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Crossing the Bay of Bengal

Crossing the Bay of Bengal

Sunil S. Amrith
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Crossing the Bay of Bengal
    Book Description:

    For centuries the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway between India and China, and as a battleground for European empires, while being shaped by monsoons and human migration. Integrating environmental history and mining a wealth of sources, Sunil S. Amrith offers insights to the many challenges facing Asia in the decades ahead.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72846-2
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Political Science, Environmental Science, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Prologue: The Bay of Bengal in History
    (pp. 1-5)

    The Bay of Bengal was once a region at the heart of global history. It was forgotten in the second half of the twentieth century, carved up by the boundaries of nation-states, its shared past divided into the separate compartments of national histories. The regions that gave shape to the postwar organization of academic knowledge—the “areas” of area studies—drew a sharp distinction between “South Asia,” on one hand, and “Southeast Asia,” on the other: the line between them ran right through the middle of the Bay. The rise and decline of the Bay as a connected region is...

  4. 1 The Life of the Bay of Bengal
    (pp. 6-31)

    Ahmad Rijaluddin traveled across the Bay of Bengal, from Penang to Calcutta, in late 1810. He accompanied Robert Scott—son of James Scott, one of Penang’s first residents and wealthiest merchants. Rijaluddin was himself the son of a rich local family: his father was a Tamil trader, his mother was Malay. He worked as an interpreter for the Europe an merchants of Penang, which had been established in 1786 as a settlement of the British East India Company. Rijaluddin’s memoir, written in the Malay language, is probably the first modern account published by an Asian traveler of crossing the Bay...

  5. 2 That Vast Sea’s Emporium
    (pp. 32-62)

    Nagore is a modest town a few hours’ drive south of Pondicherry. There are few signs here of India’s new prosperity. Washed by the Bay of Bengal, this stretch of Tamil Nadu’s coast was among the places worst hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. When I visited four years later, I saw many reminders of the devastation, with rehabilitation projects still lining the main road. There were reminders, too, of a past far more distant. “The locality of the town may be recognised from seaward by its five well known mosque towers, which are white and visible long...

  6. 3 Turbulent Journeys, Sacred Geographies
    (pp. 63-100)

    In May 1786 theElizaset sail from Calcutta to Penang, at the head of a small fleet. Francis Light was in command. The illegitimate son of a Suffolk landowner, Light grew up in the port of Woodbridge; “watching the busy scenes and mingling with mariners doubtless aroused young Light’s spirit of adventure,” his biographer speculates. He first entered the Royal Navy in 1759, and joined the East India Company’s service in 1765. He tasted success as a “country trader” moving between Madras, Aceh, and Kedah; in Kedah he developed close links with the sultan, and found love in the...

  7. 4 Human Traffic
    (pp. 101-143)

    In early 1870 W. L. Hathaway, subcollector of the South Indian district of Thanjavur, condemned the “traffic” in people across the Bay of Bengal. He alleged that migration between South India and Malaya was “a regularly organized system of kidnapping.” Time and again, “captives were shipped from Negapatam for Penang and other countries, where the males were employed as coolies, and the females sold to a life of prostitution.” This “traffic,” Hathaway wrote, “is contrary to the law . . . [that] makes it illegal to assist any native of India in emigrating.” He insisted that the Madras government intervene...

  8. 5 Oceans’ Crossroads
    (pp. 144-180)

    Ramasamy Narayanasamy boarded the S.S.Rajullahfor Singapore in 1930, a boy of fourteen. Though the depression had stemmed the flow of Indian labor to Southeast Asia, young Ramasamy found work through his uncle, herding cattle along Singapore’s Serangoon Road (still today the heart of the city’s Little India) for local magnate Kadir Sultan. He moved on to work at the Krishna Vilas and Ananda Bhavan restaurants; he graduated from wiping tables to grinding rice forthosai,and then to selling them from a street stall for ten cents each. He lived at 40 Poplar Road, in the midst of...

  9. 6 Crossings Interrupted
    (pp. 181-211)

    Under pressure of economic competition, squeezed by falling prices, and spurred by rising nationalism, the cords that held up the world of the Bay of Bengal broke. Writing in early 1939, the Indian government’s agent in Burma reported that “for more than six months past, Indians in Mandalay . . . have had to endure what can only be described as organised persecution; their business has been boycotted, their shops picketed.” They faced isolation, marooned in upper Burma as the political tide turned. Many of the shop keepers affected were Tamil-speaking Muslims, or “Chulias,” from the Coromandel Coast. They had...

  10. 7 The Pursuit of Citizenship
    (pp. 212-249)

    In the tumultuous years between 1947 and 1950, the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson crossed the Bay of Bengal twice. Cartier-Bresson’s Asian sojourn produced the iconic images of his career: the line of people outside a Shanghai bank on the eve of the Communist victory, the journey of Gandhi’s ashes through India, portraits of Asia’s new leaders. The New York Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 retrospectiveThe Modern Centuryincluded a large map showing Cartier-Bresson’s itinerary. Traveling mostly by sea and by road, he followed routes across the Bay that millions of pilgrims, laborers, and soldiers had taken before him. He...

  11. 8 When the Waters Rise
    (pp. 251-276)

    In the twenty-first century the Indian Ocean has reemerged as a region of strategic and political significance. Today even American leaders draw parallels between the Indian Ocean’s importance in the age of sail and its role in the world today. Visiting Chennai in July 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided a resonant narrative of the decline and rise of Chennai as a port city of the Bay of Bengal, facing east once again, after a half century’s interruption. “There is no better place to discuss India’s leadership in the region to its east than here in Chennai,” she...

  12. Epilogue: Crossing the Bay of Bengal
    (pp. 277-286)

    The design of the Loyang Tua Pek Kong temple in northeastern Singapore is unlike any other I know. Approached along a road lined with bright yellow flags, the temple’s roof, pictured in figure 22, is an architectural hybrid—it blends within the same structure the roofs of a Chinese temple and a Hindu one.

    Inside the temple complex, shrines to Daoist, Buddhist, and Hindu deities and the grave site (keramat) of a Muslim holy man sit next to one another. Worshippers do a round of the shrines. Each person approaches with the gestures ingrained by habit—Hindus with hands together...

  13. Glossary
    (pp. 287-288)
  14. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 289-290)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 291-338)
  16. Archives and Special Collections
    (pp. 339-342)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 343-346)
  18. Index
    (pp. 347-354)