Historical studies on the economic and social exchanges between the nations of the Indian Ocean, as also their interactions with the hierarchies of indigenous and colonial powers, hold the key to our understanding of peoples, institutions and events in contemporary Asia and Africa. Based on a variety of European and indigenous sources, the recent scholarship has successfully revealed how the expanding dynamics of transnational trade, supported by the cultural transactions between the participating countries had transformed the Indian Ocean into a civilisational entity, with strong connections to the global economy since the tenth century. It has also established that the colonial interventions while impacting on these linkages in the nineteenth century could not disrupt them permanently. With these dislocations and continuities in mind, we invite papers which highlight the emergence of the polyglot port-cities; the integrated business practices; the multiethnic merchant communities; the syncretic religious and the artistic traditions as the natural outcome of the continuing circulation of goods, people, ideas and technologies in the Indian Ocean. The emphasis is on the enabling processes through which the business communities, the joint-stock companies, the missionaries, the craftsmen, the transporters, the entertainers, the interpreters, the pirates and the slaves from the countries in and outside the Indian Ocean successfully engaged with each other and forged a grid of interlocking trade routes criss-crossing through India and the other partnering nations.
The details of the working sessions are as follows:
1. INDIGENOUS ARCHIVES AND ARTISTIC TRADITIONS
The huge body of genealogical accounts, travel-writings, epic poems and mythological stories of pre-modern Asia and Africa has enunciated the world view of their primary consumers in a way that no European archive can. We would immensely benefit from papers based on these ‘insider’ narratives which either supplement or challenge the European constructs of societies, businesses and events in the Indian Ocean. On the same lines we also look forward to presentations that use the non literary practices of worship and entertainment to underline the commonalities between the coastal societies.
2. MULTI-LAYERED STRUCTURES OF TRADE
The focus of this session is on the establishment of transoceanic structures of trade for the sale and purchase of commodities in the inland, coastal and overseas markets. The aim is to examine the entire logistic chain covering storage, transportation and distribution; the settlement of commercial disputes and finally the leveraging of labour and artisanal skills through state and community interventions. It would be interesting to see how the layered interface between the principal merchants and the ruling elite on the one hand and between them and the fringe groups of interpreters, recruiters, artisans and brokers on the other played out in the trading zone.
3. MIGRATION AND DIASPORIC CULTURES
History-writing has adopted a more interdisciplinary approach to excavate the narratives of immigrant realities embedded in the cosmopolitan environment of the port-cities. Our aim is to view the maritime centres not as patchworks of ethnically distinct ‘wards’ but as cityscapes comprising of organically created social spaces for the articulation of identities, specializations, worship and leisure by the dominant business communities, immigrants and the marginal groups. It would be instructive to see how the highly nomadic and subaltern groups of sailors, peddlers, entertainers and slaves carved out their own niches within the port-cities.
4. THE AMBIVALENCE OF MIXED IDENTITY
The presence of hybrid communities definitely lent an added dimension to the multiethnic ethos of the coastal societies. The Hadrami, the Habshi or even the Portuguese forays into the Indian Ocean provided some remarkable instances of traders and missionaries, cooperating with political agencies to help in the formation of mixed communities either to provide familial comfort or to access useful services. The contradictions of the hybrid situation with reference to the relationship of the mixed groups to the patrimonial societies and their efforts to construct their own endogamous communities are two issues that could be addressed here.
5. PIRATES, ROWDIES AND VAGRANTS
The practice of piracy, as we know, had significant impact on the flow of goods and the circulation of money in the ‘black markets’, often located in the interstices of the established entrepots. The conference would welcome papers describing the varied impulses which motivated the pirates to commit acts of violence on the high seas both independently and also at the behest of the conventional centres of power. There was also the question of the “rowdies” who inspired either by ideological considerations or plain economic compulsions indulged in disruptive activities in Surat and Calicut in the eighteenth and Shanghai in the twentieth centuries. Finally, we could end this seminar with an assessment of the “vagrants”, including the “European poor” contributing to the herogenerous mix of the port-cities.