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Updated: May 14, 2013 10:18 IST

Worlds of water linked together

K. R. A. Narasiah
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Oceans Connect; Reflections on Water Worlds across Time and Space
Oceans Connect; Reflections on Water Worlds across Time and Space

This is a title under the Issues in History series which ‘begins with the premise that history is both about writing the past and about the re-examination of the sources as stated by series editors. The book contains articles by different authors grouped together under four distinct parts which are, I the Marine worlds, II Maritime worlds, III Maritime world as space, Europe and Indian Ocean and IV Formal and informal networks in Maritime Worlds : the Indian Ocean.

The collection is a departure from the normal selection of papers on a particular subject, in the sense that the articles embrace subjects that are even distantly connected to make an integrated study of the subject of Ocean and its ability to connect civilisations and people across the oceans. In the introduction the subtle difference between marine worlds and maritime worlds is explained by the editor along with the arrangements of papers under different groups. In fact the entire treatment is fresh in approach.

In an elaborate introduction the editor explains the purpose and intent of the book. Among the various subjects the chapter dealing with maritime world as space, the article by Picazo Muntaner is a departure from the usual treatment of the subject. The late middle ages that saw the mappae mundi and discoveries develop, showed “an emerging desire … the need to gain access to those centres and networks, reducing costs and increasing profits derived from the trade” says the editor. In a paper “Jumping Frontiers, Crossing Barriers”, Amelia Polonia talks about the First Global Age. “The Portuguese ‘revolution’ in nautical science was in actual fact an evolution and showed a very successful process of an ongoing empirical adaptation to new needs and technical demands” says the author. At that time Portuguese vessels were far superior to any other nation’s and very large in size as well. So the maritime economics came into vogue during this time, replacing mere adventure.

The author continues, “The positioning of the central rudder on the sternpost of the keel in the caravel was already known in the Baltic sea for many centuries … The potolan chart with compass or wind roses was used by Italian seamen by the early 1300s.” However there is no mention of the Tamil sailors who had known about wind roses and currents as early as Chola period, though rudder was not used (except central drop board) since their sailing was always parallel. In the portion explaining the cross-cultural flows some very valid points are made out. “The well known fact that the Europeans tried to replicate, as much as possible, their way of life in the new territories, suggests an intense projection of European influence in the territories where they settled, by consent or by force” says the author, and makes an important point, “However in Asia, Africa and the Americas the survival of settlers depended upon the efficacy of their adaptation to new environment and cultures.” This paper assumes importance in its analysis of cultural transfers and religious conversions, from a fresh point of view.

Missing links

The paper “Thai Trade in the Indian Ocean” by Lipi Ghosh talks about the Bay of Bengal and its trading centres. The reader would have expected much more in this chapter. In fact the Sangam literature is resplendent with the sea trade across the oceans from many Tamil ports. Similarly the evidences available in the Far East about the presence of Merchant Guilds and their influence are not mentioned. Substantial evidence is available in the form of inscriptions in Southeast Asia and China.

The first Tamil inscription in Brahmi script of the third or fourth century CE from Khuan Luk Pat shows the migration of a Tamil goldsmith from South India. Similarly the Takua Pa inscription shows that a tank was constructed and put under the care of Manigramam — a merchant guild. The Wat Boroma That inscription (Si Thammarat in Thailand) talks about a Danma Senapathi, probably a merchant from Tamil land. All these are not mentioned in this paper.

News of piracy

A new study on rumours of piracy in Surat by Radhika Seshan throws light on selective transmission of news those days. The Surat merchant got the news of piracy or non-arrival of ships through rumours even before the English traders knew. It was a known fact that piracy was practised off Gujarat coast even during the first century CE, as seen from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Paragraph 53 of the Periplus says, “Beyond Calliena there are other market-towns of this region; Semylla, Mandagora, Palaepatmoe, Melizigara, Byzantium, Togarum and Aurannoboas. Then there are the islands called Sesecrienae and that of the Aegidii, and that of the Caenitae, opposite the place called Chersonesus (and in these places there are pirates), and after this the White Island. Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Damirica, and then Muziris and Nelcynda, which are now of leading importance.” This paper shows how these rumours were made use of by the merchant community.

The paper on Indian textiles and trade by Om Prakash traces the history of this trade through the period in detail but unfortunately omits the Andhra Chintz material and other cotton exported from Madras port during the Company time. In fact the textile trade was the main excuse given by Day and Cogan to build a fort in Madras to the Company headquarters, when they signed a firman with the local chieftain in 1639.

The delightful title of the book, the aesthetic wrapper design and the impressive array of scholarly contributors make the reader sit up with expectation, but there is an element of disappointment at the end for a southerner.

(K.R.A. Narasiah is a marine engineer who writes fiction and historical works)

Oceans Connect Reflections on Water Worlds across Time and Space

Edited by Rila Mukherjee;

Primus Books, Virat Bhavan,

Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 995.

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