An Ocean Deep: Labor, Capital, and the Pearling Networks of the Indian Ocean

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:50 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Pedro A. Machado, Indiana University
In his recently published history of the Bay of Bengal and its crisscrossing circuits of migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Sunil Amrith mapped wide-ranging social geographies cast across multiple areas that defined an expansive social and commercial arena of spatial plurality and intersection. If this spatial plurality was shaped by the migrations of South Asian bodies involving the well-studied trades in tea, opium and textiles, its contours were influenced in no less important ways by a robust marine products economy underpinned by Chinese, Indian, British and Australian commercial interests and networks. Equally, exchange across the Indian Ocean involved the large-scale transportation of marine goods extracted from the coasts and islands of the Indian Ocean. Of the marine products shipped across the ocean, pearls and pearl shell were important cargoes involving significant numbers of workers, shippers, merchants, buyers and variegated markets whose logics were defined by differentiated – if not entirely distinctive – consumer tastes. In this paper, I focus on the pearl fisheries of the Mergui archipelago of the southern Burmese coast and their translocal histories that brought Tamil capital and labour, Burmese pearl divers, Chinese commercial networks and British and Australian imperial pearling interests into relation with one another from the late eighteenth century. Challenging historiography that has emphasized a regional or highly localized approach to the Indian Ocean’s pearl fisheries – resulting in a segmented picture of the history of pearling – the paper underscores the importance of tracing connections revealed by the Mergui fisheries. These link the Bay of Bengal and what are often considered the margins of the ocean’s eastern spheres, Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, and therefore enable us to better understand that these were constituted not by discrete but overlapping commercial worlds centred on processes of marine product extraction.