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Subversive Sovereigns Across the Seas (Indian Ocean Ports-of-Trade from Early Historic Times to Late Colonialism)

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Item Code: NAU888
Author: Kenneth R. Hall, Rila Mukherjee, Suchandra Ghosh
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9789381574706
Pages: 290 (19 Colored and 12 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 560 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

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.

About the Author

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 Urban History: Identity and Spatiality in Ports-of-Trade c.100—c.1800", held at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata from 2nd to 4th January 2017 ultimately 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 initial idea as proposed by Professor Rila Mukherjee and Professor Suchandra Ghosh, by and large, got reflected around the broad spectrum of politico-economic and socio-historical context of the problem in hand through the individual contributions of the authors in this volume.

The Indian Ocean, particularly, as a multiplex space stands for diverse and dynamic actions and interactions among its users; positional and oppositional strategies in the international relations among the participating nations; perennial conflict and co-operation among the stakeholders and so on and so forth. The maritime historians committed to this special field of study have been engaging themselves in recording and reporting many unique case studies in this respect. The present volume is one further addition to this field of knowledge. I am sure the new generation of researchers in the subject will immensely benefit from this important 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, linguistic caravan, coastal zone, superpower battleground, bookseller’s highway, aquatic maelstrom, girmit passageway, civilization basin, trade circuit, piecework carrier, pilgrim path, monsoon corridor, seafarer’s route, mobile marketplace, province of pirates, burial ground —the Indian Ocean is all of these things and 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 unit making up one world. This world was seen as a cultural continuum constituted by exchange and common material practices and facilitated by maritime mobility. For Chaudhuri the ocean evidenced elements of cohesion in its climate, economic exchanges, movement of people, shared religion and: means of travel where, despite social diversity, relations across the Indian Ocean basin remained meaningful.? Elaborating on this point and taking the example of Mediterranean port-cities whose inhabitants supposedly felt more affinity with each other than they did with the inhabitants of non- port cities in either the Christian or Islamic worlds, Pearson wrote that port-cities such as Surat and Mombasa shared more features with each other than they did with their inland capitals. Lockard saw a long maritime avenue in a ‘sea common to all’ spawning ‘a fluid multiethnic and dynamic transnational economic zone and flexible political boundaries in which waterborne commerce and the string of ports that facilitated it were essential’." The port- cities were nodes of, in Kresse and Simpson's words, the ‘related but different social worlds’ of the Indian Ocean basin.® Because of this historical coherence, scholars saw the Indian Ocean region as a heuristic device that allowed them to consider human experience beyond the boundaries and levels of region, nation and continent, enabling them to highlight features of human interaction not easily grasped from these perspectives.’


This volume questions the notion of cohesiveness on several counts. As a romantic myth, the cohesiveness of the ocean presupposes a kind of ‘peddling’ Asian Trade hypothesis and shows the ‘surfeit of longue durée theory on Asia’, in Barendse’s words it is essentially orientalise in formulation ‘ignoring time, place, and context’. Going beyond this enduring principle that marks studies of the Indian Ocean, the essays in this volume reveal the existence of diverse networks moulding the ocean and thereby discover significant shifts in historical time.

While the shifts unearthed by the contributors to this volume challenge our perception of the ocean as an unchanging unit the contributors have also been mindful of the fact that the infinite elasticity of the Indian Ocean creates problems of scale for the maritime historian. We have not always been mindful of the distinction between the physical and networked spaces of the ocean. The space referenced as ‘Indomediterranea’ or the incorporation of the China Seas into what is now called the ‘extended eastern Indian Ocean’ has led to the ocean becoming a hodgepodge melange of diverse waterscapes.’ While no doubt of utility in tracing forgotten networks, such notions complicate our understanding of the physical area of the Indian Ocean which is a reasonably bounded one.

Paradoxically, in the rush to privilege central spaces such as the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the western Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal and Java Sea in the eastern Indian Ocean, such expansive visions also deny agency to maritime borderlands and marches. The neglect of much of Africa (especially southern Africa), of western Australia and northeast Asia come to mind, particularly Russia’s oceanic adventures in the Far East which impacted on the extreme end of the ocean. However, borderlands, with their inland network of lakes, lagoons and canals have always been significant, moulding the character 6f individual maritime units. Again, consider the many Nile canals within the privileged Red Sea area, never included in this maritime imaginary but which nevertheless were a web of maritime roads connecting the Red Sea ports to the Nile valley and thence to Alexandria, Petra and Rome by overland routes."

Overland routes— seemingly a reluctant component of oceanic spaces— wield considerable influence over waterscapes through the nature and extent of the connections they create. Such circulations were critical for ports, Kuroda arguing:

‘the circulation of silver across Eurasia heralded the emergence of a world economy, which was to follow the next silver flood, two centuries later. Without the widespread penetration of silver in the first silver century, the dependence on silver taxation in Asia and the strong desire for silver to purchase Asian products in Europe would not have ensued. In this sense, only the combination of these two tendencies could ignite the global flow of silver from South America in the second silver century."

Let me take the example of a Persian Gulf port-city to uncover the importance of its overland connections. Bandar Abbas was at the crossroads of a vast array of trade routes, stretching from Kirman and Isfahan to Mashhad, Bukhara and Khiva, from Yazd to Balkh and to Kandahar, to Hamadan and Tabriz, and from there to Izmir and the Caucasus and—within the Gulf— to Bahrain and Basra. There was an array of independent city-states on the coast—Hurmuz, for example—and in the hinterland like Lar, Balkh, Herat, and, during the Timurid- Astrakhanid transition, Samarkand; these caravan cities were quasi ports-of-trade as Polanyi saw them. Another overland example: from the early fifteenth century Venetian merchant houses established a network of correspondents and associated merchant firms stretching from Venice to Aleppo, Baghdad, and Basra, and overseas to Hurmuz and Diu." A third example of the importance of overland routes: until at least the sixteenth century, river ports near the Bengal coastline benefitted more from their overland connections into China, Yunnan, Tibet and Nepal than from maritime routes."

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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