Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, by Sunil Amrith

Caroline Osella on a page-turning survey of people and politics in a region once at the heart of global trade and imperial histories

November 7, 2013

When an author with an interesting publication record produces his third monograph, one expects much, and there is no disappointment here. Sunil Amrith consolidates his reputation for intellectual sophistication, a good historian’s sensitivity to detail and a flair for large-scale tale-telling that produces work as page-turning as a novel. We are reminded that the Bay of Bengal, the world’s largest, long stood at the heart of global trade and imperial histories – the watery counterpart to the overland silk route that connected the Indian Ocean with Asia, Mediterranean societies and even South America via the flow of goods such as silver and pepper. As Amrith notes, “one in four of the world’s people lives in a country that borders the Bay”, and it is a statistic that speaks to this study’s importance.

Amrith’s story moves from the 6th century to today. Admirers of Amitav Ghosh will relish this parallel narrative – a grand sweep, but stamped with the texture and analysis that only an academic monograph can offer. Indeed, Ghosh himself was an interlocutor during the project. So too were many others whose lives were marked by this book’s major themes: a long-standing history of crossing and circular traffic around the bay; the forms of entrepreneurship and employment generated by trading and agricultural economies; the effects of climate and sailing systems; food commodity production and movement; migratory patterns signalling shifts in economic opportunities and political formations; religious, linguistic and ethnic pluralism; the forging by European and Asian states of political and administrative linkages across regions; the emergence and implementation of the fictions of nation and border; moments of coexistence and of tension and violence; expansion and warfare. There is, in 300 pages of dense and fast-paced writing, more besides.

Amrith notes, ‘one in four of the world’s people lives in a country that borders the Bay of Bengal’, and it is a statistic that speaks to this study’s importance

Amrith focuses on shifting interstate relationships (Burma, Japan, China, India/Pakistan, Ceylon, Thailand, Malaysia, the UK) and also on particular groups, such as Tamil Muslims and ethnic Malays. He presents both empirical points and sub-narratives that prompt the re-evaluation of contemporary globalisation, from the persuasive analysis of various waves and forms of unfreedom to the observation that from 1834 to 1940, 90 per cent of Indian migrants (more than 30 million people) headed for Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. One sometimes yearns for more detail, as the story leaves behind one interesting episode after another and moves swiftly on, but this is inevitable. The leads it offers promise to generate bodies of exciting work.

I hope the title will not deter potential readers, which is always a risk in these days of quick keyword searches. This is in no way an exclusively South Asian or even Indian Ocean-focused volume, but serves as a helpful complement, balancing nationalist border-bound histories and studies of western Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea entanglements.

Amrith steers carefully away from the problems associated with either environmental determinism or anthropocentric arrogance, and weaves into a human narrative the power of sea, silt, storm and tectonic plate. This is both timely (as contemporary detail in the chapter “When the waters rise” suggests) and a sophisticated mode of charting how “human suffering and environmental harm have been entwined”. He handles the big questions fearlessly and elegantly, deploying oral history, a variety of archives and private collections and a properly global understanding. This last appears enlivened by the spirit of today’s reinvigorated world history and projects such as “big history”: not eschewing nationalist or micro-histories, but placing them into stories that recognise as proper context the eventual mutual entanglement of all entities, living and non-living, on one planet. Read this book for information, for convincing analytic nuance, as a humbling shake-up of one’s worldview, and as a series of heart-stopping tales.

Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants

By Sunil S. Amrith
Harvard University Press, 368pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780674724839
Published 28 October 2013

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