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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

Part of Diego Ribero's Map of the World 1529

Part of Diego Ribero's Map of the World, 1529 in 'The book of Duarte Barbosa', The Hakluyt Society, Series II, Vol. XLIV (1918)

articles > Coastal communities and maritime history

Coastal communities and maritime history

Michael Pearson, University of Technology, Sydney

For years historians have debated whether or not one can write a history of an ocean or other body of water. One problem is that people do not live on the water. Thus nearly all history has been written about people living on land. There is also the problem of whether a body of water has enough uniting it to make it a suitable object of study. ‘India’ or ‘England’ are clearly recognisable entities, but are the Atlantic or the Indian Oceans?

One advantage of maritime history is that it ties in well with the recent trend to write ‘World History’. This is taken to mean that the historian should avoid being shackled by states or individuals (so no more histories of ‘England’ or ‘Charles II’) but rather write a history which stresses connections between people over wide spaces. One example of this sort of history is an attempt to write a history of the Indian Ocean.

If we look at people who live on the coast, that is the littoral of the ocean, we can make the case that they do demonstrate a certain social and economic unity all around the shores of the Indian Ocean. Thus the Indian Ocean is a viable unit to study. Such a study also is clearly World History, for it investigates similarities (and differences) between people all around the very extensive coastline of the Indian Ocean.

What commonalities can we find as we look at coastal communities on the shores of the Indian Ocean? There is first the obvious matter of location, that is that they live on the seashore or close to it. This location introduces other common characteristics. Their diet is likely to be primarily products from the sea, most obviously fish, and this sets them off from their inland neighbours. Other products available only on the seashore also differentiate them from those living inland. Salt can be collected or manufactured. On many Indian Ocean coastlines coral reefs abound, and these are commonly used for construction. The famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau found coral to be of universal utility in the Maldives. It was used to construct the landing strip and the houses, and even the beaches were pulverised coral, not sand. ‘Everywhere we saw tiny cemeteries under palm clusters. The tombs themselves, crosses and all, were made of coral. Everything here is bound up with the sea, even life and death’. There are other products found only on the coast whose use again sets off coastal people from the rest. Mangrove trees are found only in coastal areas, and poles made from them are widely used in house construction. So also with palm trees, which provide a framework for house construction, and material for thatched roofs.

Certain languages achieved wide currency, this providing commonality around the shores of the Indian Ocean. One such was Arabic in the earlier centuries. There are some 5,000 words of Arabic influence in Malay, and more than that in Swahili, and about 80 percent of these are the same, that is in Malay and Swahili, so that we have a ‘corpus of travelling Arabic words’. Later a sort of nautical Portuguese, and today some variant of English, have achieved a similar quasi-universal status.

Similarly, coastal religion is usually distinctive. Littoral people, living in a more cosmopolitan environment than those inland, are more likely to convert. In the case of the Indian Ocean, the cosmopolitan, international, aspect of Islam has often been cited as a prime motivation for conversion. Coastal people especially found their indigenous beliefs, localised and very specific, to be inadequate as their world expanded. When they were exposed to a universal faith, Islam as exemplified by visitors from the north, the attraction was obvious, and the results can be seen all over the Indian Ocean world from the early modern period onwards. There were and are widespread Islamic religious connections around the coasts. In Zanzibar one group uses a certificate of authenticity and authority issued in Indonesia. In Mayotte, off Madagascar, South Asian Islamic reformers are active.

Folk religion on the littoral, beneath an Islamic veneer, reflects the needs of its practitioners. The concerns of coastal people were usually quite different from those of peasants and pastoralists inland. On the coast religion had to do with customs to ensure safe voyages or a large catch, or a favourable monsoon so that fishing could recommence. Particular gods were propitiated for these purposes.

In south Sulawesi the whole process of building a prahu, from felling the tree to launching the boat, was governed and accompanied by precise ritual ceremonies, and many of them were not purely Islamic either. Among other things, a live black goat was sacrificed by fire just before the launching. In Goa today fishing boats are named after saints, and the owners and crew make offerings to the relevant saint on his or her feast day. In all this we find strong commonalities all around the shores of the Indian Ocean, commonalities which are not shared with the very various folk inland.

In recent times coastal areas around the Indian Ocean have been under threat from tourism, though this is not to say that this reduces commonalities around the ocean; rather a new one has been created, that is the sometimes deleterious impact of mass market holiday making. When western tourists stay in coastal areas around the Indian Ocean their relationship to the sea is very different from the fisherfolk with whom they mingle. For the traditional beach dwellers the sea is a source of a precarious living, often a dangerous or hostile place, not necessarily benign. For leisured middle-class westerners the sea and the coast is a space away from normal life. This is new in world history. Lencek and Bosker wrote of ‘the transformation of the beach from an alien, inaccessible, and hostile wilderness devoted to conquest, commerce, exploration, and the primal customs of tribal cultures, into a thriving, civilised, pleasure and recreation oriented outpost of Western life style, where so many sybaritic impulses of culture have been indelibly concentrated.’

Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the Indian west coast, a place I have visited frequently over the last 36 years, provides an excellent, if depressing, case study. The region offers the tropical paradise stereotype: palm trees, sunsets over the Arabian Sea, white sand, cheap accommodation, readily available alcohol, and English-speaking locals. A beach scene frequently found in Goa, and in other beach resorts on the west coast such as Kovalam, is portly western men in G-strings self consciously helping traditional fishermen haul in their nets. Their bikini-clad women enthusiastically take video pictures of this picturesque scene. Today littoral folk participate in what is called ‘staged authenticity’, that is they become a ‘typical’ Goan fisherman, villager, toddy tapper, who perform in hotels. ‘Goa has been constructed to serve as one of the world’s pleasure peripheries, a cultural space for the leisure consumption of tourists divorced from the needs and concerns of everyday life’. These people are located on or near the beach, but their occupation is governed by economic forces from very far away, and the ‘culture’ they purvey is far from ‘traditional, authentic’ littoral life. Yet given that this impact can be found all around the shores of the ocean, and perhaps most of all in the ocean’s islands, it then reinforces the notion of a certain commonality of coastal areas, albeit now united by a new challenge, that of the impact of tourism.

Michael Pearson’s recent publications include The Indian Ocean (Routledge, 2003) and The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800: Studies in Economic, Social and Cultural History (Variorum Collected Studies Series, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005).

He is currently working as part of a three-person research team based at the University of Technology, Sydney, working on 'Culture and Commerce in
the Indian Ocean
'. Publications and a major international conference are planned for 2006.

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