The Coastal History Blog 10: “Crossing the Bay of Bengal”

Sunil Amrith’s impressive new book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, captures the strengths of oceanic history, with its bold comparative and border-crossing sweep, but also remains attentive to the fine textures and variations of locality that I’ve argued should be a key feature of coastal history.

There is nothing small about the Bay of Bengal.  Amrith notes that “Today one in four of the world’s people lives in a country that borders the Bay of Bengal. More than half a billion people live directly on the coastal rim that surrounds it.” [1] Tides of migrants, waves of refugees, and armies of conscripts spill across Amrith’s pages.  So do gargantuan quantities of commodities, notably Malayan rubber, Burmese rice, and coffee from Ceylon.  This narrative bridges the era of European trading companies and colonialism, the destructive nationalisms of the twentieth century, and the birth of “Southeast Asia” as a Cold War construct.  It concludes, once again, in an era of superlatives: Hambantota, one of the world’s biggest ports, now under construction with Chinese funding in Sri Lanka; an even more ambitious Chinese project to build oil pipelines across Burma; Bangladesh’s unenviable destiny as the place where sea level rise will generate the first really large numbers of climate change refugees.

Amrith evokes the outlines of these surges and cataclysms with a few quick strokes of the brush, but devotes most of his book to life observed on a very intimate scale.  What was it like to stand on a street corner in Chittagong, Rangoon, or Singapore? How did migration to Malaya’s rubber plantations impact kinship networks, individual families, and particular marriages?  Granted that the coasts of the Bay were distinguished by a rich mix of languages, ethnicities, and faiths, how exactly did people navigate the rocks and shoals of difference in their everyday life?

In search of the answers, we visit not only “grog-shops and lodging-houses”[2]  in our tour of port towns, but also what must be some of the most comprehensively syncretic shrines and temples in recorded human history, blending as many as four forms of worship under the same roof.  When the port towns of the Bay of Bengal acquired printing presses, these, too, unashamedly served a multi-lingual and cross-ethnic constituency: in the Straits Settlements, “many of the early Tamil Muslim publishing houses were backed by Tamil Hindu or Chinese capital.”  [3] Amrith summarizes this legacy in a passage worth quoting in full:

The “common practices” on the streets of the port towns— practices of eating together, of sharing public space, of participating in others’ festivities— have had an enduring life, and they constitute, in themselves, an archive of interactions. Perhaps the key “expectation” that was “normally met” was the expectation of mobility— this was a world in which people expected that they would move back and forth across the sea. [4]

This would pose a problem for nationalist ideologues, for whom statements like “Rangoon is not Burma” suggested not a cosmopolitan or modernist ideal, but a disturbing anomaly begging to be corrected.  The main focus of the last few chapters of Amrith’s book is on the fate of the Tamil diaspora—although he would argue, I think, for a more nuanced term than “diaspora”—which found itself on the wrong side of an epidemic of border-drawing and score-settling beginning in the 1930s, as the British imperial dogma of free trade and open borders began to give way to a nationalist dogma about authenticity and autarky.

There are many lessons for would-be coastal historians in Amrith’s pages (more than I can do justice to here).  Despite the connectedness of the Bay of Bengal, much of his story is about restriction and obstruction.  Among our standard “coastal questions,” we might ask: “who are the coastal personnel?” Certain occupations originate in, and thrive upon, the special bottleneck properties of harbors—even where no engineered barrier or quarantine island exists.  Amrith mentions the power of harbor masters (shahbandar) and even of corrupt porters (in 1920s Rangoon, the authorities kept a “bribe book” and extorted money from every new arrival). [5]  Gatekeepers of a different sort, the labor-recruiting crimps and overseers (kanganies), packed off Tamil villagers into debt servitude—Amrith uses the term “landshark” twice.  These, too, are in some significant sense coastal personnel.  This offers a different way to conceptualize what John Gillis has called “The Human Shore.”

 

Notes

[1] Amrith, Sunil S. (2013-10-07). Crossing the Bay of Bengal (Kindle Locations 190-191). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kindle Location 1657.

[3] Kindle Location 3072.

[4] Kindle Locations 3366-3369.

[5] Kindle Location 2731.

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