Expanding Frontiers of Knowledge, Settlement, and Identity: Indian Ocean Diasporas and the British Empire

AHA Session 35
North American Conference on British Studies 2
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Sutton North (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Iqbal Akhtar, Florida International University
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel explores the movement and settling of people from the Indian subcontinent within the wider Indian Ocean littoral and hinterland regions between the 18th and 20th centuries. In so doing, the papers will examine how these diasporic communities negotiated and subverted colonial boundaries. Historians such as Sunil Amrith, Sugata Bose, Eric Tagliacozzo, and Thomas Metcalf have provided rich descriptions of the modalities of migration and settlement in the Indian Ocean region under British colonial rule. The papers on this panel expand upon this scholarship by focusing on the diasporic experiences of a diverse set of migrants, ranging from South Indian migrants to Penang and Burma from the eighteenth century to Baloch migrants to Australia and East Africa. In so doing, the authors describe elements of continuity under changed conditions of colonial rule and highlight the effects of transition to postcolonial period. Specifically, the authors describe the connections to pre-colonial patterns of trade and settlement, the role of migrants in production of colonial knowledge, and the formation of colonial identities and postcolonial citizenship in multicultural settings.

Sundar Vadlamudi examines the migration and settlement of Tamil Muslims in Penang in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Vadlamudi’s study explains the origins of a diverse society of migrants that developed in Penang and argues that EIC settlements, such as Penang and Singapore, cannot be understood without reference to pre-colonial patterns of trade and movement. Similarly challenging colonial narratives, Ahmed Almaazmi centers Baloch migrants in the story of exploration in Australia and East Africa. In so doing, Almaazmi breaks down Victorian colonial stereotypes such as the leitmotif of the ‘martial Baloch’ and the ‘fanatic Afghan.’ Moving into the twentieth century, Matthew Bowser and Emma Meyer explore the life and mobility of diasporic Indian communities in colonial Burma. Bowser examines how the large Indian population making a “home-away-from-home” in Burma led to intense anti-immigrant nationalism spread by opportunistic populist politicians. In examining anti-Muslim riots in 1938, Bowser argues that diasporic immigrant communities often serve as a scapegoat for the deep-seated socioeconomic issues caused by colonial rule. Meyer looks at what happened to these same diasporic communities after the anti-immigrant outbursts of the 1930s by studying the dislocation and exodus of large swathes of the Indian population from Burma during the Japanese invasion in World War II. By focusing on the Evacuee Identity Card, a travel and identification document meant to manage India-Burma migration following World War II, Meyer argues that the colonial and post-colonial administrations of India and Burma used such documents to control and shape cross-border mobility by restricting movement primarily to “stable,” often male, migrants.

As a whole, this panel provides two key interventions. First, it challenges European narratives of Indian Ocean history by demonstrating the continuity of pre-colonial connections and the often-invisible influence of colonized peoples on seemingly colonial enterprises. And second, it provides greater complexity in understanding diasporic communities’ interactions with colonial states and the indigenous peoples of those states.

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