‘Crossing the Bay of Bengal’ with Sunil S. Amrith

November 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants

Sunil S. Amrith

(to be published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 2013)



I am frequently asked why the Bay of Bengal figures so often in my work. These two paragraphs from Sunil Amrith’s Crossing The Bay Of Bengal may explain why the bay is of such enduring fascination to me.

PICTURE the Bay of Bengal as an expanse of tropical water: still and blue in the calm of the January winter, or raging and turbid with silt at the peak of the summer rains. Picture it in two dimensions, on a map, overlaid with a web of shipping channels and telegraph cables, inscribed with lines of distance and depth. Now imagine the sea as a mental map: as a family tree of cousins, uncles, sisters, sons, connected by letters and journeys and stories. Picture the Bay of Bengal even where it is absent—deep in the Malaysian jungle, where Hindu shrines sprout from the landscape as if washed up by the sea, left behind. There are many ways of envisaging the Bay of Bengal as a place with a history—as rich and complex as the history of any national territory. This is a story of the rise and fall of empires and the movement of peoples across the water. It recounts the changes in land and sea that millions of journeys brought about (6)

Today, one in four people on Earth lives in the countries that border the Bay of Bengal; over five hundred million people live directly on the coastal rim that surrounds it. This is a region that has long been central to the history of globalization: shaped by migration, as culturally mixed as anywhere on earth, and at the forefront of the commodification of nature. It is also, now, transformed by global warming. The coastal frontiers of the Bay are among the most vulnerable in the world to climate change; they are densely-populated, ecologically fragile, and at the fault-lines of new dreams of empire. (7)

In Amrith’s portrayal, the Bay of Bengal is not a barrier but a crossroads: ‘Its distinctiveness within the wider Indian Ocean comes from the sheer scale of movement that tied its coasts together, and in the nineteenth century this movement underwent a step-change. Far more people crossed the Bay of Bengal than any other part of the Indian Ocean… The migration of labor, in turn, made the region the most economically important segment of the Indian Ocean world.’ (29)

Of the many groups that have used the Bay as a thoroughfare, perhaps the most numerous were the Tamils. Their journeys, especially those undertaken in the colonial period, form the core of Amrith’s book. Indeed, his book began, as he explains, as ‘a history of the migration of Tamil labor to the Malay Peninsula… From these beginnings, I have ended up trying to write a history of the sea… For me, the question is: can we see South India as part of the Southeast Asian world—as closely linked to the coasts across the Bay of Bengal as it was to the centers of power in India? We have become so accustomed to national histories, and nationalist maps, that it is difficult to put the Bay of Bengal—its traffic of people, ideas, and things—at the heart of our story. But to do so opens new perspectives on the past and the present.’ (5-6)

Diasporic Tamil sources form an unusually rich archive for the history of the Bay, and to my knowledge they have never before been used as extensively as they are in this book. Along with the usual documentary sources Amrith uses novels, memoirs and interviews to chart the journeys that linked emigrants from the Coromandel coast to Malaya, Singapore, Aceh and the Arakan coast. His account confirms my own conviction that the links that bound people across the Bay were stronger, in many ways, than those that tied them to their hinterlands.

Although Amrith’s account is rich and varied, there is one important group of travelers who find no place in his story –  the coastal peoples of what is now Odisha. In this, unfortunately, Amrith extends a long tradition of neglect.

One of the reasons why Odiya boatmen and lascars are so often written out of history is that 19th century sources identify them with archaic place-names – one example is the term ‘Cooringhee’. Amrith is right, for example, to say that the Chulia boatmen of 19th century Singapore were from the Coromandel coast – but that coast extended further north I think than he allows. There were certainly many Odiya boatmen among the Chulias.

But it is inevitable perhaps, considering the vastness and variety of the Bay of Bengal, that its history will be told cumulatively, in a succession of tellings that shifts the point of view to different parts of the bay’s littoral. The publication of this book will, I hope, encourage someone to embark upon a corresponding chronicle told from the point of view of Odisha’s travelers and migrants – that too is a story that is long overdue.

The Bay of Bengal is a protagonist of such outsize dimensions that omissions are inevitable perhaps in telling its story – but still, I cannot help regretting the absence of certain plotlines. The story of the ship-building and ship-repairing for instance – in reading accounts of Calcutta and Singapore in the early 19th  century I am often struck by the salience of shipyards, both as a geographical feature of these cities and as economic hubs for their growth. The owners of the shipyards (Mr Kyd of Calcutta and Mr Tivendale of Singapore for instance) often moved from one port to another: their peregrinations would make an interesting narrative in itself.

Similary, even though Amrith pays unusually close attention to geology he does not I think give the undersea faultlines of this stretch of ocean the attention they deserve. He does indeed mention the tsunami of 2004, but I wish he had also included an account of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa (which similarly resulted in a tsunami that ricocheted around the Bay). What, for example, was the effect of the disappearance of Anger, a Javan city which had for centuries been one  of the most important ports of the Indian Ocean?

Yet another story that needs to be told is that of the sudden decline of Calcutta, which was the Bay’s major port through much of the 18th, 19th and eary 20th centuries. This too has had profound and yet-unchronicled consequences on the flows of goods and people across this waterway (some of these effect are alluded to in Thant Myint-U’s recent Where China Meets India, but the subject needs more comprehensive treatment).

But to regret these omissions is not in any way to detract from the scope of Amrith’s achievement in Crossing the Bay of Bengal. Not the least of his contributions is to restore a balance in Indian Ocean studies, in which the Bay has been relatively neglected in relation to its counterpart to the west, the Arabian Sea. As he notes: ‘Surprisingly, most histories of the Indian Ocean have ignored the Bay of Bengal in favor of the ocean’s northwestern quadrant; surprising, because the coasts of the Bay were more closely linked than any other part of the Indian Ocean.’

Perhaps the greatest strength of Amrith’s book is that he makes a serious effort to integrate social history with natural history. Not only does he deal with cyclones, geology, fish-stocks and so on, he also takes seriously Dipesh Chakrabarty’s dictum that historians need to radically re-evaluate their methods in the face of climate change. All the indications suggest that the coming environmental changes will have a greater impact on the heavily populated littoral of the Bay than on any other part of the world. For those who write in the shadow of the approaching catastrophe, ‘history as usual’ is as indefensible as ‘business as usual.’

‘Let us be clear,’ writes Amrith, ‘the policies and ideologies of European imperialism bear a heavy burden of responsibility in humanity’s path towards environmental crisis. British imperial policy dragged the Bay of Bengal region into a central role in global capitalism for a half-century after 1870: the forces of empire and capital energized the life of the sea, and sowed the seeds of its slow death. The elevation of private profit over public good, of environmental destruction over preservation, was integral to Victorian imperialism, notwithstanding its occasional communitarian urges and the stirrings of early environmentalism. Despite a few dissenting voices, post-colonial states learned these lessons well, and tried to apply them better. Alternative ideas of common wealth were crushed by colonial and post-colonial states with equal force, wedded as they were to a “developmental project” that transcended political divisions. We must not forget the very close association between human suffering and ecological harm. In the history I have told, moments of the most intensive environmental destruction—the land clearances on the Southeast Asian forest frontier in the 1870s; the wartime attempts to hack a jungle path around the Bay of Bengal— rested on the exploitation of labor at its most unfree. In collective memory, trauma and the transformation of landscape are in intimate embrace. With few exceptions, struggles for political freedom in the twentieth century failed to make that connection.’ (339)

Crossing the Bay establishes beachheads on several new shorelines – in using water as a means of dissolving ‘national’ (read ‘terrestrial’) histories in Asia, for example, and in taking account of climate change in telling the story of the past. Admirably ambitious yet eminently readable, this is one of the most engaging works of history to come my way in a long time.


2 Responses to “‘Crossing the Bay of Bengal’ with Sunil S. Amrith”

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  1. Comment by AnuNovember 23, 2012 at 3:53 am   Reply

    This is very nice reading, thank you.
    It reminded me also of Ferdnand Braudel’s Memory and the Mediterranean, among the first works I came across the term ‘longue duree’

  2. Comment by AnuNovember 23, 2012 at 11:55 pm   Reply

    I am sorry in missing this out in my last message, but some old dynasties in Odisha (or even Kalinga, its old name as standard textbooks refer to it in most cases) are recorded as having trade and cultural links with SE Asia – most esp the Ganga dynasty.
    And I lived in Orissa for much of the 80s, there used to be a ‘mela’ every Jan called intriguingly ‘Bali Jatra’ in the old Fort area of Cuttack.

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