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Historiography of Oceans

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Oceans Connect: Reflections on Water Worlds across Time and Space edited by Rila Mukherjee (Delhi: Primus Books), 2013; pp xvi + 286, Rs 995.

Johan Mathew (johanmathew@history.umass.edu) teaches History and Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Oceanic history is entering a comfortable middle age. Ever since Fernand Braudel, historians and other scholars have plumbed the oceanic depths for new insights into old historical questions and innovative directions for scholarship. The Atlantic world has garnered the lion’s share of attention but a steady stream of scholarship has been published on the Indian Ocean and the Pacific as well. So the edited volume Oceans Connect appears on the scene at a time when there is little that is innovative or insurgent about studying the ocean. There is consequently a high bar for success in a field that is already littered with edited volumes.

What was particularly intriguing about this volume was the promise to examine not just how oceans connect landed territories, but the possibility of examining how oceans connect to each other. The enormous influence of Braudel’s Mediterranean has made comparisons quite common in oceanic history. However, this volume explores how commodities, ideas and practices were transferred between oceans. Some of the chapters here offer models for global history and quite broad programmatic statements about how oceans should be studied. Yet these pieces seemed less compelling than the chapters which focused on making smaller arguments through rich empirical evidence. Oceans Connect gives tantalising hints of something original but ultimately settles into a useful addition to the historiography of oceans.

The book is divided into four parts, the first of which is entitled “Marine Worlds”. The chapters in this section are supposed to provide a truly water-centered viewpoint on the history of the ocean. Of these, Paul D’arcy’s chapter is probably the most successful in capturing a marine perspective. D’arcy argues for a history of the Philippines that places it in continuing connection with the populations of the Pacific islands. This history operates in counterpoint to colonial histories that have focused on colonial rulers and the Manila elite who interacted with them. In the second chapter, Rila Mukherjee traces cultural connections around the Bay of Bengal littoral, focusing on the recurring motif of a marine goddess or mermaid. While evocative and intriguing, the material is suggestive rather than persuasive in its analysis. Arvind Susarla’s chapter critiques world history and geography for its neglect of oceans, but does not provide any alternative for how such a truly marine history might be pursued.

Maritime Empires

Part I of the volume thus lays the groundwork for the more empirically focused chapters that follow. The chapters in Part II of the volume, entitled “Maritime Worlds”, are most fruitful in drawing connections between oceans. Ryan Tucker Jones’ excellent chapter on Russia’s oceanic moment charts the history of a stereotypically landed empire’s brief engagement with the Pacific Ocean. The chapter analyses the historical association between maritime empires and liberalism, and ultimately levels a useful critique against both the British and Russian practice of liberal imperialism. It is also worth noting that Jones’ chapter takes the first steps towards breaching the last frontiers of oceanic history: the Arctic and the Southern Oceans. Ana Crespo Solana and J B Owens discuss the importance of thinking about commercial networks and diasporas in studies of empire, and Owens particularly emphasises the explanatory power of narratives in such studies. These two chapters are more methodological in their focus but are empirically demonstrated in the succeeding chapters. The chapters by Amélia Polónia and Amândio Jorge Morais Barros highlight the importance of exchange and cooperation inallowing the Portuguese empire to span two oceans. Polónia describes how the absorption of technologies from Asia and the Islamic world, as well as early interactions with Atlantic Africa, were a precondition for Portugal’s conquests in the Indian Ocean. In turn, she shows how Portuguese interactions within theIndian Ocean world had important impacts on European culture. Barros specifically maps the knowledge transfers between the Indian Ocean and theAtlantic, drawing attention to the architecture of forts and galleons as theresult of long interactions between these oceans. Moreover he argues for the importance of Jewish, Muslim, Indian and other European merchants whose presence on Portuguese vessels belies the monopolistic characterisation of the Portuguese empire.

Part III of the book details unexpected connections between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean through analysis of maps and cartographic knowledge. Antoni Picazo Muntaner’s chapter recovers the importance of Arab geographical knowledge to the European mapping of the Indian Ocean. The chapter provocatively argues that increasingly precise geographic knowledge prompted the Portuguese entry into the Indian Ocean. This was because maps depicted both the impossibility of bypassing Arab middlemen in overland commerce with Asia, and the possibility of a direct maritime route. Mukherjee’s second chapter in the volume also focuses on maps, but particularly the naming conventions for seas and oceans. Mukherjee shows the confusion of European geographic knowledge during the enlightenment and draws interesting conclusions about the evolution of labels for bodies of water.

Importance of Private Traders

Part IV is more constrained by oceanic boundaries of the Indian Ocean, and provides some of the most engaging archival materials in the volume. The chapter by Lipi Ghosh convincingly demonstrates that ports like Tennaserim in Thailand maintained substantial autonomy despite the centralising efforts of stronger inland kingdoms. One of the best chapters in the volume is Radhika Seshan’s investigation of rumours in Surat. She has a fascinating analysis of the power of rumours to influence trade and the frustrating inability of the East India Company to access or control these information networks. Some engagements with scholarship like that of Robert Darnton on rumours or Christopher Bayly on information networks might have made the chapter even stronger. Like the chapters by Barros and Polónia, Ruby Maloni details the importance of private traders in European empires in the Indian Ocean. She contends that the long history of private trade by Europeans helped to make imperial conquest possible in the 18th century. Last, but certainly not least, Om Prakash’s chapter highlights the essential role of Indian textiles in the early modern Indian Ocean economy. He argues for the competitive advantage of Indian textile manufacturing and that the Dutch company’s ability to monopolise imports into key sites in Indonesia were a vital contribution to its ultimate conquest.

Useful Contribution

The strengths of the volume are in many ways also its weaknesses. Many ofthe chapters utilise fascinating visual materials, but these are used mostly as illustrations rather than actually analysing their visual content. The volumeprovides a rich diversity of styles, disciplinary backgrounds, and geographic scope. Yet this very diversity undermines the cohesiveness of the volume, and the introduction does not provide much help in drawing together thevaried approaches. Of course, this is a criticism levelled at almost every edited volume. If keeping politicians in line is said to be like herding cats, one imagines that keeping oceanic historians in line might be more like herding sharks. Nevertheless Oceans Connect is a useful contribution to the growing literatureon oceanic history. The chapters that explore the connections and interactions between oceans are particularly successful. Scholars of the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese empire and maritime historians generally will find much to learn from this book.

 

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