Society:ż The concept and the problems*
University of New South Wales
to specify the nature of littoral societies is obviously central
in any discussion of seascapes. Three categories
will underlie my discussion. To anticipate the conclusion,
location is an obvious matter. However, both occupation
and culture are more difficult. Many aspects of both
do indeed show the classic characteristics of littoral society,
that is a symbiosis between land and sea; but other
parts do not. It is this mixture of maritime and terrestrial
influences which makes a study of littoral society a paradigm
for maritime history in general.
will attempt to move forward the discussion of this crucial
part of the maritime world. It will be consciously tentative
and problem-oriented. Most basically, is there such
a thing as littoral society, that is can we go around the
shores of an ocean, or a sea, or indeed the whole world, and
identify societies which have more in common with other littoral
societies than they do with their inland neighbors?
Does location on the shore transcend differing influences
from an inland which is very diverse, both in geographic and
cultural terms, so that the shorefolk have more in common
with other shorefolk thousands of kilometers away on some
other shore of the ocean, than they do with those in their
immediate hinterland? 1 Do Surat and Mombasa have more
in common with each other than they do with inland cities
such as Nairobi or Ahmadabad? Do these societies draw
more on their forelands, that is maritime connections, than
on their hinterlands? Certainly there are important
gradations along the strand, from wholly aquatic people to
those who move easily between land and sea, and indeed may,
despite their physical location, draw much more from the land
than the sea both in terms of livelihood and of culture.
The extent of the hinterland varies - as Braudel had it, a
thousand frontiers - depending on the question or problem
I am thinking of is not really the beach, for this is a very
narrow zone and has no permanent people. The beach is
the very narrow strip where the tide has an effect,
what the Australian novelist Tim Winton called "the distinct
ink line where the water meets the shore - the ever-contested
margin of high water." 2
Dakin says the seashore is "that narrow strip of land over
which the ocean waves and the moon-powered tides are masters
- that margin of territory that remains wild despite the proximity
of cities or of land surfaces modified by industry."
It is a magic place, "one of the most delightful and exciting
areas of the earth's surface - the seashore, that marginal
strip where the sea meets the land, and which is covered and
uncovered by the tides. From the dark ocean abysses
to the mountain-tops, from the desert to the luxuriant jungle
there is no place with more variety and flexibility of life
than where the tides ebb and flow." 3
classic, though now somewhat problematic, study introduces
the subject of plants and people who live on the littoral
or, as he calls it, the strand.
The geographic area with
which this description is most concerned is the strand. The
environment of the strand begins where the land meets the
sea and extends landwards and seaward from this line.
It is of variable and often uncertain width; some writers
find it convenient to regard it as the area between the lines
of extreme high and low tide. It is best regarded as
a zone of transition between the sea and terra firma;
as such it is very often characterized by its own special
land forms and life forms. . . . . people who live on the
strand or make use of it generally have a habitat that extends
well beyond its limits. The extent of the habitat of
strand folk varies greatly, in part depending on the complexity
of their society. 4
An historian of the beach in northern New England commented
that "However designated, the seashore, the coast, the marge,
the coastal zone, the littoral, the limicole [or limicoline]
realm, the theater of this book deserves prolonged scrutiny.
. . The seacoast is the threshold of American
prehistory and history, of American culture, and like most
well-passed thresholds, it is hollowed and worn. . .
. All alongshore lies one of the most visited, most noticed,
most pictured, and least scrutinized places in North America."
5 Pari passu for the
coasts of other oceans.
coastal areas are beaches. In delta areas we find ambiguity,
lack of definition and boundaries, a zone where land and sea
intertwine and merge, really the fungibility, the interchangeability,
of land and sea. Emily Eden looked at the Sunderbunds
down from Kolkata in 1837 when she was traveling on a "flat"
or large barge towed by a steamer. The scene she saw
was "a composition of low stunted trees, marsh, tigers and
snakes, with a stream that sometimes looks like a very wide
lake and then becomes so narrow that the jungle wood scrapes
against the sides of the flat . . . " Then she reflected,
very acutely, that "It looks as if this bit of world
had been left unfinished when land and sea were originally
Alan Villiers' classic account of the Rufiji delta found a
similar, though very hostile, merging.
Over all the vast area of
the delta the water is only three parts water; the fourth
part is mud. The soil of the islands and the banks is
three parts mud and one part water. Miasmic vapours,
steaming swamps, rotting jungles, and pestilences of all kinds
abound. . . . The whole river seems possessed of a spirit
willful, petulant, and destructive. . . . The whole delta
is gloomy, morose, and depressing almost beyond endurance.
. . . In all this world, if there is a worse place than the
Rufiji Delta, I hope I may never find it. The list of
its enormities is not yet complete, for the murderous crocodile
and the clumsy hippopotamus lurk in the stream, ready to capsize
a frail canoe and make short work of its occupants.
. . . The poisonous mud of the mangrove swamps abounds
in leeches and ticks, ready to attach themselves to the feet;
creepers beset the way, and thorns tear at the legs. . . .
The mosquitos . . . were unbelievably savage, and fell upon
each Arab crew as the dhows came in with the ferocity
of small flying tigers. 7
the people who live on or near the beach, those who inhabit
the coastal zone, not just the beach? They have been
called the shore folk, or sea nomads, or members of a littoral
society. The place of port cities in littoral society
is a matter of dispute. In terms of location they may
qualify, though Ashin Das Gupta in his classic book on Surat
made an important distinction. "To begin with there
was coastal Gujarat, marshy, irregular, often broken by estuaries
of the rivers and dotted with tidal flats which were submerged
at high tide. . . . It was peopled by the truly maritime men
who fished and who sailed the vessels on which trade depended.
The coastal cities usually stood back a little . . ." 8
On our other two criteria it is more difficult, and things
change over time. In premodern times port cities had
more of a whiff of ozone about them than is the case today.
The occupations of many of the inhabitants were intricately
connected to the foreland and hinterland, thus making these
people truly littoral. However, their economic functions and
influences extended much further than their fellows on the
coast, with much more extended forelands and hinterlands.
Culturally the port cities, where populations are more concentrated,
are more exposed to external influences, such a elite norms
from the inland, or the attentions of seafaring scholars and
religious folk. Ibn Battuta traveled around the Indian
Ocean, calling at port cities and being recognized for his
scholarship. In return he tried to improve the quality
of Islam in these places. On the other hand, Lotika
Varadarajan's ethnographic studies show a much more relaxed
religious milieu outside the coastal cities. The important
thing is to recognize a transition. If we look at functions
within a port city, we find that today maritime, or port,
functions are completely subordinated to other aspects, whether
governmental, manufacturing, or industrial. Thus Bombay,
once a port city, is now hardly a port at all. Even
those who may appear to have a maritime connection are really
no different from inland people: stevedores are really
just laborers, shipping clerks could be in any office.
One way to separate out littoral from port city is to insist
that littoral people live on the coast and seldom travel.
Some people in the port cities └ sailors, merchants └ indeed
go to sea and have important maritime experiences, but my
concern is with fisherfolk, or people who tend the lighters
which go out to meet the big ships. These folk live
on shore, but work on the sea: they are very precisely
Dening wrote "Beaches are beginnings and endings.
They are frontiers and boundaries of islands. For some
life forms the division between land and sea is not abrupt
but for human beings beaches divide the world between here
and there, us and them, good and bad, familiar and strange.
. ." 9
An extravagant claim indeed, even if meant metaphorically.
I would argue exactly the opposite, as does Jan Heesterman.
He stressed that "The littoral forms a frontier zone
that is not there to separate or enclose, but which rather
finds its meaning in its permeability." 10
Braudel wrote evocatively about coastal society, stressing
that it was as much land as sea oriented. The life of
the coast of the Mediterranean "is linked to the land,
its poetry more than half-rural, its sailors may turn peasant
with the seasons; it is the sea of vineyards and olive
trees just as much as the sea of the long-oared galleys and
the round-ships of merchants, and its history can no more
be separated from that of the lands surrounding it than the
clay can be separated from the hands of the potter who shapes
Several modern scholars have ruminated on the nature of the
shore folk of the Indian Ocean. Middleton focused on
the east African coast. "Part of the coast is the sea:
the two cannot be separated. The Swahili are a maritime
people and the stretches of lagoon, creek, and open sea beyond
the reefs are as much part of their environment as are the
coastlands. The sea, rivers, and lagoons are not merely
stretches of water but highly productive food resources, divided
into territories that are owned by families and protected
by spirits just as are stretches of land. The Swahili
use the sea as though it were a network of roads."
The very term "Swahili" means "shore
folk," those who live on the edge of the ocean. As Pouwels
has it, Swahili culture was "a child of its human and
physical environment, being neither wholly African nor 'Arab,'
but distinctly 'coastal,' the whole being greater than the
sum of its parts." 13
are perhaps where we are most likely to find littoral societies.
Indeed, on smaller ones there would be nothing but coastal
people, for the sea permeates the whole area. The Seychelles,
the Andaman and Nicobar islands, tiny fragments of land in
the ocean, are purely littoral. Similarly, islands in
the rivers can be seen as making up little littoral societies
all their own, even far "inland." The Zambezi
system had many islands, as also did other river basins and
deltas: the Hugli, the Ganga, the Tigris-Euphrates,
the Irrawaddy and so on.
Purcell, writing about the Mediterranean, claim islands do
not really fulfill the stereotype of being isolated and remote:
rather they have all-round "connectivity." They
are especially accessible to the seabourne, and in a way are
coastal areas writ large. Richard Grove wrote of Indian
Ocean islands as "Edens" where new European ideas about nature
and conservation were stimulated. 14 We find in them the complexity
and ambiguity which must be the dominant note in any discussion
of littoral society. Take the priests at the Vivekenanda
temple on an island just off Kanya Kumari in the extreme southern
tip of India. Their work is on a tiny island, they travel
frequently by water to the mainland, yet they are in no sense
maritime. Nor are the pilgrims that the priests serve.
The location is littoral, but their occupation and the religion
they exemplify are purely land-based. How complicated it can
If the littoral
is permeable, then our description must be amphibious, moving
easily between land and sea, rather like a fish found by Jacques
Cousteau in the Seychelles in 1967. This was "a
species of amphibious fish, Periophthalmus koelreuteri - more
commonly, and much less grandly, known as the mudskipper.
It is acknowledged to be the most amphibious of all fishes,
for it can stay out of water for longer periods than it spends
in the water. When on land, the mudskipper carries a
supply of water in the gill cavity, and it also gulps air.
It is at home on mudflats and among mangrove roots, where
it propels itself by 'walking' on its pectoral fins and -
in order to move hurriedly - by means of rather spectacular,
froglike leaps. In the water, however, the mudskipper
swims quite normally." 15
A complementary way to conceptualize land/sea relation and
connections is Jean-Claude Penrad's notion of ressac,
the three-fold violent movement of the waves, turning back
on themselves as they crash against the shore. He uses
this image to elucidate the way in which the to-and-fro movements
of the Indian Ocean mirror coastal and inland influences which
keep coming back at each other just as do waves. 16
Emmerson summarized the important ideas of the anthropologist
Having defined as maritime
only those communities that are ecologically, structurally,
and culturally shaped by the sea, Estellie Smith has made
perhaps the strongest case for their distinctiveness as a
type: Most people, she argues, consider water more 'empty'
than land and therefore a more suitable place to discard waste.
Unlike land, the sea is a common-property resource.
Sea fishing as an occupation is physically much more dangerous
than agriculture. Because marine foods are more perishable
than land-grown foods, and because the fisherman's work is
at sea, fishermen are more vulnerable than farmers to manipulation
by middlemen who appropriate the marketing role; and
being so frequently and far away, fishermen are less able
to influence village decision-making on land. Because
those who go to sea are generally men, and because it falls
therefore mainly to women to try to earn income on land -
whereas on farms all normally take part, in one way or another,
in the agricultural cycle - sex differentiates occupations
more in maritime than non- maritime communities. Unlike
agricultural production units, seagoing vessels are closed
social systems that do not cultivate the underlying resource.
Relying as they do on a small number of significant others
who are literally in the same boat as they, fishermen are
more individualistic but also more egalitarian than farmers.
Lastly, these distinctive characteristics may sustain among
fishermen distinctive religious or magical beliefs or
are indeed the quintessential littoral people, as Smith notes.
There are a few things to add here. Certainly fishing
is more dangerous than cultivating land, but we should remember
that the further out one fishes the more dangerous it gets.
In far offshore fishing it is not so much individualism which
is created, but rather a necessary stress on cooperation.
Second, while it is true that gender divisions are, as Smith
notes, more important than in peasant societies, essentially
a fishing family links land and sea, with the woman on the
former, the men on the latter. Indeed, women may not
only do the cleaning and processing and marketing, they may
well cultivate land as well. The fishing family, whether
extended or nuclear, has the possibility of exploiting both
land and sea, while peasants have only the former option.
Yet this exploitation differs dramatically between land and
sea, for unlike agriculture fishing is a purely exploitative
activity; as Dakin says "man is always taking away life
from the sea - he neither sows nor fertilises the waters;
only reaps." 18
are still other complexities. In many coastal areas
fish are not central in people's diets, and indeed fisherfolk
often will exchange their fish for the preferred land staples
of wheat or meat. In any case, fish are a nutritionally
inefficient resource - a kilogram of fish provides only about
two-thirds the calories of a kilogram of wheat. And fish also
are an aleatory resource, as compared with rather more routine
land based food production which depends mostly on wise husbandry.
Yet fish also can be sent far inland, thanks to another part
of the maritime scene. Coastal areas produce salt too, at
low tides or when marshes dry up seasonally, and salt is vital
in transforming perishables, especially fish, into items which
can be exported for long distances and so can enter distant
markets. 19 Today fishing
activities are crucially dependent on land matters:
middle men, markets, processing plants.
Other apparently littoral or maritime people also show this
mix between sea and land. Michel Mollat in his history of
Europe and the Sea discusses the harvesting of seaweed,
that is kelp, to make fertilizer, and today also to provide
various elements of some foodstuffs. But, he says, this
activity, located by definition right on the sea shore, does
not turn the farmer who cuts it into a mariner: he is
a peasant. So also with the person who harvests pebbles for
building materials, or collects sand to make glass, or mines
salt on the sea shore: this person also was a peasant. Yet
on the other hand many inland people depend on the maritime
people for their livings, as they provide services.
An Act passed in England in 1540 called "Act for the Mayntenance
of the Navy in England" expressed concern about getting enough
"masters, mariners and seamen instructed in the art and science
of navigation" and then noted "They, their wives and their
children, derive their sustenance from the sea and are at
the same time the support of cities, towns, villages and ports
and harbours on the coast; bakers, tavern keepers, butchers,
blacksmiths, rope-makers, ship builders, tailors, shoesmiths
and other suppliers and artisans living in the neighbourhood
of the said shores derive from the same source a large part
of their sustenance." 20 This indeed
is ressac, mutual dependence, with the mixture varying from
time to time.
Le Roy Ladurie described mid sixteenth-century Normandy peasant-fishermen,
who were always keen to get back to land "to get on with
the more serious matters - looking after the cows, cutting
the corn, laying down apple juice." 21 In 1846 people from the island of Fohr set sail in
the early months of the year for Greenland to "kill a couple
of hundred seals and some whales and then return once more
to their island, milk their sheep, and lead their cows out
to the heath." 22
American whalers and sealers in the Great Southern Ocean in
the nineteenth century hoped to do only a few arduous voyages.
Once they had saved enough money they planned to leave the
sea and get back to their natural habitat by buying a farm
in New England.
backwaters of Kerala lie behind a coastal sand spit, and their
inhabitants can be seen as close to moving beyond amphibious
to aquatic. The area consists of narrow strips of land, with
flooded rice paddies all around. The men fish: indeed
when Frater was traveling along them in 1987 he was surprised
to see heads sticking up out of the water. These were
the bottom walkers, who trawl by hand, walking along the bottom
of the shallow waters. 23
The women work in the neighboring paddy fields, and indeed
many of the paddy fields are reclaimed to make islands.
Some islands are substantial with stone levees or dykes,
locally called bands. Others have only earthen bands,
which can collapse, especially during the monsoon. Transport
and commerce, and getting to school, is by water, mostly in
Some exceptional peoples are really not littoral at all: they
are aquatic. They are not amphibious: their lives
are spent on or in the water. Some such people
are simply sailors who sail for a long time, so long that
they may lose their land ties. Some of the merchants of the
great port of Siraf around 1000 traveled so much that they
were away at sea all their lives. The contemporary account
goes on "I was told of one man of Siraf who was so accustomed
to the sea that for nearly forty years he did not leave his
ship. When he came to land he sent his associates ashore to
look after his business in all the towns, and he crossed over
from his boat to another, when the vessel was damaged
and needed to be repaired." 24
studied truly aquatic people are the famous Marsh Arabs of
the Tigris-Euphrates delta, occupying the vast palustral triangle
between An-Nasiriyah, Al-'Amarah, and Basra. Their way of
life goes back perhaps 5000 years. The classic account
is by the colorful and somewhat anachronistic Wilfred Thesiger.
He lived in the marshes off and on from 1951 to 1958, and
loved it despite the mosquitoes, snakes, very large wild pigs
(some the size of a donkey, weighing over 300 lbs), flees,
and flooding each year. The area also was riddled with disease:
dysentery was endemic, also bilharzia, yaws, hookworm,
eye infections, and tuberculosis. He spent so much time
with them because "They were cheerful and friendly and I liked
the look of them. Their way of life, as yet little affected
by the outside world, was unique and the Marshes themselves
were beautiful. Here, thank God, was no sign of that
drab modernity which, in its uniform of second-hand European
clothes, was spreading like a blight across the rest of Iraq."
This was a totally aquatic society. "The ground looked solid
but felt very soggy. Actually it consisted of a layer of roots
and decomposed vegetation floating on the surface." Some
of the islands were only a few square yards, others an acre,
some tethered, some floating about. 26 The houses
were built on these reed platforms floating on the water,
and all transport was in boats, usually very small. As Thor
Heyerdahl noted, "A Marsh Arab can rarely walk more than a
couple of steps before he has to enter his canoe." 27
When it floods they just add a few more layers of reeds on
the floors of their houses so they can keep dry.
Once Thesiger was treating patients, and there were so many
of them that "the weight of my patients submerged the floor.
I finished treating them ankle-deep in water. My host
assured me that it did not matter, but nevertheless he seemed
relieved when I moved on." 28
In other places we find floating markets, extremely venerable,
yet today also tourist attractions. The Bangkok one
is a compulsory sight for any visitor. Long before this,
in 1833 an American traveler had some perceptive comments
to make. He had come up river from the mouth, and reached
We now threaded our way
among junks, boats and floating houses, jumbled together in
glorious confusion, and totally concealing the banks from
our view. Hundreds of small canoes, some not larger
than clothes-baskets, were passing to and fro, many of them
containing talapoins or priests, paddling lazily from house
to house, collecting presents of provisions. The occupants
of the floating houses were taking down the shutters which
formed the fronts, exposing their wares for sale: printed
calicoes, paper-umbrellas, sweet-meats, fruits, pots, pans,
etc being placed in situations the best calculated to attract
the notice of the passers-by." Later he noted that "The best
shops are built on wooden floats on the river; indeed
when the waters are out, they flood the whole town, the only
communication between the different dwellings being by means
of boats. At this period of the year, when the river
becomes swelled by the rains, whole streets of floating houses,
together with their inhabitants, sometimes break adrift from
their moorings, and are carried down the river, to the utter
confusion of the shipping. These floating streets, nevertheless,
possess their advantages. A troublesome neighbour may be ejected,
house, family, pots and pans, and all, and sent floating away
to find another site for his habitation. A tradesman,
too, if he finds an opposition shop taking away his custom,
can remove to another spot with very little difficulty. 29
for the floating market of Banjarmasin, in southern Borneo,
which is like the chaotic markets of large southeast Asian
cities, "a flotilla of different types of boats imitating
the chaos on the roads." People paddle about from stall
to stall in canoes, and a century ago, in 1881, one
rather Orientalist observer, Bock, said it was very
pleasant to "take a canoe and join the busy throng,
paddling about from stall to stall in this floating market
└ a sort of Covent Garden and Billingsgate combined └ is a
pleasant way of spending the cooler hours of the morning .
. ." 30
The life of the Tan Chia, the boat people of the coasts and
rivers of South China, or the Hong Kong families who live
on sampans all their lives and never go ashore, fall into
this same category. 31 Similarly, on islands near Haiphong in
Vietnam for thousands of years people have lived on boats,
and come ashore only to shop, and even that very seldom, for
most of their needs are met by boat shops, that is people
selling goods off boats. 32
So far we have merely been describing these people. We have,
obviously, found them all located on or near the littoral.
As to their occupations, the economic forces which govern
their lives move amphibiously from land to sea. This then
seems to provide an element of commonality for many, though
far from all, folk who live on the shores. What other things
show that indeed coastal zone people, at least all those around
the shores of warm seas and oceans, have more in common with
each other than with their inland neighbors? We could
look at food, obviously largely derived from the sea, even
if some fisherfolk prefer to trade some of their catch for
cereals. Houses are usually different from those inland.
As one would expect, locally available materials are usually
employed. For much of the tropical coast this means
that palm trees are used to provide a housing structure, and
a thatched roof. In some areas coral is available. On
the Swahili coast it is widely employed as a building material,
along with another quintessential littoral product, mangrove
poles. Jacques Cousteau found coral to be of universal
utility in the Maldives. It was used to construct the
landing strip and the houses, and even the beaches were pulverized
coral, not sand. "Everywhere we saw tiny cemeteries under
palm clusters. The tombs themselves, crosses and all,
were made of coral. Everything here is bound up with
the sea, even life and death." 33
Certain languages achieved wide currency, this providing commonality
around the shores of the Indian Ocean. One such was
Arabic in the earlier centuries. There are some
5,000 words of Arabic influence in Malay, and more than that
in Swahili, and about 80% of these are the same, that is in
Malay and Swahili, so that we have a "corpus of travelling
Arabic words." 34
Later a sort of nautical Portuguese, and today some variant
of English, have achieved a similar quasi-universal status.
religion is also distinctive. Littoral people, living
in a more cosmopolitan environment than those inland, are
more likely to convert. In the case of the Indian Ocean,
the cosmopolitan, international, aspect of Islam has often
been cited as a prime motivation for conversion, and while
this applied most strongly in the port cities, it also was
evident on the coasts between them. Coastal people especially
found their indigenous beliefs, localized and very specific,
to be inadequate as their world expanded. When they
were exposed to a universal faith, Islam as exemplified by
visitors from the north, the attraction was obvious, and the
results can be seen all over the Indian Ocean world from the
early modern period onwards. Folk religion on the littoral,
beneath an Islamic veneer, similarly is to be distinguished
from inland manifestations. The concerns of coastal people
were usually quite different from those of peasants and pastoralists
inland. On the coast religion had to do with customs
to ensure safe voyages or a large catch, or a favorable monsoon
so that fishing could recommence. Particular gods
were propitiated for these purposes.
One rite on the west coast of India celebrates the end of
the southwest monsoon and so the beginning of the sailing
and fishing year. The always quotable and always acerbic Dr.
John Fryer noted this in Bombay in the 1670s: "After
this Full Moon, the Banyans, assisted by their Brachmins,
go in Procession to the Sea-shore, and offer Cocoe Nuts to
Neptune, that he would restore them their Mare Pacificum;
when they make Preparations to go to Sea, and about their
Business of Trade." 35 In this burgeoning
port city it is revealing that Brahmins, that is representatives
of normative Hinduism, were involved; this would not
happen on the coasts between the port cities.
Dr. Varadarajan's ethnographic work in Gujarat has found rather
similar things happening today, though based on very old traditions.
Her account makes clear that littoral location, and occupation,
transcend religion. On the "narial prunima" day both
Hindus and Muslims take part in ceremonies when the forces
governing the sea are worshipped, and boats are symbolically
taken out to mark the beginning of the season. Rites
are conducted by the community rather than the temple priest.
"As the ritual is so intimately connected with their
vocational life, all seafaring folk come together to celebrate
this day coalescing religious heterogeneity through group
participation." In general "occupational hazards to which
they are exposed cut across religious differences." 36 A similar religious practice
tied to the sea, not to any formal canon of normative belief,
governed boat building in south Sulawesi: the whole process
of building a prahu, from felling the tree to launching the
boat, was governed and accompanied by precise ritual ceremonies,
and many of them were not purely Islamic either. Among
other things, a live black goat was sacrificed by fire just
before the launching. 37 In Goa today fishing boats are
named after saints, and the owners and crew make offerings
to the relevant saint on his or her feast day.
last two centuries coastal society in the tropical world has
been subjected to pressures from far away, first from colonialism,
and then from the increased integration of the world,
sometimes called the process of globalization. Millennia old
fishing practices have been undermined, while tourism has
subjected many third world coasts to the needs of the rich
world. We can distinguish three broad periods in the recent
history of Indian Ocean fishing: the colonial period,
when traditional fishers were undermined by western intrusion;
the period after independence, when newly independent states
tried to promote indigenous enterprise, and then the last
twenty years or so, when an increasingly integrated world
economy has impacted in deleterious fashion on these nascent
industries. In the terms used by Horden and Purcell,
we can no longer write a history OF an ocean, whether it be
the Mediterranean, the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean;
now there is only history IN the ocean.
In the colonial
period imperial powers attempted to control and tax traditional
fisherfolk. After independence littoral states made
great efforts to turn fishing into a major generator of food
for the domestic market, and foreign currency earner from
exports. What was involved was the painful process of a transition
from using artisanal techniques to developing industrial fishing
practices. In India artisanal fishing was caste based,
used manual power, and produced small catches. In Kerala,
for example, most fishing was done by traditional communal
fishing groups in small canoes. On the other, Coromandel,
coast even in the 1970s fishers used catamarans, and masula
boats, the latter being sewn plank craft with no floor or
frame ribbing, and using no sail. The catamarans were
merely several logs lashed together, yet they ventured out
up to 15 miles to fish. A detailed study of one village
in Tamilnadu in the mid 1970s found all the inhabitants were
dependent on fishing, and all were from one low caste. The
main boats they used were simple log rafts which came from
Kerala. Each night the logs were separated and dried, and
next day tied together again. These people also engaged
in beachseining, when a boat took a large net out and then
it was dragged in from the shore, hopefully with a catch inside.
While all this is very precisely littoral, merging land and
sea, it is also very "low tech," the returns erratic and unpredictable.
The nets, which were large and expensive, could not
be used when they were wet, so the fishers needed nine of
them for each day's fishing. 38
to "modernize" this industry had profound effects on the traditional
fisherfolk of India. The government, often in alliance with
western aid donors, promoted the use of trawlers, hoping to
increase exports. Most of the trawlers are foreign made
and owned, most of the profits leave India, even the labor
on the deep sea trawlers is not Indian. On locally owned craft
owners sometimes prefer using crew from groups with no background
in fishing, they being cheaper and more malleable than traditional
fishers. 39 Local fishers had to compete with foreign
trawlers, which vacuumed up marine life in a totally random
way. Especially hard hit were demersal fish species.
Once a given fishing ground was no longer productive the trawlers
could move on: the traditional fisherfolk could not.
case study typifies the dramatic and painful transition. "The
greatest asset of the fishermen of Kerala is their accumulated
knowledge about fish, fish habits, waves, currents and stars
which they have, through generations of learning by doing,
handed down from generation to generation." Now this
was all cast aside. Motors neutralized their skill in
rowing and sailing, fish finding equipment made redundant
their folk wisdom which told them where to find fish.
Wages in the new sector of the industry rose much higher than
did those in the artisanal area. 40
of the traditional sector was advanced by a shift in demand
in the early 1960s. From this time prawns, in America
shrimps, have been a major export for some South and Southeast
Asian countries. The results were mixed and changed
over time. Wild prawns are caught by deep sea trawlers,
but by the mid 1970s these were, in Kerala, fishing too close
in shore, to the detriment of the artisanal sector.
Subsequently this sector began to compete by using motors
also, and nylon nets. Now the problem became overfishing
and declining stocks. On land the women of the male
fishers, who traditionally handled cleaning and marketing,
were slowly replaced by people not from fisher communities,
but rather new capitalists who treated fishing as what it
in fact was becoming: an industry. In a related
area, local women used to smoke and salt fish to preserve
it. They lost this role when cold storage came in.
industry around the Indian Ocean today betrays many of the
benefits and costs which we have just found to characterize
fishing. Again globalization has had mixed results.
When western tourists stay in coastal areas around the Indian
Ocean their relationship to the sea is very different from
the fisherfolk with whom they mingle. For the traditional
beach dwellers the sea is a source of a precarious living,
often a dangerous or hostile place, not necessarily benign.
Tellingly, their houses often face away from the beach.
For leisured middle class westerners the sea and the coast
is a space away from normal life. This is new in world
history. Lencek wrote of "the transformation of the beach
from an alien, inaccessible, and hostile wilderness devoted
to conquest, commerce, exploration, and the primal customs
of tribal cultures, into a thriving, civilized, pleasure and
recreation oriented outpost of Western life style, where so
many sybaritic impulses of culture have been indelibly concentrated."
former Portuguese colony on the Indian west coast, a place
I have visited frequently over the last 34 years, provides
an excellent, if depressing, case study. The region
offers the tropical paradise stereotype: palm trees, sunsets
over the Arabian Sea, white sand, cheap accommodation, readily
available alcohol, English-speaking locals, and some reassuringly
western elements such as a coastal population which is largely
Christian, and huge churches in the deserted city of Old Goa.
A beach scene frequently found in Goa, and in
other beach resorts on the west coast such as Kovalam,
is portly western men in G strings self consciously helping
traditional fishermen haul in their nets, which may contain
enough for one meal. Their bikini clad women enthusiastically
take video pictures of this picturesque scene. A change,
from Kerala, seems to sum up what is happening. The
traditional rice boats which for centuries have transported
rice in the backwaters inland from the coast are now being
converted into luxury house boats for western tourists and
Indian yuppies. Similarly, today littoral folk participate
in what is called "staged authenticity", that is they become
a "typical" Goan fisherman, villager, toddy tapper, who perform
in hotels. "Goa has been constructed to serve as one
of the world's pleasure peripheries, a cultural space for
the leisure consumption of tourists divorced from the needs
and concerns of everyday life." 42
These people are located on or near the beach, but their occupation
is governed by economic forces from very far away, and the
"culture" they purvey is far from "traditional, authentic"
not to say that we can write of the end of littoral society.
Rather it has changed dramatically, and arguably deleteriously,
but it still can be identified. There are some continuities
with the past. One could, for example, see the touts, peddlers
and confidence people who prey on tourists today as in line
of succession from earlier quasi legal inhabitants of the
shore: smugglers and pirates for example, both of whom
for obvious reasons avoided port cities. Both today
and in the past such people are transitory, ephemeral, yet
they also, along with the fisherfolk, make up a continuing
pattern in littoral society. Remembering the three criteria
which we identified earlier, folk on the coast are still located
on the littoral. Their occupations, while transformed,
are still intricately connected with their location on the
marge, and possibly their cultures also can be set apart from
those of the inland people.
area of the coast has also been profoundly affected.
Again we see a pronounced transformation, a new and degraded
sort of littoral in Goa. There are now at least 50 swimming
pools in the tiny Calangute-Baga strip alone, when thirty
years ago there were none. The government privileges
hotels over local rice farmers when it allocates water, so
that the swimming pools will be full, and the lawns green.
A nude beach has been suggested, which would alienate completely
part of the shore. "Development" has often been
uncontrolled, leading to massive violations of the environment,
such as building far too close to the maximum high tide
level, discharge of sewage into the ocean, and mounds of discarded
plastic containers disfiguring the sand. One of Goa's main
attractions, pristine beaches, is being violated and ruined;
it is in danger of becoming less idyllic, and falling out
of favor. So also with the Indian Ocean islands:
again littoral society is being modified, even transformed,
to meet the needs of package tourists from far away. As two
historians of northern seas commented: "it behoves thinking,
as people flock to the shores in ever-increasing numbers,
how fragile is the line between our need for recreation, peace
or spiritual sustenance from the sea, and the effects of our
recreation on the sea itself." 43
Coasts are also under threat from pollution. Coral reefs are
important tourist attractions, and form a fascinating natural
underseascape. They have been under threat for at least
fifty years. In the late 1960s Jacques Cousteau worried that
coral reefs were in danger as the purity of the water declined.
Equally threatening, conchs were being taken to sell their
shells to tourists, but they are the deadly enemy of a kind
of starfish which is very destructive to coral: consequently
coral suffers. More recently global warming has had
a catastrophic effect on coral reefs all around the Indian
Ocean. At least half of the total have died over
the past two years up to 2000. Coral cannot tolerate
a rise in sea temperatures of more than 1 or 2 degrees C for
more than a few weeks, yet in the Seychelles in 1998 the temperature
was 3 degrees C above seasonal norms for several weeks.
The results have been far reaching. It is estimated
that in 1998-99 the death of the coral, or its bleaching to
an unattractive monochrome, cost the Maldives' economy about
$US36 million, a result of the impact on tourism and on local
Other littoral areas have been detrimentally affected by various
government policies. We wrote earlier of the Marsh Arabs and
their unique culture, yet even when Thesiger was there in
the 1950s the oil boom in Iraq had begun, and many Madan,
as the Marsh Arabs call themselves, had moved off to
Basra and Baghdad in search of fortune. As he noted:
"Soon the marshes will probably be drained; when this happens,
a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will
Gavin Young was a bit of a prot■g■ of Thesiger, and first
visited the marshes with him. He spent considerable
time there in the early 1970s, but by then things had already
changed dramatically. There was a tourist invasion,
with guests living in floating house boats or government guest
houses or tourist bungalows, and people got about in motor
launches rather than canoes. 46 Much marsh
land was being reclaimed for rice cultivation, and there were
even then schemes to control the flooding of the Tigris and
Euphrates and so reduce further the size of the marshes, or
even drain them completely. Over the last 25 years the
size of the marshes has dwindled by no less than 90%.
This has been caused by drainage to provide irrigation water
elsewhere, and by building massive dams up stream, not only
in Iraq but also in Turkey, Iran and Syria. Saddam Hussain
has favored the end of the marshes, for they provide a refuge
for shi'a Muslims often opposed to his dictatorship.
Much of the landscape is now salt deserts, the people are
in refugee camps. The smooth coated otter, once common,
is now extinct, and migrating birds are left with no havens.
The complex symbiosis between land and sea which we found
to characterize littoral society for most of history is fast
being transformed. Land influences, often from far away,
are profoundly modifying what used to be an important, albeit
elusive, segment of human society. People still live on the
coast, but a littoral society which moves easily between land
and sea, an amphibious society governed by ressac, back and
forth, has now been overwhelmed by forces from far inland,
and far away. It is not a matter of the end of littoral
society, but rather that it has undergone, over the last century
or so, much more major changes, huge stresses, even transformations,
than was ever the case before this. Yet the littoral
still essentially makes up an exaggerated, or quintessential,
part of maritime history.
A recent article by Eric Tagliacozzo ("Trade, Production,
and Incorporation: The Indian Ocean in Flux, 1600-1900,"
Itinerario, no. 1, 2002, pp. 75-106) claims that this
is the case. (pp. 84, 98) This article is a courageous
attempt at a broad overview along political economy lines,
but the three "littorals" he identifies are really better
described as "regions."
Tim Winton, Land's Edge, Sydney, 1993, p. 23.
W.J. Dakin, Australia's Seashores, new ed by Isobel
Bennett, Sydney, 1987, preface, n.p., and p. 4.
David Sopher, The Sea Nomads, Singapore, 1965, 1977,
John R. Stilgoe, Alongshore, New Haven, 1994, p. ix.
Emily Eden, Up the Country, London, 1866, p. 3.
Alan Villiers, Sons of Sinbad: An account of sailing
with the Arabs in the Dhows, in the Red Sea, around the Coasts
of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika; Pearling
in the Persian Gulf; and the Life of the Shipmasters, the
Mariners and Merchants of Kuwait, London, 1940, pp. 191-2.
Ashin Das Gupta, Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat,
New Delhi, 1994, p. 2.
Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches, Chicago, 1988, p.
J.C. Heesterman, "Littoral et Int■rieur de l'Inde,"
Itinerario, 1, 1980, p.
Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean
World in the Age of Philip II, London, 1972, 2 vols,
John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, An African Mercantile Civilisation, New Haven,
1992, p. 9.
13 Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent:
Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African
Coast, 800-1900, Cambridge, 1987, p. 31. See also
a neglected classic study by Richard Wilding, The Shorefolk:
Aspects of the Early Development of Swahili Communities,
Fort Jesus Occasional Papers no. 2, mimeo, 1987.
Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea:
A Study of Mediterranean History, vol. I, Oxford, 2000,
pp. 227, 229, 346, 382; Richard H. Grove, Green
Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens
and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, Cambridge,
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Life and Death in a Coral Sea,
London, 1971, p. 79.
Jean-Claude Penrad, "Societies of the Ressac:
the mainland meets the ocean," in David Parkin, ed, Continuity
and autonomy in Swahili Communities: inland influences
and strategies of self-determination, London, 1994, pp.
Donald K. Emmerson, "The Case for a Maritime Perspective
on Southeast Asia," Journal of Southeast Asian
Studies, XI, l, March 1980, pp. 143-4.
Horden and Purcell, p. 195-6.
Michel Mollat du Jourdin, Europe and the Sea, London,
1993, pp. 133, 155.
E. Le Roy Ladurie, The Territory of the Historian, Chicago, 1979,
David Kirby and Merja-Liisa Hinkkanen, The Baltic and North
Seas, London, 2000, p. 191.
Alexander Frater, Chasing the Monsoon, Penguin, 1991, p. 75, and
personal observation in December 1999. For an enchanting
portrayal from 1689 see R.J. Barendse, The Arabian
Seas, 1640-1700, Leiden, 1998, p. 56.
Moira Tampoe, Maritime trade between China and the West
an archaeological study of the ceramics from Siraf
(Persian Gulf), 8th to 15th centuries A.D, Oxford, 1989,
Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs, London, 1964, p.
Thor Heyerdahl, The Tigris Expedition: in Search
of our Beginnings, Garden City, 1981, p. 15.
George Windsor Earl, The Eastern Seas, or Voyages and Adventures
in the Indian Archipelago in 1832-34, London, 1837,
pp. 160, 176-7.
C. Bock, The Head Hunters of Borneo: A Narrative
of Travell up the Mahkkam and Down the Barito, London,
1881, pp. 167-8. For similar scenes in Singapore in
1877 see Lady Anna Brassey, A Voyage in the Sunbeam: Our
Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months, London, 1878, p.
For an extended description, one of very many, see ibid.,
There are obvious parallels, and some differences, with the
Aztec Chinampas. See Jeffrey R. Parsons, "Political Implications
of Prehispanic Chinampa Agriculture in the Valley of Mexico,"
in H.R. Harvey, ed., Land and Politics in the Valley of
Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, 1991, pp. 17-42; Teresa
Rojas Rabiela, "Ecological and Agricultural Changes in the
Chanampas of Xochimilco-Chalco," in ibid, pp. 275-90, and
Dav═d Carrasco and Scott Sessions, Daily Life of the Aztecs:
People of the Sun and Earth, Greenwood Press, Westport,
Cousteau, Life and Death, pp. 56-7.
34 Jan Knappert, "East Africa and the Indian
Ocean," in J.C. Stone ed., Africa
and the Sea: Proceedings of a Colloquium at the University
of Aberdeen, March, 1984, Aberdeen, 1985, p. 125.
Dr. John Fryer, A New Account of East India and Persia,
London, Hakluyt, 1909-15, 3 vols, I, 197. See also other accounts
quoted in ibid by the editor, William Crooke, and also Maria
Graham, Journal of a Residence in India, Edinburgh,
1813, p. 35
Lotika Varadarajan, "Traditions of Indigenous Navigation in
Gujarat," South Asia n.s. III, 1, 1980, pp. 28-35.
K.N. Chaudhuri, K.N., Trade and Civilization in the Indian
Ocean. An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to
1750, Cambridge, 1985, p. 143.
Kathleen Fordham Norr, "The Organisation of Coastal Fishing
in Tamilnadu," in Alexander Spoehr, ed., Maritime Adaptations,
Essays on Contemporary Fishing Communities, Contributions
from Ethnology, Pittsburg, 1980, pp. 113-27, and in the
same volume Paul Alexander, "Sea Tenure in Southern
Sri Lanka," pp. 91-111.
R.S. Newman, "Green Revolution-Blue Revolution: the
predicament of India's traditional fishermen,"
South Asia, IV, l, 1981, pp. 35-46.
Jona Halfdanardottir, "Social Mobilization in Kerala:
fishers, priests, unions and political parties," in MAST,
1993, VI, 1/2, pp. 136-56.
Paul Routledge, "Consuming Goa: Tourist Site as Dispensable
Space," Economic and Political Weekly [Mumbai], July
22, 2000, pp. 2647-56.
Kirby and Hinkkanen, p. 275.
Economist, Oct. 28-Nov 4, 2000, p. 44.
Gavin Young, Return to the Marshes : life with the Marsh
Arabs of Iraq, London, 1977, pp. 189-221.
Sydney Morning Herald, May 22, 2001, quoting
Copyright: ę 2003 by the American Historical
Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format
by Chris Hale.