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Taking the Sea Seriously

Kanakalatha Mukund

Edited by Himanshu Prabha Ray and Edward A. Alpers
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. xvi 311, Rs. 650.00


In the hills of south India where I live there is a profusion of plants from temperate climates brought over by British (and European) expatriates, in order to recreate a familiar ambience of remembered colours and scents. But what has intrigued me the most is the prevalence of many trees, ferns and flowering plants which are indigenous to South Africa, and specifically to the Cape region. This has led me to speculate whether we should not also study the history of gardens as one more facet of cross-cultural contacts across the seas that have developed over the centuries, creating an interface between distant regions. It is perhaps this seemingly limitless scope for studying the many strands of ‘community networks’ which motivates historians continually to explore how maritime contacts have forged economic and cultural links along the coastal regions bordering the Indian Ocean. The editors of the book under review note that ‘this volume seeks to shift the focus to maritime connections of the Indian Ocean and emphasizes the contribution of those communities whose members sailed its waters or traded to its shores. The contributors address this project from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, but each one hopes to do so within the context of an Indian Ocean world that takes the sea seriously’ (p. 9).   The first two contributions by Michael Pearson and Kenneth McPherson give an overview of what maritime studies are all about. Pearson extends his earlier stand that maritime studies should concentrate more on links between the sea and littoral regions, looking from the sea to the land. He recommends in this book that it is necessary to recapture a sense of the sea (some ozone) and move away from the familiar genre of Indian Ocean histories which are too often ‘dry analyses of trade, imports and exports, port cities, passages through the Suez Canal, rates of customs duties, great naval battles and so on, and lack any sense of the sea’ (p. 15). However, modern shipping technology and container ships which travel both by land and sea, and the extension of extraterritorial rights further and further into the sea by many nations have marked the end of the maritime world as we knew it.   McPherson follows up with a bird’s eye view of the evolution of maritime communities—beginning from fishing as a subsistence activity, to trading in marine products, providing outlets for resource-rich hinterlands through ...

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