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SUJIT SIVASUNDARAM (Cambridge University)

An Environmental History of the Indian Ocean


15 January 2024 | 3pm GMT

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This paper is a preliminary experiment in a long-term Indian ocean history which is attentive to the travels of small things as illustrative of how humans and nature have interacted over centuries. It points to the uncertain pathways through which humans travelled in this oceanic arena of early globalisation; the unexpected natural things which proved durable in forging global economies; how the control of nature required the taming of the human body; and how human senses and human imagination played a role in the triumph of romantic, enlightened and reasoned imperial science. In focus for this paper, though this indicates the possibilities of a whole range of objects for related historical study, are stitched boats, cowrie shells, ambergris and sea cucumber. By attending to the trick, substance or fragment, arising through engagement with nature, the paper attempts also to dislodge a way of writing Indian ocean history which begins with superstructures like capitalism, imperialism or the push and pull of migration. Rather it scales up from these precarious, uncertain and highly evocative moments where humans and the marine interacted in the environmental context of the Indian ocean.

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Sujit Sivasundaram is Professor of History at Cambridge University. His research engages with Imperial History, History of Science, Environmental History, Cultural History, History of Race, Indian Ocean History and Pacific Ocean History. His most recent monograph, Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire (published with HarperCollins in 2020 and Chicago University Press in 2021) won the British Academy Prize for Global Cultural Understanding and the Bentley Book Prize for World History. He has penned numerous book chapters and scholarly articles, appearing in journals including  Comparative Studies in Society and History, Past and Present, The Historical Journal, and more.

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