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Indian Historical Review
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DOI: 10.1177/0376983614521730
2014 41: 87 Indian Historical Review
Rila Mukherjee
Escape from Terracentrism: Writing a Water History

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Escape from Terracentrism:
Writing a Water History
Rila Mukherjee
Director, Institut de Chandernagor and Professor,
University of Hyderabad, India
Escape from Terracentrism traces the shifts in writing a history of the seas/oceans
from maritime history, to oceanic histories and finally to a water history. In the pro-
cess it pleads for a transnational approach to the study of regions, arguing that there
is a fundamental disconnect between our present-day lives and water. Finally, the
article discusses whether a history of the sea can be a theatre for world history or
an arena for a new, de-centred regional history, yielding thereby a fresh perspective
on regions.
Maritime, oceanic, water, sea, disconnect, silver, Indian Ocean
Water dominates our lives. Almost 70 per cent of the earths surface is covered by
water; islands and continents make up the rest. Within continents, lakes and rivers
occupy still more space. Although ours is a water world, it is easy to lose sight of this
fact as we mostly live out of sight of oceans, seas, rivers and lakes. Consequently, the
relationship between water and human history has not been adequately studied.
Unlike us, the ancients did not make a distinction between land and water. Strabo
wrote over two thousand years ago that: We are in a certain sense amphibious, not
exclusively connected with the land, but with the sea as wellThe sea and the land in
which we dwell furnish theatres for action.
Unfortunately, we have lost the sense of amphibiousness and with it, much of our
history. What remains of that history has been poorly understood; and a history of
water has yet to be attempted. Can water history be a transnational or even a world his-
torical category? With what tools can we write its history or construct a water archive?
These are the concerns that this essay addresses.
Indian Historical Review
41(1) 87101
2014 ICHR
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/0376983614521730
Strabo, Geography, from Hamilton and Falconer tr. and ed., The Geography of Strabo, 3 Vols, London,
1903, 1.1.16, quoted in Steinberg, Navigating to Multiple Horizons, p. 368.
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88 Rila Mukherjee
Indian Historical Review, 41, 1 (2014): 87101
Seas and oceans were quite essential to life until the seventeenth century, that is, until
the emergence of modern capitalism. During ancient and medieval times, sea faring
activities complemented land-based ones. In mercantilist Europe, for example, the sea
remained central to life on land. It was a political space, subject to legal regulation,
particularly the seas and oceans beyond Europe: see the Papal Bull of 1493, the treaties
of Tordesillas (1494) in the Atlantic and Zaragossa (1529) in the Pacific, Grotius pam-
phlet Mare Liberum (1609) and Seldens Mare Clausum tract (1635) as examples.
situation was the same in pre-colonial South Asia: the waters of the Kaveri River, for
example, legitimised Chola lineage, while the exploits recounted in the Mangal Kavyas
of Bengal took place within a visionary Bay of Bengal.
Water, as much as land, was
the grand arena within which human deeds were enacted.
But towards the mid-eighteenth century, Steinberg notes, there was a spatial shift
within capitalism and waterscapes became separated, with new importance placed on
the terrestrial sphere and on the development of pockets of land within the capitalist
enterprise. The result was that the sea became separated from land and history.
It is
time that we re-centre the sea, indeed all waterscapes, as a marginalised space of con-
cern, as Peters suggests.
Within the discipline of history, that branch known as maritime history was the first to
study the history of ocean-space. Yet this was essentially a history of human (and
mans) activities on water. Therefore, metropolitan interactions across seas and oceans
were privileged; and not coast-to-coast exchanges.
The differences between the littoral and the metropolitan approaches will be under-
scored in the following sections; here let me state that the distinction between the lit-
toral and the deep sea is crucial when historians write a water history. M.N. Pearson
notes, quoting Steinberg:
One way forward is to be clear about the difference between the pelagic or demersal ocean
and coastal waters. It is a fault of most of the people who want to stress the sea and maritime
influences that they fail to make this crucial distinction.Steinberg writes that the sea con-
sists of two regions. One region, the coastal zone, is like land in that it is susceptible to being
claimed, controlled, regulated, and managed by individual state-actors. In the other region,
the deep sea, the only necessary (or even permissible) regulation is that which ensures that all
ships will be able to travel freely across its vast surface.
The initial phase of writing a water historyfrom the 1960s to the 1990ssaw
maritime histories, focusing on European sea-borne empires in Asia, dominating
Theutenberg, Mare Clausum et Mare Liberum; Steinberg, Lines of Division, Lines of Connection.
Seshan, Imagining and Managing Water.
Steinberg quoted in Peters, Future Promises, p. 1261. I am indebted to M.N. Pearson for this reference.
Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean, p. 115, quoted in Pearson, Water and History.
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academic studies on the Indian Ocean.
The history materialising from these contacts
was primarily a naval history of Europe, being a palette of discoveries in a nautical
canvas concentrating on the period between 1400 and 1800. Travel literature, diaries,
official company records and correspondence featured as source material. What
emerged was an imperial naval history of contact, plunder and trade, ending often in
conquest and colonisation.
There was yet another strand of maritime history: the histories of Southeast Asia
written by the Greater India Society in response to the English colonisation of India;
here too the entire region was seen, not as a theatre for European domination, but as
an arena of long-forgotten Indian (particularly Hindu) maritime and cultural activities
across the Bay of Bengal.
In both these strands of maritime history, the voices of the
sea faring peoples around the seas were silent. Ashin Das Gupta underlined this absence
as early as 1967
and attempted throughout his career to correct this imbalance.
another maritime historian, K.N. Chaudhuri, who started his academic career with the
history of the trade of the English East India Company,
also encountered this margin-
alisation. He subsequently moved away from company-based history to study histori-
cal interactions over this vast waterscape, taking Islams expansion across the Indian
Ocean as the originary point.
Nevertheless manas merchant or seafarerremained
central to the inquiries of both Das Gupta and Chaudhuri.
The most pre eminent among the maritime historians was Fernand Braudel, but with a
difference. Innovatively, Braudel reversed the humansea relationship. In his first book
the seain this case the Mediterraneanwas central to his enquiries and the human
Spains Philip IIwas secondary.
His posthumous work Autour de la Mediterranee
a collection of Braudels early papers edited by Maurice Aymard, continued the same
focus: the Mediterranean occupied centre stage.
But even while the sea was central in the Braudelian vision, like other imperial
maritime historians before and after him, Braudel too ascribed little or no agency to
Asian mercantile activities and shipping.
See Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire; Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire; Parry, The Establishment
of the European Hegemony; Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire; Parry, Trade and Dominion; Parry, The
Discovery of the Sea; Russell Wood, The Portuguese Empire; Scammell, The World Encompassed, among
In the writings of R.C. Majumdar, Kalidas Nag, Suniti Kumar Chatterji. Also see those by Georges Coedes,
Sylvain Levi, Ananda Coomaraswamy.
Das Gupta, Malabar in Asian Trade; Das Gupta, Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat; Das Gupta and
Pearson, India and the Indian Ocean.
Das Gupta, Merchants of Maritime India.
Chaudhuri, The English East India Company; Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia.
Chaudhuri, Asia before Europe; Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilization.
Braudel, La Mditerrane et le Monde Mditerranen; in English as Braudel, The Mediterranean and the
Mediterranean World.
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Human exploits on sea were thereafter replaced by metallic flows as a new variant of mari-
time history. Studies of global flows of money proliferated. Silver created the Eurasian
silver century long before the First Global Age between 1400 and 1800.
In the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries Mongol conquests in Asia and Europe created a vast zone stretch-
ing from East to West, one united by war, plunder and silver. During the period between
1400 and 1800, the role of silver became even more central. Om Prakash wrote:
an important element in the rise of this economy was the integration of the Indian Ocean
into the larger framework of world trade on a scale unimaginable before. Not only were the
three principal segments of the early modern world economythe New World, Europe, and
Asianow drawn into the vortex of world trade but there emerged also an organic and inter-
active relationship across the three segments whereby the growth of trade in one direction
became critically dependent on the growth of trade in the other.
This silver flow was not restricted to the oceans; the flows also linked the uplands
with the coast.
Coasts, estuaries, deltas and rivers became significant in this novel
Coinage and diverse currencies therefore emerged as a distinctive unifying feature
among discrete waterscapes. When Arab and Persian traders traded across the Indian
Ocean from the seventheighth centuries, silver coins were the trade currency of the
Indian Ocean, and copper cash the norm in Southeast Asia. China, lacking adequate
supplies of both, repeatedly tried to break into the Indian Ocean trade by way of its
paper currency, but was not successful; silver remaining the currency of long distance
Indian Ocean trade until the nineteenth century. A lesser currencythe kauri shell
or cypria monetabridged the gap between silver and local currencies all along the
Indian Ocean littoral.
From the 2000s, as research on sea faring communities across the Indian Ocean prolif-
erated, there was a shift from maritime studies to a more inclusive oceanic history,
which the works of the geographers already cited and historians and anthropologists
Kuroda, The Eurasian Silver Century.
Prakash, The Great Divergence, quoted with the permission of the author by email on 5 March 2013;
Flynn and Lee, East Asian Trade before/after 1590s. Also see the numerous Flynn and Giraldez publica-
tions on silver flows.
See for recent research on Bengal: Deyell, Monetary and Financial; Deyell, Cowries and coins; Hussain,
Silver Flow and Horse Supply; Mukherjee, An Early Medieval Metal Corridor; Husne Jahan, Excavating
Waves and Winds of (Ex)change; see also Mukherjee, Maps, Concealed Geographies, Connectivities.
Discussion at IWHA, Montpellier, June 2013; Mukherjee, Ptolemaic Perspectives: Rivers, Lakes and
Seas in Asia.
Heimann, Small Change and Ballast.
McPherson, The Indian Ocean; Pearson, The Indian Ocean.
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such as Matsuda and DArcy were predominant.
Maritime religion became an object
of enquiry:
the worship of Mazu, the Chinese maritime goddess, of Lara Kidul in
Java, of Velankanni in peninsular India, for example. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam
were mobile and maritime from very early times and their exchanges across seas are
apparent both in the persistence of beliefs and practices as well as in the artefacts that
are now being excavated in Southeast Asia and China. Attention is also directed toward
material culture and its practice: tales, songs and rituals, literature and music.
Consequently new archives have emerged with categories such as object biographies
and shipwreck studies.
New spatial contours are visible in Indian Ocean studies;
Africa, the China seas and the eastern Mediterranean world are now included within
this rubric.
One of the most influential contributions in the new century was the concept of
comparable littoral societies across the Indian Ocean by Pearson. Quoting Steinbergs
notion of two seas: the coastal zone, susceptible to regulation by state-controlled actors
and the deep sea, Pearson writes:
Are there then two Indian Oceans, one pelagic, the other littoral or benthic? Or are there
more? Does the ocean include other places: port cities; islands; the hinterlands and/or the
forelands of port cities? And if so how far inland must we go before the ocean influence ends?
What about estuaries?
Littorals connect and the littoral is consequently a mutable and porous place,
marked by the circulation of various objects (for trade, for diplomacy, as religious rel-
ics, as gifts of power, etc.), beliefs, peoples and languages (Arabic, Portuguese, Malay,
Chinese). Consequently, studies focusing on a maritime cultural landscape, be it the
Swahili coast or the Bengal littoral, have emerged with significant inputs from archae-
ology and architectural history.
Pearson also pointed to the malign effect of the American Area Studies programme
on littoral studies by remarking that
Surat and Mombasa have more in common with each other than they do with inland cities
such as Nairobi or Ahmadabad. Yet this is not yet widely accepted. In a complaint against the
dead hand of area studies and its effects on academic work, Erik Gilbert recently pointed out
that one can get a grant to compare Zanzibar and Gambia, but not to compare Zanzibar and
Aden or Calicut.
DArcy, Sea Worlds; DArcy, The People of the Sea; Matsuda, Ocean-Based Histories.
Mollat, Europe and the Sea; Tsu Yun Hui, Between Heaven And The Deep Sea.
Flecker, The Archaeological Excavation of the 10th Century Intan Shipwreck; Flecker, Miscellaneous
Artefacts: Identifications and Implications; Hall, Indonesias Evolving International Relationships; http:// Other than the Belitung and Intan wrecks, see reports
on the Cirebon wreck.
Pearson, History of the Indian Ocean, p. 82.
Horton, Shanga.
Pearson, Littoral Society.
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In the new millennium there has been a further shift; this time from oceanic history to
a more specific water-based history. Boomgard writes:
If one links the notion of water to the notion of Southeast Asia, it is probably the sea that comes
to mind as the first association. Indonesia and the Philippines are surrounded by the sea,
Peninsular Malaysia is almost entirely surrounded by it, while most countries of mainland
Southeast Asia have very long stretches of sea coast in proportion to their total surface area,
particularly Vietnam. One of the questions to be discussed in this volume is whether we should
conceive of the sea as a unifying rather than a dividing force. Does the sea keep people apart
or does it facilitate their getting together?The sea is often perceived as dangerous, both on
account of the spots of bad weather that have killed many a sailor, and that it wasand still
is?assumed to be home to monsters and evil spirits. Not all islanders are, therefore, sailors.
On the other hand, until the arrival of the modern means of land transport, travel over seas was
often quicker than travel over land, which implies that long distances over sea were easier to
overcome than long distances over land. It also implies that transport per unit of length was
cheaper on sea routes
Water history has the advantage of enabling us to study intensively the constituent
units of oceans: in the Indian Ocean the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden, the Red and
Arabian Seas, the Bay of Bengal, the Java, Sulu, Flores and China seas, for example.
Specific environments are privileged, such as islands.
But water history is not just about waters. Upstream/downstream connectivities
are emphasised, as are overland routes that are seen as part of an oceanic world and
whereby far-flung, landlocked regions form part of a maritime cultural landscape as
Sutherland writes:
Besides the oceans and the seas, rivers provided another important element of Southeast
Asias water-borne heritage. Kenneth Hall (1985: 23) has described how two different types
of river system exerted their influence on early state formation. In island Southeast Asia
many streams flow from interior mountains to the sea, where populations clustered near river
mouths. A distinction emerged between the relatively inaccessible peoples of the inland and
upland, the hulu in Malay terminology, and the down-river settlements. Any chief who
controlled the river mouth could manipulate the exchange of inland goods, such as forest
produce or gold, for imports like salt, metals or textiles. Pressure could then be exerted on
peoples of the interior, and alliances forged.
Boomgaard, In A State of Flux, p. 3.
Gillis, Islands in the Making of an Atlantic Oceania, p. 23; another version at
ebook/p/2005/history_cooperative/; for the Pacific,
see Hauofa, Our Sea of Islands.
Bin Yang, Horses, Silver, and Cowries; Hall, Unification of the Upstream and Downstream; Mukherjee,
Introduction in Mukherjee ed., Pelagic Passageways; van Schendel, Geographies of knowing, geogra-
phies of ignorance; Wade and Sun, Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century.
Sutherland, Geography As Destiny? in Boomgaard ed. A World of Water, pp. 312.
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Upstreamdownstream connectivities could extend to the mountains and surround-
ing regions, and not just to the immediate uplands.
Even more interesting is the
recent concept of the sea/ocean space as physically embracing not only its immediate
surrounds, nor as a mere cognitive category, but as a sense of place as developed by
Andaya and Andaya.
This larger sea encompasses not just the actual sea/ocean in
question but also rivers, streams, estuaries, deltas, uplands and even remote mountain
This essay focuses on the challenges of writing a water history and of creating an
archive on water, concentrating on the Indian Ocean, which has of late captured the
popular imagination. Abdulrazak Gurnahs By the Sea uncovers the mobility of the
centuries-old dhow-sailing world of the Zanzibari coast. Amitav Ghoshs In an Antique
Land and the first two novels in the Ibis trilogy are set in the Indian Ocean, high-
lighting connections between various towns (Cairo, Madagascar, Cochin) and peoples
(African, Creole, Arab, Indian, European and Chinese), the action often taking place
on boats (Ibis, Mariamma), suggesting that people need a model of belonging beyond
national frames.
Kunal Basu, another contemporary novelist, situated The Opium
Clerk, The Japanese Wife and The Yellow Emperors Cure within waterscapes, which
he perceives to be vehicles of both memory and desire.
This article surveys the various approaches to writing a history of the sea and
emphasises the fact that it is possible to write a history of water, and not always from
a terracentric point of view, but also by studying the deep history and structure(s)
of the ocean-space. It is however regrettable that the very term Indian Ocean
privileges India although the boundaries of this ocean also touch the African and
Australian coastlines and Africa remains largely unrepresented in most works on the
Indian Ocean.
The Water History conference at the Institut de Chandernagor, West Bengal, focused
on novel ways of studying waterscapes and building an archive on water history, by
integrating literature, cognitive practices, history and anthropology.
It issued a call
to re-centre our historical imagination and envisage new spatialities when attempting
See the articles on zomia edited by Clarence-Smith in the Journal of Global History.
Andaya and Andaya, The Sea of Malayu in David Jones and Michele Marion, Discovery and Praxis:
Essays in Asian Studies, pp. 20720. I am indebted to Barbara Watson Andaya for this reference.
Chambers, The Indian Ocean in the fiction of Amitav Ghosh.
Water History conference, Institut de Chandernagor, December 2012.
Recent publications are rectifying the neglect of Africa. See Beaujard, Les mondes de locan Indien;
Beaujard, The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and African World-Systems; and most recently, Bang, Sufis and
Scholars of the Sea; Beaujard, Systemes-Mondes Anciens; Campbell et al., Women in Slavery; Gupta et al.,
Eyes Across the Water among others. Australasia remains largely unrepresented.
December 1922, 2012 at Kolkata and Chandernagore. See Times of India, 21 December 2012 and 14 July
2013. In press now with the working title of Writing a Water-Based History, edited by Mukherjee.
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Indian Historical Review, 41, 1 (2014): 87101
a water history, as the spatial turnwhat Bodenhamer calls the recognition of how
concepts of space bind history, culture, and memory as much as they do attributes of a
physical worldhas changed our historical imagination in a major way.
Historical cartography, in this case studying the mapping of the Indian Ocean is a
starting point. How did Asians view this space? Arab mapping of the Indian Ocean,
the Korean Kangnido map of 1402, Cheng Hes fifteenth century maps, Javanese sea
charts and Piri Reis maps in the sixteenth century Kitab i Bahriye show an awareness
of the Indian Ocean world.
But while Asians were certainly aware of this vast water-world, the cartographic
category of the Indian Ocean was a European invention. And yet, it was slow to
capture the European imagination, appearing as a definitive fact only in the nineteenth
proving that spatial narratives and historical events do not always move in
The geographical imagination was far more diverse and a great deal
richer than the historical mind was capable of grasping.
The Sea of Islands approach proposed by Hauofa for the Pacific and subsequently
modified by Gillis for the Atlantic can be another way to approach a water history,
because the centrality of the island in the maritime vision unleashes new spatialities
and new networks.
Accordingly, application of network theory may be yet another method for uncover-
ing a water history. Much like Ghosh and Basu, Barendse sees the Indian Ocean as a
very mobile space, but one dominated by networks:
Rather than looking for essential elements and longues dures in the Arabian seas, I propose
to call it a constantly shifting and adaptive economic and social network.if one under-
stands a network as a number of nodal points standing in a few relations (social, religious,
and economic) to other nodal points.
The networks are built on interlocking circuits of commerce in the narrow seas,
determining a purely internal trade within a similar interlocking complex of narrow
seas. These were circuits that ignored imperial borders, and tied the region together as
a common maritime border region or maritime zone.
Writing a global history of the Indian Ocean rim may be another way out. Vink
suggests we see this world in terms of the new thalassology of the Greater Indian
Ocean, Maritime Africa and Asia, Indian Ocean Rim or Indian Ocean Africa and
Asia [that] should combine the concepts of the Asian Seas (Frank Broeze), a string
of closely related regional systems stretching from East Asiato East Africa, and
littoral societies (Michael Pearson) along the Indian Ocean Basin, extending inwards
Bodenhamer, Creating a Landscape of Memory.
Mukherjee, Oceans Connect/Fragment, pp. 22629.
Mukherjee, Oceans Connect/Fragment.., pp. 22324, 234.
Gillis, Islands in the Making of an Atlantic Oceania; Hauofa, Our Sea of Islands.
Barendse, Trade and State, p. 175.
Barendse, Trade and State, p. 176.
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into the interior with porous frontiers acting as filters through which the salt of the sea
is gradually replaced by the silt of the land.
Yet another way forward is to privilege the habitat. Ryan T. Jones talks of vari-
ous sea faring communities who build their livesand livelihoodsaround water, the
waterscape dictating their life rhythms and history.
The same dominant marine influ-
ence may be seen in the daily life in the Sundarbans in the Bengal delta. This focal
shift indicates an exciting approach to studying humancultural interactions on water-
scapes. Other themes in water history are ecology and environmental history, climate
history, coastal history and maritime/salvage archaeology. The emphasis remains on a
maritime cultural landscape. Boundaries, connections and connectivities also remain
important. Social networks visible in ports among traders (commodities, financial
flows, trust) and the role of the state (law, justice) are studied.
One way to construct its archive may be to build up a database (climate, environ-
ment, winds, routes, ports, boats and ships used) of discrete waterscapes with the help
of GIS as a first step. An example is the CLIWOC project available at http://www. accessed 31 July 2013.
A museum on water and its his-
tory, not just a maritime museum, would also be a first.
This article presented the history of the Indian Ocean world both as water history
and as world history. Water unites regions outside national frames and world history
can connect two or more regions. Yet, marine spaces traditionally reside outside our
definition of a world region.
Anne Bang pointed out the pitfalls of inserting local
histories into a world history paradigm when she wrote that:
in the past two decades, the field of Indian Ocean studies has manifested a specific dis-
course which goes beyond the local and focuses instead on inter-civilizational encounters and
the ensuing cultural change. Words like hybrid, polyphonic, cosmopolitan, pluralist,
multi-cultural can be found in most academic works on Indian Ocean culture and history
and reflect the emphasis on movement and exchange as starting points. Authors of full-scale
Indian Ocean histories have tended to focus on migration resulting from the regularity of the
monsoon, emphasizing trade, religious linkages or family networks spanning the ocean.
What these studies have in common is the concept of translocality, both as an overarching
research perspective and as reference to empirical realities. However, what these studies also
have in common is the problematic (and to varying degrees resolved) relationship between
local narratives and the wider, global history into which they inevitably play. In localities,
perceptions of the present worldand the past worldare created and re-created. In these
Vink, Indian Ocean Studies and the New Thalassology, p. 53.
Jones, The Land Yields to the Sea.
Mukherjee ed. Vanguards of Globalization; Mukherjee ed. Networks in the First Global Age; Ptak, and
Rothermund, Emporia, Commodities and Entrepreneurs in Asian Maritime Trade; Sidebotham, Berenike;
Thomaz, A questao da pimenta (in Portuguese), to mention a few.
See the CLIWOC Multilingual Meteorological Dictionary.
Steinberg, Navigating to Multiple Horizons., p. 369.
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localities are also produced what historians call sourcesbe they written, material or trans-
mitted in the form of narratives. The relationship between the source, the locality and the
other locations it directly or indirectly refers to, is one that the historian of the Indian Ocean
(or of the localities of the Indian Ocean) will need to ponder.
The need for abstraction, the twin problems of working out both scale and time (inte-
grating the various levels of time or juggling between them), the determination of typi-
cality and aggregation are crucial when one attempts a world historical approach.
We need also to decide also whether the sea/ocean can be always seen as a theatre
for world history; or is it merely a stage for a regional history? A good example is the
Pacific Ocean, which was a theatre firstly for a limited regional history and thereafter
for world history while also remaining a sea of islands in local perception.
If maritime or oceanic history is world history, then a water history, incorporating a
regions seas, rivers, lakes and estuaries, remains a regional history, but as history of a
region not necessarily within national frames. So, such a water history can be a trans-
national history. With what toolsarchival and conceptualcan the scholar navigate
this vast space? Does s/he perceive this space as one of cross-cultural exchange or as
of localisation?
Steinberg wrote:
we are presently encountering three images of ocean space that apparently contradict each
other: the ocean as a resource-rich (but fragile) arena for sustainable development, as an (ide-
ally) empty space facilitating friction-free movement of capital, and as a space that is materi-
ally irrelevant but whose image provides historical grounding for postindustrial cities.
But while this may be the experience of advanced capitalist countries, with their his-
tory of imperialism in Asian waters, in many regions along the Indian Ocean rimin
Africa and Asia, for examplepeoples perception of the sea as an intrinsic part of
land, and its use as commons persists, despite attempts by the state to regulate the ocean
space. The notion of the river sea (Ganga Sagar in Bengal, for example) continues to
influence peoples lives along the Indian Ocean rim. From the earliest recorded history,
peoples around the northern Bay of Bengal have called the Brahmaputra, Lauhitya
Sagar, which means, literally, the river (Lohit, another name for the Brahmaputra) sea.
This finds a resonance in other primitive cultures; the people of the Amazon call the
river rio-mar, also the river sea.
For centuries the peoples of deltaic Bengal have called their land bhati, that is, the
low-lying estuary, subject to the ebb (bhata) and flow (joar) of tides.
The land yields
Bang, Reflections on the History of the Indian Ocean, pp. 13.
Bentley, Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History; Pomeranz, Teleology, Discontinuity
and World History; Pomeranz, Social History and World History.
Hauofa, Our Sea of Islands; Steinberg, The Pacific.
Curtin, Cross Cultural Trade in World History; Manguin, Mani, Wade eds. Early Interactions.
Steinberg, The maritime mystique, p. 407.
Raffles, Fluvial Intimacies, p. 315.
Allami, Akbar-nama; Nathan, Baharistan-i-Ghaybi,; Talish, Fathiya-I Ibriya.
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to the sea in this vision. There exists also a specific genre of songs, called bhatiali in
deltaic or lower Bengal, as opposed to the bhowali of upper, land locked, Bengal. It
may be useful to envision a networked translocational space, as Massey suggests, the
nets of which bind a particular locality into wider relations and processes.
These nets
span not only land, that is, various political units, but also extend over wider areas,
such as seas and mountains. These nets are therefore largely spatial in nature, embed-
ded within which are political, military, material and ritualistic relations.
This article also showed that there exists an essential disconnect in the outlook
of capital, state and people today, because the lasts historical experience of water is
fundamentally different. The peoples notion of a fundamental unity between rivers
and seas, and the idea of waters as commons contrasts sharply with the states and the
MNCs attempts to control water in all its manifestations: its flow, its life-giving force
and its destructive potential.
The recently concluded workshop on writing world history concluded in the
Sundarbans reinforced this disconnect; we romanticize water and by extension a water
history, but we do not like to expose ourselves to its discomforts and vagaries on a
regular basis. In the policies of the Indian state, the Ganges deltaeasily the worlds
largestand very thickly populated with some 130 million plus inhabitants, is largely
ignored. We tend to forget that much of the delta has a population density of more than
200 people per km (520 people per square mile), making it one of the most densely
populated regions in the world. Upwards of 300 million people are supported by the
Ganges delta, and approximately 400 million people live in the Ganges River Basin,
making it also the most populous river basin in the world. The deltaand its estuaries
stretch over more than 105,000 km (41,000 sq. mi.) and comprise almost 35 per cent of
the total area of Bangladesh, and somewhat less for Bengal. It is therefore all the more
crucial that we recover a water history for South Asia.
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