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Nidhi Mahajan (University of California, Santa Cruz)

‘The Fire Under the Sea’: Arbitrage and Smuggling in the

Western Indian Ocean 


31 January 2023 | 3pm GMT

Link to talk

Wooden sailing vessels or dhows have long traversed the Indian Ocean making it what some scholars have called, “the cradle of globalization.” Today, dhows or vahans from Kachchh in western India continue to traverse old Indian Ocean routes, functioning as an economy of arbitrage, becoming crucial intermediaries in global shipping. This talk traces how this mobile trade network is anchored or moored in specific places and economic concepts in some moments, and unmoored in others. Focusing on arbitrage, long a strategy used by Indian Ocean merchants, I argue that value in the contemporary dhow trade is created through arbitraging across different markets in Persian Gulf. Tracing the movement of one dhow across the Indian Ocean, I argue that  sanctions regimes, and questions of jurisdiction at sea in the Persian Gulf have created a geopolitical climate in which value is produced at multiple scales through the intersection of these logics, the body of the sailor becoming the site for capturing value and crafting sovereignty at sea. 

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Nidhi Mahajan's research focuses on the intersection between political economy, sovereignty, and mobility in the Indian Ocean. She is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She is also an artist and has developed multi-media exhibitions in Kenya, India, and the UAE. Her work has been funded by the Wenner-Gren, SSRC, ACLS/Mellon, and a fellowship at The Africa Institute, Sharjah. Publications include work in journals such as Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; Island Studies Journal, and edited volumes such as Reimaging Indian Ocean Worlds and World on the Horizon.

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