Historical accounts of the ‘age of revolution’ between the 18th and 19th centuries and the expansion of the British empire often neglect crucial perspectives of indigenous people in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In this interview, Sujit Sivasundaram, Professor of World History, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, and Director of Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge, speaks to us about his latest book Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire.
Drawing from important archival material and the perspectives of ocean-facing people from regions that have not been cast together by land-based cartographies, Sivasundaram tells us how Waves Across the South challenges this dominance of the West and Europe in the history of the ‘age of revolution’, and how empire, war, and counter-revolution were shaped by Southern geographies and contested by indigenous communities.
Himal Southasian: Could you tell us a little bit about what brought you to the study of the ocean, and in particular the Indian and Pacific Oceans?
Sujit Sivasundaram: Ever since I was a child, the ocean has always been present. But it was a series of accidents that led me to specialise in the history of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. When I began graduate studies, I was advised to run away from Sri Lanka, or in other words, to work on a region that was not where I grew up. That’s when the Pacific grabbed my attention – I was captivated by the history of Pacific islanders spread across the vast realms of their ocean and who over centuries had navigated across the waters. I was also intrigued by their encounters with European explorers.
Since my doctorate was in the History of Science, I looked in particular at the relation between islanders’ knowledge about nature and Western imperial science and religion. Having published my first book, which arose out of that research, Nature and the Godly Empire, I knew I had to return home and contribute to our understanding of the Sri Lankan past. I stuck with the same period of time; the late 18th and early 19th centuries and wrote Islanded. This book tells the story of the British takeover of Sri Lanka. It narrates that story from the perspective of the island’s place in the Indian Ocean world and with respect not simply to warfare and high politics, but culture, nature, knowledge, disease and race and other such themes. I argued that the British set about ‘partitioning’ and ‘islanding’ Sri Lanka, meaning that they sought to see it as a separable and united state fit for intrusive and violent colonisation.
Having published those two books, I was struck by how there was so much in common between the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the result of course is the recently-published Waves Across the South.
HSA: You write in Waves Across the South that it “refuses to cast Western and Atlantic Civilisation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the font of revolutionary sentiment.” How should we then understand your alternative framing of the ‘age of revolutions’? Who are its participants, and what are its events? And what counts as a revolution or counter revolution when we shift our focus to the Oceanic South?
SS: The history of ‘the age of revolutions’ has been dominated by grand events, such as the American Revolution, the French Revolution or even the Haitian Revolution. This narrow focus on events, which are easily dated and identified as a sequence of actions, has unfortunately led to the dominance of the Atlantic World over our understanding of how the modern condition came to be. For it is through the American, French, Haitian and other revolts in the Atlantic, including for instance Latin American independence movements, that we track the origins of notions of rights, association, resistance, reason and even the concept of the nation.
Waves Across the South is an experiment in critically recasting what counts as the ‘age of revolutions’, by looking at the changes afoot in the Indian and Pacific oceans in this era of change. In these two oceans, the ‘age of revolutions’ is not about events; it is about processes. It has participants: namely sea-facing peoples across the rim of these seas, who encountered and resisted a turbulent and unprecedented wave of European imperialism. Also involved are European imperialists who sought to counter the dreams, politics, resistance, and presence of such sea-facing peoples. It is this dynamic of indigenous activity as revolution set against a counter-revolutionary imperialism that I take to constitute the ‘age of revolutions.’
It is the promise and tragedy of the period which I found fascinating.
HSA: Waves Across the South highlights a largely forgotten event of the early British empire – the first Anglo-Burmese war. Can you tell us more about how both the British and the Burmese engaged with water for diplomacy and warfare? And does it make us revisit long-held assumptions about the region and the empire?
SS: Yes, certainly. The first Anglo-Burmese War occurred between 1824 and 1826. It is usually interpreted, and correctly, as a land war over boundaries, between the kingdom of Ava and the British Raj, based in Calcutta. Yet, I sought to point to the ‘age of revolutions’ context of this conflict.
First, I argued that it took place within a long context of fear regarding French interests in Burma and that British combatants in this war had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. This included the colourful naval officer Frederick Marryat, who sketched the dead body of Napoleon at St. Helena.
Second, I pointed to how the Burmese were responding to this global moment. The kingdom of Ava had advisers including refugees of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars; it had contact with Ile de France/Mauritius, for instance. The kingdom performed a confident spectacle of kingship on the Irrawaddy River, with the king arrayed around boats.
Third, with regard to the war itself, there was a maritime aspect in keeping with the revolutionary era, which saw global war over water. British ships were set against dexterous Burmese war boats, which out-manoeuvred them. I was especially fascinated by the thought of the Burmese chucking cans of what was called ‘Earth oil’, or petroleum, at the mystified British on their ships, who had no idea of what they were facing and why huge blazes of fire overtook their ships. Yet, the British won this war.
Looting on a mass scale proceeded. As a result, huge quantities of Burmese Buddhist artefacts arrived in museums in Britain. This too, I argue, is characteristic of an era of ‘total war’; it is characteristic of warfare in the ‘age of revolutions’ mould. Looking at this war certainly helps us understand that war on the British Indian frontier was total, brutal and violent, but indigenous peoples had the power to stand against this power.
I set this war against the war against Kandy in Sri Lanka and also the invasion of Java by the British to argue that the Bay of Bengal was at war in the ‘age of revolutions.’
HSA: The question of who is ‘indigenous’ to a particular area or who belongs or represents a region seems to often come up in your works. Perhaps the question is even more complicated for the oceanic region. Could you tell us how you’ve dealt with these categories?
SS: Absolutely – this is a very tricky category to write about and to use. In Islanded, I argued that the ‘islanding’ and ‘partitioning’ of Lanka, for instance from the mainland of Southasia, proceeded partly as the British sought to find the true indigenous of the island. They attempted to separate out recent migrants from long-term residents. Additionally, right across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the British classified and differentiated populations according to orientalist understandings of language, migration, physiognomy, and various other cultural markers. This constituted a policy of racist differentiation.
I’ve written extensively on this history of race and how for instance, it depended on the collection of skulls or the measurement of indigenous canoes. Additionally, I have argued that it relied on the extraction and recontextualisation of knowledge and information held by non-European peoples. If the calibration of the truly indigenous was a colonialist and politically-weighted enterprise, what I have sought to do in Waves Across the South is to think inclusively and expansively about who the indigenous is. I define the indigenous as anyone who makes a claim to be resident in a sea-facing place.
This means that the book includes the voices of Pacific islanders, Māori, Aboriginal Australian, Arab, Qasimi, Omani, Paris, Javanese, Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Sinhalese, Tamil, Malay, Mauritian, Malagasy and Khoisan peoples. It is an unorthodox assembly of people. I saw the book as an opportunity to create modes of solidarity between peoples who faced the sea in the South and whose histories have been symmetric but often cast as different, especially by past colonialists.
HSA: Could you tell us how the age of revolutions in these oceans saw a reconfiguration of political organisation: empires, political units, kingdoms – indigenous and non-European politics?
SS: Indeed, the kingdom of Ava is one example of a political unit which sees this transformation; I’ve already spoken about it in reply to your earlier question. I wanted to include the reorganisation of politics within a definition of indigenous and oceanic revolutionary practice. I was struck by how existent structures were mutating in the age of revolutions.
For example, despite how ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ pepper European reports of the Pacific islands, of course no such titles existed in this oceanic world. In Tonga, for instance, the status of chiefs was determined on the basis of descent from a chosen ancestor, where age and gender were important as in Europe; but in Tonga, sisterhood was ranked as a higher privilege than brotherhood in determining succession. In Tonga, I argue, but more broadly in the Pacific too, partly as a result of European weapons arriving in this era of revolutions as also the arrival of Europeans interested in finding collaborators and naming them as monarchs, chieftaincy evolved into monarchy. Christian missionaries played a role in this transformation too. These Pacific monarchs, racialised in the era as ‘little Napoleons’, served not only as focal points for negotiations with Europeans but also as symbols of the indigenous and even the anti-colonial. So that’s a perfect example of how political organisation is shifting in the ‘age of revolutions.’
HSA: In the book you state that unlike in Mauritius, where there was an attempt to make the colony an exact replica of France, such a programme could not work in Southasia. Could you tell us more on why this contact and exchange of the French Indian Ocean world did not work in the region?
SS: I have become fascinated by Mauritius and had a wonderful time doing research in the archives of the island and talking to scholars there, including Professor Vijaya Teelock at the University of Mauritius. That’s a way of saying that this book relied on many conversations in the regions it covers.
What has struck me is how far Mauritius could be a magnet and a platform for the forces of the ‘age of revolutions’ in the Indian Ocean, and this despite its tiny size. It could see a virulent culture of revolution after the arrival of the news of the French Revolution, with the setting up of citizen assemblies. In the era, it had a reputation as a centre of piracy. For a time, it was effectively a free state as it resisted orders from France. It set a model of politics for the wider French Indian Ocean world, for instance French Indian colonies imitated the structure of revolutionary politics in Mauritius. In making the point that you cite, however, I had in mind the iconic story of Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
There have been many debates about Tipu Sultan’s interest in ‘republicanism’, but what I argue in the book is that his supposed ‘republican club’ should be cast within the force field of his contact with Mauritius. It was set up with the arrival of Francois Ripaud, who was wrecked on the coast of Mangalore and who was a French privateer from Mauritius who had married a daughter of settlers in Bourbon. In turn, Tipu Sultan sent an embassy to Mauritius in 1798 at the suggestion of Ripaud. The provisions given to this embassy lie recorded in the national archives of Mauritius and include goat, clarified butter, aubergine, cabbage, flowers and packages of betel. More structurally, what this means is that Tipu was able to recalibrate his place in the world and also his own politics with reference to Mauritius. I argue that of course, Mysore could not become like Mauritius, primarily due to the culture of princely rule in South India. ‘Republicanism’ or ‘Jacobinism’ should not be used as universal categories that flatten differences. But we need to consider Mauritius if we are to understand what transpired in Mysore.
HSA: Waves Across the South also makes clear that Europeans did not have a monopoly over cartography and that there were local traditions of mapmaking and knowledge of navigation. Could you tell us about what that encounter between the local traditions of knowledge and the imperial natural history and systems of classification looked like, and how that might change our view of the past?
SS: The cover for the William Collins version of Waves Across the South is inspired by an indigenous map such as that used by a Pacific islander to find their way across the vast realms of the Pacific. Of course, it is a fallacy, often told, that it was the Europeans who drew the maps; it was the British who built the roads; and it was colonialism that brought science and progress. Each of these points is utterly wrong for indigenous peoples also drew maps, but with different media and with different modes of representation. At times these cartographic practices were oral rather than transcribed, and I’ve written on this in relation to Sri Lankan boundary books. Additionally, roads and pathways built by the British often followed existent routes. And science and technology was developed through acts of theft, through the taking of indigenous intellectual property. These points need to be made because these are pernicious misunderstandings about the history of globalisation and empire, which at times can lead to the defence of both of these processes.
HSA: What can Southasian scholars gain from Indian Ocean studies? What can we learn about Southasia when we shift the focus from the land to the ocean?
SS: Southasia can often be taken as land and can often simply be read as India too. Yet, thinking across the early modern era and even into the present, the subcontinent has been at the centre of the Indian Ocean, radiating outwards from land to water in so many ways, for instance with respect to labour migrations of indentured workers or with respect to soldiers, settlers and merchants. But beyond people, ideas of rule, aspects of custom and religion and even pollution have connected the subcontinent to the Indian Ocean. Looking at this from another direction, to understand Southasia, some of us need to begin from the ocean and then look at the land. If so, at the maritime fringes of Southasia occurred modes of exploitation, warfare, colonisation and nation-formation, which are highly revealing. Stabilising the boundary of sea and land has been critical for stabilising states, modes of belonging and ideas of heritage. At times, as in the Palk Strait, such an enterprise has been utterly bloody. In the broadest sense then, if the Indian Ocean has been a gateway for Southasian structures and forms, it carries on being a space of imagination and escape for those within the confines of nations and states. For this reason too, work on the Indian Ocean has a vital role to play today.
HSA: There also appears to be an increased interest in the Indian Ocean region among contemporary economists, security analysts, and foreign-policy commentators, in parallel with rising geopolitical contestations. Perhaps the new obsession with the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is an example of this. How do you, as a historian of the oceanic world, see this development? Are there parallels in how the political elites and the intelligentsia of the past deployed similar conceptual tools or vocabulary?
SS: Yes, this is why I foreground indigenous peoples, broadly conceived, in writing about the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Their stories deserve telling at least in part because strategists wished to take over their land and their past in the 18th and 19th centuries and once again today. In the book, I argue that indigenous conceptions of water were set against imperial cartography; this too is about the encounter between revolution and counter-revolution. Imperial cartographers came into the space of indigenous mobilities and chartered not only such spaces as the ‘Bay of Bengal’ or the ‘Persian Gulf’ on the map of the world but also the globe itself as a smooth model built out of imperial weather-watching, astronomy and other such sciences. In the book, I tell this story from a history of the Madras Observatory, which I cast as a platform for tabulating the Indian Ocean. What this means is that I don’t agree that geopolitical interest in the Indian Ocean is new. In fact, the ‘age of revolutions’ arguably bred such spatial considerations. It gave us a view ‘from above’, where these oceanic regions were open to manipulation. Such conceptions carried on into the 20th century, including through the Cold War and are seeing another dawn today. The technologies of surveillance that are coming to determine the future of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, for instance, in a new contest between China and India, need to be challenged by the histories of indigenous peoples. For these seas are their seas.