The Newest Old World

By Ned Alpers

The Newest Old World

Mention the "Indian Ocean World" to most people and they will ask "what is it?" Find out at "Cultural Exchange and Transformation in the Indian Ocean World" on April 5-6.

Historians largely agree that their subject encompasses everything east of the Cape of Good Hope as far as the Moluccas

On April 5-6 the James S. Coleman African Studies Center will sponsor Cultural Exchange and Transformation in the Indian Ocean World, a two-day international conference organized by Allen F. Roberts, center director and professor of World Arts and Cultures, and myself. When I mention the conference to colleagues they often ask "what is the Indian Ocean World?" In general, people are aware of an Atlantic World and many are now familiar with the Pacific Rim, but the idea of an Indian Ocean World (IOW) -- arguably the world's oldest oceanic "world" but without question the least known ocean among citizens of this country -- baffles them. Yet the IOW pulls together in important ways some of the most significant continental regions of area studies that are included under the umbrella of International Studies (ISOP) at UCLA.

Defining Oceanic Regions

Ever since Fernand Braudel's publication of La Mediterranée et le monde mediterranéen dans le temps de Phillip II (1949), historians and other scholars have accepted the notion of oceanic "worlds." With the rise of world history as a teaching specialization in American universities, oceans have also emerged as a way to organize knowledge about the world for both students and scholars. Braudel's intellectual shadow looms large over such studies (a new Ahmanson-Getty Fellowship Program for 2002-2003 at the UCLA Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library focuses on "Braudel Revisited: The Mediterranean World, 1600-1800.") From a Euro-American and African perspective, the most notable among these oceanic regions is, of course, the Atlantic world, which is today widely recognized as a unit of academic study. But most people are uncertain about the concept of an Indian Ocean World.

Geography or History?

The first problem is to define what we mean when we say the Indian Ocean World. Historians who have penned histories of the Indian Ocean largely agree that their subject encompasses everything east of the Cape of Good Hope as far as the Moluccas. However, differences exist as to what extent one should include the "arms" of the Indian Ocean in this world, that is, the Red Sea, the Gulf, and the South China Sea, and to what extent the Indian Ocean must be connected to the history of continental empires in Asia, especially South Asia. At least one historian emphasizes the significance of the tiny Mascarene Islands of the Southwest Indian Ocean as a fulcrum for understanding the entire region. Similar differences exist over how best to periodize the history of the Indian Ocean, although all agree that the rise of Islam marks a significant juncture, as does the eventual dominance of British sea power. Yet even here there are important differences as to the integrative and transformative significance of the one and the definitive achievement of the latter. In general, these studies tend to emphasize maritime activity and commerce, with politics, culture and social history following in their wake.

Organizing principles for studying the Indian Ocean vary with time and place. For Africanists, the western Indian Ocean clearly forms a coherent world, but how does that definition square with the view from Southeast Asia? For example, one historian suggests that we think of different Indian Ocean Worlds, depending on the mercantile networks in force during any particular historical era. Another proposes the concept of a littoral society that is fluid, adaptable, and inextricably connected to the maritime influences and ocean-related activities that characterize much of the Indian Ocean World. Both of these notions suggest that the Indian Ocean World will be defined differently depending on one's perspective and specific interests.

These are some of the larger questions that confront anyone who seeks to understand the history of the Indian Ocean and to define the IOW and which we hope to address at our conference in April.

For a program schedule of the conference and other information visit the webpage for Cultural Exchange and Transformation in the Indian Ocean World.

Ned Alpers is professor of history at UCLA. He has taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and was a Fulbright Scholar at the Somali National University in Mogadishu. His research and writing focus on the political economy of international trade in eastern Africa through the nineteenth century, including the cultural dimensions of this exchange system and its impact on gender relations, with special attention to the wider world of the western Indian Ocean.

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2002