D – Transregional connections and entangled regions

Ideas and peoples across the waters of the Western Indian Ocean

Event Details

  • Date

    Saturday, 27 June - 14:00 – 16:00

    Sunday, 28 June - 9:00 – 11:00

  • Venue
    tba
  • Theme
    D – Transregional connections and entangled regions
Convenor
  • Tamara Fernando (University of Cambridge)
  • Taushif Kara (University of Cambridge)
Chair
  • Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge)
Commentator
  • Frederick Cooper (New York University)
Panelists
  • Christopher Bahl (Orient-Institut Beirut)
  • Tamara Fernando (University of Cambridge)
  • Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh)
  • Taushif Kara (University of Cambridge)
  • Sujit Sivasundaram (University of Cambridge)
  • Hatice Yildiz (University of Oxford)

Papers

  • Christopher Bahl
    The Sayyid, the Shrine, the Court and the Sea – Community Building across the sixteenth-century Western Indian Ocean

    The Sayyid, the Shrine, the Court and the Sea – Community Building across the sixteenth-century Western Indian Ocean

    Recent scholarship has highlighted the political transformations of the sixteenth-century Western Indian Ocean along the lines of competing claims to trade routes and universal empire. As the context between the large empires and small polities reshaped alliances, individuals set sail to search for new social options across the sea. How did the individualising experience of Ocean travel in the early modern period and the ability to connect with new people reshape a sense of community and belonging? In the second half of the sixteenth century, Sayyid Hasan al-Naqib, known as Ibn Shadqam, left his post of custodian at the prophet’s mosque in Medina to make his living as a migrant scholar abroad. He spent the rest of his life on the move between the Hijaz, the Deccan in South Asia and Iran. His trips included visits to the shrines of Najaf, Kerbala and Mashhad, where he built his scholarly networks. But he also entered the courts of Safavid Kings and Deccani Sultans, married a Deccani princess and received royal patronage. His life throws light on the two “minority” backgrounds that he combined: the elite phenomenon of intellectual sea travels in this period and the charismatic descent of a Sayyid, a lineage that goes back to the prophet Muhammad. As he moved from shrine to shrine and court to court he penned several works in Arabic, biographical compilations and genealogical texts. He began putting together his ‘own community’: another minority of poets, scholars and sultans, who mattered to his world and pursuits. This community building project cut across several boundaries and thereby complicates our understanding of the political in this period.
  • Tamara Fernando
    Venturing Underwater: Racialised Regimes of Labour in Indian Ocean Pearl Diving 1880-1925

    Venturing Underwater: Racialised Regimes of Labour in Indian Ocean Pearl Diving 1880-1925

    In the late nineteenth century, the Indian Ocean hosted some of the largest pearl fisheries in the world, most notably, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar, as well as the fisheries of lower Burma. The labour of diving, without the assistance of breathing equipment, was arduous and physically deleterious, and often resulted in the loss of life. This paper studies the emergence of racialised theories of labour in relation to pearl diving. Although diving equipment was available from the early nineteenth-century, it was frequently restricted to European divers, on the pretext that native divers were physically better equipped to descend underwater. This paper focuses especially on the hallmark work produced by the marine biologists William Herdman and James Hornell in Ceylon Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (1902-1908), a text which circulated in the Persian Gulf and in lower Burma. This paper asks how pearling sites interacted with one another and inflected their labour regimes and practices: for example, how migrant divers from the Persian Gulf were viewed in Ceylon and how similar ideas coloured the treatment of native Moken divers in the Mergui archipelago. ‘Minorities’ took form in relation to the seabed and to the incipient science of the oyster and the seafloor. Coupled with an economic imperative (to extract pearls), the science of the seafloor affected the treatment of minorities differently across the three pearling sites.
  • Emma Hunter
    Debating Community and Belonging in Tanzania’s mid-twentieth century public spheres

    Debating Community and Belonging in Tanzania’s mid-twentieth century public spheres

    Historians of Tanzania have often tended to frame their scholarship in relation to the nation. For histories of the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 60s, the result can be a historiography which reproduces normative assumptions about political community and sets up a contrast between ‘majority’ and 'minority' communities, at the expense of an appreciation of the fluidity and flux of this period of dramatic change. ‘Water’, we suggest in this panel, can ‘disturb and complicate more rigid, often land-based, assumptions about territory and space’. An oceanic perspective brings into the foreground the power of de-territorialized ideas and directs us away from flat and bounded conceptions of territorial citizenship and towards overlapping allegiances which transcend territorial borders. Building on recent scholarship on the Western Indian Ocean, in this paper, I explore the ways in which writers in decolonization-era Tanzania’s public spheres interrogated conceptions of community and belonging in the 1950s and 1960s, and did so in the context of the movement of people and ideas through the Western Indian Ocean.
  • Taushif Kara
    Refusing Minority: Placing the Khoja in the Indian ocean (1866 – 1972)

    Refusing Minority: Placing the Khoja in the Indian ocean (1866 – 1972)

    The conceptual problems rendered by the ‘minority’ are particularly visible in histories of the Khoja, a trading community who by the late nineteenth century had established a significant presence across east Africa. From the perspective of Indian history they are read as Muslim subjects, while from the lens of Islamic studies they are treated as Shi‘a subjects, always connected uncritically to their broader ‘sectarian’ lineage. And when viewed from the context of Africa, they are read as Indian subjects – never as African ones. They continue to exist as a discursive minority, an exception to the greater narrative no matter the vantage point. And yet their own intellectual and political histories fervently contest this framing. This paper explores various attempts made by the Khoja to refuse their endowed minority status, and to instead claim the position and the place of the majority. Most often these were aimed at escaping the problem of an increasingly territorial and racialized nationalism, and thus required a constant and even chaotic slippage between various modes of subjectivity. This slippage, I argue, is drawn into sharp relief when we read the community from the waters of the Indian ocean.
  • Sujit Sivasundaram
    Sri Lanka and Mauritius: An Initial Exploration in the Island History of the Western Indian Ocean

    Sri Lanka and Mauritius: An Initial Exploration in the Island History of the Western Indian Ocean

    This paper comprises a thought experiment and presents very initial research on the convergent and divergent histories of Mauritius and Sri Lanka in the long nineteenth century. It first considers the different ways in which the social was constituted in these two sites through shared histories of reform, liberalism, rebellion, public debate and Crown colonial rule. In the second half, it moves from the planning of the social to the history of plantation labour. It interrogates the comparative and connected histories of indentured labour in Sri Lanka and Mauritius and asks how/why these histories are similar and different in these two key sites of commodity production in the British empire. Yet the paper also stretches the history of coerced labour in the Indian Ocean by encompassing the histories of other less well known labouring lives, including those of ‘lascars’ alongside plantation labour. As a whole the paper asks what might be gained by placing two marginalised sites in the Western Indian Ocean together to ask new questions in each of them about society, ideas and labour. The method involves the application of an island-centred methodology to the Indian Ocean; seeing this ocean as a ‘sea of islands’, to borrow a phrase from Pacific historiography.
  • Hatice Yildiz
    ‘Her Life Seemed to Be an Indian Version of My Life’: India Through the Eyes of a Turkish Female Intellectual, Halide Edip

    ‘Her Life Seemed to Be an Indian Version of My Life’: India Through the Eyes of a Turkish Female Intellectual, Halide Edip

    This paper traces the sense of self and other in a travel memoir by Halide Edip Adivar, a prominent social reformist, novelist, women’s rights campaigner, and public speaker in early-republican Turkey. First published in 1937 in the English language, the memoir Inside India illustrates Halide Edip’s impressions of Muslim communities, women, and minority groups such as industrial workers during her political campaigns in major South Asian cities including Lahore, Lucknow, Calcutta, and Bombay. Being a fervent supporter of the women’s emancipation movement in Turkey, Halide Edip remodelled her idea of self as a progressive Muslim Turkish woman as she lectured the Purdah club, a community of upper-class Muslim women in Delhi, and as she visited Hindu and Christian households. Grappling with the fluid and contested notions of reform in early-twentieth century India, Halide Edip invented a temporal distance between Turkish women and Indian Muslim women, conceptualising the latter as ‘Ottoman women of yesterday’. Carrying discursive instruments of Ottoman orientalism across the water, Halide Edip’s memoir reveals the internal inconsistencies and tensions of the process of constituting the Ottoman and Turkish self with reference to other Eastern peoples. It also provides a rare non-European perspective on the politics of women’s liberation in South Asia, highlighting horizontal alliances that did not emanate from a direct colonial relation.

Abstract

Across the waters, who constitutes a minority and a majority? Does the practice of constituting self and other take on radically divergent patterns in an oceanic space? This double panel will consider how politics, ideology, and social structure are defined in relation to belonging and notions of community. As light refracts and bends underwater, ideas and social forms and their intersection also change direction and warp as they move through the ocean. Water can also disturb and complicate more rigid, often land-based, assumptions about territory and space. How might ideas and peoples be understood in the context of the Western Indian Ocean? The specific set of connections and disconnections which concern the panellists are those encompassing East Africa, West Asia and South Asia. The double panel attends to ideas as and beyond texts, language, and materials, and approaches social forms as in flux and connected to migrants, labourers, intellectuals and people on the move. The papers will explore different and entangled economic, social and cultural mobilities across the Ocean. They use several key episodes in the social and intellectual histories of the Western Indian Ocean (Khoja migrations, pearl divers, mobile scholarship and community building, the growth of ideas of liberalism and reform) to ask how we see the methodological encounter between social and intellectual approaches to global history today. In political and historiographical terms, it also returns to marginalised peoples and people cast as ‘minorities’ in order to open a way to speak of their ideas, voices, agencies and formations. As the seas remain sites of fervent geo-political contestation, these questions remain germane and urgent as much as the politics of 'minoritization' and its violence continues to wreak havoc in this part of the world.