AFRASO Lecture: Dr. Renu Modi

19. May 2014
Campus Westend, IG Farben Building, Room IG 454

The Indian Ocean World: the Past Alive in the Present

Dr. Renu Modi
Centre for African Studies
University of Mumbai


The ‘Indian Ocean World’ (IOW) has historical resonances. India and the littoral states of Eastern Africa referred to as the Swahili coast, have been connected since antiquity by the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. The researcher uses a pelagic view of history wherein the ocean is seen as a linked pathway for ideas, trade and migration around the littorals and its hinterlands. This Braudelian approach is used to understand the transoceanic connections between the port cities of, inter-alia, Mumbai, Goa, Gujarat along the coast of western India and Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, on the coast of East Africa, mainly in the era of the pax Britannica.  

This presentation will focus on the migration trajectories of Indian labourers, artisans, agriculturists, traders and soldiers in the period of the ‘Raj’. The longue dureé, economic, social and cultural integration created as a result of such intense integration left a trail of memory space. The India- Africa historiography is not a one way process as evidenced by the migration of Sidis; primarily as slaves from East Africa to India.  To understand the local memory cultures that undergirds the Asian- African interactions, this study focuses on the monsoon winds and trade, cosmopolitan ports cities and littorals, advances in technology, the Indian diasporas in East Africa and vice versa. This presentation is based on archival data, representations through artifacts and photographs, exhibitions in museums, oral histories and biographies that narrate the circular migration histories of Indian immigrants between the littorals of India and East Africa. In comparison, history of the Sidis, by and large a subaltern populace in India is less documented and therefore the presentations draws upon oral history accounts, their music and dance forms that have their antecedents in the Swahili coast.

Yet another example of a memory space is the location of the erstwhile slave trade market at Bagomoyo in Zanzibar- a UNESCO heritage site that commemorates global commerce in human lives and serves as a tourist spot for domestic and international cultural consumption. Today, with the advances in technology and the introduction of communication by air, the ocean is no longer an exclusive channel for the movement peoples and commerce. In fact, the vast expanse of the sea is increasingly emerging as an imaginary space for terrorism and piracy, that might be marginally true, but the heightened threat perception has been one of the significant factors in undoing the nature and scope of the erstwhile interactions such as; the centuries old movement of dhows, ship building activities in the littorals and the cosmopolitanism of the port cities and its hinterlands. This presentation will focus on the transformed relations between India and the coast of east Africa and the impact on the new settings on ocean as a memory space and an imaginary.