Event Recap: The Cambridge History of the Indian Ocean

April 3, 2017
Sugata Bose & Sunil Amrith

What can a history of the Indian Ocean, a body of water that connects an array of landed and islanded civilizations, teach us? What insights can it offer on the histories of labor, capital, Islam, food culture, languages, trade, cosmopolitanism, ports and polities?  The series on The Cambridge History of the Indian Ocean, presented by Harvard Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs Sugata Bose and Harvard Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies Sunil Amrith, offers a snapshot of the field of Indian Ocean history as it stands, raises new questions, and suggests new directions of inquiry. Professor Bose, the general editor of the series and Professor Amrith, joint-editor of the second volume, provided an overview of the field through this collection of scholarly essays. Treating the Indian Ocean as an intermediate level of societal interactions and political economies, the series studies key themes in a broad chronological range. The vast range of material explored in the series include the natural world, shipbuilding and sailing, histories of commodities, piracy, port-cities, river basins, colonial activity, literary productions, religious networks, trade communities and scientific knowledge.

Previous studies of the Indian Ocean were limited by a lack of engagement with colonial and post-colonial periods. The series considers the whole Indian Oceanic space spanning from East Africa to China. Challenging the view that European colonialism effected a fundamental rupture in the organic unity of the region, the project explored the key elements of change during the transition to colonialism. The general editor asked contributors how inter-regional networks were utilized, molded, reordered and rendered subservient by colonial rule. At the same time, to avoid over-focusing on the sub-continent and to create a truly trans-national conversation, the editors and contributors of the series come from various disciplines and parts of the world. Professor Bose further noted that the chapters are meant to have connections and encourage people to see a kaleidoscope of patterns in the Indian Ocean space. As an arena of exploration, the Indian Ocean provides a site for deepening our understanding of historical processes as well as a site where interdisciplinary theories can be developed.

Studies of the cosmopolitan, mercantile, Islamic space spanning the Arabian Peninsula, to Gujarat, South India, Burma and Indonesia exemplify scholarly possibilities. For example, they question the nature of cosmopolitanism and of colonial rule. Islam travelled by sea in boats and ships and was shaped by port-cities, river valleys and the agricultural plains where it attracted large numbers of the faithful. This interconnected world sustained a rich cosmopolitan culture. A pre-colonial Ismaili tract notes that a perfect man is Persian by breeding, Arabian by faith, Iraqi in culture, Hebrew in law, Christian in manner, Syrian in devotion, Greek in science, Indian in discernment and Sufi in intimation. While Muslim acumen signified cosmopolitan commercial sociability, the actual nature of this cosmopolitanism is unclear. To what degree was it a diverse cosmopolitanism of customary practices, or a unified reformed culture? Was it a universal vision cognizant of the Islamic world at large, or should it be seen as a ‘local cosmopolitanism’? The coming of colonial rule did not uproot these networks of trade and credit. They were often co-opted and reordered to serve colonial economies. Led by the Parsis of Bombay and Sind, a wide range of Shia sects including Bohras, Khojas, Memons and Ismailis established commercial networks that melded with the colonial systems. Similar networks emerged among various communities to harness the opportunities offered by colonial centers. Not only do these interactions promise new insights into colonial rule, but they are also vital to our understanding of contemporary economic structures in the region. Research on commercial networks sustained the practice of economic history in Indian Ocean studies at a time when culture and intellectual history were holding sway.

Professor Amrith offered a snapshot of the new directions being explored in the field. These include expansions in scope and shifts in inquiry. Anarchists and political agitators moved through the port cities of European empires establishing networks and exchanging ideas in their struggles against colonial rule. The cultures of such hidden worlds played a vital role in ending foreign domination and shaping post-colonial national cultures. Intelligentsia and traders were not the only mobile people. The expansion of industries, plantations and trade moved large numbers of laborers and sailors across the theater. How do we understand non-elite cosmopolitan projects as sub-alterns expressed distinct combinations of cultures and outlooks of the Indian Ocean? Professor Amrith’s next project on a history of water considers evolving scientific understandings of monsoons, sailing, climate, rainfall and weather. One of the chapters of the Cambridge History investigates the local scientific networks that emerged from the 1960’s project of mapping the Indian Ocean floor.

The series is in no way a conclusive overview of the region. Instead, it demands further scholarly engagement. For example, while there are extensive studies of different oceanic theaters, there is a pressing need to explore the links between them. Professor Amrith offers the study of unfree labor as a powerful vein to explore such connections. He finally noted the great need for scholarship on the late twentieth century period. In this heyday of the nation state, interstate connections of the global arena overshadowed regional theaters leaving contemporary political issues, and historical and ethnographic subjects unaddressed. Instead of being a monument celebrating the accomplishments of the project, the editors hope that the series will inspire and direct new journeys of inquiry.

Listen to a recording of the event.