The Bay of Bengal in Global History

This post was contributed by Dr Sunil S. Amrith a Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics & Archaeology

Crossing the Bay of BengalMy recent book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Harvard University Press, 2013) tells the story of a neglected region that was once at the heart of global history and which, today, is pivotal to Asia’s economic and ecological future.

For centuries the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway between India and China, and then as a battleground for European empires—the Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, the British, and the French—shaped by the monsoons and by human migration. In the nineteenth century the British Empire reconfigured the Bay in its quest for coffee, rice, and rubber. Millions of Indian migrants crossed the sea in one of the largest migrations in modern history, to work on the plantations of Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and on the docks and in the factories of Burma. Booming port cities like Singapore and Penang became the most culturally diverse societies of their time. By the 1930s, however, economic, political, and environmental pressures began to erode the Bay’s centuries-old patterns of interconnection, and these were broken by the Second World War.

The Bay fragmented as a coherent region in the second half of the twentieth century: it was carved up by the boundaries of nation-states; its histories were parceled out into separate national compartments. The postwar organization of academic knowledge drew a sharp distinction between the study of “South Asia” and “Southeast Asia.” But the recent resurgence of inter-Asian economic connections has seen the reinvigoration of the Bay of Bengal as a regional arena; and the force of the region’s environmental challenges calls our attention to the interdependence of its people.

Oceans of History

Historians have long been fascinated by seas and oceans, going back to the classic work of Fernand Braudel on the Mediterannean, the long tradition of scholarship on the trading links of Indian Ocean, and the thriving field of Atlantic history. Bodies of water can connect where land divides; putting the sea at the heart of our histories tends to emphasize mobility and interaction across the dividing lines of national or imperial borders. So often, the port cities of an ocean’s littorals are more closely connected to one another than to their own rural hinterlands.

By foregrounding the region of the Bay of Bengal—linked by journeys, stories, and cultural traffic, and of course by the power of empires—we can see beyond the borders of today’s nation-states, beyond the borders imposed by imperial map-makers and immigration officials, to a more fluid, more uncertain world. But Crossing the Bay of Bengal shows that these connections were often coerced, often violent. Many experienced the fragmentation of the region in the twentieth century as a liberation, while at the same time, many minorities and migrant groups found themselves stranded, excluded and out of place in the new nation-states of the region.

The research for this book took me all the way around the Bay of Bengal’s rim, from South India to Singapore, by way of Burma (Myanmar) and Malaysia, in a series of journeys made possible by the generous support of the British Academy and—in the last stages of the research for the book—a Starting Grant from the European Research Council.

One of the key aims in my research was to tell the stories of those whose lives had been shaped by migration across the Bay, but who left little written trace of their experiences—the rubber tappers and dockworkers, the sailors and rickshaw pullers, whose labour made the Bay one of the most economically vibrant regions of the world in the early twentieth century. Finding an echo of their voices required a flexibility of approach, and a wide range of sources: my research took me to the archives of Singapore’s coroner’s courts, where the stories of very ordinary migrants emerged in testimony when things had gone horribly wrong; it took me to state archives in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma, and—closer to Bloomsbury—to the invaluable collections of the India Office Records at the British Library. Oral history was essential to the research: over many years, conversations with elderly people in Malaysia and India about their memories of migration, their family histories, and their experiences of labour, helped to cast archival material in a different light.

The Past in the Present

Two key forces have shaped the Bay of Bengal’s history, and they will be central to its future. The first is environmental. From the earliest times, the pattern of regularly-reversing monsoons made possible the Bay of Bengal’s trading routes: they were a source of life, and also of periodic disaster. In the nineteenth century, technological innovations including steam power promised to conquer the monsoons; but the monsoons asserted their enduring power over life and death in the great droughts that brought famine to the region in the 1870s and 1890s. Mass migration around the Bay of Bengal brought new sorts of environmental change to the Bay’s coasts, and made the region more interdependent.

Today, the Bay of Bengal is a region at the forefront of Asia’s experience of climate change. The monsoons are less predictable than they were. Sea level rise threatens the Bay’s densely-populated coasts, home to more than half a billion people. While the scale and nature of these changes is unprecedented—and their causes are planetary in scale, rather than localized—history tells us that the Bay’s peoples have long coped with the furies of nature.

One way they have done so is through migration over long and short distance, for short periods or more permanently. Migration is not, and never has been, an automatic or predictable response to natural disaster or to slow-onset environmental change: only where other factors are in place—government policies, the availability of credit, the presence of family or social networks in the places of migration—has it emerged as a viable strategy for family survival.

Its long history of migration gives the Bay one of its most distinctive features—its astonishing cultural diversity, the mixture of peoples and languages that are evident to even a casual visitor. Migration around the bay is on the rise again, in a part of the world where mobility has not been exceptional but quite normal. The peoples of the bay are not strangers to one another. The triumph of narrow nationalism over more inclusive political visions need not be permanent. Notwithstanding conflicts over land and resources, the region’s past is animated by common spiritual traditions and expressions of solidarity across cultures. The bay’s history, as much as its ecology, spills across national frontiers.

For more information, you can read two op-eds I recently published in the New York Times. ‘The Bay of Bengal, in peril from climate change‘, published on 13 October 2013 and ‘Snapshots of Globalization’s First Wave‘, published on 10 January  2014.


Twitter: @sunilamrith

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Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy

As Obama’s first term as President of the United States draws to a close, Professor Robert Singh has been examining the achievements and gaps in  American foreign policy over the last four years in his latest book, Barack Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy: The Limits of Engagement.

The post-American world, in which the “rise of the rest” leads to the decline of the influence of the United States, need not necessarily be an anti-American world, asserts Professor Singh.  However, the significant challenge facing Obama as he took office four years ago was to transform American foreign policy to demonstrate that the US could exert international leadership while managing its own decline.

Obama claimed that this would be an era in which American foreign policy would break with the previous eight years under Bush, and focus on engagement, diplomacy and multilateralism – repairing the relationships and partnerships damaged by policies based on the unilateral use of force and attempts to secure America’s continued position as the world leader. However, the global order was already undergoing significant change, as Obama himself recognised, and Professor Singh claims that the foreign policy choices of the last four years have in fact hastened the transformation to a post-American world, in which the US has failed to maintain its influence and leadership.

What at first sight appear to have been major successes for the Obama administration, on closer examination can be seen to have contributed to a decline of American influence during the first-term of Obama’s presidency.

Firstly, Obama’s strategy of reengagement and multilateralism did achieve limited successes, not least in enabling him to secure new UN sanctions against Iran, in addition to tightened US and EU sanctions. In reality, however, this has led Iran to step up its nuclear programme, and Tehran is now closer than ever to achieving nuclear capability, with the help of China and Russia, who have actively assisted Iran to circumvent sanctions. This in turn makes the prospect of a unilateral attack by Israel ever greater.

Secondly, although Obama chose to support revolutionary groups in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and Gaddafi was removed from power in Libya without a single American fatality, his administration’s policies towards Israel and continued support for authoritarian rulers in Bahrain and Riyadh – where there have been similar calls for democratization – has compounded anti-American sentiment amongst Arabs and Muslims. Furthermore, the removal of the (albeit autocratic) American-friendly regimes in those countries has contributed to a waning of American influence across the region.

Thirdly, Obama has presided over a “pivot” to Asia, designed to signify a shift in US attentions, away from Iraq and Afghanistan and towards trade, military, diplomatic and human rights issues in Asia. While the “pivot” aimed to reassure US allies in the region that the US would continue to take a lead role, balancing China’s increasing power in the region, the approach has raised Chinese concerns that it is really the launch of a Cold War-style containment strategy. European governments have also seen the Asian “pivot” as retreat from Europe, which could ultimately weaken faltering  attempts to preserve a liberal international order of open market democracies.

America has withdrawn from Iraq but the result may yet be a return to civil war in Iraq and increased Iranian influence. The forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, while domestically classed as a success for the administration, will, according to leaked NATO reports, likely see the Taleban reconstituting its influence.  The terror threat from al Qaeda remains potent despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden, while insurgent forces in Pakistan are no closer to being removed than when Obama took office.

Mitt Romney and other Republican opponents have, of course, criticised Obama’s foreign policy, but Professor Singh claims: “Any fair accounting of the Obama record must note the marked and, to many supporters and opponents alike, surprising continuity of his administration with its ill-loved predecessor.” Although the language of the “war on terror” has been dropped, Professor Singh points out that the actions of the US administration under Obama have essentially continued many of its tactics: “One can make a case that the administration has been even more aggressive than that of George W. Bush in using drone strikes to carry out assassinations, infringing Pakistani (not to mention Yemeni and Somali) sovereignty, and in maintaining rendition, detention, military commissions and the pursuit of “state secrets” doctrines.” A shift to a Republican administration after the 2012 presidential election – however improbable – would not be likely to yield a significant change to the majority of Obama’s policies, with the possible exceptions of Israel and Iran. What approach Obama might take if he wins a second and final term, when he possesses more ‘flexibility’, is less certain.

So, although an anti-American world was not inevitable in a post-American era, Professor Singh argues that the ultimate outcome of Obama’s approach has been the hastening of the decline of America’s global influence, and a sidelining of the US in ways that we have not seen for several decades.

Barack Obama's Post-American Foreign Policy: The LImits of EngagementProfessor Singh’s book, Barack Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy: The Limits of Engagement, was published on 7 June 2012 by Bloomsbury.




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