Port Cities
Workshop

An open call for applications for a Workshop on “Indian Ocean Port Cities and their Hinterlands” resulted in over seventy submissions. The Selection Committee, composed of Professor Duane Corpis, Professor Tansen Sen, and the Center‘s doctoral and postdoctoral fellows, identified 25 participants from around the world. It was decided that a workshop having the primary aim of publishing the papers presented should take place in two installments. The first of these took place on September 26 and 27. Thirteen scholars from Asia, America, and Europe presented their research on port cities from throughout the Indian Ocean World, ranging from Durban in South Africa to the very southwest of the Indian Ocean World and to Hong Kong in China in the east of the region, but including also cities such as Kuwait, Bombay, Bencoolen, Djibouti, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Chittagong and Aden from the seventeenth century to today.

During the past decade, there has been a considerable increase in literature documenting the growth of Indian Ocean port cities. Famously described as the Brides of the Sea, port cities such as Cape Town, Shanghai, Karachi, Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, and Batavia (Jakarta) became bridgeheads for the establishment of European dominance in the region. This workshop had three aims. First, it focused on the mobile and multifaceted connections, networks and routes of exchange that constitute the life worlds of port cities and beyond them, into their immediate hinterlands or even more distant localities. Secondly, it highlighted the interconnected oceanic histories, networks, and flows, and also examined the relationships between the port, the hinterland and the coast. Thirdly, the workshop also explored the legal, regulatory, and political structures that were put in place to govern the port cities.

After introductory comments from Tansen Sen, the first session, entitled “The Indian Ocean and the Building of the Empire,” began with a presentation by Peter C. Valenti on the long-standing trade networks and cross-cultural influences that have existed between Kuwait and India. This was followed by Tiraana Bains, whose paper examined the interlinked histories of Bencoolen and Bombay and the administrative debates surrounding the definition of the ideal port city. Grace Easterly talked about the production of Djibouti as a strategic space by different states over a long period of time.

The second session, “Production, consumption, and resource management,” had food and water as a central theme, with Kathleen Burke discussing practices of gardening and horticulture in the Dutch port cities of Batavia and Colombo, while Alexander Schunka explored the scarcity of freshwater in Indian Ocean port cities and its representation in European travelogues of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In the third session, on “Law, Labour and Infrastructure in Early Colonial Port Cities,” Kaustubh Mani Sengupta explained the relationship between infrastructure, economy, and the law in shaping the space of Calcutta, while Vidhya Raveendranathan described how the reworking of coastal work rhythms fortified the links between land and sea in the port city of Madras.

The fourth session on Friday morning, entitled “Migration, Mobility and Diaspora,” started with Laura Yan comparing the lives of dockworkers in Singapore and Hong Kong, while Ritesh Kumar Jaiswal followed with a paper on the characteristics of non-indentured migration in the context of Indian unskilled labor moving to Rangoon in the late nineteenth century.

In the fifth session, “Narrativizing Life and Labour of   Fishers,” Hasan Karrar explored the links between an old port city, Keti Bunder, and a new planned city called Zulfiqarabad in Pakistan, and their effects on livelihoods and ecology in the Indus delta. This was followed by Annabelle Suitor’s paper on the seasonality of fishing and its impact on the religious geography of the port city of Chittagong.

In the sixth session, “Ideas and People in Motion,” Shaul Marmari looked at the emergence of Jewish diasporas in the port cities of Bombay and Aden and their dominance of the Indian Ocean’s commercial space, while Daniel Steinbach examined the effects of the First World War and the resultant migration of soldiers and workers into the African port cities of Mombasa in British East Africa (modern Kenya), Dar es Salaam in German East Africa (modern Tanzania) and Durban in South Africa. To end the session, Duane Corpis offered some concluding remarks. A second workshop was scheduled to take place in March 2020, but has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The papers presented at the Workshop will be published in the two journals that the Center co-edits: The Journal of Indian Ocean World Studies and Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Asian Interactions. The second workshop is now planned for October 2020.

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