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International Workshop: Beyond the Line - Cultural Constructions of the Sea (June 22–23, 2012)

The international workshop “Beyond the Line – Cultural Constructions of the Sea” examines the relationship between land and sea. It investigates how the currently changing constellations in South-South relationships can be understood historically and culturally. If the active participation of the regions south of the Sahara since early modern times is denied, what is the situation today? And beyond that: is it justified in any way to attribute a historical insignificance to regions neighboring Africa on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans?

These questions will be analyzed in the framework of a current trend in the social and cultural sciences that is called the “oceanic turn.” The symposium aims to pursue these questions and make its own contribution to them. Participants present the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as a cultural space. Individual panel discussions examine case studies of literature, migration, piracy, and trade cultures. In this way, research results on the sub-Saharan part of Africa will be investigated in their relationship to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and new approaches will be formulated.

Conceived by Michael Mann and Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger


Institute of Asian and African Studies (IAAW)
Invalidenstraße 118, Room 217
Humboldt-Universität Berlin





Friday, 22 June 2012



2 pm Keynote

The Historian and the Fish: Of Archives and Categories

Georg Berkemer, Humboldt-Universität Berlin



2.45 pm Panel 1




Approaching the Sea – Conceptual Gateways and Theoretical


Katrin Bromber, ZMO Berlin, and Brigitte Reinwald, Leibniz Universität Hannover


Intensive research about oceans especially within the past three decades has resulted in a variety of approaches that conceptualize the sea as socio-cultural areas. The emerging term liquid continent not only flagged up the idea that oceans could be studied similar to land masses, but also linked ocean studies to disciplines such as cultural geography and the sociology of space. As a consequence, oceans are increasingly thought of as social spaces of intersecting and overlaying social and cultural practices and patterns of representation with a maritime reference, as well as political and economic scenarios of regulation. Such an approach allows to understand and to describe the plurality of historical processes, which generated, reorganised and redefined oceans as social spaces. It is not based on Euclidian geometry and Newtonian conceptualization of space as homogenous receptacle or container, which is filled with objects. It rather considers space in terms of its relational configurations of permanently moving objects (humans, goods, ideas, etc.) and, thus, in terms of time, place and agency.

Using empirical examples from research projects pursued at the ZMO, Berlin and the University of Hannover, the joint presentation will address the conceptual category of the seascape – a predominantly maritime geographical, social and cultural landscape – and the methodological approach of auto-geographies as two gateways to the study of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It will further ask in how far middle range concepts such as translocality are useful to make larger theoretical claims and, thus, escape the trap of becoming a catch-all phrase for any phenomenon of spatial mobility and transgression irrespective of its quality.




4 pm Coffee/tea break




4.30 pm Panel 2

The Ocean as a Contact Zone in Literature



African-Portuguese Encounters in The Lusiads

Bernhard Klein, University of Kent


This paper considers the various encounter scenes between Europeans and Africans in Luís de Camões’s 1572 maritime epic Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads). The first – and in many ways most important – of these scenes occurs in canto 5, when the Portuguese seafarers en route to India first make landfall in the southern hemisphere and meet a local honey-gatherer in St Helena Bay, described as “a strange man of black skin” (um estranho vir, de pele preta, 5.27.6). The ensuing interaction begins as a ritual of gift-giving and cultural exchange, but quickly leads to non-comprehension, failed reciprocity, and mutual hostilities. The scene has often puzzled later readers: there are no immediate lessons to be learned, there is no moral or didactic message imparted to the reader, and Camões has been criticized for including the episode in his poem on precisely these grounds. In this paper I want to argue that the episode is no irrelevant aside but a crucial first introduction to the contingencies and cultural complexities of overseas travel.

Importantly, the scene is not one of Camões’s inventions but reported in the anonymous eyewitness account of da Gama’s voyage as the first significant encounter between the Portuguese crew and inhabitants of the southern hemisphere, and also features in two historical narratives published in the early 1550s, by João de Barros and Fernão Lopes de Castanheda, which Camões used as sources. The paper will offer a comparative reading of the various “historical and cultural constructions of the sea” implicit in these different narratives, and also compare this first encounter scene with the seven others that follow as the Portuguese fleet rounds the Cape and continues its voyage north along the east African shoreline.



Sea-Born(e) Migration and Atlantic Creole Culture

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger, Humboldt-Universität Berlin


Historians use the concepts “sea-born(e) migration” and “Atlantic Creoles” when speaking about contemporary effects of the South Atlantic past. In such cases, they generally refer to processes of cultural interactions since the end of the 16th century between Africa and (Latin) America. According to their argument, Africa has to be considered as an active partner in the creation of the Atlantic Creole cultures instead of merely being considered as a passive and victimized subject.

Simultaneously, not only historians but also writers and painters produce work commemorating those cultural interactions in past and present. For this purpose they elaborate aesthetic strategies, in which the personification of the sea plays an important role. Additionally, the contemporary ecological consciousness gives this identification with the sea a special dimension. I will give some examples from Angola and Brazil framing them in a conceptual network that might also be applied to similar processes in other parts of the world.




6 pm Coffee/tea break




6.30 pm Panel 3

Oceanic Life and Work Regimes



Ideas on Open Water Systems and Occupation

Babacar Fall, Université Dakar


This will be a general and imaginative introduction to the topic of the workshop.



Life on the Water – Soldiers, Slaves, and other Subalterns of the Indian Ocean from the 18th to the 20th Century

Michael Mann, Humboldt-Universität Berlin


In contrast to the Atlantic Ocean, the social history of the Indian Ocean has received comparatively little attention. However, during the last three decades quite a few seminal books appeared on the market highlighting the cultural, social, economic, and political interconnectivity of the Indic. Yet, as several studies and in particular that of Marcus Rediker have dealt with the social life on board of ships in the Atlantic, there is no comprehensive account on the "Life on the Water" in the Indian Ocean. This presentation aims to give an overview of the current state of the art on that subject trying to shed some light on the social, hygienic, and nutritious conditions on board a ship with special reference to the "subalterns", i.e. soldiers, slaves, and kulis being transported on a ship or lascars as well as the crew. Little and bad or even rotten food caused severe health problems and increased death rates as did the lack of medical care. Due to the tropical climate crossing the Indic made life on board dangerous. Additionally, many of the transported "Indians" were frightened since the Brahmanic idea of the "kala pani" (Black Water) was connected with various horrible stories including the loss of "caste". Therefore to be on a ship was not something most of the "passengers" were looking forward to. 





Saturday, 23 June 2012



9.30 am Panel 4

Oceanic Turn in Literary Studies



Horrors of the Deep. Sea Fiction and Empire

Gesa Mackenthun, Universität Rostock


Metaphors of depth abound in sea fiction. The Bible exhorts its believers to seek commerce in the deep; Schiller’s diver doesn’t return from his dive because he has violated the divine injunction against exploring the deep; for Melville, the bottom of the ocean was at the same time the “loom” of creation and a place of invisible horror; Verne’s Captain Nemo takes possession of the deep seas in his battle against the imperial powers of the world. This paper will explore some stories and metaphors of oceanic depth and read them in conjunction with a general reformulation of deep space and deep time in the nineteenth century. Even today, the deep seas remain a zone of interdiction – a region to be explored only at the risk of many lives and ecological disaster. And the “black Mediterranean” keeps swallowing its victims as the Black Atlantic once did. The paper will steer a course through these various articulations of oceanic depth.



Seas of History, Seas of Waste

Elisabeth DeLoughrey, UCLA


Mary Douglas has famously argued that waste is merely matter out of place. "Dirt is the byproduct of a systemic ordering of matter in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements." My talk is about how Caribbean artists and writers have called attention to the political and the aesthetic implications of making dirt, or waste, visible in an oceanic context. The Latin term for ocean, 'vastus,' is also the term for waste. By representing refugee bodies at sea, Caribbean writers and artists demonstrate how waste is a constitutive byproduct of modernity in which the state regulates the vastus for those bodies associated with national refuse, a practice of border-making in a fluid space.




11 am Coffee/tea break




11.30 am Panel 5

Literary Constructions of the Sea


Africa’s Asian Options: The Indian Ocean as Literary Contact Zone, Transcultural Memory Space and Transregional Discourse of Power

Frank Schulze-Engler, Frankfurt/Main


The paper is based on the research agenda of a major collaborative research project on “Africa’s Asian Options” that will officially start at Goethe University in October 2012. It will present three major research areas relating to literary, cultural and academic “Indian Ocean Imaginaries” to be explored over the next four years in the field of literary, cultural and media studies and will highlight important questions we hope to address through new empirical research:


1. What is the historical and current role of “Indian Ocean Imaginaries” in East African, South African and South Asian literature? To what extent can concepts of the Indian Ocean Area as a transregional space be found in this literature? What are similarities and differences between East African literature in English and Swahili with regard to representations of these Indian Ocean Imaginaries?


2. To what extent is the Indian Ocean constituted as a transcultural memory space in current literature, film and ‘new’ media (including the internet)? How can a new understanding of cultural memory as a mobile, contested practice rather than as a ‘territorialized’ feature defining particular communities be brought to bear on the Indian Ocean as a transcultural memory space based on African-Asian interactions?


3. Given the fact that “Africa’s Asian options” are neither a result of older trajectories of nationalist politics nor an outcome of old-style political “South-South solidarity”, but rely to a great extent on new factors such as the emergence of a new African middle class, a (moderately) sustainable African capitalism and on new transregional interactions in an increasingly multipolar world, what exactly is the function of academic/theoretical “Indian Ocean Imaginaries”? Who produces these imaginaries for which purposes, and who stands to benefit from them? What is the role of South Africa as a newly emerging global player in this scenario, and how are Indian Ocean discourses taken up in India and other Asian countries such as China?



“Oceans of pain”: The Sea as a Contact Zone in Angolan Poetry and Rap ´Music

Anna Sobral, Universität Konstanz


This paper examines the way Angolan poets have resorted to images of the Atlantic Ocean as a source of national identity as well as a transnational unifier. By focusing on the history of the ocean as a means of transporting slaves from the Angolan coast to the Americas, the poets highlight the negative impact of colonialism on the national territory, presenting the international slave trade as the pivotal experience of destruction – of both identity and memory – that has had repercussions up to our days. On the other hand, the ocean is also the connecting point between African Angolans and their descendants who were spread out by the slave trade all over America and Europe. The same space that features as a source of loss is thus turned into a powerful means of transnational alliance, appealing to ethnic as well as cultural ties between Africans.

These images become especially interesting when regarded against the background of the historical and political context in which the poems were composed. Hence, this paper compares poems by famous Angolan authors of the years of struggle for independence from colonialism (the 1960s) with more contemporary texts by poets/rappers of the current young generation of Angolans. By allowing the texts to enter into a dialogue with each other, the analysis aims at highlighting the role of the Atlantic as a source of Angolan identity, which itself has undergone significant changes in the past 50 years.



Fabulating the Indian Ocean – An Emerging Network of


Ute Fendler, Universität Bayreuth


When Stephen Muecke launches fabulation as one of the most significant aspects in Indian Ocean studies that brings about “artful politics”, he sets the focus on the “listening” and the “telling” of voices and stories that “project reality”. Starting from this interesting focus, we will analyze a couple of texts from Mozambique (E. White, U. Khosa), Madagascar (Raharimanana) and Mauritius (Torabully), to see how fabulation contributes to a network of imaginaries where the ocean is a founding part of it: its evocation ranges from being a linking bridge, via a barrier, to the source of death and life. The ocean also opens the network beyond the Indian Ocean context, linking it to the experience of the slave trade, and therefore to the Atlantic Ocean, the Sea.

Stephen Muecke: “Fabulation: Flying Carpets and Artful Politics in the Indian Ocean.” In: S. Moorthy/A. Jamal: Indian Ocean Studies. Cultural, Social, and Political Perspectives. New York/London: Routledge, 2010, 32-44.




1.30 pm Lunch break – plenty of restaurants and coffee houses nearby




3 pm Panel 6

Pirates and Politics


“The Imperial Pirate”: Politics and Predation in early-modern South India

Sebastian Prange, University of British Columbia


This paper examines the interplay of maritime predation and processes of state formation in coastal South India across the sixteenth century. Over the last decades, the study of state formation has formed a central concern in the historiography of South India for the medieval and early modern periods. However, this scholarly focus has been almost exclusively directed towards territorial states and their agrarian relations. This paper argues that another trajectory of state building can be observed on the littoral, which has been overshadowed by the growing European presence on the coast during this same period. Yet it was not only the Portuguese who competed with existing coastal powers by establishing new polities on India’s seaboard, but also Muslim groups, whose rise to preeminence is closely linked to the increasingly violent maritime milieu that developed in this region over the course of the sixteenth century. In this period, two Muslim dynasties, the Ali Rajas of Cannanore and the Kunjalis of Kottakal, established themselves as autonomous sovereignties in opposition to their Hindu lords; in both cases, this endeavor was founded in the power and profits derived from a close involvement in seaborne raiding. By comparing these two instances of state building by producers of maritime violence, it is asked whether the Portuguese brought about qualitative changes to the politics of maritime predation in maritime Asia, or if the connection between piracy and state formation must be seen against a much deeper continuity in Indian Ocean history.



The Political Legitimacy of Pirates: Coastal Diplomacy in Bombay, c. 1700-1755

Derek Elliot, University of Cambridge


Through the first half of the eighteenth century the Konkan littoral surrounding Bombay was a hotly contested space of sovereignty. The English East India Company, the Portuguese Estado da Índia, the Maratha-aligned Angres and the Moghul-backed Siddis all vied for political power and legitimacy. Wars frequently broke out, sometimes lasting decades, however, even in peace the powers sought to extend their assertions of sovereign power over both land and sea. The pass was the primary method of making claims over shipping and trade; the failure of a merchant to secure passes left their ship and goods open to plunder. Using East India Company records, ship’s logbooks, and prisoner’s letters, the politics of capture are laid bare and allow a reassessment of the claims of piracy made by East India Company officials against the Indian powers that most challenged their ascendancy. It will also expose how colonial era historiographical trends have persisted by failing to situate sources in their contemporary political and social contexts.




4.30 pm Coffee/tea break




5 pm Panel 7

Transoceanic Connections


The Politics of the Passport: East Africa and Beyond

Prem Poddar, ZMO Berlin


This paper is part of a larger work where I engage in how the laws of citizenship have mutated over time as expressed in the politics and history of the passport, and how literary and historical discourses have overlapped and intertwined with legal discourses of citizenship. I focus on moments of crisis in the colonial history of the passport and the current paper will look at two trajectories. 1. The politico-cultural relationship that uprooted Afro-Asians (part indenture, part comprador) became the subject of as their travels/journeys de-scribed a triangle between West India, East Africa and Britain. 2. The emigration pass, also called *girmitya*, which was issued to the more than one million coolies or indentured labourers, who crossed the Indian and Atlantic oceans covering the period between 1838 and 1917. The very term ‘British subject’ was “susceptible of important division and modification” and reveals what has been called the “rule of colonial difference”. The histories of colonial expansion and transfer, however, which underwrote these definitions—including the one of ‘immigrants‘— get withdrawn from the ‘national’ story. My paper delineates such re-castings.



Africa in Indian Ink: Urdu Articulations of Indian Settlement in East Africa

Nile Green, UCLA


As with many other areas of Indian Ocean history, the study of Indian settlement in eastern and southern Africa has suffered from a lack of primary materials in indigenous (or better, oceanic) languages. Building on recent work on Gujarati accounts of Indians in Africa, this paper brings to light the first substantial body of Urdu sources on Indian settlement in Africa. The focus is on Safarnama-e Uganda wa Mumbasa (‘Travelogue of Uganda and Mombasa’), an Urdu travel guide written in 1901 that is so far the earliest known direct account of colonial migration to Africa to have been written in Urdu and possibly in any modern Indian language. The paper analyzes the discursive frameworks by which East Africa was rendered knowable to a readership of prospective Punjabi migrant workers on the Uganda Railway, with the railway in turn providing the author of the travel guide with a geographical spine for Africa’s spatial anatomy. As a colonial Indo-African ethnography, the Safarnama thus provides our earliest direct evidence of Indian attitudes to both the peoples and landscapes of Africa. Envisioning East Africa as an at once Islamic and imperial settlement zone, the Safarnama-e Uganda wa Mumbasa documents the incorporation of not only littoral but also interior East Africa into an industrializing oceanic culture area that the railway expanded into Africa.



Transoceanic Nationalism. Connections between East Africa and India, c. 1920-1963

Margret Frenz, University of Leicester


This paper explores the cross-currents in the Indian Ocean that were created by several South Asian communities who lived in East Africa since the late nineteenth century. Although they had made Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Kenya and Uganda their home, links and connections to their place of origin were kept alive, particularly in the private and the political sphere. In the emerging nationalist movements in India and East Africa, and East African Indian activists traveled to India.

The paper argues that the political interaction between the two continents significantly influenced the nationalist movements in East Africa, particularly once India had achieved Independence in 1947 since it showed the realistic possibility of bringing colonial rule to an end. Transoceanic interactions between East Africa and India intensified with the establishment of scholarships for East African students in India by posting an Indian High Commissioner in Nairobi, and by politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru advocating the need for rapid further decolonization and international solidarity between independent Asian and African countries.