

Robert Nichols (robert.nichols@stockton.edu) teaches history at the Richard Stockton College, New Jersey, US.

Notes

1 “Introduction”, from the “Conference on Inter-Asian Connections”, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 21-23 February 2008.

2 For a review of this process of re-evaluation see Ludden (2000).

3 Chapter bibliographies cover the full range of relevant south Asian and wider Asian and Indian Ocean scholarship, from works by Ashin Das Gupta and Om Prakash to those by Claude Markovits, William G Clarence-Smith, and many others.

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4 Sugata Bose’s idea of the Indian Ocean as an “interregional arena” of political, economic, and cultural exchange is fully developed in his volume A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire.

5 Quotations from Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”, pp 289-316. See extended quotation in Cross Currents and Community Networks, pp 101-02.

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6 Sumatra from Samudra, “presumably named by Sanskrit-speakers after the Ocean”, p 105.

7 Large numbers of male field slaves became important in the 19th century Indian Ocean commercial plantations growing sugar, cloves, etc, for export markets.

References

Bose, Sugata (2006): A Hundred Horizons: The Indian

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Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Ludden, David (2000): “Area Studies in the Age of Globalisation”, Frontiers, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Winter, 1-22.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1999): “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia” in Victor Lieberman (ed.), Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c 1830 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

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OCTOBER 23, 2010 vol xlv no 43

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