- Space, Mobility, and Translocal Connections across the Red Sea Area since 1500
Inspired by Fernand Braudel’s seminal study of the Mediterranean, the study of maritime spaces as meaningful frameworks of historical analysis has been subject to a revival of interest in recent years.1 The “new thalassology,” as it has been coined by two scholars, is driven by efforts to develop new approaches to the study of global history by exploring the webs of connections, interactions, and networks operating both within and between different aquatic arenas of the world and their terrestrial surroundings.2 This, the new sea historians contend, would aid in critiquing current meta-geographical constructs which divide continents and world regions in ways that have been governed more by different historical geo-political interests, positioning, and cultural constructions and orientations, than by the existing historical dynamics operating within and between world regions.3 Focusing the study on maritime arenas of interaction allows us to transgress rigid land-based territorial divisions and offers new ways of viewing the history of different world areas, their inter-relationships, and their relationship to global history, also bringing into sharper focus certain large scale historical processes. [End Page ix]
If the study of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Pacific maritime spaces is already well established in historical scholarship, the growingly rich and sophisticated historiography of the Indian Ocean is increasingly attracting the attention of historians of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and global history.4 Markedly indebted to the methodology developed by Braudel and the ‘Annales’ school—namely a ‘total history’ approach characterized by interdisciplinary enquiry, geo-historical structuralism, and a three-layered conception of historical time—historians such as K. N. Chaudhuri, Kenneth McPherson, and Michael Pearson hold a particularly important place in propelling aquatic-based historical enquiry in the Indian Ocean area.5 Moving away from macro-level conceptions of the Indian Ocean as a space of cultural unity, these scholars and others argue for a more nuanced understanding of this maritime space as an ‘interregional arena’ constituted of multiple more or less coherent regional systems that are connected to one another in varying modes and degrees in different periods in history and whose littorals share certain commonalities through recurrent processes of interaction and exchange.6 This understanding lies at the heart of calls for more focused research on smaller units within the Indian Ocean space and on the interrelationships between—sometimes interdependence of—such regions.
While some of the maritime regional systems which compose the Indian Ocean world (what Markus Vink called the Indian Ocean’s “sub-Mediterraneans”) such as the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Seas, the China Seas, and more recently the Persian Gulf have been the subject of some research, the Red Sea basin is a latecomer to this scholarly arena. The dry, hot, and generally inhospitable environment of its littorals has unwittingly promoted its perception as merely an interface, a transit space in the long-distance trade between the maritime systems of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Emblematic of this view is, for example, one scholar’s reference to the Red Sea as “an extreme example of a sea on the way to somewhere else.”7 Such a macro-historical perspective has somewhat rendered the Red Sea peripheral, seen utterly as a maritime corridor whose history has been exclusively defined by its relationship to the maritime systems of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean (at times as an interface, at others as a barrier, and so forth).
Furthermore, the way that knowledge has been produced about the Red Sea area—especially as characterized by the ‘Area Studies’ paradigm in the second half of the twentieth century—has also hindered a more [End Page x] integrative approach to this region. The African/Middle Eastern studies divide (different research centers, funding programs, journals, scholarly conferences and so forth) has inadvertently masked the animated and intense connections, interactions, and exchanges across the Red Sea area, chiefly, but not exclusively, between its northeast African and Arabian littoral zones. Until very recently, I would suppose, applying for funding for a comparative study of the port-city histories of Suakin (Sawakin) and Jeddah (200 miles apart), for example...