- ‘Process Geographies’ of Mobility and Movement in the Indian Ocean: A Review Essay
In a recent essay on directions in Indian Ocean studies, Markus P.M. Vink has reviewed eloquently maritime-based scholarship since the 1950s, and presented the concept of ‘”new thalassology”’ (from the Greek thalassa, or sea) as a means of defining future research. Drawing out the significance of a rich set of studies that has emerged from critical reflection in the Indian Ocean context on Braudelian ideas about the importance of geo-historical structures and ‘deep time’, Wallerstein’s concept of world-systems analysis, the meaning of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, and internal regional dynamism, Vink surveys an impressive set of literature to argue for the importance of ‘process geographies’ of the Indian Ocean that historicize and localize ‘porousness, permeability, connectedness, flexibility, and openness of spatial and temporal boundaries and borders.’ Vink suggests that one way forward for a ‘new thalassology’ that respects the flexibility of the Indian Ocean as a geographical and virtual space is a focus on the movement of individuals, communities, and cultural practices. Echoing Michael Pearson, he argues that this renders possible histories in rather than of the region.1 The books reviewed here each address that proposition, and so both individually and collectively represent a significant intervention into the historiography of the Indian Ocean world.
A Hundred Horizons: the Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire was published in the wake of the tsunami that devastated Indian Ocean coastal communities at the end of 2004. For its author, the eminent Harvard historian Sugata Bose, the disaster underpinned ‘the deep and unique bonds’ that tie together the Ocean’s peoples (3). Bose weaves together carefully stories of the movement of people, commodities, and ideas to question a notion central to contemporary understandings of modernity: that ‘nationalism’ invariably gave way to ‘globalization’. He challenges the idea that at the turn of the twentieth century the Indian Ocean became one amongst many historical actors on the global stage. Rather, Bose suggests, for the period from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, the Indian Ocean retained its own unity as an ‘interregional space’ of mobility and interaction through which ‘multiple modernities’ emerged (280). A Hundred Horizons ranges widely, using colonial archives, memoirs, poetry, and photographs to explore themes including the ‘circular migration’ of traders and labourers, the deployment overseas of Indian soldiers, and pilgrimage. This ambitious theoretical and empirical approach is both the strength and weakness of the book.
There is much that is compelling in such a stark challenge to accepted trajectories of historical change, as also the new kind of maritime history (of ‘the symbiotic activities of people on land and at sea’ ) that the book undoubtedly represents. Though the use of visual sources as social texts is disappointingly undeveloped, Bose crosses the disciplinary boundaries that usually lie between ‘literature’ and ‘history’ to explore the nature and significance of Indian accounts of movement and mobility, and in so doing displays his remarkable talent as a translator of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. There are, however, limitations. New research for the book discusses overwhelmingly on the experiences of elites during the decades since the 1890s, which produces a certain temporal and social unevenness. I will focus here on one theme of the book in this respect: Bose’s exploration of the development of patriotism overseas, which is especially interesting in the context of the Indian Ocean as an interregional space. He argues that ‘Indian-ness’ developed amongst expatriate communities not simply in response to social, cultural or economic threats, but as one of ‘multiple identities in a diasporic public sphere’ (149). This is a neat argument, but it could have...