• Report

Sharpening the Edges: Instating state and power in Indian Ocean history. An agenda for critical research and teaching


Report of: 


Monday, 17 August 2015


Leiden University
Doelensteeg 16 Huizinga Gebouw Conference Room

On 17 August 2015, the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) hosted an invited workshop, “Sharpening the Edges: Instating State and Power in Indian Ocean History,” to discuss critical research and teaching on Indian Ocean History. The workshop was part of the IIAS/Mellon- sponsored program on Asian Spatialities and the Rethinking Asian Studies Research Network. The generosity of these institutions allowed us to build on two previous meetings of South and South East Asian scholars in Princeton in 2011 and 2014. At the Princeton meetings, the group discussed how cross-regional rubrics such as the Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal could broaden their shared research base. From these discussions too, we gained a sense that the Indian Ocean could emerge as a critical point of departure, though only after its histories had been decoupled from twenty first century notions of cosmopolitanism.  Thus armed with an interest in thinking through questions of power along with commercial ties, cultural hybridity and interaction, Michael Laffan and Nira Wickramasinghe organized this forum for emerging students of power and state in Indian Ocean Studies. The goal was to engage with a new generation of scholars who will contribute to Indian Ocean Studies and identify ways of teaching this nascent field in institutions of higher education. Nine emerging scholars and graduate students were selected for the workshop, and three established scholars (Timothy Harper, Michael Laffan, and Sudipta Sen) were invited as discussants.  Papers were read in advance and the discussants led three thematic sessions that were roughly chronologically arranged.

The day began with a lively discussion of Indian Ocean networks from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Sudipta Sen observed that all three papers-- Bhawan Ruangsilp and Pimmanus Wibusilp’s paper on trade and cosmopolitan politics from Ayutthaya, Mahesh Gopalan’s work on Christian missionizing along the coasts of South East India, and Simon Layton’s paper on piracy and state building in the shadow of the British Empire--drew out the amphibious nature of littoral networks and communities. Enterprising Protestant and Jesuit missionaries, much like Siamese merchants and Persian Gulf pirates, endeavored to extend their control by cutting across different zones of state-sovereignty and skillfully moved between formal and informal diplomacy. These actors spoke languages of contract or conversion but embedded them in existing cultural norms and customary practice. As we drew out the connections between the papers, we realized that the agility of these actors were not instances of forum shopping or jurisdictional crossing. Indeed, all three papers broke with the idea that the Indian Ocean was a jigsaw puzzle of imperial jurisdictions. Jurisdictions of states overlapped and competed with the ambit of pirates or missionaries. Political control emerged in all its complexity because it was clear that the symbols of political authority and practices of contractual relations were fashioned through custom. What emerged was the open-ended texture of oceanic flow that was risky and prone to quick collapse and expansion.

The dynamic nature of oceanic networks allowed all three papers to focus on how historical actors shaped imperial trajectories. In Layton’s essay, overlapping maritime jurisdictions produced piracy even as the pirate bedeviled all things imperial. Oceanic networks also revealed the malleability of geo-space. The paper on Ayutthaya suggested that Islamic networks were differentiated and carried polyvalent meanings. The word ‘Moors’ in the sources could have referenced Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and it was possible that the Mughals were a significant presence off the Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Coast when compared with the Persians. Gopalan also argued trans-regional maritime Christian communities elude ethno-nationalist labels because they were formed by and integrated into Christian cultural networks.

The second panel shifted our attention from oceanic flow to the making of borders. Timothy Harper’s comments focused on the relationship between bonds and borders in Sarah Longair’s paper on the museum display of Indian Ocean material culture pertaining to imprisonment, Tania Bhattacharya’s work on the abolition of slavery in the Indian Ocean, and Hollian Wint’s fascinating paper on the relations of enslavement and credit on the East African coast. Harper observed that the consular archives used in these papers were in fact conceived as an archive of mobility, something that challenges a diasporic studies approach to migration. Furthermore, ideas about freedom and agency in these papers emerged from the cracks of empire rather than through evolution of imperial legislation. Harper reminded us that borders were ways of coding licit and illicit practices in the nineteenth century and that this coding occurred in relation to deepening bonds or connections across the ocean through speedy travel, communication and the consumption of industrial goods.

Responses to Harper’s comments elaborated his insights from the perspective of objects, materials, and things. Bhattacharya and Wint, for instance, agreed that property law mediated the abolition of slavery. The slave could only be manumitted after being seized by the crown or becoming Crown property, thereby disrupting the humanitarian discourse of abolition. Other responses dwelt on how the indirect nature of imperial rule facilitated the travel of law. Princely sultans often took up imperial law to represent and assert political autonomy.

The panel provoked an animated discussion on the distinctive nature of Indian Ocean histories and possible future agendas. We did not favor overt comparisons between the Indian Ocean and other oceanic stories (the Atlantic or the Pacific, for instance) even if they shared questions of mobility. Laffan called instead for greater reflexivity about the imperial origins of the heuristic framework of the Indian Ocean. Others suggested that Indian Ocean histories could move beyond the framework of port cities and connect more closely to hinterlands and local ecologies. Many also brought up the importance of reading sources in non-European languages, so that Indian Ocean historians could engage more critically with ideas of cosmopolitanism in their research. Wint for instance, noted that memories of enslavement could be erased as assimilation processes such as “Arabization” proceeded through refurbished histories of obligation, debt and patronage—something that could be only discerned by a historian who cultivated an ear for language and thought more astutely about hybridity. Nira Wickramsinghe opened up a discussion of how the business history of consumer goods could be braided with the history of slave migration. Sudipta Sen wondered if the contradictory histories of bodies and things were, in fact, bound together and facilitated by currency. There were possibilities here for new histories of servitude to written through the making of markets and their governance.

The questions about currency, markets, and traffic set the stage perfectly for the final panel on Indian Ocean circulation. Here Laffan’s comments showed how Sohaib Baig’s essay on Indian Sufi epistolary activities and Swarupa Gupta’s research on Bengali travellers in South East Asia complemented Matthew Minarchek’s fascinating treatment of the circulation of Sumatran fauna and Nisha Mathew’s study of gold circulation between Dubai and Bombay. All these papers highlighted how empires and national governments struggled to keep up with, standardize, and police the circulation of gold, fauna or ideas. Could circulation networks be abstracted from the objects and ideas that circulated through them? In discussion, Baig and Laffan emphasized the degree to which transnational circulations relied on ordinary forms of communication such as the imperial postal service and so were neither secret nor illegal. Bloembergen noted that the papers pushed against an anthropocentric view of circulation. Minarchek’s paper was perhaps the most explicit in highlighting inter-species circulation. But Mathew’s paper also showed how gold called out to communities of traders who followed it, hoarded and profited from it, even holding an entire nation-state to ransom.

The highlight of the panel was the discussion of scale and circulation. All four papers highlighted how circulation fuelled national imaginations whether anchored in Islam, an Indian civitas, or economic sovereignty but they also highlighted scalar differences that allowed for more elastic approach to temporality. Swarupa Gupta’s paper showed how travel generated ideas of civilizational hierarchies that were snapped up by nationalism. But Minarchek’s paper offered evidence that the circulation of fauna produced temporally layered narrations of place. Temporality was important to the story of gold too. The gold markets of Dubai demonstrated the persistence of commercial practices that dated to the British Empire. Yet these gold markets were not local, given their size and scale. In fact, in the post-Bretton Woods world of monetary sovereignty, they formed the frontier of the money economy.

We concluded the day by synthesizing some of the ideas and insights generated by the panels for potential curriculum development. The Indian Ocean remains marginal to graduate teaching. Very few of our participants had taken a course on the topic. So it was exciting to identify a number of productive themes for further pursuit in research and teaching. Of these, a critical overview of the Indian Ocean’s emergence as a historiographical object or space and its genealogies in European colonialism appeared essential for understanding power and asymmetry. Attendant to this idea was the suggestion that the rubric of the Indian Ocean could be approached as a framework to study, tame and reward risk that than study a stable set of objects or issues.

Scale was mooted as a second important theme. On the one hand Indian Ocean in a scalar sense was made possible by intensification of speed especially in the nineteenth century. On the other, as several discussants made clear, oceanic histories disrupt territorial scales that animate historical thinking. The waters evade nationalization, regionalization and localization. They even evade the currently hegemonic language of hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Indeed this became a third important theme. How could we theorize economies of hospitality and power, as opposed to theorizing formal and customary practice? Many in the group felt it important to emphasize the asymmetries of history and unevenness of sources and circulation as ways to reject the flattening of the Indian Ocean.

Finally, many participants called for a more critical sense of temporality and intimacy that evades conventional periodization. Indian Ocean networks demonstrated the intimacy of long distance ties that could usefully revise how we frame scale--from the local to the global—in our work. The depth of the archival work that went to these papers received favorable comment, as did the possibility of using new sources in different languages. Travel accounts, Islamic histories, genealogies were all sources yet to be studied for their expansive and elastic sense of time. The opening up of temporal frameworks could allow Indian Ocean history to be written as historia differentia rather than a counterpoint to histories of land.

The organizers are considering future plans based on the insights of the workshop. The quality of the conversation suggests that there is much to be said for sustaining the network of scholars who contributed so effectively and meaningfully to the day’s challenging task: writing and teaching critically about the Indian Ocean world. 


Titia van der Maas
Programme Coordinator
Phone: +31 (0)71 527 4728
E-mail: t.van.der.maas@iias.nl