This collective places ports-of-trade across the Indian Ocean within the wider framework of negotiations, exchanges and circulations.
It interrogates the port-of-trade experience along the ocean from Bandar Abbas, Persia to Broome, Western Australia. With a temporal span ranging from the Early Historic Period to late capitalism, it privileges ports-of-trade from 1400 CE and their negotiations with capitalism and colonialism. Arguing for a different urban history of ports, the volume asks whether the port-of-trade urban experience, and its spatiality and identity, was different from its inland counterparts.
Kenneth R. Hall works on Chola South India and Southeast Asia. Religious and cultural networking and upstream-downstream connectivities are focal to his investigations.
Rila Mukherjee is interested in spatial issues in the Bay of Bengal, particularly in the northern Bay of Bengal and works on water historians.
Suchandra Ghosh works on ancient and early medieval South Asia and has published extensively on coastal India and the Oxus-Indus region.
The title of an International Seminar ''Toward a New UrbanHistory: Identity and Spatiality in Ports-of-Trade c.100—c.1800'',held at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata from 2nd to 4th January 2017ultimately turned into the title of the present publication as''Subversive Sovereigns Across the Seas : Indian Ocean Ports-of-Trade from Early Historic Times to Late Colonialism''. The initialidea as proposed by Professor Rila Mukherjee and ProfessorSuchandra Ghosh, by and large, got reflected around the broadspectrum of politico-economic and socio-historical context ofthe problem in hand through the individual contributions of theauthors in this volume.
The Indian Ocean, particularly, as a multiplex space standsfor diverse and dynamic actions and interactions among itsusers; positional and oppositional strategies in the internationalrelations among the participating nations; perennial conflict andco-operation among the stakeholders and so on and so forth. Themaritime historians committed to this special field of study havebeen engaging themselves in recording and reporting many uniquecase studies in this respect. The present volume is one furtheraddition to this field of knowledge. I am sure the new generationof researchers in the subject will immensely benefit from thisimportant publication of the Asiatic Society.
The Indian Ocean today is not one world but several:‘maritime complex, infinite horizon, interregional arena,floating cosmopolis, Afrasian sea, poet’s muse, linguisticcaravan, coastal zone, superpower battleground, bookseller’shighway, aquatic maelstrom, girmit passageway, civilizationbasin, trade circuit, piecework carrier, pilgrim path, monsooncorridor, seafarer’s route, mobile marketplace, province ofpirates, burial ground —the Indian Ocean is all of these thingsand much more besides’.
I this is the state of the ocean presently, the Indian Ocean rim,supposedly exhibiting a millennium-plus coherence until the mid-twentieth century, was earlier defined by scholars as a stable unitmaking up one world. This world was seen as a cultural continuumconstituted by exchange and common material practices andfacilitated by maritime mobility. For Chaudhuri the ocean evidencedelements of cohesion in its climate, economic exchanges, movementof people, shared religion and: means of travel where, despitesocial diversity, relations across the Indian Ocean basin remainedmeaningful.? Elaborating on this point and taking the example ofMediterranean port-cities whose inhabitants supposedly felt moreaffinity with each other than they did with the inhabitants of non-port cities in either the Christian or Islamic worlds, Pearson wrotethat port-cities such as Surat and Mombasa shared more featureswith each other than they did with their inland capitals. Lockardsaw a long maritime avenue in a ‘sea common to all’ spawning ‘afluid multiethnic and dynamic transnational economic zone andflexible political boundaries in which waterborne commerce andthe string of ports that facilitated it were essential’.'' The port-cities were nodes of, in Kresse and Simpson's words, the ‘relatedbut different social worlds’ of the Indian Ocean basin.® Because ofthis historical coherence, scholars saw the Indian Ocean region asa heuristic device that allowed them to consider human experiencebeyond the boundaries and levels of region, nation and continent,enabling them to highlight features of human interaction not easilygrasped from these perspectives.’
This volume questions the notion of cohesiveness on severalcounts. As a romantic myth, the cohesiveness of the oceanpresupposes a kind of ‘peddling’ Asian Trade hypothesis andshows the ‘surfeit of longue durée theory on Asia’, in Barendse’swords it is essentially orientalise in formulation ‘ignoring time,place, and context’. Going beyond this enduring principle thatmarks studies of the Indian Ocean, the essays in this volume revealthe existence of diverse networks moulding the ocean and therebydiscover significant shifts in historical time.
While the shifts unearthed by the contributors to this volumechallenge our perception of the ocean as an unchanging unit thecontributors have also been mindful of the fact that the infiniteelasticity of the Indian Ocean creates problems of scale for themaritime historian. We have not always been mindful of thedistinction between the physical and networked spaces of the ocean.The space referenced as ‘Indomediterranea’ or the incorporation ofthe China Seas into what is now called the ‘extended eastern IndianOcean’ has led to the ocean becoming a hodgepodge melange ofdiverse waterscapes.’ While no doubt of utility in tracing forgottennetworks, such notions complicate our understanding of thephysical area of the Indian Ocean which is a reasonably boundedone.
Paradoxically, in the rush to privilege central spaces such asthe Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the westernIndian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal and Java Sea in the easternIndian Ocean, such expansive visions also deny agency to maritimeborderlands and marches. The neglect of much of Africa (especiallysouthern Africa), of western Australia and northeast Asia come tomind, particularly Russia’s oceanic adventures in the Far East whichimpacted on the extreme end of the ocean. However, borderlands,with their inland network of lakes, lagoons and canals have alwaysbeen significant, moulding the character 6f individual maritimeunits. Again, consider the many Nile canals within the privilegedRed Sea area, never included in this maritime imaginary but whichnevertheless were a web of maritime roads connecting the Red Seaports to the Nile valley and thence to Alexandria, Petra and Romeby overland routes.''
Overland routes— seemingly a reluctant component of oceanicspaces— wield considerable influence over waterscapes through thenature and extent of the connections they create. Such circulationswere critical for ports, Kuroda arguing:
‘the circulation of silver across Eurasia heralded the emergenceof a world economy, which was to follow the next silver flood,two centuries later. Without the widespread penetrationof silver in the first silver century, the dependence on silvertaxation in Asia and the strong desire for silver to purchaseAsian products in Europe would not have ensued. In this sense,only the combination of these two tendencies could ignite theglobal flow of silver from South America in the second silvercentury.''
Let me take the example of a Persian Gulf port-city to uncoverthe importance of its overland connections. Bandar Abbas was atthe crossroads of a vast array of trade routes, stretching fromKirman and Isfahan to Mashhad, Bukhara and Khiva, fromYazd to Balkh and to Kandahar, to Hamadan and Tabriz, andfrom there to Izmir and the Caucasus and—within the Gulf—to Bahrain and Basra. There was an array of independentcity-states on the coast—Hurmuz, for example—and in thehinterland like Lar, Balkh, Herat, and, during the Timurid-Astrakhanid transition, Samarkand; these caravan cities werequasi ports-of-trade as Polanyi saw them. Another overlandexample: from the early fifteenth century Venetian merchanthouses established a network of correspondents and associatedmerchant firms stretching from Venice to Aleppo, Baghdad, andBasra, and overseas to Hurmuz and Diu.'' A third example ofthe importance of overland routes: until at least the sixteenthcentury, river ports near the Bengal coastline benefitted morefrom their overland connections into China, Yunnan, Tibet andNepal than from maritime routes.''
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